The Bridge to the Everything Store: An Epilogue

Damages were paid today to many, many people in the aftermath of the Apple iBooks price fixing case. Paid, specifically, to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon customers, those whom the government determined to have been harmed by Apple’s collusion with the publishing industry to keep ebook prices high.

$400 million was awarded to customers. About twenty-five of those 400 million were given to me in the form of Amazon credit. Credit I could not use, of course, because a little over a year ago Amazon exiled me for “excessive returns.” I had made several heartfelt entreaties in those days, but was each time denied. I was banished.

Being legally owed today’s settlement credit, but unable to do anything with it, I decided to ask Amazon what should be done. I suggested they might just cut me a check, and if not, I would next ask if they could simply award it to my wife (who got a way bigger credit than me, but whatever). Of course, I also suggested that they might just reinstate me.

Here’s part of the response I got back.

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And that was that. All my sins forgiven, and even an apology given to me for “any inconvenience.”

I am once again welcome to roam the virtual aisles of the Everything Store. Wiser, more cautious, but welcome.

Perhaps this has something to do with the political climate. Perhaps Jeff Bezos, who loathes Donald Trump, wishes as Hillary Clinton does to build bridges, not walls. Or perhaps this was Amazon being in a celebratory mood over their moral victory over the behemoth Apple. Whatever the reason, it’s good to be back.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some heavy Wish List maintenance to attend to.

The Best Way to Buy and Sell Phones: Swappa

Let’s say you want to sell your used phone. Most ads you hear on podcasts will tell you to use Gazelle, and that’s fine. But you won’t get as much money for your device as you would if you sold it yourself.
Let’s say you want to buy a used phone, either an older phone you can get for cheap or a newer device for less than something fresh from the manufacturer (or carrier store). You could go to eBay, but that’s very noisy and can be kind of shady.

You could go to Amazon, of course, for either of these things. I can’t, but you could.

But if you don’t want to go the route of Amazon or eBay or Gazelle, I think the best way to go is through a website I found called Swappa.

swappa_seal_200x176The idea behind Swappa is dead simple. People who want a device buy it directly from the person selling it. Swappa sets up a sales template for each item, asks for certain information about your device, and has you post pictures (along with an identifying code so a buyer can be sure the images are legitimate). The usual drill.

The cool thing is that there’s no worrying about what huge percentage a company like eBay or Amazon will take out of the sale. If you’re a buyer, you don’t have to worry about the markup. Swappa charges an extra $10 on top of every sale, and that’s it. The end. If the seller sets a price of $200 for their device, Swappa adds $10, and displays a price of $210 for the buyer. That’s it. Since these are usually fairly expensive items, Swappa presumes that sellers pay their own shipping, which of course can simply be factored into the price they’ve come up with.

And it’s remarkable what better deals you can get as a buyer, and how much simpler and fairer it is for sellers. I’ve bought and sold a number of devices on Swappa as I’ve gone through my great journey of phone-trials, and it’s been excellent every time. My only issue has been when a phone arrived with a single dead pixel, and I was able to come to a very fair agreement with the seller. Because you’re dealing with a single human being with no corporate barriers between you, you can make things work on a case-by-case basis.

Typical Swappa listing

It’s easy to find exactly what you want. You can browse by carrier or manufacturer of course, but you can also get very granular. If you are only interested in, say, a mint condition or better Moto X, unlocked, with a white back, a red front, and 64 gigabytes of storage, it’s easy to specify that with a few clicks. You can even subscribe to your wished-for item and get alerted every time a new one comes on the site. Yes, I have found browsing this site a little addictive.

(There’s another part of the site called the Boneyard, which I haven’t used, which is specifically for phones that might have some kind of problem, either straight-up broken or simply having a problem with the carrier. I can’t speak to it from experience.)

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So how do you know you can trust these sellers? Swappa of course has its own rating system, where buyers rate sellers on the usual criteria. But you can also link your Swappa account to your eBay seller account so that a buyer can see how trustworthy you’ve been on eBay. In other words, you get to bring your online-seller resume with you to Swappa. PayPal, the only means of paying for things on Swappa, has built-in buyer protections, and Swappa support pounces to address any issues that might arise. It’s been great, and almost entirely worry-free.

Even if I weren’t banished from Amazon, I’d be using Swappa for all my used device transactions (and new ones, for that matter, for often brand new items are for sale). It’s simpler, it’s fairer, and it’s just a little more human.

2014’s Paradigm Shifts in Tech

Technology is all about change, and rapid change at that. But even with the pace of technological development being dizzyingly fast, there are still larger paradigms, grander assumptions and codes of conventional wisdom, that are more or less static. In 2014, though, a lot of those paradigms shifted, and many of our preconceptions and understandings were altered, enlightened, or totally overturned. Here’s a short list of some of those paradigm shifts in tech in 2014.

