Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

So the CD, DVD and entertainment retailer HMV has been saved for the nation (by the debt restructuring specialists Hilco), which as far as I’m concerned is very good news. I really couldn’t see how it couldn’t be possible for a single chain of CD/DVD shops to survive in the high street, and I’m glad that the business consensus has reached the same conclusion – for the time being at least.

However, while this secures HMV’s immediate future, it does nothing about the big question mark hanging over the brand in the longer term. In particular, the fact that it took almost exactly three months from going into administration for the deal to finally be struck suggests that the process was far from straight forward. It even went on past the end-of-March deadline, the point at which the administrators had to cough up another three months’ worth of High Street rent to landlords, which could very easily have been the moment that they pulled the plug altogether rather than send good money after bad. I wonder how close Armageddon came?

But that’s in the past and now the big problem for the new owners is: having bought the chain, what are they going to do with it in order to avoid it continue losing money? Let’s see if we can come up with any suggestions…

Unique selling point

Any business expert will tell you that the first rule in marketing is to identify its unique selling point. And with all due respect to HMV’s detractors, who usually lay into the underdeveloped online side the company (more of which in a minute), the USP for HMV is undoubtedly its physical retail presence in the high street. Without that it’s just another one of dozens of unremarkable, struggling anonymous online web pages. It’s vital that the high street stores continue, and moreover thrive.

That’s not to say that they should stay as they are (or that even all 141 branches Hilco acquired in the deal should remain open.) In recent times money has been pouring out of the chain to service debt repayments, leaving the stores looking older and shabbier by the month; grabbing some of the floor space for an ill-fated dabble in consumer electronics didn’t help either. The one thing that Hilco has said is that the gadgets are going, and thank goodness for that – that desperate ploy was the mark of a previous management in full panic mode with no sense of what the business o market sector was about.

Fortunately for HMV, there’s still a large number of people who just want to walk in a shop and pick up a CD or DVD, pay for it at the checkout and take it home. Not everyone is comfortable with streaming (which too often is ‘renting’ rather than buying) and many want something physical in their hands without having to wait for days for it to show up in the post.

Of course I don’t have HMV’s detailed financial accounts to hand, but my guess would be that up to 80% of their sales come from around 20% of the floorspace in the store: the areas dealing in new releases, current chart toppers and sales/special offer items found near the front of the store. That said, some stores seemingly do their best to hide these areas deep in the shops, presumably in an attempt to make customers come deeper and peruse rather than just grab what they want, pay and leave. But really, if that’s what people want to do then let them have at it – redesign the stores to put these sections right up front and push the rest into the background.

The Long Tail

But don’t, whatever you do, think that you can get away with just curtailing the stores back to stocking just these top sellers. The supermarkets do this already, and in a head-to-head battle they’re going to win and HMV will get slaughtered. What differentiates HMV from the general stores is that they have wider, deeper range of stock rather than just the top 30, and that their staff are more knowledgeable about the items. It’s massively important that HMV doesn’t lose this ‘specialist’ side to it, even if that means carrying more things in stock than the bottom profit margin would ideally like.

However, there is a definite problem in servicing what’s known as ‘the long tail’ – items that may be several years old and only sell a handful of copies a year. The problem is that high street stores invariably never seem to have the specific item that the shopper is after: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone looking for something in HMV that might be only a few months old and not found it. It’s annoying and frustrating, and leaves me resorting to online stores like Amazon – and while I’m there I’ll grab a few others things, maybe some brand new titles, all of which saps sales from HMV.

Amazon can service the long tail because they can erect huge mega-warehouses in low-cost parts of the country; HMV can’t compete with that because there’s no way of storing such a wide range of items at high street floor space prices. So how can they possibly compete?

The online dimension

Okay, we have to talk about it: what went wrong with HMV’s online offering and what can be done to improve it?

On the face of it, there really was nothing much wrong with HMV’s online service (still shuttered, by the way, even three weeks after the takeover). The site worked fine, I had no problems finding things, and items were dispatched very quickly and arrived faster than most other online outlets. I can’t recall a single glitch with any order I placed. Other online retailers could wish for such a positive report.

Yet HMV got a pounding from business experts and critics who said ‘the company is collapsing because it hasn’t understood online retailing?’ As far as I’m concerned, the correct interpretation of this is because the online wing was never integrated with the high street shops at all – it was an almost entirely separate business. Prices and availability online had no bearing on what you might find in stores; gift cards bought from one couldn’t be used on the other. Truly it seemed that other than the name and brand, the only link between the two was that the stores dutifully posted the URL on their walls, and the website had a nice store finder telling you the branch locations and opening hours. Otherwise, ne’er the twain shall meet.

People expect more from a company these days, and that’s the bit of online that HMV didn’t get – that the digital operation should (indeed, must) feedback and fundamentally change the bricks and mortar operation in turn, in an ongoing cycle. Instead, having set up a (rather good) online shop, the old HMV management considered the job done and came to a dead halt. Emphasis on the ‘dead’.

Not only that, but the existence of the online store ironically became a real problem for the high street operation. Do you price a new online item at the same price as the shops, or the same price as online competitors? If you do the first, then you’ll be hideously expensive in online terms and buyers will quickly click over to Amazon. You’ll be dead in the water. But if you do the latter, than you make it painfully obvious to all your customers how high the store prices are by comparison, and that will rot the business to your branches.

In the early days of their online business, HMV chased the prices of others thanks to the handy Channel Island tax loophole (now closed, which is why the similarly affected Play.com is going out of the retail business.) As the debt situation at the parent company loomed ever more deadly, the online prices started to spike and match the physical stores. But while you can explain that High Street prices are higher because of the considerable cost of running the stores (including staff wages and rents), you can’t use that argument to justify the suddenly sky-high online prices as well. It looks either like price gouging, or like a business trying to stave off bankruptcy by going into frantic money-acquisition mode. We all now know which one turned out to the the reality.

The price is right

The one thing that does come out of this discussion is that price matters. In my previous post on HMV that I wrote in the wake of their going into administration at the start of 2013, I noted that I was willing to pay extra for the high street service because I understood the economic realities behind that increased price; but that my loyalty had limits. When the mark-up got to nearly 80% on one item, I’m afraid I took my business to Amazon without a second thought – and would again, even if it meant dancing on HMV’s pauper’s grave. Don’t play me for a sucker, in other words.

So more than anything else, Hilco must find a way of being able to price their goods at a reasonably competitive level to their rivals, both the online ones and the supermarkets who are circling over the entertainment market like vultures waiting for HMV to leave a juicy carcass to feast upon. Note that by ‘reasonably competitive’ I don’t mean that they need to match or beat the others – as I said, I understand the reality of the overheads here. But they do need to keep it within touching distance so that customers will shrug and go, “Well I could get it online for a couple of quid less, but it’s here in my hand so it’s easier just to get it now …”

If Hilco can’t negotiate rates with their suppliers that allow them to get into this touching distance of their competitors then HMV is toast without question, regardless of anything else we propose. But I think suppliers will want to keep the important HMV retail outlet going, and so I am hopeful that this will prove possible to arrange. If not, and the prices continue to be exorbitant (and I’ve found HMV selling items for well over the manufacturer’s Recommended Retail Price (RRP) in the past) then they’ll get ripped to pieces on social media and their credibility shattered. Heck, I’ll even help if they’re going to continue to treat customers with such disdain.

If I may make a suggestion … ?

Okay, so that’s some of the issues and problems at play in the sector which now face Hilco as they attempt to save HMV in the long term. Pricing aside (which is a purely business negotiation issue), are there any suggestions that we can make based on this overview? Excuse me while I go on a flight of speculative fantasy for the rest of this post…

My first impulse would be to strip down the stores and make them cool and stylish, with a front-of-house dominated by the aforementioned 20% of items that drives 80% of the sales displayed front and centre as people walk in, pick up and take to the counter or a wandering salesperson (like they have at Apple Stores) to pay for by card or cash. Shiny and new, cool and bright, roomy and airy – imagine for a moment all that long tail stock hidden away.

As well as the new releases and best sellers and sales items, the company should look to build up a supply of ‘HMV exclusive’ items. It should also make to have sections concentrating on items ‘in the news’: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a new entry in a film franchise out at cinemas, or a show come on TV with a new series, thought “Oh, I need to catch up on the previous film/season first” and go to the shop – only to find the relevant DVDs totally out of stock. It’s basic identification of stock demand: while you don’t expect supermarkets to do this for CDs/DVDs, it’s Business 101 for a specialist retailer.

Use the staff in the stores to do some of this thinking for you: give them a section of the retail space for their choice of ‘spotlight items’ and allow them their head to organise the management of it. Maybe make their performance appraisal partly based on their success or otherwise in turnover for their selections to make sure that they’re meeting the needs of the local consumer market.

And yes, allow them to be quirky as well. It wouldn’t help for the stores to have a little individual character here and there rather than all look the same.

But you said not to cut off the long tail!

Yes, I just said that we’re going to be hiding away a lot of the older stock, which seems contrary to my previous assertion that getting rid of the long tail supply would undermine HMV’s position as a specialist retailer. But the key here is ‘hide away’ rather than ‘dispense with’; for one thing, you need that depth of stock to allow the staff to have their choice of items to cycle though and feature in ‘their’ part of the front-of-house. If you only have the new stuff and chart toppers in stock then they won’t be able to achieve that, so there needs to be a proper reserve bank of ‘deeper’ titles on hand.

There has to be a better way for stores to carry this large long tail/backstock than lining it up in row upon row of scruffy shelves, cramped together where you have to practically lie on the dirty floor to read the spines of the ones on the bottom shelves. Browsing in HMV hasn’t been a pleasant experience for some time; while I might spend time on a ‘mission oriented’ seek-and-locate mission for a specific back title, I don’t enjoy trying to browse for alleged pleasure like this.

If the physical shelves are no longer fit for purpose then why not service this market electronically instead? Build a digital presence that suitably mimics (not necessarily precisely copies, but similar enough in consumer experience) the experience of looking through shelves? You can imagine this working very nicely on tablets placed in the front-of house area. They’d be running something akin to cover flow, allowing customers to flick through the virtual shelves which would be organised in the same way that the stores have traditionally organised the layout: rock & pop, opera, indie, easy listening; action, horror, musicals, westerns and so forth. The digital representation has the advantage that an item can be filed in as many areas as needed, rather than the customer having to second-guess which category the store decided to use.

