Tag Archives: Amazon Inc.

Quaintness in Salt Lake

(This is the script for a piece I did for the BBC World Service. Posted here by request. Podcast here.)

Something rather quaint is going on in a Salt Lake City courtroom. A company called Novell, who you’d be forgiven for not having heard of, is suing Microsoft over a product called WordPerfect, which you also may not have heard of, which it says was hobbled from running on something called Windows 95 to protect its own product, called Microsoft Word.

To be honest, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of this Microsoft law suit; nor do you really need to know much about Novell—once a giant in word processing software, and now a subsidiary of a company called The Attachmate Group, which I had never even heard of. Or, for that matter Windows 95—except that once upon a time people used to stay up all night to buy copies. Sound familiar, iPad and iPhone lovers?

It’s weird this case is going on, and I won’t bore you with why. But it’s a useful starting point to look at how the landscape has changed in some ways, and in others not at all. Microsoft is still big, of course, but no-one queues up for their offerings anymore: Indeed nobody even bought Vista, as far as I can work out. But back then, nearly every computer you would ever use ran Windows and you would use Microsoft Office to do your stuff. You couldn’t leave because you probably didn’t have a modem and the Internet was a place where weird hackers lived.

Now, consider this landscape: Apple make most of their money from phones and tablets. Google, which wasn’t around when Windows 95 was, now dominate search, but also own a phone manufacturer, have built an operating system. Amazon, which back then was starting out as a bookseller, is now selling tablets at cost as a kind of access terminal to books, movies, magazines and other things digital. Facebook, which wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s 11 year old eye at the time, is now the world’s biggest social network, but is really a vast walled garden where everything you do—from what you read, what you listen to, as well as how well you slept and who you had dinner with—is measured and sold to advertisers.

All these companies kind of look different, but they’re actually the same. Back in 1995 the PC was everything, and so therefore was the operating system and the software that ran on it. The web was barely a year old. Phones were big and clunky. So Microsoft used its power to dominate to sell us what made the most money: software.

Now, 15 or 16 years on, look how different it all is. Who cares about the operating system? Or the word processor? Or the PC? Everything is now mobile, hand-held, connected, shared, and what was expensive is now free, more or less. Instead, most of these companies now make their money through eyeballs, and gathering data about our habits, along with micropayments from data plans and apps, online games and magazines.

And to do this they all have to play the same game Microsoft played so well: Dominate the chain: Everything we do, within a Hotel California-like walled garden we won’t ever leave. So my predictions for next year, most of which  have been proved true in recent days : A Facebook phone which does nothing except through Facebook, an Amazon phone which brings everything from Amazon to your eyes and ears, but nothing else, an Apple-controlled telco that drops calls unless they’re on Apple devices. Google will push all its users into a social network, probably called Google+ and will punish those who don’t want to by giving them misleading search results. Oh, and Microsoft. I’m not sure about them. Maybe we’ll find out in Salt Lake City.

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.

Into the Light

Part of my job is explaining the world of new/social media to old media veterans. It’s not easy, either because they’re very resistant to change, or because they tend to see the changes  being wrought on their industry as somehow different to the much bigger changes taking place.

It’s not a bunch of separate revolutions—it’s one revolution. For want of a better description, it’s not unlike the transition from the Dark Ages to the High Middle Ages. That’s perhaps overstating it, but compare, if you will, this small vignette.

I was chatting with a friend on Skype just now; he had returned to Canada to be with his ailing dad. I enquired more, and he told me his father had been at the Battle of Ortona, and still suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know something of PTSD, but I was ignorant of Ortona, so I looked it up while we chatted. There’s a great Wikipedia page on it, so I quickly got a sense of what his father had been through, back in 1943.

Then my friend sent me links—to a book written about it, which I could thumb through on Amazon and search for his name.

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I was able to quickly learn a bit about the battle, about my friend’s father, and about his wounds, both external and internal. Then my friend sent me another link, this time to a YouTube page that showcased a movie about the battle.

Within a few clicks I was much, much more knowledgeable about what this man had gone through, made more personal by my friend’s messages that dropped through Skype:

All of the officers he trained with were killed. He was the only one left.

He has one pal left who is still alive from those days.

It’s easy to dismiss this all as just bite-sized knowledge, without depth or perspective. But nevertheless what we have at our finger tips is so much more than was possible a few years ago—so much so that it’s no exaggeration to say that the Internet offers wisdom over darkness to those who came before it.

And for the media? Well, it’s not really about news anymore. It’s about wisdom. Information grabbed when needed to assemble an insight. The dividing line now is not between those who have access to information—everyone, more or less, has access—but between those who have the skill and interest to be able to know what they’re looking for and to find it. And then, of course, digest it.

