Archive for October, 2005

The Sociology of Reading

Peter Brantley of California Digital Library has posted an intriguing essay about Books and Fragments, writing that:

…oral recitation has been around for a longer time, and is probably more immersive than reading. Arguably, books are a reduction in the kind of required focus that was a once a foundation in the comprehension and sharing of significant cultural assets…. On the personal side, I realize that – at least recently – I have been reading fewer books. … Naturally, the world is now surrounded with short bits of information. Video, audio, text are all being managed in short segments… think we need to be actively designing our systems to support a world of text mashups, just as we might for video and audio. I think this has huge ramifications for ebooks, because it suggests that the mere translation of the “book” to an electronic format – whether on a reader or in a digital library – is misguided…

I tend to agree with Peter’s perspective, but my take on this is somewhat sociologically-based. I believe the written linear narrative is partially a technical hack, which has recently been surpassed by more modern technologies. Let me try to explain.
Story-telling has been the primary form of communication during the vast majority of our evolution as a species. Biologically, we are evolved to listen/watch as people tell stories (in the broad sense that’s inclusive of dramatics and music), not to read books.
But story-telling in all these forms is typically available only at a few specific times and from a few specific people. 500 years ago the novel was a clever hack that allowed a person to communicate over distances or with many others. Until then, there was no other popular form of on-demand solo entertainment.
In the last century or so other forms of distance and 1:many communication have become popular. And in recent decades video and software have become effective forms of on-demand solo entertainment. So it’s logical to me that some portion of the leisure time that was spent in reading by past generations will in the future be spent consuming other forms of content. This is counter-balanced to some degree by other trends including increased access to written works and increase in overall leisure time, but it seems obvious that the net trend will be to less “entertainment reading”. It seems likely that the ultimate distribution of entertainment-oriented information consumption will not be reached until all consumers have lived their entire lives with VCRs, cable TV, and console games. Those of us who are older than 35 or so are still acculturated to reading as the primary form of on-demand self-entertainment.
A recent study supports this thesis: in the U.S. we now spend on average more than 19 hours weekly just on T.V., and less than 6 hours weekly on reading of any form.
Again Peter is asking deeper questions about the kinds of reading that will be occuring in the future. I have unfortunately found almost no hard data about trends in this area.

XML: (just) grease for the wheel of IT

There’s been a lot of excitement recently around the State of Massachusetts mandating open formats for office applications, including PDF and the new OASIS ODF, the file format used by OpenOffice 2.0. A widespread meme portrays “the advent of XML and the adoption of OpenDocument as a world-changing sequence of events”. But I believe that deployment of XML formats is fundamentally not revolutionary: rather than being a true enabler of new solutions, XML simply lowers the cost of developing such solutions. What’s most critical is the “Infoset” (to borrow an XML term) of a particular file format, not its encoding. And if a paricular solution delivers compelling value, it is going to be done, whether or not that encoding is binary or XML. Increasingly widespread support of XML encodings for currently binary-only Infosets will absolutely lower the bar of feasibility, but in most cases it won’t truly alter the fundamental situation.
For example, RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady wrote last week:

What if before you emailed someone external to the system, the messaging server could deconstruct the document into various pieces, remove any comments or markup, then reconstruct the document without touching the content? That’s what the kind of document manipulation made possible by the transition from binary to XML formats.

This sounds great. But I believe messaging solutions like that envisioned by Stephen exist, and the fact that document files are binary is simply SMOP (small matter of programming). And there are plenty of 3rd-party libraries that process MS-Word, RTF, PDF, and other binary formats. SourceForge alone has dozens of projects that do various things with PDF.
Thus, I believe the lack of widespread document processing in email gateways as Stephen envisions has a lot more to do with considerations such as limited perceived value (I for one don’t like the idea of some central system munging documents I email) and the proprietary nature of some key formats, than whether or not formats have an XML or binary encoding. For that matter, the ZIP-compressed packages of XML files Stephen mentions are in fact binary data, not human-readable or easily manipulable by pure XML tools like XSLT filters.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the XML adoption wave is here and unstoppable. But so was the ASCII adoption wave before it. While XML will definitely lower the bar, a “matter of programming” will still be the order of the day. We may increasingly expect key formats to be available in an XML serialization, but at the end of the day, other considerations will in many cases be more fundamental to decisions to adopt new solutions: what capabilities are enabled by the Infoset of the format? has that Infoset stood the test of time? is the format publicly documented and available without IP or other license restrictions? are there multiple vendors in the ecosystem around the format? And, the one I am most focused on: what concrete user and enterprise value is delivered by the solution?