Is this the same as a website? No, not exactly. A website has a number of existing preconceptions and prerequisites, such as the technology needing to be usable on a wide number of different PC platforms. Here we’d be talking about a bespoke experience custom designed for whatever gadget HMV decides on (Apple iPads being the inescapable obvious suggestion) specifically for the purpose of people coming into the store, seeing the banks of tablets and using that electronic device to find the back title that they’re after without scrabbling around anymore. Then they could listen to some tracks of the CD or watch a preview or clips of a DVD as part of the process.

Once an item is selected by the customer then there’s a number of ways that the order could be placed and fulfilled. Firstly – is it in that backroom store on site? If not, is there a local nearby branch that has it in stock that the customer could go to? Or would the customer like to order it, either by placing a traditional online order much as if buying from Amazon or by having it made available for pick-up at the store, either from a central warehouse or by getting it from another store that does have it in stock?

Okay, let’s move on to picking up the item. How does a virtual selection on a general front-of-house tablet station become a paid-for sale and pick-up? I’m rather loath to suggest that the tablets are linked to card PIN readers as I’m not sure how viable or expensive that currently is. I would personally still prefer either the Apple-style wandering salespeople equipped with their own tablets, or else the traditional point-of-sale for cash business, but maybe that’s just me. There’s certainly a case to be made for allowing people to pay at the browsing station for immediate delivery of digital media like music downloads and movies, although to be honest I think this is a tough market given the domination of Apple’s iTunes Store.

What could be done is having the customer enter their mobile phone number into the system; they get a text message when the item it ready for pickup, with an ID number in it. They are able to then approach any sales person or POS to pick up the item by showing them the ID number, and then pay for it. Even if it took a while for the item to be retrieved from the backroom (we’ve all been to Argos!) the customer could head off and wonder around other shops for half an hour before getting their SMS. Yes, they could end up finding the item cheaper elsewhere in the meantime, so allow them a text response channel to cancel the item as well. It might be a lost sale, but at least it will help keep the stock fluid.

The same text message would also be true for any item ordered for store delivery and pick up – whenever the item came in, the costumer would get a text saying it was ready, how long it would be held for, and the ID number used to make sure that they get the order being held for them. Of course, you could also make custom iPhone/Android apps to make this whole side of things more advanced and flashy, but text messages alone would do at a pinch and are available to virtually everyone these days. That said, don’t forget to build in the willingness of the front-of-house staff to do things the old fashioned way for someone who has no mobile with them or simply doesn’t like this approach; no need to lose sales by being overly dogmatic.

One added advantage of this: if you have someone create a (free) HMV ID account that couples their buying history both online and in-store with their mobile number and their credit card details then you have a terrific consolidated database on their buying habits via both channels. You could also have an HMV Members card to offer special deals and exclusives – a RFID touch card could be integrated into the browsing/purchasing process to augment text messages, although I’d be wary of using this as a primary means of carrying out sales especially as HMV’s old Pure points card was such a weak performer.

Online integration

Considering that with this model over half the physical High Street store is now ‘virtual’, it’s natural to think of what this means for the online service overall.

For one thing, there’s no reason why the browsing should be restricted to the fixed tablets provided by the store itself; indeed, at times of peak demand when the place is rammed, giving the people the option to whip out their tablets, connect to the store WiFi, download and use the HMV interface would help keep sales moving.

If you’re going to that length, then really the general online store should stay pretty close in content. It might not have the bespoke ‘browsing’ interface but there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be able to use it look up an item either at the store or from home, see if it’s in stock (or which store it is available from) and to place an order for pick-up before even leaving their homes. They’d still have the option to buy online and have it delivered to them by the postman, just as they would from Amazon, but this leverages HMV’s USP (their physical high street stores, remember) and also ties together the branches and the online presence in a way that’s been distinctly lacking till now.

That brings us to the question of price. I said earlier that HMV needs to do something to bring its product prices to within a reasonable distance of their competitors, and that still stands, but another question remains: what price should be quoted on the website, store price or online price?

To me there’s no question: the price should be the one found in the store. If I’m looking something up, I want to know how much something will cost me if I go and buy it in a local branch. I don’t want to be misled by a totally different online-only price. But that needn’t stop HMV from adding an secondary ‘online special’ price clearly showing a discount for postal delivery that could serve to bring it within fair distance of their online competitors as well. Simply make it very clear what the ‘real’ price is – which should always be the same as the store – and what is being done as a special online offer. The online site is working first and foremost as an extended shop window for your branches, not as a rival chain undermining your stores.

It’s not rocket science

Readers who’ve got this far into this post (and seriously, congratulations for slogging it out and I can only apologise for the hour of your life you’ll never get back) might be sitting back in their seats at this point and saying: “Hmmm. Is that it?”

Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, for now at least. I could throw in a bit about negotiating some link-ups with former rivals such as WH Smiths, Game and Waterstones to put some HMV concessions into their stores on high streets now lacking a stand-alone HMV presence (and thereby adding more ‘pick up points’ across the country for ordered items) but that’s about the size of it. While transformational for HMV, I’d be the first to admit that it’s not hugely revolutionary in terms of the broader retail sector. Other stores have done so much of this already – the decades-old Argos chain has led the way in many of these approaches, and Apple Stores have been referenced multiple times in the post already. So yes, it’s not rocket science and there’s nothing outrageously new. Sorry.

That simply highlights the big underlying point here: if none of this is particularly startling, then why hasn’t HMV been doing it already? Why are they still using a store model essentially the same as that of the 1960s and 1970s? It’s the application of these newer approaches and learning the lessons of other High Street and online stores to create an integrated presence that is the Big Idea, at least as far as the currently chronically compartmentalised HMV goes.

I don’t really expect anyone to listen or take much notice of this article, in truth. But it gets some thoughts off my chest, and if in 12 months time HMV has rebuilt itself in a way that coincidentally uses even one or two of the thoughts and ideas collected here then I’ll be pleased.

If not, then I’ll be worried that HMV might yet not be long for this world after all…

I admit it, I’m very sad and even somewhat depressed about the news that HMV has been placed in administration after 92 years in business. That said, you’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘shocked’ or ‘surprised’, because frankly this moment has been coming for some time now.

Actually, I genuinely thought that HMV would collapse early in 2012, but that time the management was able to hammer out a financial rescue package with the banks to keep it afloat. But once news emerged that the entertainment retailer’s pre-2012 Christmas sales had suffered a 8.1% like-for-like drop. That’s pretty disastrous, and clearly meant that insolvency could only be a matter of weeks away. It turned out to be just days instead.

The signs were clear in-store: there may have been piles and piles of sales stock, but strangely it simply hasn’t been selling – customers weren’t interested in the store’s selection of discount titles even at rock bottom prices, so the piles stubbornly stayed put. Meanwhile the rest of the shelves in the stores that I went to in London were showing obvious signs of not being restocked even of comparatively recent releases. To anyone who has seen a retail chain collapse in progress in the past – and there have been plenty of recent opportunities, sadly – these were clear and ominous signs.

When HMV staff started slapping on blue cross stickers onto large swathes of their remaining stock in preparation for a 25%-off clearance sale starting on Saturday, it gave every impression of a desperate and feverish attempt to liquidate as much stock as possible before having to call in the receivers. I figured that they would limp to the end of the month before the collapse, but rather than two weeks it was actually just 96 hours later that the edifice crumbled.

I still find it amazing that a chain which had been handed a de facto high street monopoly by the collapse of a succession of rivals apparently still could not survive in business.

What are the reasons behind it?

The obvious culprit is online stores undercutting HMV’s prices on CDs, DVDs and computer games. And you have to have some sympathy for HMV here because they faced a far from level playing field; some online stores like Play.com were taking advantage of a tax loophole available to businesses based in the Channel Islands, while Amazon.co.uk has notoriously been indulging in some very near-the-knuckle accounting practices relating to VAT and corporation tax. HMV wasn’t able to follow suit, while also having the overheads of high street rent and staff wages to support.

However, just blaming online buying isn’t the whole picture by any means. After all, what was to stop HMV from setting up its own online business in the Channel Islands? Well – it did. Unfortunately the enterprise was pushed and pulled from all directions by corporate priorities: pursuing low prices to match the likes of Play.com and Amazon.co.uk just drained further sales from the high street stores, and embarrassed the physical shops by emphasising how overpriced they were even to their own online operation; but being forced to match the same prices, offers and sales as the stores made them look absurdly expensive in the online realm. They literally couldn’t win.

Anyway, ‘online’ is no panacea. Play.com was once the poster child for e-commerce, but it’s been in decline for some time and when the government finally got around to closing the Channel Island tax loophole, the company announced it was pulling out of retailing altogether just a week before HMV was forced into insolvency. If even Play.com can’t make online retailing work without an opportunistic tax break then who can?

For the record: I’m not one of those who has ever piled on to the companies that have made use of some creative but completely legal accounting practices. Everyone – individual or business – seeks to get the best deal on tax possible to them, and Amazon.co.uk is no difference. They might get a break on corporation tax and VAT, but they’ve also built huge facilities in the mainland UK and employ a lot of staff in the process. Besides, do you really want to crack down on Amazon.co.uk now and force it out of business like HMV and Play.com before it, and leave us with nowhere at all to buy CDs, DVDs and games while also adding to the unemployment numbers?

Another culprit for the demise of HMV is supermarkets which now stock top CD, DVD and even game titles and therefore take the top-selling cream off the market that otherwise would have gone to HMV. On the face of it, it’s difficult to see how supermarkets can undercut HMV quite so much on these top titles. After all, supermarkets can’t take advantage of the same creative accounting that online companies have been able to; they have the same overheads in terms of rent and staff wages. It’s unlikely that the supermarket chains can get better bulk purchasing deals than HMV, and hard to see that CDs and DVDs are worth making ‘loss leaders’ supported by profits from the sales of other goods in the same way that alcohol often is. So how come supermarkets were able to consistently undercut HMV and steal the business?

This one comes down to HMV’s expansionism at the height of the entertainment market from the end of the 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century. As well as opening up new stores they also diversified into books (buying up the Dillons/Waterstones book chain) as well as cinemas and live music venues. That was fine at the time, but the borrowing the company did to fund this strategy came back to impale them after the credit crunch took effect. Not only have the last few years of austerity taken their toll on consumer spending power which in turn has curtailed sales in the entertainment sector as a whole, it also forced HMV’s management to be fixated on managing its debt burden rather than developing the business.