That has huge implications for media because it transforms the market for information. It doesn’t remove it—it transforms it. We haven’t figured out how.

But we have already reached, without really making a big fuss about it, a great point of leveling, where we all can claw our way out of ignorance, topic by topic, surprisingly quickly. Whether we want to is something else entirely.

Image from SDCinematografica.it

Reforestation, Google Earth Style

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Here’s a very cool way to mix technology and environmental stuff, via the Google Earth Blog. (Interest declared: It’s part of the NEWtrees project, the brainchild of my publisher and friend Mark Hanusz):

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers you the opportunity to buy a tree which will be planted in a rainforest in Sebangau National Forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. In return, they not only plant the tree, but give you a Google Earth KML file in return with the location coordinates of your tree. Theoretically, as Google continues to update with higher resolution satellite and aerial imagery, you should be able to watch the growth of your tree (and the others who donate trees) over the coming years. To get started, you simply go to the web site mybabytree.org. They have a very cute animation that will guide you through the process, and you can use Paypal to make your donation. You can see the location and list of trees purchased so far here . Borneo is another location, like the Amazon, where rain forests are disappearing due to logging at a freightening pace. I hope WWF will extend the concept to the rapidly declining rain forests in the Amazon.

Why’s this so good? Because it leverages straightforward technology — GPS, Google Earth — to make the global significant on an individual scale. I remember when I was a kid my dad planted a tree for me in Northampton as part of a local Men of the Trees project (now the International Tree Foundation). Sadly the project was bulldozed to make way for a bypass, but hopefully that’s not likely to happen in Kalimantan. Certainly I could relate a lot more to one tree than a forest.

 

Google Earth Blog: Buy a Tree for the Rainforest – Get a KML

Web 2.0 Ain’t About the Technology

Scoble makes some good points in a blog posting about why Microsoft, and more specifically his old boss Steve Ballmer, doesn’t get Web 2.0. I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but he has an understanding of this era of the web born of living and working in its eye the past seven years:

“There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” Ballmer said.

When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.

Why aren’t they succeeding? Because eBay is NOT about the technology. It’s about the community and unless you have something that’ll convince the buyers and sellers all to switch all at one moment you’ll never be able to take eBay’s market away. Translation: it’s too late and eBay has huge defensibility around its business because people won’t move away from it even if you demonstrate 5x better technology.

I think Scoble fuses two different phenomena here, but the point is a valid one. But a marketplace is not quite the same as a community. eBay is not really about the community, it’s about the marketplace. As anyone who has tried to move a physical market — a wet market, say — from one location to another has found, it’s not easy. eBay (and Amazon) are about first mover advantage. If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the place most likely to sell it.

Facebook et al are different. They’re definitely about community. But community is maybe the wrong word, because it carries with it connotations of permanence that don’t really exist. MySpace, Facebook etc may still be as big in a few years’ time, but somehow I doubt it. They’re social spaces that open and close like real spaces — less communities, more campsites. Campsites may be there for years, but the structures are impermanent and can, one day, move or disperse.

I agree with Robert, too, that people who use these services ain’t just kids. That’s the most interesting thing about Facebook, in my view: the Skype-like opening up to less techie, older users because of the untechie attractions of being able to find and communicate with acquaintances and ex-colleagues with whom they share loose ties.

Social networking has broken out of its narrow confines, and this has huge implications. But we should be careful before we assume that this will evolve in the same way social networking has evolved for the geek community: these new users won’t stick around for ever adding apps of less and less consequence and communicating with all their buddies via Facebook.

Eventually, everyone finds everyone they need to find on Facebook and bores of the services designed to keep them there. Then they’ll want to export the address book and the creative capital they’ve invested in Facebook and move it someplace else. If they are blocked from doing that, their interest in such tools will quickly wane. We geeks are happy to populate new social networks by repeating all the data entry necessary to make the sites worthwhile, but non-tech users will be less patient (or actually have lives offline.) For them it’s about the people; the apps are just a pleasant distraction.

Then there’s the money. Robert is right: Facebook is an advertiser’s dream. But it has yet to be proven that Facebook users (and we’re talking non-tech users here) are going to tolerate too much intrusiveness. Gmail has scared a lot of non-tech users away, based on anecdotal evidence, because of its intrusive ads. I think Facebook will similarly scare people away if it mines that user data too deeply.

