Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Price of Security

My Paypal football broke today.

This device gives you two-factor authentication by generating a six-digit number for logging into Paypal.

This is a good thing.

The device costs $5, and fits on a keychain.

This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, PayPal appear to have discontinued them, and they no longer sell them. Instead, they now sell a credit-card-format device that costs $30

This is NOT a good thing.

So now I am back to a plain old password (which I have strengthened, in case you were wondering).

Thanks a lot, PayPal.

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Jobsless

It has been two weeks since Steve Jobs passed away.

In that time, I have seen the full spectrum of coverage, ranging all the way from the sycophantic (“steve-jobs-is-god-however-will-we-live-without-him?”) to the cynical (“steve-jobs-was-a-robber-baron-who-got-rich-by-exploiting-the-poor-and-I’m-glad-he’s-dead”).

The truth, as always, lies in between. As the heart and soul of Apple, he embodied the best and worst of the country.

  • He co-founded a company that went on to become a major player in the computer industry. Then he was thrown out by the very managers he bought aboard to mind the store.
  • But he didn’t stay down. During his twelve years in the wilderness, he nurtured two small companies. He then staged one of the the greatest comebacks in business history; Apple was in such poor shape that Michael Dell advised him to shut the company down and give the money back to the shareholders. Steve did not, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Remember those two small companies that I mentioned earlier? They were called NeXT and Pixar. NeXT went on to become the basis of a new generation of Apple products, while the sale of Pixar to Disney made Steve the biggest single shareholders of the Walt Disney Company — and one of the richest men on the planet.
  • As some have pointed out, he did not believe in corporate charity, preferring to leave that decision to the individual. I agree with him — giving away the company’s (shareholders’) profits is neither good stewardship nor good business. Let people give to the causes that they are passionate about.
  • He was a fan of the Beatles, saying “They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people.” And yet he lived has life as first among equals, wanting things done his way.
  • And he was not above pissing his idols off: first he created a company shared it name with the Fab Four’s music company. Then he pacified them by agreeing to stay out of the music business. Then he went back on his word, which is why their music was not available on iTunes until late 2010.
  • Apple was noteworthy for designing products here (in Cupertino), but manufacturing thm overseas under less-than-humane conditions. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that a US-made iPad would cost over a thousand dollars.
  • At his heart, Steve was a visionary; good at spotting trends (for years he refused to allow Apple to make a tablet until the technology and usability were good enough for him), he set the direction for a company that makes beautiful, functional devices that… just… work.
  • And he marketed them to those who were willing to pay a heavy premium for usability, pose value and fashion.
  • And he kept them on an upgrade treadmill by releasing newer version once or twice a year.
  • Which made Apple a fabulously profitable company.

In the end, all his money could not add another day to his life, and he died at the age of 56.

In my opinion, he is gone too soon.

Why I love — and hate — the Kindle

I recently purchased a Kindle for Her Ladyship. Stop sniggering in the back, you — it wasn’t a trade! I picked up a third-Gen Wi-Fi+3G Kindle from a seller on Craigslist for $75 as a surprise for her.

I am no stranger to e-books; I have been reading them since 1991; first on a variety of Psion PDAs, then on a collection of Palm machines, and more recently on Her Ladyship’s iPod and my new Android phone. On the last two machines I have been able to install Kindle Apps. Both work well, but the screens are too small for extended reading, and she, understandably, never really got into them.

The Kindle, however, is another matter. It is the first dedicated e-book reader that I have ever bought. She loves it; she says that the display is easier on the eyes than paper. She takes it with her when she goes out if she thinks that she will waiting around for any length of time. The sight of her sitting up in bed wearing her cute li’l “librarian” glasses and reading on her Kindle has become a common one.

We have downloaded plenty of free classics, that she is wading through at an accelerated rate of knots; she is currently in the middle of Paul Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; the original version written in seventeenth-century English; just one of the many free books that I have downloaded from the Kindle store.

What we have not done, however, is purchase any full-priced e-books from the Kindle store. Nor do I plan to. And this the underbelly of the Kindle. The e-books are too damned expensive.

Those who work in the publishing industry will no doubt disagree with me, saying that e-books represent a great value proposition, giving me convenience and portability at a reasonable price. I cannot agree; to my mind, they are charging me more while offering me less.

To understand why I feel this way, you need to examine the publishing industry; how it has worked in the past, how it is changing and where it is headed. Just like the music industry, the publishing industry has become so fixated on the medium that it has been left flat-footed when that medium changed beneath its feet. As a result, it is now trying to make the new model fit into the old one that they know and love.

Historically, the book publishing industry has had the Writer at one end, the Reader at the other, and the Publisher in the middle. Scattered elsewhere along this continuum are various other parties, including a printer, a seller and various wholesalers and a bunch of other folks whose livelihood revolves around moving the product between the major players and marketing them to the consumer.

Then along came outfits like Amazon with their e-readers and their e-books, their websites and their networks. This represents the Trump of doom to the publishers. And so began the battle for the middle ground. Amazon and their ilk represent a serious threat to the publishing industry; a writer who self-publishes on Amazon can sidestep the publisher entirely and go straight to e-publishing.

Last year’s very public spat betweeen Amazon and MacMillan shows how serious this battle has become. The real issue here is about who sets the price of the books; Amazon, whose focus is selling more Kindles, wants cheap books — while the publishers, who represent the established way of doing things — want higher prices, particularly for the new “hot” titles.

What we are seeing is a battle between the old bosses (the publishers) and the new ones (the web distributors). The former are used to selling lovingly-crafted books, while the latter pass around blobs of data. That battle will not be pretty.

My fundamental problem is this: When I buy a physical book, I can read it, resell it. lend it out, give away or use it as a firelighter. When I buy an e-book, I am acquiring a blob of data whose ownership is always in doubt —  in the past, Amazon can, and has, remotely removed books from Kindles, which renders the entire concept of “ownership” moot. For me that outweighs the convenience of electronic publication. This has a strong influence on the value proposition.

To me, an e-book that costs more than about $5 is overpriced. By way of proof, I point to games. A simple PC game typically costs $10-50. But a typical game on an iPhone or Android phone ranges from $1 to $3. The reason that they can do this is in the numbers; a phone game sells millions. As books move towards massive distribution, prices must come down. Like their cousins in the music and movie industries, the book publishing industry will oppose such measures tooth-and-mail.

Bottom line: Until they price ebooks at less than the cost of a paperback, they will get very little money out of me.