The last couple of years, HMV has been all about servicing its debts and fending off creditors, selling off relatively profitable assets like Waterstones and the live music business in order to get the cash together to meet the next bank loan repayment. The more the company contracted, the more it forced the remaining debt burden to be heaped on the core business – the stores. The only way of generating enough revenue from the remaining rump was to increase prices, treating their market like a monopoly when the truth was this just forced disgruntled customers to look online or to supermarkets instead. Far from increasing HMV’s revenues, price gouging (as it came very close on occasion) just killed it.

The moment I really knew that HMV was toast was when the management announced a new retail strategy: they would pull back from stocking CD and DVD and instead focus on developing new products in personal entertainment technologies. Or as one wag put it: the visionary HMV management decided to exchange their existing share of the £1.6bn CD market for a hope of a share in the £160m headphones market, which was already in decline as the demise of high street electronics stores like Dixons demonstrated. Sorry, but that never seemed like a winner: and if it’s your emergency Plan B then you really are terminally screwed as a company, as it’s proved.

What’s going to happen now?

So now we’re facing the prospect where there will be no stores on high streets selling CDs and DVDs, and only the formerly insolvent Game chain currently surviving to service the computer game market. Back in 2005, there were around eight stores in my local city centre (Kingston-upon-Thames) which were either CD/DVD specialists (Virgin Megastores, Silverscreen) or were big stores with large sections selling CDs and DVDs (Woolworths, WH Smiths, Borders.) Now as we enter 2013, the last sick man standing is about to drop down dead.

Is there really insufficient consumer demand left on the high street to maintain a single CD/DVD retailer anymore? I genuinely find it hard to believe. Yes, I know that online sales, downloads and streaming services have taken a huge chunk out of the music sector; but a lot of people either can’t go that route or prefer to be able to walk into a store, browse, and walk out holding a physical item in their hand. Not everyone wants to be forced to go to Amazon.co.uk for every single electronic entertainment item that they buy, surely?

Even in the 24 hours since the news of HMV’s insolvency hit the wire, there have been some green shoots of optimism breaking through the icy frost in the high street retail business. Knowledgeable sources confirm that many – a majority, even – of HMV stores actually trade a reasonably strong profit in their own right, it’s just that this is soon swallowed up in unsustainable debt servicing. Free the stores from this debt burden and do some basic reorganisation of the chain (which would include a ruthless pruning of their the deadwood from their 239 store, which will inevitably cost at least some of the 4500 jobs currently at risk) and you have a viable business, surely?

This must surely be the plan of the administrators Deloitte, and it must be hoped that they won’t follow the astounding strategy of PriceWaterhouseCoopers at Jessops, which permanently shut down the entire photographic retailing chain just 48 hours after taking over. But in these troubled economic times, does anyone have the funds to risk coming in and salvaging what’s left of HMV?

There are a few companies with pressing reasons for doing so: the record companies, TV networks, film studios and computer games manufacturers for starters, who rely on home sales of CDs, DVDs and games to keep their own core business afloat. There’s a serious risk that the loss of a high street retail channel could tip many of these businesses into financial problems; and as for the companies that make and distribute the products, it’s hard to see that they have much of a future at all if HMV isn’t replaced.

But won’t people just buy online or at supermarkets, as we’ve just discussed? Well, certainly some sales will go to these channels: the big blockbusters and family films which are already among the six to eight new titles per week that the supermarkets deign to stock will be okay, and ironically so will the very niche products like indie arthouse pictures and vintage classics since most hard core collectors will be motivated to seek out the titles online or even directly from the distributor if necessary. It’s the huge ‘middle mass market’ that’s at risk: the sort of films not big enough for the supermarkets to want to waste shelf space on, but are nonetheless only bought on impulse when someone walks into a shop and sees a cover that piques their interest, albeit not to the extent that they would bother seeking out online.

You’ll perhaps notice that I’ve shifted to talking about films here, and that’s deliberate. I’m not sure that the high street music market has the same claims to surviving the current storm. That’s because most people browse their music on the radio (or by streaming services) and form their purchasing decision right there and then so it’s the most natural thing in the world to boot up the PC and have the music on their iPod 60 seconds later. Moreover, these days it’s usually a specific single track they want. You can get that single serving on iTunes, but the high street stores selling the music on albums alone actively fail to even offer the specific product that customers want. No wonder sales are collapsing.

Films are different: you don’t simply hear them on the radio and decide you want it, so what’s going to drive sales if you can’t see rows of titles in a store? There’s also no equivalent of wanting a ‘track only’. And the downloads from iTunes, Netflix et al can be big and time consuming if you’re on slow broadband, and if you have metered internet usage then you can pretty much wipe out your entire month’s capacity with half a dozen films and a couple of TV shows if you’re not careful. Oh, and the end product is significantly poorer from the online download/streaming versions as well, even for DVD – let along high-def Blu-ray.

Still, the signs are clearly on the cards. While I think film sales on physical media via shops are still viable for the time being, the fact is that as technology and networks improve then films will indeed eventually go the the way of music sales. Or at least, they will once the crusty ancient ‘I want something real to hold in my hand, dammit’ oldtimer brigade die off.

Who’s to blame?

Let me come clear: I’m one of those crusty ancient oldtimers. Not to extremes: while I would prefer to have an actual product in my hand, if I only want a single track then I’m obviously going to buy it from iTunes. And if an entire album is half the price online than it is in the stores, then I’m going to treat the physical product as a prohibitively expensive luxury item and settle for the download there, too. My preference may be to buy the physical item, but it doesn’t override my rationality.

That preference has led me to keep supporting HMV by buying items from there regularly over the last few years. Indeed, my obsessive DVD buying has at times made me feel like I’m single-handedly servicing HMV’s entire debt mountain by myself. I value the high street presence, and I recognise that overheads make it more expensive to run than an online operation so I’m willing to pay out a little extra premium in order to support it.

For example: my last visit to HMV was on Sunday, the day before the news about the insolvency hit the headlines, and there were lots of vultures eagerly circling the discounted stock in the hope of picking the bones of the carcase clean before the corpse starts to reek of decay. Admittedly, one item I bought was indeed something in their 25%-off blue cross fire sale, but the other two were items that were full price and which I could have got a pound or two cheaper if I’d ordered online. But the price was still reasonable, and it wasn’t something I was going to bother with ordering from a website, so I paid it in the meagre hope that it might help the company survive in some shape or form. I’d have bought other things, but everything else I looked for was apparently out of stock – which itself tells a crucial tale of the problems facing high street retailers.

That loyalty has its limits, mind you. Just a few days before this crisis erupted, I noticed that the latest release in the BBC’s Classic Doctor Who DVD range was for sale at £25 at HMV (in store and online) compared with £14 at Play.com and Amazon.co.uk: I’m sorry, but a 78.5% overhead is simply too great to swallow, so the order went to Amazon.co.uk instead.

I have the same sense of wanting to support other high street stores under threat in the current economic downturn, so when I can I buy large format books from local bookstores and even made a point of buying books for Christmas gifts for several people from local bookstores as a way of showing support. Better that than sleepwalking into having no bookstores left on the high street in a year or two. Unfortunately even this resolve is tempered: for my own reading I’m increasingly preferring to read novels on a nice, light e-reader, with the added advantage that the bought volume doesn’t add to my already overburdened bookshelves in my tiny flat. Even if that means buying the e-book from iTunes or Apple.

So even I’m crumbling and losing my fortitude, feeling like Canute trying to order back the inexorable tide to zero effect. Soon, the choice on the high street will be gone and I’ll have no choice anyway. I’ll be very sad when that moment comes, and wonder what will become of the high streets when they’re just a collection of ghostly empty spaces quickly forgetting why they were ever gathered together in the middle of town in the first place.

I briefly considered writing a blog post about Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple last week, but it seemed rather unnecessary – the last thing the world needed was another blogger pitching in on the subject when it seemed everyone on the Internet was already doing exactly that. So instead, I’ll be very brief on the subject now that the immediate furore about it has quietened down.

Obviously, Apple will miss Jobs – how could it not? He transformed the company, and through Apple he transformed our lives. That’s literally no exaggeration, as I sit here surrounded by my iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod …

But perhaps one of Steve Jobs top ten achievements is how he finally managed to write himself out of the Apple story. A few years back, when the news about his ill health first broke, he and Apple were blasted for (a) concealing the information, and (b) having no transition plan, no line of succession for a post-Jobs era. They were right to be criticised on both counts.

Fast forward to last week: Apple and Jobs have used the intervening time to bring along and put in place the people they needed for the transition. Jobs’ long heath sabbaticals had allowed the transition to be road-tested and the next generation leaders to become established and well known in the industry. By the time Jobs handed in his letter of resignation it no longer seemed alarming or unplanned for, just confirmation of what we knew had been the situation for some time. Apple hadn’t crumbled in the meantime with Jobs off ill, and so we are reassured that it wasn’t going to go horribly wrong now he’s stepped down, either.

The moment for succession has arrived; it had been planned for; and it has worked, in just the way that five years ago it never could have.

In the meantime the general reaction of the blogosphere was a slew of near-eulogies for Steve Jobs, which slightly irked me – he hasn’t died after all, just stepped down as CEO. That’s no cause for weeping and wailing and the rending of garments. Not yet, at least.

Of course in the back of our minds we wonder about Steve Jobs’ health and prognosis in the light of his resignation. But you know what? It really isn’t any of our business now. Five years ago, when Jobs and the Apple board were borderline-illegally concealing relevant information about the company from shareholders by refusing to discuss the state of Jobs’ health, it was very much a matter of public concern and debate. But not now, not that he’s stepped down as CEO and left the shop in the hands of Tim Cook – now it’s a private matter for Jobs once again, and rightly so.

So it really is none of our damn business, and I’m not going to comment or prognosticate on the issue at all. Instead I’ll just wish Steve Jobs and his family all the best for the future, whatever it may hold, and thank him and the team at Apple for the ways in which they have contributed to all of our lives. And also, thanks for not screwing up the company in the leaving of it.

So, last week I was knocked offline for almost a full week by a broadband outage. Did you miss me? If you say no, I warn you that I shall be terribly hurt and upset.

