News: The End of Ebooks?

 Could this be the beginning of the end of eBooks (books in software form)? Barnes & Noble no longer sell them, according to a notice on their website: “B&N.com no longer sells eBooks. If you are a Microsoft Reader customer, you will be able to download your eBooks until December 9, 2003, through your Microsoft Library. If you are an Adobe Reader customer, you have 90 days from your date of purchase to complete the download via the email link you received.”
 
 
B&N’s rather shoddy press corner doesn’t refer to the decision. My tuppennies’ worth: I’ve never been a big user of eBooks, but you would think they would be a natural fit for someone like B&N. The only assumption I can make is that until the biggies feel the issue of copying and piracy is resolved, it just doesn’t look profitable. Others disagree: an interesting look at the state of eBooks post B&N can be found at the teleread blog.

Column: the Sony Clie PEG-NX70V

Loose Wire: A Delight to Behold

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 19 December 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
Sony’s newest PDA casts a love-at-first sight spell with its stunning good looks and exciting multi-media features. But will you still love it tomorrow?
 
Sony has long mastered the art of ensuring you fall in love immediately with its products. I’m not sure how it does it, but when I set eyes on the very first VAIO notebook computer five years ago, I had to have it. With its smooth metallic finish and purple trimmings, it still looked good when I had to dump it years later. Since then, the love-at-first-sight syndrome is certainly true for Sony’s new personal digital assistant, or PDA, the Clie PEG-NX70V [$600]. Its magnesium casing, large screen and swivelling clamshell top are awe-inspiring, and you feel yourself instinctively reaching for your wallet. But would the love affair last?
 
 
I’m still in two minds about it. This is definitely Sony’s most ambitious PDA. It offers a very high-resolution screen [320 by 480 pixels, or dots, to be precise] that makes Palm’s look miserly, an MP3 player, a built-in keyboard and a voice recorder, as well as a camera, a video recorder, a 200 megahertz chip, the latest [version 5.0] Palm operating system and a slot for a wireless card to hook the device up to a wireless network. Extraordinary stuff for a gadget that weighs eight ounces and measures less than 3 inches wide by 5.5 inches long. At first blush, it’s the answer to all your prayers: It’s a fully fledged Palm-powered PDA, with all the bells and whistles your work requires, and it doubles as a modest but usable camera, will play back music and record interviews and meetings.
 
Now for the cautionary tale. First, Sony has a reputation for building sturdy and beautiful products [even if the product-naming department should be forced to name its offspring the way it choose names for its products, which are invariably nonsensical combinations of letters and numbers]. But computing, in my view, is still not Sony’s strong suit. The bundled programs to unlock all these features are a mixed bag and, after numerous requests to reboot my computer, I wasn’t quite sure what I had installed and what I hadn’t.
 
Another downer: In theory there’s enough that comes with the Clie to get you on the road, but you won’t get far without at least one widget that doesn’t come with it — a Memory Stick. These chewing-gum lookalikes are Sony’s proprietary memory cards that you see happy young people in Sony ads swapping between computers, MP3 players, cameras and video recorders. That the Clie doesn’t come with one [a] reflects Sony’s somewhat arrogant assumption that everyone is already bursting with Memory Sticks and [b] means that unless you are already a Sony convert you can’t make use of the most interesting features of the device. [The PEG-NX70V comes with 16 megabytes of memory but five megabytes of that is already taken up with Clie programs].
 
Bottom line: Expect to shell out $100 or so for another 128 megabytes of memory if you want to take photos, video, or use the audio features.
 
I encountered other snags that tested my passion for the PEG-NX70V, or Peggy V as I started calling her. Being in the entertainment business, Sony is still somewhat schizophrenic about the MP3 revolution — where folk can convert CDs and whatnot to a very slimmed-down, portable file format called MP3 — and it shows on the Clie.
 
MP3s have scared the living daylights out of the music industry because there’s nothing stopping anyone swapping their CD collection over the Internet with any Tom, Dick or Harry — for free. Not surprisingly, the bundled software for moving music onto Peggy V from your computer converts the MP3, or CD, into Sony’s own format called ATRAC3, which [you guessed it] limits what you can do with the music.
 