Blimey, it’s the Blooker

I see a big future in print-on-demand and admire the up-and-coming Lulu. Now they’ve come up with the Blooker Prize for “blooks”, that is “books based on blogs or websites”.
The Register mocks and scorns the over the top press release but then again those Brits may be just being a wee bit over-sensitive about parody of a cherished legacy of Empire Past. Personally, I think it’s funny.
That is, as everyone involved promises never ever to use the term “blook” as anything more than a pun. Corey, Robin, Paul: it’s not serious, right? Bad enough we’re apparently stuck with “blog”; and I’ve personally been hoping we could retire the term “e-book” one of these days. “blook”: No way, Jose.

Students and eBooks (and Hype)

E-books displacing paper books at the U. Arizona library writes eBook booster David Rothman today in TeleRead. I see the real story not as a positive sign of eBook adoption, but as highlighting of more fundamental questions about students’ changing study habits and the future of reading.
David quotes “Actual non-electronic books have been, for the most part, relegated to the upper floors of the library, but they’ve become the library equivalent of ghost towns where only those running away from something dare to tread.”. But that quote is taken from a Arizona Daily Wildcat story that doesn’t even mention eBooks, noting that student library users no longer visiting the physical stacks instead “surf the Internet to possibly do research or write papers, but probably just send instant messages to their friends or play online poker”.
To me, students IM’ing, web surfing, and internet gaming instead of reading physical books is at the very least a double-edged sword with respect to adoption of digital reading, and may well be a net negative to the extent it portends “snippet consumption” at the expense of “immersive reading”. Indeed there’s been some concern that immersive reading – regardless of whether paper is involved – is rapidly on the decline among the young (J.K. Rowling’s tomes perhaps being exceptions proving the rule). There is a dearth of data on students’ changing study habits, suggests Cambridge professor John B. Thompson, author of the compelling recent work Books in the Digital Age, focused on the changing fields of higher-education and academic publishing. If anyone does know of real research in this area, beyond the anecdotal complaints of educators that the student attitude is becoming “if Google can’t find it, it must not exist”, I’d love to hear about it. Personally, I believe “snippet consumption” and immersive reading can and will coexist, and that this split is really nothing new (the “snippet” form of text and surfing thereof having been around as long as newspapers, well even graffiti), but I’d love to see hard data on reading trends.
Given the recent huge expectations for eBooks, and subsequent bubble-burst, I’m very concerned that we not over-hype what’s really happening. As I’ve previously argued, I feel the industry has a lot of work to do to create a compelling end to end experience that will stimulate user adoption of digital reading. Unfulfillable expectations for eBooks in 2000 resulted in the perception that ePublishing was a dead-end non-business. I don’t believe that for a minute, but nor do I want to go see us experience yet another hype cycle. With all due respect to David, whose vision I definitely respect, I’d rather see us roll up our collective sleeves and solve the problems that stand in the way of eReading “crossing the chasm”.