There’s no terribly interesting backstory to it. I woke up on the morning of Friday, April 1 to find my internet connection wasn’t working (a particularly cruel April Fools’ Day joke.) I reported it to my ISP who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen, which was disappointing – even more so because it was actually 72 hours later when they finally got back to me to tell me that they had discovered a fault on the phone line. And that meant it wasn’t their problem anyway after all, and that I now had to call BT about it. Naturally, when I did, the (very friendly and efficient) BT Care line told me it would be 48-72 hours to arrange an engineer to visit – it was liking wading through treacle.

Astonishingly I got a call just three hours later from a BT engineer standing at the door wanting to come in. Hurrah! I honestly can’t speak highly enough about BT’s service in this, much-maligned though I know they often are. They fixed the fault, only to discover that the fault that had been detected was a fault with their phone line fault detection system and nothing at all to do with my loss of DSL. They went away job done but my problems still persisting, and I had to get back to my ISP … who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen. Sounds familiar? ISP, I dub thee Groundhog Day. Two days later and they were back in touch to say that yes, a fault had been found – with their supplier. Specifically, at the BT exchange. So now it was back to BT, although at least this time it was for the ISP to arrange and manage. I found (by chance) that my broadband was back on Thursday evening, six hours shy of a full week’s outage.

My ISP (whom I shall not name) seemed surprised at how frustrated, irate and impatient I was during this time, as though really a week’s outage was perfectly ordinary, common and reasonable. I don’t know, maybe it is – I’ve not had any problems before with which to compare (the service from the ISP has been bullet-proof and exemplary up till now, so really I’m only grumpy about their fault handling response and support.) Over to you to decide on that one.

In truth the main reason why I was so frustrated about the outage was that it meant I couldn’t research and write various time-sensitive articles that I had agreed and been contracted to write. Not only could it lose a job, but it also meant I was letting people down – and the one thing that gets me stressed and anxious more than anything is the feeling of letting people down, of not delivering something that I’ve promised. Of course it wasn’t my fault, no one was going to blame me for such a force majeure, and I’d immediately emailed and tweeted (thanks to my iPhone’s 3G connection) when I knew I was going to be offline, but I still felt bad about causing problems for other people. In the end I was able to do damage-limitation via a very long and tiring stint on Friday after the connection was restored; it would have been far worse and in many ways irrecoverable if the outage had persisted over a second weekend, so really I should feel this was a narrow escape.

All that backstory over with, I did find the whole experience of being forced offline for a week to rather interesting from a detached, intellectual point of view.

For one thing it made me realise just how fundamentally intertwined my computer now is with the internet. That wasn’t the way as recently as 3-4 years ago (I was a late broadband adopter) when the dial-up process kept the two distinct: the always-on nature of broadband means that there is now no longer any significant boundary where my computer ends and the internet takes over. They are the same. Or at least, they are until the internet disappears and suddenly 75% of the things you take for granted at your keyboard disappear with it. Not being able to look up even the most basic information stopped me from writing because I would obsess about little factual research details and feel stymied until I was able to look them up and verify the answer. Some programs started to malfunction or perform really badly without internet connectivity (my writing program, the magnificent Scrivener, started taking five minutes to boot up because it was trying to ‘phone home’. As soon as the internet was restored, the same program and project files took 5s to launch.) It made me start to shy away from even starting up the computer, because I knew the irritation of continually starting to do something only to realise that it had an internet component to it that made it non-functioning for the time being would start to drive me mad. Best to just stay away altogether. Strangely, the sense of the computer being “cut off” extended to even features not affected by the broadband outage: since the loss of DSL cut me off from iPlayer, my subconscious wrote off watching TV on my Mac which extended to overlooking the fact that the EyeTV application relied purely on its own digital tuner and was unaffected by the broadband. It took me days to get back into using it.

I found I was continually bugged by not being able to look up something about a TV program I was watching or a radio program I was listening to. The continual exhortations on BBC programs to access that show’s web pages became actually deeply annoying and I would start to shout back at the announcer “Well, I would if I damn well could, wouldn’t I?!?!” My sensitivity to not being able to follow up anything online made me highly sensitive to just how prevalent the web is now in almost every part of the media, and finally gave me a taste of what it’s like to be “digitally excluded”. Which just makes me wonder how that group of people who say “I’m not interested in the Internet, never will, and won’t try it” manage to maintain that worldview without being browbeaten into it. (This is different from those who are excluded because of lack of availability of local broadband services, of lack of finances to fund the necessary hardware or service, or technophobia pertaining to the use of computers – all of which would genuinely stop people responding to these prompts to “see our website”.)

My humour wasn’t improved by the way my ISP’s telephone support line continually prompted me to visit their support website and manage my fault from there: that really was rubbing salt in the wound! Another factor that was causing me some anxiety was that the day the broadband went out, I had been due to report the non-delivery of two items from Amazon.co.uk – and without internet connectivity there was no way of doing this. Would they use my failure to report the missing items in a timely fashion for so long as a reason to doubt my honesty in the matter? (When I did get back online and reported the items, Amazon.co.uk replied within minutes, apologised for the delay and instantly ordered replacements which arrived on the Monday – flawless customer service and a lesson once again to retailers everywhere.)

Those were the undoubted downsides of the whole experience, but more surprising were the upsides and the things that I thought I would miss and yet actually became irrelevant.

For the first couple of days, I reacted to the loss of Twitter, Facebook, email and all my RSS feeds like any other addict cut off from his pusher – and was climbing the walls. But I missed Twitter and Facebook far less than I thought I would, and even my RSS news feeds slipped away from my mind after a while. It became rather peaceful and relaxing to have the information stream turned off and not to have to worry about keeping it up. There is great tranquillity in not knowing anything – “you don’t miss what you don’t have”, in other words, so the fact that I was missing out on things didn’t matter as long as I didn’t know about them in the first place. However, reality did start to seep back in toward the end when I heard some startling news about COI that I could only follow up properly to find out the details once I was back online (Mark Lund leaving abruptly last week and the not entirely unrelated news that the Public Expenditure Committee has called for more work on the Tees report on Government communications before it will accept the recommendations to replace COI with a Government Communications Centre).

It was nice to be occasionally “missed” on the social networks, and I was able to keep track of any direct mentions and respond to them on my overtaxed iPhone, just as I was able to monitor my email inbox for anything critical and to use it to let people know why I was offline. But otherwise, if I’m honest, I didn’t miss the social media nearly as much as I thought I would – it was a nice break. That said, it’s also nice to have it back!

One thing that the offline hiatus did prove to me, however, was just how “attention deficit” I’ve become over the last couple of years. Increasingly I find that I only half-watch any TV programme at best, and that quite often I’ll wonder off during an ad break to do something online – to check my email, for example, or to look up where I’ve seen a particular actor before – only to then get caught up doing something else and fail to reconnect with the TV programme when it returns. I’ve seen more “half programmes” in the last year than ever before in my life, since I’m usually quite a nerd when it comes to paying attention to a show. You could argue that the fault lies equally with the TV shows which these days appear to be universally made for audiences with the attention span of a gnat, but what the outage proved to me was that, absent the lure of “just going online for a second” on my Mac or iPad, I quickly reverted back to my old habit of watching a programme properly, without distractions, to the end.

Depressingly this return to better viewing hygiene proved entirely temporary and the very first evening my broadband was back I managed to spectacularly fail to watch most of the TV I would otherwise have concentrated on. At best, I half-listened while at the keyboard. (In my defence, this was when I was having to get quickly back up to speed with my backlog of commitments and do my damage-limitation 24 hours of catch-up, so it was rather forced on me.) Still, it’s a lesson – and I’m now actively trying to limit my use of online material during the evening if I’m supposed to be doing anything else. It’s just too easy to get distracted with the net.

As a by-product of that last observation, I think I’ve realised why the recent BBC4 Danish crime thriller The Killing (or Forbrydelsen we true fans like to smugly refer to it) had such an impact on me. As 20 hours of densely-written subtitled drama, it’s not the kind of thing you can kid yourself into thinking “I’ll just check my email but I’ll keep listening” – because the minute you move away and stop reading the subtitles, you’re completely screwed and lose the plot in seconds. Even with French or German productions I can just about busk it for a minute or two without subtitles, but Danish? Or Swedish? Not a chance. With the extra bonus of it not having any commercial breaks, The Killing was consequently watched with a laser-like intensity virtually unique in recent years of TV viewing, and I think it made for a richer, deeper, more immersive experience that made it so much more special as a result. Not that I’d recommend the BBC to switch to all-subtitled programmes from here on – I have my limits when it comes to ‘reading” television shows.

All in all, when I’ve been able to step away from the frustration and sense of missing personal deadlines, it proved to be an interesting week of observations about the place of the internet in my life at the moment – for good and for ill. Naturally I’m happy to be back online and able to access all the research information I need for what I jokingly refer to as my “day job” – it did get deeply frustrating not being able to get on on so many fronts last week, which was like being in suspended animation at times – but I also think that a few offline breaks and some paring back on online usage would be no bad thing, either.

Of course, ask me in a month and I’ll doubtless be so hyperactive online again that unplugging will once more be viewed as next to death!

Hmm, the last few posts here have all been on a very similar governmental theme; time to vary the tone somewhat, I think.

Last week, I bought, read and finished an Apple iBook for the very first time.

It’s not, I hasten to add, the first e-book that I’ve purchased and read on the iPad – but all the others have been through the Amazon Kindle app, whereas this was of the Apple-flavoured variety instead. I’ve preferred purchasing e-books via the Kindle for various reasons, starting with a greater range of books and generally lower prices. Initially as well I didn’t have iOS 4 on my antiquated iPhone 3G (because of early performance problems with the upgrade on that phone) which meant that I couldn’t run the Apple iBooks app on my phone and hence couldn’t take my reading out and about with me unless I took the whole iPad instead. That’s no longer an issue and the latest iOS 4 and iBooks work a treat even on my venerable hardware.

However, the Kindle still seems to me to offer a greater assurance of longevity: Amazon’s core business is still books and it had made Kindle e-readers available not just for its own hardware but also for Apple’s iOS, Android systems, Macs and PCs. Apple, by contrast, see e-books as a very, very minor outlier in their activities and the books they sell can only be read on iOS devices – not even Macs. Of the two companies, Apple is by far the more likely to suddenly decide the book market isn’t worth the trouble and make one of its autocratic decisions to pull out and take its iBooks app with it, leaving tus with books that can no longer be read. Amazon, on the other hand, would have to fold as a company before that’s likely to happen.