This all said, it is a puzzle as to why Microsoft has ignored this new world. All its tools beg for greater interactivity and sharing, but why is it I use Microsoft only when I’m typing this (the free Windows Live Writer), or when I’m writing a Word document, or emailing it to someone? If I want to discuss the document, or collaborate on a spreadsheet, I turn to Google Docs. Nowhere does Microsoft try to make that process easier or more social. Think of all the opportunities missed in those simple actions.

Steve Ballmer still doesn’t understand social networking « Scobleizer

Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

(A podcast of this can be downloaded here.)

The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and
touching.’

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

Why Journalists Aren’t Loved

The first reviews for Loose Wire the book are beginning to trickle in and I’m beginning to get a sense of what it’s like on the other side of the fence. First off, you can understand why us journalists aren’t well liked: If we are pleasant to people when we interview them the interviewee goes away thinking that a good write-up is assured — what sicko would be nice to someone in person and rude to them in print? Secondly, we can so easily make mincemeat of a product, a book, a service, a company that may have taken years of sweat, toil and marital peace to create. A few clicks on our keyboard and all that seems to be undone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the growth of the blogosphere as a form of journalism, there’s a growing blur online between the subject and the writer. No longer, it seems, are writers constrained by conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest: We write about anything and anyone, whether or not we have an interest, such as a friendship, a financial stake or whatever. (And yes, lots of people declare those interests, but that doesn’t stop them writing about it.) Nowadays, smart PR people woo journalists and influential bloggers in the hope that when the time comes to write about their product/service/company, they’ll feel inspired by the friendship to write something nice, or constrained by the friendship to not write something negative. This may not be a conscious goal, of course, but the assumption can easily be proven once the article is out: Did they feel a tad hurt that they didn’t get special treatment for all that prior relationship building?

In my case, the first three reviews have been written by people I know — one of them a long-standing friend — so perhaps, like any interviewee, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this person will do me a favor by writing something nice. Now on the other side of the fence, I can see how people might feel journalists are a two-faced bunch, being friendly over the phone or in person and then not writing something so friendly in print. But of course, our job is not about being nice, at least once pen hits paper. Then we need to think about our relationship with our readers, not with the person we’re writing about.

That said, you’d think I was setting up a posting that said the reviews were awful. They weren’t. The first batch of Jakarta reviews were not bad (the book is available on Amazon already,  but our first two launches have been in Indonesia cos that’s where I and my publisher live. More pix of the launches here.). Two of them are in Indonesian, one from the country’s largest circulation daily Kompas and one from Sinar Harapan, an afternoon paper, both of which did a fair job.

The only English language paper (OK, there’s another, but I’ve not seen it yet), the Jakarta Post, ran a review this morning, based in part on an interview I gave last week. The writer, young Australian journalist Jonathan Dart, felt that “it is full of useful tips and insights — but an advanced manual on modern technology it is not.” Fair enough; we make no claims to being that. His conclusion, however, is a positive one:

he’s also managed to do something which few technology writers — or species nerdus to be exact — have managed, a feat which is quite possibly a world first: He’s built a loyal fan-base of readers, many of whom would be comfortable in a social environment.

Jonathan did a pretty good job, and, I’m glad to say, didn’t appear swayed by our pleasant 90 minute chat during which I promised untold riches if he focused on my rugged good looks in his review. I’ve learned a lesson or two, though: Maybe we journalists need to manage the expectations of our subjects better — to prepare them for the reality that however much we like them as people, we’re not being paid to like them. We’re paid to represent the interests of our readers. But it might help to warn folk beforehand.

PS, thanks to the very nice and interesting Sharon Bakar, with whom I shared a panel recently, who recently wrote up her thoughts about the discussion here.

We Must Do Launch Some Time

Another day, another launch. Thanks to everyone who came last night to the book launch. I’m not actually sure how many book launches one is allowed, but that’s our second in Indonesia (a few photos are here; more to come. Please send me any you have from either Jakarta or Ubud). We hope to do some more around the region and beyond in the months ahead. I’m getting a little better at speaking and autographing, so maybe if I get to your town it might be a decent evening out. Hosts were Alila Hotels’ Kemang Icon, which is a very cool boutique hotel so understated you would walk right past it.

For those of you who don’t attend launches, I don’t blame you. I hate launches too, but I promise ours are different. No readings from the book, for one thing. Speeches under five minutes. (Ok, ten.) No mention of techie terms. No comparing of gadgets. And lots of booze.

Anyway, an exciting start to some major new initiatives from Loose Wire so watch this space. And those of you who have bought the book, please let me know what you think, and please do write up a review on Amazon. Copies can be bought from there, or from Equinox, my publisher.