More on Microsoft Monopolism

Several commenters on my post on Microsoft’s Other Monopoly suggested I was being unreasonable in expecting that Microsoft should not be free to support PDF, since Adobe promotes it as an open document format. I was even accused of wanting it both ways. Well, in a sense I do: I believe Microsoft should support standards such as PDF, and I also believe Microsoft should honor the special obligations that come with being a monopolist, such as not engaging in “tying” practices that leverage a monopoly (Windows or Office) to impinge on another company’s business. Where these concerns are in tension, one solution is obvious: Microsoft could make a business deal that eliminates the “tying” concern.
To clarify my position, here’s another hypothetical example. Suppose Microsoft were to integrate QuickTime generation into Windows Vista. I’m no expert but I believe this would violate the spirit if not the letter of the consent decree Microsoft entered into with the DOJ (gotta love that knife the baby line). Yes QuickTime’s an open standard but that doesn’t give Microsoft license to (ab)use its OS monopoly to trample on Apple’s media encoding business. If that would be impermissable for Microsoft’s Windows monopoly, even under a watered-down consent decree, couldn’t support for PDF in Office be at least as verboten? And in terms of the dollars at stake, Adobe’s revenue stream on Acrobat runs to the hundreds of millions per year, much more than Real or Apple’s businesses in video encoding.
Another commenter took me to task because PDF support in Office will benefit consumers. In the short term, I agree. But, if Microsoft is free to expand Office to the point where no other vendor can profitably market solutions for information workers, I believe consumers will ultimately be harmed, through decreased innovation and ultimately higher prices exacted by Microsoft. These days almost every solution whether for portable documents, or CAD, or accounting, is necessarily built on open standards: that’s what customers demand. IMO that shouldn’t give Microsoft a free pass on monopoly abuse. And would it be a good idea to incent ISVs to employ closed proprietary formats, lest they suffer Microsoft elephant-trampling?
Finally, one commenter questioned whether the definition of “monopoly” applies to Microsoft. Well, uh, one encyclopedia definition of monopoly specifically references Microsoft. I believe most people would agree that Microsoft’s Windows and Office franchises are natural monopolies stemming from network effects. And, several legal jurisdictions have so opined.

Open Content Alliance Launched

I’m excited about Adobe’s participation in the just-announced Open Content Alliance, spearheaded by the Internet Archive. I will be representing Adobe on the OCA, and I believe that the creation of a large collection of public-domain works will help spark adoption of digital consumption of texts. In addition to being a very worthy humanitarian goal to enable information access by those who don’t live walking distance to Barnes & Noble.
I’ve been in Tokyo this past week and am seeing clear signs of mass adoption of digital consumption of one particular text medium: keitai-manga. The frame of a comic is a good fit to the small screen of a mobile phone, and the limited time and attention required in consuming comics is a good fit to an on-the-go lifestyle. Manga represents a $5B market in Japan and therefore even 10% to 20% conversion to digital consumption will be a big business. Hm, I wonder if many classic manga are in the public domain? Probably not given the post-WWII rise of the current form.

The Other Microsoft Monopoly, And Abuses Thereof

The weekend’s leak by Microsoft that Office 12 would include support for PDF output is certainly a validation of PDF as the standard for final-form portable documents. But is it also illegal abuse of a monopoly? How might a hypothetical (currently non-existent) consent decree around Office have modified Microsoft’s behavior?
This is a very sensitive topic: I do not speak for Adobe, I am not a lawyer, and I am not responsible for managing Adobe’s relationship with Microsoft. But in a way that frees me to be iconoclastic. So I’m not going to spin how this is good for Adobe in the long-run, and how much value-add we deliver in other capabilities beyond basic PDF generation. I will instead be blunt: I think Microsoft’s behavior is, or at least ought to be, illegal.
Others have opined that Microsoft’s Office monopoly is potentially more dangerous than their Windows monopoly. A significant number of users buy Adobe Acrobat primarily to generate PDFs from Office documents – no surprise, given Office’s monopoly status. Microsoft is deliberately augmenting its monopoly to bundle a substantial portion of the value another vendor presently independently delivers to users. In legal-speak this is called “Tying”.
Indeed had Microsoft directly cloned PDF in Vista that might have fallen afoul of the consent decree terms. Metro/Reach aka XML Paper of course may be considered an indirect cloning of PDF but that’s another topic.
A hypothetical consent decree for Microsoft Office might have helped the industry and consumers by requiring Microsoft to license competing technology to significant new products or features that will be “tied” to its Office monopoly, rather than just clone them. This would advantage ISVs like Adobe, obviously, but arguably also consumers, because ISVs would be able to continue to profitably innovate around solutions for knowledge workers. And given the excess revenue generated by Microsoft’s monopoly it is unlikely consumers would see higher prices as a result of such a requirement.