There’s also a matter of principle involved in my choice of Kindle over iBook: the fact that Apple are trying to extend their “30% of all in-app purchases” to “30% of anything that is sold to be consumed on the iPad.” Amazon have got around the surcharge till now by not using the Apple-run in-app purchasing system that processes payments via the iTunes Store: instead, purchases are made on the Amazon web site and then ‘delivered’ onto the iPad directly by the app’s network connection. Apple aren’t amused by that dodge and are clamping down, potentially meaning that Amazon will either have to cough up or be booted out of the App Store. As far as I’m concerned, this is a nasty, vicious move by an Apple that’s increasingly believing in its own hubris and thinking it can do whatever it likes. Presumably Apple have sought legal advice on this and have been assured that they’re not breaching monopoly or restraint of trade laws in the various countries in which it operates, based on the fact that it only affects Apple’s own iOS devices and that other mobile devices are available, hence no monopoly. But frankly I’m astounded: if it looks like restraint of trade, and smells like it, then surely that’s what it is. I’d go so far as to say it comes over like a Mafia protection racket, where a business is told to pay over a large chunk of change or be forced out of business in the gang’s territory. Apple fan I may generally be, but not when they start behaving like hoodlums.

So with all this swirling around, how come I suddenly switch from Kindle books to iBooks? Well, it’s a one off; the price was the same on both Kindle and iBooks, and I happened to have a Christmas gift voucher for the iTunes Store hanging around, so I thought I’d give it a try. Actually the real tipping point was when I initially picked up the first chapter of a iBook through the ‘get sample’ button, read it … And then, there at the end, was a simple button to buy the rest. It’s a minor thing, but it was just so easy to press the button and carry on reading there and then rather than duck out and faff around surfing over to Amazon to log on and buy it and then back to the Kindle app to download it. It’s moments like this that Apple actually merits that cut of theirs.

It’s also the little details that continually set Apple hardware and software apart and make them so damnably good even when you’re feeling mad at the company. Even though Amazon had a head start with the e-reader concept, Apple have come with a version that is just that bit classier, slicker and, well, better than anyone else. Again, the devil’s in the details and in many ways they’re superficial cosmetic details at that: the wood panelling in your ‘library’ of e-books; the way the pages of the book you’re reading actually look like the pages of a book; the animation when you ‘turn’ a page. The type is just that bit better rendered and the balance of line length and white space around the borders just perfect. It feels like it’s been designed by a book lover.

Apple also manages to put in that attention to detail in the user interface: the presence of a slider bar at the bottom tracking where you are in the book; a line telling you how many pages there are left in the current chapter; a nice search utility in case you need to go back and find and double-check that vital clue five chapters ago; and, if you do navigate away from the current page, a link pops up to return you to the previous location without your having to remember page or chapter numbers or insert a bookmark of your own.

Apple’s iBooks also has “page numbers” whereas the Kindle has previously relied on “paragraph numbers”, a less immediately friendly or helpful concept and one of those minor details that knocks you out of the “book” paradigm. After criticism that it’s impossible to cite the page number of a reference from an e-book, Amazon have recently upgraded their Kindle software so that it does now display an absolute, unchanging page number from books formatted to support it; Apple’s iBooks, on the other hand, might have ‘page numbers” but they are not absolute and will change depending on the size and style of the typeface used on the display. Technically that’s one-up to the Kindle, except that in practice most people will be fine with the more friendly “relative” page numbers of iBooks.

Having read books in both Kindle and iBooks formats, I have to say that the iBooks environment is just that bit better, more comfortable and more stylish; but that the Kindle is fine and does its job okay as well. It’s just surprising that Amazon haven’t studied the little details of the Apple app and been “inspired” to introduce their own variants in the Kindle by now.

But having spent a few days happily reading a distinctly lightweight thriller (a review is over on the Taking The Short View blog if you’re interested), when I came to the end I found that I was actually rather relieved to be able to put aside the iPad and go lo-tech for my next book selection.

The e-book route is fine when you want something immediately or if your local book stores don’t have it (and with Borders long gone and Waterstones looking shaky, finding books locally is an increasing problem) and I was pleased to make use of it in this case. E-books are also great because they takes up no storage space, and my flat is awash with physical books already. But even so, and even having had no trouble reading the e-book version (indeed, enjoyed it), when I decided I wanted to read the next one in the series I ended up picking up the second title as a paperback in an honest-to-goodness bookshop while I was still reading the first, instead of buying it as a follow-on e-book.

I’m still trying to work out why I felt that sense of relief at the thought that I could go back to proper paper-based media – I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a powerful feeling as it was. There are certain practical advantages to the paper book, such as being able to read in the bath, but that hardly explains the relief I felt, surely? At the moment I’m putting it down to the fact that so much of my time is spent looking at screens that it’s the relief of “a change is as good as a rest”. I use my iPad throughout the day to check emails, tweet, check-in with Facebook, surf and follow my RSS feeds that the addition of book reading on top just felt a little like the device was smothering me. I need the break every now and then or else like every such suffocating relationship I’ll begin to resent the iPad as a whole, and I really wouldn’t want to fall out with it.

Nor do I think it’s the iPad itself per se that I need the break away from – it’s the whole screen-based electronic media that I need time away from every now and then, so buying an Amazon Kindle doesn’t seem like it would be any help and hence is off the agenda for now (I’d been vaguely considering buying one since Christmas.) Audiobooks are a possible alternative, although I have to confess that I find it very hard to stay awake listening to an audiobook or play for longer than 15 minutes, or else I’ll get distracted by visual stimulation and forget to listen to the book.

On the whole, though, it seems that for the time being at least I just like to pick up a good old fashioned paperback book when it comes to a taking a restful break. Obviously I’m not yet as 21st century as I like to think I am.

So the very day I post about “there isn’t much exciting new stuff going on”, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc. roll out their little iPad newspaper lovechild. Surely that instantly gives the lie to my whole post yesterday and I should therefore slink away hanging my head in shame?

Nope. Sorry. If anything it reinforced my jaded view that there is nothing new going on, just incremental updates, a few minor business ideas feeding parasitically off larger existing ones – and also the last stand of the old media guard.

In this case it’s the concept of the newspaper that is making a last stand. We’re seeing desperate days for the news media and for journalism, with falling sales and revenues making the very idea of news reporting look like a vanity project that is a preserve for the seriously rich; the rest of us will use Twitter to find out what’s going on.

I’ve criticised Murdoch in the past (for his Times firewall strategy), but one thing I always freely give him: Murdoch is a newspaper man through and through. He truly loves and understands the daily paper, and his recent initiatives have all been about saving the faltering medium. In many ways I hope he can find some way to succeed.

But alas, as much as Murdoch understands the printed news, he really doesn’t seem to understand the online counterpart. In newspapers he was always ahead of the curve in his ideas and business strategies, but online he’s perpetually a day late and a few million dollars short. Do I have to go into the sad tale of MySpace, which News Corp confirmed yesterday that it was now trying to offload before it collapses completely?

Reviving the tried-and-failed concept of the firewall is, I still believe, just one example. Sadly the new iPad Daily is another, because it’s one more tired attempt to produce a closed ‘electronic publication’ that was tried in various forms as long as ten years ago by the likes of Wired, and which withered and died when exposed to the full blast of the Internet. On its début, it already seems like a very jaded idea.

The main criticism against the Daily seems to be that it’s notably light on content, despite the estimated $500,000 weekly overhead producing it. The user experience doesn’t seem to have won many people over, nor has the fact that it is – as the name implies – centred around such an old media concept as daily publishing rather than continuous updating (although it does apparently have capacity for some ‘breaking news’ throughout the day.)

Here are some of the reviews and analysis pieces that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:

I don’t offer a review of it myself because I haven’t downloaded and tried it yet. I probably would if it were available outside the US, but I was also put off by stories about the Daily’s privacy policy, which seemingly allow the Daily app to collect every scintilla of information about how it’s used on your iPad – right down to every sweep and swipe – and report it back to News Corp HQ. That’s a level of monitoring that I’m frankly not wild about signing up to, even if it is “the modern way.”

Some commentators suggest that regardless of the Daily’s shortcoming, it nonetheless represents a sea change in online journalism and a major shift the industry – mainly because “Murdoch has the money to make his tablet publication, The Daily, succeed.” I’m not so sure.

Murdoch’s pockets are not as deep as many presume, and they’re already being raided heavily to keep his flagship properties such as The Times afloat despite their losing an estimated £2m a week. Murdoch has his limits, and is not averse to changing his mind when something isn’t working despite how it might look to everyone. A case in point is the free tabloid evening paper that he launched in London, thelondonpaper, which promised similar “game changing” qualities and yet was beaten out by an inferior product (London Lite that was essentially using second-hand copy from the pay-for Evening Standard.) After three years Murdoch could no longer carry the cost, conceded defeat and shut down the paper – while the other free papers (the Evening Standard replaced the London Lite in the freebie market, and there’s the morning Metro) have gone on to thrive in the sector that Murdoch decided was unwinnable.

It certainly demonstrated that Murdoch is not infallible, and nor is he any more capable than King Canute of turning back the incoming tide.

But enough of the downside – surely there’s something upbeat about this week’s launch? Perhaps the most interesting thing is the subscription model of the new Daily: for one thing, a cost of 99¢ a week (or 60p) is firmly in that bracket of prices that people simply don’t think are worth spending any time considering and simply fork over – providing the payment mechanism is so simple and frictionless that it doesn’t cause a delay and allow the conscious mind to pipe up before the payment is made.

Sure enough, the existence of the Daily is as much to do with the platform on which it appears – the iPad – and its supporting iTunes Store business model as it is to do with any re-imagining of the presentation of news itself. And if the iTunes model of ease-of-small-payments wasn’t already slick enough, Apple have changed their system to coincide with the Daily’s launch to provide even easier in-app purchasing of on-going access to content. One click and the week’s access is sorted out. It is the subscription model as it really should be – has to be – if it’s ever to work.