Microsoft the Scrappy Upstart


In another age, Microsoft was the Borg, the unstoppable and loathed behemoth that destroyed all in its path. Then, sometime in the middle-to-late twenty-aughts, it became the ridiculous giant, releasing silly products, failing to even approach the hipness caché of its once-defeated rival Apple, and headed by a boorish clown prince. Zunes? Windows Vista? The Kin smartphone? Windows 8? “Scroogled”? Each risible in its own way.

And then Microsoft got a new boss, and Satya Nadella’s ascent immediately changed the public perception of the company, especially among the tech punditocracy. The products still weren’t fantastic (Windows 8.1, Surface Pro 3), but the company began to emphasize its role as a service provider, ubiquitous not in terms of desktop machines, but in terms of the various services through which all manner of machines and OSes did their work. Think OneNote, Office 360 on iPad and Android, Azure, and OneDrive. The tide had turned, and now as Google and Apple (and Facebook and Amazon) battled for supremacy, Microsoft would simply work with anyone.

To get a strong sense of the change in attitude toward Microsoft, listen to prime-Apple-blogger John Gruber’s interview of Microsoft beat reporter Ed Bott on The Talk Show early this year, recorded at a Microsoft conference, at which Gruber was featured as a marquee user of Microsoft services. Gruber and Bott were full of hope and admiration for the old Borg, which would have been unthinkable even five years ago. It is a new day indeed.

“I Was into Big Phones Before it Was Cool”


When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note in 2011, it was ridiculed for being absurdly huge, as though anyone who bought one should be embarrassed about it. Today, the original Galaxy Note would be considered “medium sized” compared to today’s flagship phones, almost all of which have displays over 5 inches. Meanwhile, even larger phablets are objects of high desire and status, such as the Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus. “Mini” phones (the 4.7-inch HTC One Mini, for example) are those with displays bigger than the biggest displays offered by Apple as recently as 2013, which topped out at 4 inches.

No longer silly, phablets are now considered high-productivity machines, the mark of a busy, engaged technophile, and are perceived to be eating well into the tablet market. (They’re still too big for me, but even I could be turned.) Big phones are now just phones.

Podcast Inception

At some point in 2014, it was decided that everyone in tech must have a podcast. If you worked for a tech site, you had a podcast (like me!). If you worked at a tech company, you had a podcast. If you’d just lost your tech job, your new tech job was to have a podcast. And on those podcasts, they woud have as guests and co-hosts who also had podcasts, because, of course, everyone had a podcast. On those podcasts, they would talk to their fellow podcasts hosts about podcasts, making podcasts, the future of podcasts, the monetization of podcasts, and podcast apps.

I predict that sometime in the middle of 2015, there will be a Podcast Singularity which will swallow up all tech podcasts into an infinitely dense pundit which will consider how this will affect the podcast industry, and will be sponsored by Squarespace.

Amazon’s Weird Hardware

Amazon was on a roll. The Kindle had proven itself to be an excellent piece of hardware years ago, and solidified this position with the magnificent Paperwhite in 2012. In 2013, its Fire tablets had become genuinely high-quality devices that were well-suited to most of the things anyone would want a tablet for, with strong builds, good performance, and beautiful screens. It seemed like Amazon was a serious hardware company now.

Then it released the Fire Phone, and everyone got a queasy feeling in their stomachs. A half-baked, gimmicky device that was incredibly overpriced, it landed with a thud, and Amazon continues to slash its price to clear out its inventory. (People really like the Kindle Voyage, I should note, and the Fire TV has been much better received as a set-top box, though my own experience with the Fire TV Stick was very poor.)

And then they awkwardly previewed the Amazon Echo, the weird cylinder that caters to the dumb informational needs of a creepy family, and the head-scratching turned to scalp-scraping. Amazon’s status as a serious hardware maker was no longer a given.

The Revolution Will Not Be Tablet-Optimized


The iPad was going to be the PC for everyone. Most people would not even bother with a computer with a monitor and a keyboard, they’d just get a tablet, and that’d be it. PCs would be for professionals in specific situations that required a lot of power and peripherals. For the rest of humanity, it would be tablets all the way down.

Of course, now we know that in 2014, tablet growth has slowed, and few people use their tablets as their primary computing device. Instead, they’re causual devices for reading, browsing, and watching video. Despite the niche cases heralded in Apple’s “Verse” ads, on the whole, tablets have become the kick-back magazines of the gadget world.

That’s fine! I’ve written before that iPads/tablets are “zen devices of choice,” the computer you use when you don’t have to be using a computer, unlike smartphones and PCs which are “required” for work and day-to-day business.