The result: A silly mess that will alienate users and further muddy the waters. Solution? Buried in the manual is a workaround, which basically allows you to move MP3 files directly onto the Memory Stick, which you can then listen to on Peggy V without restrictions.
 
My verdict: Aesthetically delightful, Peggy V might not be the companion she promises to be. Palm would do well to copy the Clie’s screen design, whereby the scribbling pane doubles as part of the screen itself, but overall the PEG-NX70V’s extra features aren’t quite as seductive as they first appear. It won’t stop me holding onto mine as long as I possibly can, but I’m not ditching my MP3 player, my voice recorder, or even my Palm Tungsten, for the time being.
 
 

Column: Deep Purpled

Loose Wire — And Now, I Show My Age

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 16 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I was drinking beer backstage with the guys from Deep Purple the other day (I’ve always wanted to be able to say that) when I got to thinking: Technology has transformed pop music in the past 20 years, and at the same time, nothing’s changed at all.
 
Admittedly, this thought followed two and a half hours of Black Night, Woman from Tokyo and Smoke on the Water (anthems that were injected straight into the drinking water at my school: If you didn’t know the lyrics of Child in Time you ran the risk of being beaten up or, worse, forced to listen to the whole 10-minute song), so I might have been hallucinating. But when you see guys — three of them in their mid-50s — adopting poses unchanged since 1972, you’d be forgiven for thinking that popular music is a static beast: Guys with long hair in uncomfortably tight clothing jump around stage wielding electric guitars; audience goes crazy, waves arms with lighters aloft, burns fingers, goes home happy.
 
But beneath all this there’s been a seismic shift in how music is composed, played, recorded and performed. Nowadays you’re just as likely to attend a concert by a disc jockey, a hybrid DJ-musician or just a guy with a couple of laptops and a mixer. And you’ll hear people talking about the rise of interactive music, where nonmusicians in the audience are just as likely to contribute as the artists themselves. Music, we are told, has been liberated from its traditional paddocks of proficiency and performance. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but almost.
 
Since the demise of my incredibly talented — but contract-deficient — 1980s band, Puzzled But Dancing, I’ve dabbled with synthesizers and home recording. My first synth, as we pros call them, was about the size of a laptop. Instead of keys, the Wasp — made by now-defunct British company Electronic Dream Plant — had a two-octave pad. It was so sensitive that with the slightest condensation it would spew random notes that would make Deep Purple’s Jon Lord proud, but which were somewhat embarrassing during a gig. Such analogue beasts are museum pieces now: You can emulate them on your computer with programs called softsynths. Reason by Sweden’s Propellerhead Software (www.propellerheads.se) mimics a whole studio in real time. At $400 it sounds steep until you realize you’d spend that much on one piece of real equipment.
 
Composing has changed a lot, too. I could afford only a four-track recorder and spent hours trying to cram tracks together without them sounding as if they’d been recorded through rugs. The advent of a standard called MIDI allowed us to link keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines and store music as data, in the same way word-processing software lets you fiddle with a document.
 
This wasn’t easy: Ten years ago I was still messing around with a piece of DOS software called Cakewalk trying to harness my growing synth collection, but I spent more time trying to get the machines to talk to each other than actually making music. (With hindsight this might have been a blessing.
 
Still, once instruments could be hooked up to computers, music was quick to break out of its elitist confines. With software anyone could create music out of anything, without training or expensive gear. More than 900,000 people now use Cakewalk daily. In an interview in the May issue of Wired magazine, British composer Matthew Herbert describes how all the sounds in his song Starbucks come from doing everything to a frappucino and caramel latte except drinking them (www.magicandaccident.com/_MoD//mp3/Starbucks.mp3).
 
Purists, no doubt, will groan. But there’s room for everybody. Deep Purple will be around for aeons to come, though the line-up will probably change, as older members are replaced by their grandchildren or robots, but elsewhere technology will pioneer new forms of creativity we can only guess at. If someone who thinks a semibreve is a fancy name for a thong can make sounds from a laptop that entertain us, and make us dance, then who’s complaining? The only constant will be that anyone who picks up a guitar for the first time will still try to play Smoke on the Water. Which is probably no bad thing, since I know the words.