So genuinely there is something new and exciting under the hood, but it’s in the business model rather than the product itself: the Daily seems altogether the weakest aspect of this new launch. News Corp. and Apple Inc. have to build an entire new brand and attract an entirely new audience and market for it, which is going to be expensive, time-consuming, and require patience and a lot of money. You have to wonder why they simply didn’t use the business model to take an existing brand online with a pre-existing user base instead, which would surely better leverage the assets and the opportunity.

Instead, Murdoch has The Times cowering behind its newly erected paywall, initially trying to attract £2 a week or £9.99 for a four-week iPad subscription although the subscription model is being tweaked all the time. Presumably the premium is because The Times is a “proper” newspaper and they’re trying to charge extra for the brand name, but undercutting it with a cheaper ‘lite’ competitor is not going to help either publication, and The Times has suffered a 87% drop in traffic since the introduction of the firewall and subscription model, while analysts scratch their heads at the impossible economics behind making the Daily work, having to labour under the sort of overheads of being a new stand-alone publication.

But to come back to where this article started: surely the discussion about subscription costs and ease of in-app payments makes the launch of the Daily counts as “exciting new stuff going on”?

I’d agree with you, except that as far back as December 2008 I wrote a blog piece right here about how the future of newspapers could well be an iTunes-type news store – an iNews Store. Apple have simply finally made it come true. Of course a lot of the details are different because much has happened in the meantime with the development of iOS apps and the creation of the iPad which no one saw back then, but the fundamental principle of micropayments through a central iTunes-type clearing house still holds. In fact in many ways I maintain that some of the suggestions I wrote about back then are better than anything we’ve still yet seen, and that today’s iTunes business infrastructure makes it all quite possible to implement now.

I’m honestly not crowing or showing off about my prescience (oh, well, I am a little I guess – sorry!) Just making the point that far from seeing anything new or innovative this week, we’re merely finally catching up with what looked new and exciting back in December 2008.

Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of future-gazing and trying to spot the Next Big Thing in technology before it arrives in the mainstream? I know I do, and the last few years have been wonderfully active and fast-moving in that regard. I have lots of news feeds to keep me up to date with the latest in social media, technology and media, and use them to inspire me to write new blog posts and reports.

But recently I’ve found myself somewhat bereft of any such inspiration. In other words: is it just me, or is there nothing much new happening at the moment?

The social media news scene is still dominated by Facebook and Twitter, as evidenced by this week’s substantial coverage over the protests in Egypt and whether it was Facebook or Twitter ‘wot won it’. But this is nothing new and we’ve been having “the impact of social media on the headline of the day” stories run almost every month for the last year or two. These days both companies are getting on a bit in online terms – Facebook was created in 2004 and Twitter in 2006 so neither are spring chickens any more – and while Facebook’s current dominance is astounding (something like one page in every ten viewed in the US is a Facebook page apparently) there are also signs that Facebook may be losing its momentum in the demographic where it all started – American college students – if the vox pop at the end of the second episode of Rory Cellan-Jones’ excellent BBC Radio 4 series Secret History of Social Networking is anything to go by.

Outside of the Big Two and the social media scene is not exactly healthy. Friends Reunited withered long ago, and now it seems MySpace is on its way out. Bebo was sold off at a huge loss by AOL last year, Jaiku is gone and Google’s forays into the sector such as Buzz and Wave have fallen flat. Ning, a service to allow groups to set up their own white label online communities for free, has now retreated to premium services only.

Only LinkedIn, the business-orientated social network, seems to be thriving at the moment (its planning an IPO this year) – perhaps the reality of people being thrown out of their jobs and looking for work has had one beneficiary at least? But as a concept and business, LinkedIn is even older than the Big Two and founded at the end of 2002.

Otherwise all we’re seeing is business ideas built into small niches into the existing social media ecosphere; for example, the likes of Foursquare and GetGlue to expand the functionality of existing networks. They can’t survive on their own so they’re unlikely to be anything more than background players, and if they get too successful then you can bet that Facebook or Twitter will either buy them up or more likely simply include the functionality into their own core product, so it’s a precarious and short-lived position for those businesses to be in.

Looking further afield to technology, last year was supposed to be the Year of the Mobile. But then the mobile got its backside kicked by the iPad and the whole game changed. Now it’s all about tablets, and phones are so 2009. Everyone is trying to come up with the “iPad killer” (and aren’t we already as fed up of that notion as we are about the perennial annual parade of “iPhone killer” launches?) Trouble is, it takes time for rivals to create an entirely new type of product – look how long it took Nokia, RIM and Microsoft to get into the position of finally having phones that could genuinely rival Apple’s iPhone, for example. Accelerating a product to market too fast can leave it looking very poor and under-developed, leading to user disappointment (no wonder the Samsung Galaxy Tab has such high return rates) and just reinforce the market leader’s dominance by giving them an aura of untouchable quality in the meantime.

Except for games consoles such as the Wii and Xbox Kinnect, Apple tends to dominate technology announcements these days, but even here there’s a sense of “is that it? what can we do now?” Last year’s iPad was certainly a triumph, but this year Apple are busy making merely incremental improvements year-on-year to their product line to keep the customers buying the next model. In their computer range, iPods, iPhone and even the iPad going forward there’s a distinct lack of any new big leap on the horizon and almost a sense that the changes that are being introduced are being done simply to differentiate the 2011 model from the 2010 and hence drive the upgrade sales. The really significant changes tend to be in things like underlying chipsets which, let’s be honest, means nothing to the ordinary punter on the high street – or even the majority of geeks.

Along with the iPad, last year’s Next Big Thing contender was possibly the freeing up of public sector data initially with data.gov.uk and the Cabinet Office transparency initiative, and this this year with the Public Data Corporation, but even here a sense of ennui and frustration has started to develop as people ask “Well, this is all very well, but what do we do with all this data?” The public sector is having the usual problems of getting the bureaucracy to release genuinely useful data from its stores, in a consistent and reusable format and not just a load of tables in PDF. As a result it seems that public data has already become part of the furniture and just something else to be griped about.

There’s no better example of this then this week’s launch of the www.police.uk site to allow people to look up details of crimes committed in their local area. A year ago such an initiative would have been greeted with unbridled delight, but this week it’s just been criticised for: a) being overwhelmed with demand and going down; b) not making the data available in a reusable format outside the site; c) that the site itself is poorly designed; d) that its functionality is limited and error-prone; and e) that it apparently cost in the region of £300,000 in order to ‘free’ this data. In other words, it’s being seen as an awful lot of money to allow people to have a quick voyeuristic look at their neighbourhood and then never make use of it again. It’s a shame that it seems to have no bigger idea, play no part in a wider communications strategy.

Looking through the rest of the technology headlines we see stories not about the Next Big Thing but about the day-to-day grind of technology reduced to glitches, consolidation and business haggles: rows about whether Apple disallowing various apps in its iOS App Store; will the iPad 2 have a retina display or not (and who cares about the incessant speculation anyway?); HTML5 vs Flash; legal issues about film sales in iTunes breaking copyright; an email bug on the Windows 7 phone and a browser flaw in IE; the running out of internet addresses in IPv4 format; Google accusing Microsoft of copying search results. And an awful lot of stories about governments increasingly barging in, from the UK government looking into how to block sites that infringe copyright to the Indian authorities looking set to ban Blackberrys because the makers (RIM) won’t allow the government to access users’ messages (in the name of terrorism prevention of course.)

There are stories about the slow build in Google Chrome usage stats to 10% (and iOS devices up to 2%); Facebook scrambling to fix an authentication flaw; a new tablet on the horizon (from LG); Amazon looking at film streaming (a concept that’s been with us for years but only now practical with increased broadband speeds and capacities); the slow death of Yahoo!; the rise of e-books at long last, after almost as long a build-up as the mythical Year of Mobile; various services being shut down by the BBC; perennial stories about the death of blogging, or the death of RSS, or the death of something else. And so on, and so on.

But if we’re honest, it’s all very dull and uninspiring: like watching something that was recently shiny, new and exciting suddenly start to age badly and look rather old and frail. “End of life”, as the technology retailers would phrase it. If everything’s wearing out, then what’s going to come next – or have we peaked and it’s all a gentle slump downhill from here? Is this the evidence of the chill that the dire economic situation and the age of austerity is having all round?

Maybe I’m missing something – or indeed allowing my own winter gloom to paint the scene in shades of grey – but nothing has been exciting me in the last few months in the way that I was in 2006 and 2007 when social media came onto the scene and started to change not just how we did things but indeed what we did. Perhaps this will simply prove to be just a dramatic pause before the triumphant appearance of the next giant leap forward; it’s just annoying that it’s taking so long to make itself known.

Still, we’ll keep watching the feeds for signs of intelligent life on the horizon.

About this time last year, I had a bit of a spasm on tech updates, which included opting for the then-brand new Magic Mouse – a mouse that did away with the scroll wheel and buttons and replaced it with a touch-sensitive surface instead. Initial reports were good, I had none of the feared ergonomics/RSI consequences from its slim, low-profile form factor that doubters had predicted.

Since then, the Magic Mouse has become somewhat eclipsed by the latest trendy young thing in Apple’s line-up, the Magic Trackpad. That basically extends the touch sensitive surface of the Magic Mouse to a flat slate surface, allowing Apple to introduce all the swiping and pinching gestures that have taken the mobile world by storm on the iPhone and and iPad.

I kind of should like the Magic Trackpad, and yet I find myself slightly non-plussed. The Magic Mouse by contrast may seem to be an awkward, slightly cludgy combination of old (mouse) and new (touch), but the fact is I like that compromise and it seems to me to be the best of both worlds. So I haven’t really seriously considered a Magic Trackpad and am happy with my current set-up.

Well – with one caveat. As reported in my Tech Update post, the Magic Mouse is greedy when it comes to batteries and certainly offers nothing close to the suggested 3 month life before expiring. Maybe I’m using it too much, or maybe I’m just not holding it the right way? No, wait, that’s a different Apple product …

In fact it’s not really all that bad in the grand scheme of things – I know some people with wireless/Bluetooth mice who are changing batteries every month. But something about having to buy batteries on a too-regular basis and feed them into hungry tech devices really irritates the heck out of me; especially when, as in the case of a mouse, I would be perfectly happy if it wasn’t wireless at all and was fed power by a nice USB cable like my old mouse was. But no, that would spoil the design of Apple’s beautiful Magic Mouse, wouldn’t it, so we can’t have a cable.

It actually irks me so much that periodically I’ll switch back to using the old Mighty Mouse with its gunged-up nipple scroll-wheel and its jumping optical tracking – until those get me so riled up that I remember why I got the new mouse in the first place and how much better it is. If not for those damn batteries …

Well, you can see what’s coming: the obvious direction to go in at this point is to say, “why not rechargeable batteries”? Quite so. And this week, as the low battery sign came on my Mac again, I was kicked into action to do just that.

Now it’s not like I haven’t had rechargeable batteries before now. But somehow I always manage to end up losing the recharger. It gets stuffed into a cupboard and never seen again, because it’s never exactly the nicest bit of electrical kit – it’s exactly the sort of thing that gets stuffed in that messy drawer with the leftover plugs and spare fuses. It’s not like a piece of Apple kit where even a laptop power supply or a remote control becomes a work of art that you practically want to put in a display case in the middle of your lounge to show off. If only Apple did a battery charger … But then, what could even Apple do with something so dull, utilitarian and long in the tooth as a battery recharger?

Informed readers will know what’s coming next: Apple have indeed recently brought out a battery charger. And it has brought the unmistakable hallmark of Apple design to it as well, looking for all the world like one of those gorgeous laptop power suppliers … but then in the hollowed-out back of the unit, there’s space to insert two batteries. (Only two? Why yes, because anything more wouldn’t fit, would be ugly and spoil the form factor, and we can’t have that!)

The unit comes with six rechargeable batteries in total and a nice bit of reasoning that two are for your wireless Magic Mouse or Trackpad, two more for your Apple Wireless Keyboard, and two on charge waiting to swap in. Go on, admit it – that level of insight (explaining why six and not four or eight which most battery packs come in) is somehow really, really effective and gives you a nice warm feeling somewhere deep inside that someone understands you and is looking out for you. The batteries aren’t Apple branded thankfully (that would be just too twee) but they’re silver and stylishly plain and there’s no question that they’re meant to stand proudly alongside every Apple iMac/mouse/keyboard/trackpad in the range.

You can of course get cheaper – much cheaper rechargers, but I don’t care – this is a unit that’s actually going to stay with me for years to come: I wouldn’t dare put it into an electrical odds-and-sods drawer and lose it.

Postscript

In fact the real downside of buying the Apple recharger at the Regent Street store is that little retail accidents can happen as a result. I somehow hadn’t allowed for the fact that the recharger would be on the shelves next to the Magic Trackpad and the Apple Wireless Keyboard. But they were – right in front of me as I picked up the item I came in for.

Now the trackpad still has very little appeal to me. And I have no interest in replacing my iMac keyboard with a wireless one. So on the face of it, this moment of temptation should have been easily overcome.

Except …

Whenever anyone asks me what I use my iPad for (stay with me here, I haven’t veered totally off-topic!) I invariably say that it’s a great consumer device for reading emails, tweets, RSS feeds, browsing, playing games, watching TV recordings; but that I never use it for content creation. I wouldn’t write this blog post on it, for example.

Why? Well, the on-screen touch-keyboard is fine for pecking out short message, but for anything longer I invariably start resting my fingers where I shouldn’t, or my fingers stray out of position, or brush somewhere they shouldn’t, and before I know it I have complete gobbledegook on the screen and have to start again. It’s frustrating enough to limit its use as a proper input/content creation device.

Dear reader, you can see what’s coming next: the idea of an Apple Wireless Keyboard that can be used to input into the iPad, right? Yup, that was all it took for me to swipe one of those keyboards form the shelves (and take directly to the checkout, he adds hurriedly, lest you think this is a tale of shoplifting!)

It’s a bit of a cliché these days to talk about “plug-and-play”, but it still impresses the hell out of me when I can turn a device on, activate Bluetooth on the iPad and select the device, type in an ID number as instructed on-screen … and the whole thing just works. Straight away. With no problems, nothing else to configure. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over how great such easy moments are.

So now I’m going to see whether that set-up allows me to start writing up motorsports reports during the race, without having to decamp to the computer; whether it will be a good set-up for using out of the home, at meetings and other places. I’ll report back in a while once I know more.

But in the meantime, an immediate impression of the Apple Wireless Keyboard: wow, it’s gorgeous. Incredibly slim, light, and yet at the same time solid and tough and hard wearing. It’s tiny and rather cute and yet completely full-sized as a keyboard should be. I remember the plastic, breakable keyboard on my old Powerbook G4 ten years ago, and compare it with this – the difference in build quality and attention to detail is something else. And I loved (and still love) that Powerbook G4.

Once again, then, Apple win and triumphantly extract more money from me. And once again, I not only don’t mind – I thank them for it. How do they manage this retail alchemy? If the rest of us knew we’d all be a lot better off.

So Apple have unveiled the most extensive revamp of their iPod range this week. And yet, despite being an Apple fanboi going way back (before iPads, iPhones, iPods or even iMacs) I find myself in an odd fugue state of indifference, topped off with the first early warning signs of anxiety about Apple’s direction and future.

Last year the company unveiled the fifth generation iPod nano, and I was so excited that I had bought one within a couple of days. Far from being a rash decision, I can happily say that I’ve used the nano virtually every day of the year since and certainly never regretted the purchase.

The new nano is the most far-reaching redesign in the 2010 iPod line-up revamp, changing it to a square touchscreen device that continues Apple’s strategy of progressively cascading the ‘touch’ paradigm through its line-up. The touchscreen is clearly the thing to have these days and anything else with physical buttons and sliders is starting to look a bit tired and old hat: users used to iPhones start prodding the screen and wondering why it’s not working, until they reload the old and dated way of doing things back into their brain. And there’s no doubt that the simple clickable scroll-wheel – so effective when first introduced – is now creaking under the weight of finding ways to access all the gazillion new features that have crept onto the iPod since its launch.

So the addition of touch technology brings a little of that Apple glamour and pizzazz back to the nano, and helps stop it being potentially overlooked in a crowded market. But the sixth generation nano’s touchscreen implementation seems a rather halfway house solution, because the screen – while looking at first glance like the iPod touch/iPhone iOS – is purely cosmetic. It doesn’t run iOS and can’t have apps added to it, so it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that doesn’t really hide the fact that its beauty is barely skin deep, and I suspect this limitation will disappoint as many people as the redesign will delight. In addition, the screen is now rather too small to easily navigate through lots of music, and the touchscreen makes it hard to use when out for a run or any other time you can’t stop, take out the nano to look at and fiddle with.

But the main reason I’m disappointed in the new nano is that it removes video capability. I’m not referring to the video camera/recording per se – I’ve not used that very often on my nano, but on the other hand it does nicely fit a gap in functionality on my old iPhone 3G phone – but I do find the removal of a much-touted fifth generation feature to be a somewhat retrograde step. No, my main complaint on video is that the new iPod nano can’t play video. At all. No more vodcasts, no more watching TV programmes recorded through my Elgato tuner (which I’ve gone a fair amount of over the year.) That’s a real drawback, actually a dealbreaker for me. Why remove that feature? Not being able to pack in the video camera hardware into the diminished casing I can understand, but how can the nano software suddenly lose the ability to play video after all this time?

At least the new nano retains its FM radio, which I was particularly excited about with the fifth generation last year. I actually feared that it, too, would be swept away by the change in physical form, so it’s nice to see it retained. It actually makes me surprised that the revamped iPod touch is singularly lacking an FM radio chip in its latest incarnation. Otherwise, the new iPod touch delivers everything that was expected – in particular the front-facing camera and the Facetime video conferencing capability. This was an absolute top priority for Apple, because establishing Facetime as a video conferencing standard needs it to be on more devices than simply the top-of-the-line iPhone 4, and so this iPod touch brings it “to the masses” – or at least as mass as it’s ever likely to get.

The one thing that surprises me with the iPod touch upgrade is that its appearance looks … Well, pretty much the same as the previous model. Apparently it’s a little thinner, but not by so much as you’d notice. That means the general overall aesthetic is still the same as the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and fairly close to the iPad. What it’s not like, however, is the iPhone 4, and that leaves the iPhone 4 looking like the odd one out: “one of these things is not like the other ones.” As a result, its sleek, metal, sharp-edged design looks rather un-Applelike against the carefully curved other models in the mobile range. Now it could be that Apple just wants the iPhone 4 to remain unique and special, or it could be that the iPhone 4 style simply doesn’t work well with an ultraslim physical form. But by leaving the iPhone 4 looking so different, it does raise the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already decided that it’s not the future of Apple’s mobile devices and that the iPhone 4 design has already been consigned to the “lame duck” category of history.

Because it’s true, Apple do make mistakes when it comes to product design: and you only have to look at the overhaul of the iPod shuffle to see this. The new model is fairly square, with buttons on its front face, while the previous model was longer and thinner with all the controls on the headphone lead. But look a generation back from that, and you’ll find that the 2008 shuffle is squarer, with buttons on its front face … Exactly like the 2010 model. Okay, the new model is thinner, and brings in the VoiceOver technology lacking from the 2008 model, but in all other respects this is one of the clearest examples yet we’ve had of Apple holdings its hands up and admitting “yeah, sorry about that 2009 model, it was a complete dog.”

Having the courage to own up and backtrack is actually quite laudable, but what’s missing here is that Apple seem to be completely out of ideas for what to do with the product than put it back to how it was before they broke it. A first sign of Apple’s design maestros running on empty? Or simply an illustration of how difficult even Apple finds it to deliver striking products to their usual dazzling standard at the low-cost end of the market?

You sense that Apple would love to just do away with the shuffle – that the new iPod nano touchscreen is really where they see this part of the market, being quite small enough (in fact – rather too small, especially for a touchscreen device). But the shuffle is a key part of Apple’s business strategy, its low price protecting the iPod range from the attacking hoards of budget MP3 players that are out there. In the same way, Apple clearly hate having to continue the iPod classic line and would love to get rid of it and have the iPod touch as the unchallenged king of the iPods, but they can’t – 128Gb RAM chips are proving elusive, and so the hard disc technology of the iPod classic is necessary for those music obsessives that need over 100Gb of storage on their device. But for the meantime the classic is a necessary evil, and so it sits in Apple’s product line-up, looking old and tired and neglected – just merely indispensable at the same time.

There were a few other launches at Apple’s September 1 event other than the refreshed iPod line-up: the next iPhone operating system, iOS 4.1, was announced – and top of the list was a fix for using it on the old iPhone 3G hardware. This (even more than antenna-gate, which was massively overhyped by blogs and media) has been a real black mark against Apple of late: when iOS 4.0 came out, the 3G was still part of the current iPhone range being sold by Apple. Even if that was only for a week overlap, there were still people buying a new phone on up to a 18 month contract who instantly could not use the current recommended OS for it without serious performance issues. It’s one thing to remove support and deprecate an out-of-date product, but to make a model obsolete while it’s still in your retail line-up is reprehensible.

There’s also the Apple TV, but outside the US this is rather hobbled by international licensing deals and consequently still feels like a dispensable sideline for Apple. What’s raised most eyebrows about Apple TV in the UK has been the price – the £99 matching the $99, the first time we’ve seen pound/dollar parity. The Apple TV seems a bit of a blip on Apple’s pricing, but other Apple prices are also skyrocketing (the new nano is about 25% more than the old one, for example) and even Apple seem to be getting a little uncomfortable about how this is coming across, carefully adding information to their UK Store pages detailing how much of that is down to sales taxes (VAT) and import duties. While it’s true that the pound has fared poorly on the money markets in the last year, and VAT will be going up to 20% in January, it’s still astonishing just how much Apple are hiking their prices, while all the other IT retailers are slashing prices to nothing (for example, under £300 for a laptop) – but then, Apple sales are exploding despite the price, so maybe it just shows that Apple know more about this than I do. Or indeed most economists do! Apple seem happy shooting for the premium crowd, where “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it” – but will this last or prove to be a bubble?

And there was also the launch of iTunes 10, the latest version of Apple’s media player/manager. Here’s a program that urgently needs a complete reboot – it’s got large, bloated, confusing and disorganised over the years as more and more demands and features have been foisted upon it. For a simple media player, the amount of system resources it hogs these days is astonishing. But instead of tackling all of this, Apple have simply landed it with another whole chunk of stuff to take care of – this time social networking via music, a network they call Ping. I can honestly say that another social network was not something I was thinking as being missing from my life, and while it’s been hailed as “the final nail in MySpace’s coffin” I can’t help but think this is far too little and far too late in the day to be getting into this game. Then again, I’d have said the same about Apple’s clearly doomed attempt to infiltrate the mature mobile phone market just before they launched the iPhone, so if anyone can pull off the impossible then it’s Apple.

However, there are a few things about iTunes 10 and Ping (other than feature-bloat) that make me scratch my head and worry that Apple are starting to falter at keeping all these plates spinning. Early users of Ping have been trying to set up user accounts … And finding that their avatar pictures don’t appear, until they have been “approved”. It’s Apple’s control tendencies showing again, mixed with the same puritanical streak that sees them censor anything remotely smutty or sleazy from the App Store. But having to get an avatar approved by the all-seeing Apple? Even for committed Apple fanbois this is surely a level of central control beyond a joke. And for everyone else, is this a network that you’d be happy joining? Apple clearly don’t have a grasp on social media or understand that it cannot be directed and controlled without killing it off. On just this one piece of early evidence, I have grave doubts Ping will ever make any impact and that it may quickly whither and die, much as its original foray into online communities, eWorld, similarly suffocated and died.

The other point about iTunes 10 is a very, very minor one: they’ve moved the three buttons for closing, minimising or expanding so that they now run vertically like traffic lights – instead of horizontally, as they appear on every other piece of software on the Mac OS. It’s a OS interface constant, a standard, so that everyone knows where the buttons are, what they do, how they work. And Apple have mucked around with this for no good apparent reason, but just because they felt like it. Interface designers know that you don’t monkey around with such things on a whim, so what are Apple playing at?

It is, as I have already admitted, a very minor detail. And yet there is something about it that seems telling to me, where such attention to small detail that used to be the defining characteristic of the company. And it’s in this and in the other parts of the iPod line-up covered in this article, either through highly uncharacteristic carelessness perhaps simply from being overstretched. The volume of output from Apple over the past few years has been astonishing, and we’re talking about a company a fraction of the size of Microsoft – which had been all but inert for years now, God alone knows what all those people are doing up in Seattle. Apple’s “start-up” size has worked for them over the years but now it might be catching up with them, the cracks showing as they take on more than they can carry, and as a result some of the plates can no longer be kept spinning: just look back at the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem, the early iPad wi-fi problems, the issues with iOS4, the fact that iWorks hasn’t had a major upgrade in two years, and then add the sense that the latest iterations of products frankly aren’t as interesting or innovative as we’re used to from Apple. Too much to do, too little time to allow for innovation and inspiration.

And also … I do wonder whether any of this might stem from Steve Job’s medical leave last year. There’s things here that I wouldn’t have expected Jobs to let go through if he’d been in charge at the time, little slips that would have had him been in a rage and demanding to fix. Maybe the experience has changed him, and that infuriating, dynamic, demanding, contrary, driving, unique, charismatic dynamo at the heart of Apple is no longer the force it was. And if Apple’s core starts to falter, then will Apple itself decline and fall in turn?

Or perhaps this is just a simple blip, and all will be well with the Applesphere next time around. Let’s hope.

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon.com put out a press release revealing that e-book sales now top those of hardback books in the US. It called this a “tipping point”, but to be honest it was more a case of being a nice hook on which to hang a bit of PR. After all, who really buys hardbacks anymore? I actively hate and loathe hardbacks for fiction books and avoid them at all costs. What really will be a major moment in this history of publishing will be when e-books outsell paperbacks – and Amazon reckon that will come as soon as 2011.

As it turns out, the original press release was simply the opening salvo in a big product launch by Amazon – a new-model Kindle e-book reader was announced last week so it’s no surprise that the company had been talking up e-books. The significance of the new Kindle isn’t just the usual collection of faster/better/much cheaper, but also that the device will be on sale outside the US for the first time – customers in the UK will be able to buy direct from Amazon.co.uk rather than having it shipped over. Clearly, Amazon are looking at the recent launch of the iPad and concluding their window of opportunity to establish the Kindle as the international e-book standard is closing fast and they have to get a move on to hold off Apple from taking over.

By coincidence, the day the first Amazon press release came on the day that I paid for an e-book for the very first time. I’d downloaded free ones before (all the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, are public domain now) but this was the first time I’d actually paid out good money for a modern title. I’d been put off before this by scepticism – would I actually read an e-book, or would it languish unread? (Why should it be any different from the piles of dozens of unread physical books, after all?!) I’ve seen a few people on the train using e-book (usually the Sony e-Reader which is the main one that can be bought from high street shops in the UK) but never felt they had much appeal for me – certainly not enough to get me to shell out hundreds of pounds for the device itself.

It took a very particular set of circumstances to get me to overcome my reluctance to go virtual when it came to books. Specifically, the book I was interested in wasn’t actually in print in the UK until next year, but was available now for downloading via the likes of Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s own Kindle platform. While I don’t have a Kindle device, Amazon have very cleverly developed a range of applications that put the Kindle reader onto many different platforms – iPhones, iPads, PCs and Macs. That gave me a certain reassurance about not being too tied to a specific device in order to still be able to read and access any book I’d bought. It’s back to the early days of music downloads: would MP3 sales have taken off if you could only play the file on one specific player and if the manufacturer stopped making it then tough luck – the books were gone too?

So I ended up going for the Kindle version. the main reason being that I wanted to be able to read during my daily commute to work. I don’t take my iPad into the office on a regular basis but I do take my iPhone – but it’s a 3G which doesn’t play well with the new iOS4 required to run iBooks. The Kindle iPhone app, on the other hand, works just fine on the old 3G and old operating system.

There were other factors that persuaded me to go Kindle as well. Some time ago, some very generous relations of mine gave me a sizeable gift token for Amazon.com; but since it was not transferable to the UK store, it’s actually proved oddly difficult to use up. I don’t have a multiregion DVD player, so they’re out; books and CDs are costly and slow to have shipped over; MP3 downloads are restricted to the US only. But it turned out that not only are Kindle books available from Amazon.com for download in the UK, you actually have to download them through the US store – at least until the end of August, when the Kindle goes international and the UK store commences its own Kindle edition e-book sales. That gift certificate suddenly became a little gold mine!

So the book (just a trashy summer action thriller, nothing high brow) was bought and downloaded within a minute – it’s really amazingly satisfying to be able to start reading a book just seconds after having decided to buy it. And then we arrived the moment of truth – would I actually carry on reading the book, or would it be a novelty quickly forgotten?

I’m actually surprised by the answer: I’m reading, and quite regularly. I’m near finished the book, and in about my normal reading time for a book of that size and type. I’ve not found it a strain reading from the screen: that’s mostly been on the iPad where a page is roughly the same size and layout as a printed book, but the iPhone has proved remarkably easy as well despite my initial doubts about the small size of the screen. I love how the Kindle software will automatically sync the book, so wherever I get up to is automatically bookmarked and offered to me as the point to read from on the other device.

Some people find they get eye-strain reading on backlit screens, but I’ve not had any problem or even really thought about it – I turn the iPad to low brightness and use the sepia colour scheme which works just fine. (The physical Kindle device, on the other hand, uses a monochrome “e-ink” system which doesn’t use backlighting and instead more closely simulates the ink-on-page of regular books.) The physical Kindle seems to be often criticised for slow page turn speeds, but on the iPad and iPhone these are quick, responsive and nicely animated.

Overall, I’m amazed how quickly the novelty wears off and you’re quickly just ‘reading a book’ and the medium doesn’t matter, but that’s something the iPad is very good at doing – disappearing into the background and letting the content take centre stage. I’m so comfortable with this set-up already that I’ve bought the sequel to the book I’m currently reading, and another as well by an author whose new detective novels I always buy when they come out in paperback. Now, instead of waiting, I have the e-book.

I’m so impressed that I’m actually mildly considering buying a physical Kindle device when they finally land in the UK at the end of August, just to try out the experience and see whether it’s different/better than the Kindle apps on the iPad and iPhone – and to see if it makes any difference to my commute.

About the only remaining frustration with e-books is if you want to read near water – say, in the bath. How are you going to feel about your pricey e-book reader coming anywhere close to liquid? So if I’m looking for a relaxing soak in the bath then it’s back to fishing out an alternate paperback from the shelf rather than carrying on with the e-book. It’s not much of an advantage, but it definitely is one – the paperback isn’t quite dead yet and still has a couple of advantages all its own!





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