The shift this year is the realization that tablets are (probably) not going to take over the PC landscape, especially as phones get bigger, and laptops get cheaper and sleeker. Could there be any better argument against an iPad-as-PC-replacement than Apple’s own 11″ MacBook Air? Even Microsoft, which once positioned its Surface machines as iPad replacements now markets them as MacBook competitors. Why? Because tablets just don’t matter that much, they’re more for fun, and the Surface is for serious business.

Forcing the tablet to be a PC has proven so far to be awkward and hacky, and PCs themselves are better than ever. The iPad revolution may never be. Which, again, is fine, but in 2014, we realized it.

(And relatedly, e-readers aren’t dead!)

The Souring of Twitter


Twitter hasn’t always made the best decisions, and sometimes even its staunchest defenders have had to wonder what the company really wants to make of its crucial service. But to my mind, in 2014 the overall feeling toward Twitter has tipped from reluctant embrace to general disapproval. It’s gotten worse on privacy, it’s been MIA or unhelpful in handling abuse and harassment, and it’s began to seriously monkey with what makes Twitter Twitter. And more and more, I read pieces about once-avid Twitterers saying just how miserable the torrent of negativity makes people feel. Once the underdog to Facebook that all those in the know called home, it now looks like a hapless, heartless, clueless company that has no idea how good of a thing it has.

You Have Died of Ethics in Games Journalism


Tech has always been a boy’s club, but in 2014, a lot of the industry decided it shouldn’t be anymore. As more and more instances of harassment, abuse, sexism, and overt misogyny were exposed – in the wider tech industry and in gaming particularly – the more people stood up to declare the status quo unacceptable. A wider embrace of inclusiveness and encouragement of women in tech emerged, along with, of course, a counter-reaction of hatred and attacks from those who liked things as they were.

2014 forced the tech universe to confront some very, very ugly things about itself. But it will likely prove a net win, as more of us work to fix it than don’t.

(I have this shirt with the above image, and it’s here.)

Google’s Glass Jaw

In 2013, Google Glass was the future, the way all things tech would soon be. In 2014, no one wears them, a consumer version seems to remain a fuzzy concept, and even those who were breathlessly enthusiastic about it have felt their novelty wane. The tech punditocracy is now waking up from its Google Glass hangover, and they’re all a little embarrassed.

Now, of course, we’re all excited about watches. It remains to be seen what we feel like the next morning.

Amazon Puts the Eye of Sauron in Your House

Amazon just announced a weird cylindrical thing called Echo that you talk to in your house. Here’s their awkward ad.

Here are some of my knee-jerk responses to this.

On the device:

In the short term, it looks ridiculous. A big fat cylinder that resembles an air purifier or an ashtray that does what your smartphone already does, which is always with you. The very fact that you use your smartphone to set it up and tinker with it spells out how redundant this seems. Yes, there are kids who don’t have smartphones (one hopes) who might like to talk to the Echo, but it doesn’t seem to me to justify a standalone device.

In the long term, I get it. This a step toward the Star Trek Enterprise-computer, the personification of our homes. This is certainly where things are headed, and it remains an open question as to whether the computing power of that entity will be in our pockets, on our wrists, or in a standalone device.

At first blush, I don’t immediately see any reason for almost anyone to buy this. But soon we’ll all be using something like it. Amazon wants to have its Eye-and-Mouth-of-Sauron in your house before Siri or Android get there.

(By the way, I asked my 4-year-old boy to name the Siri-like Google Now voice on my phone, and he immediately said, “Hershey!” Perfect, right?)

On the ad:

It’s terrible. It’s like a parody of an ad for an embarrassing product. SNL’s “The Love Toilet” seemed more sincere and practical. I can’t believe how 1950s this family is. Dad makes the decisions, wants the news, asks questions about mountains. Mom cooks and doesn’t understand the technology. And dad also seems like kind of a condescending jerk.

All in all, strange, strange times, my friends. Or, as Chris Hutton said on Twitter, “Amazon: first company to sell you the mics they use to listen to you.”

The Less-Than Doomed E-reader

Image by Shutterstock.

I’ve been seeing more and more writing lately about the allegedly imminent death of standalone e-readers (and really, Kindles, because no one is buying Nooks or Kobos). It seems that sales of the devices year over year have been trending downward, spurring many to wonder if the entire category is in its death throes.

But as I noted in 2012, e-readers aren’t as perishable as the more rapidly-changing category of phones and tablets. I wrote:

Think about your TV set. If you’ve bought one in the past eight years or so, you probably have a perfectly good flat-screen LCD or plasma HDTV set that you have no reason to upgrade, unless you’re dying for a bigger screen than you have. But chances are the change in the performance of the device itself is not something you’re probably even thinking about.

I think this is what it’s like for Kindles and the like. You use your TV to watch video content, and that’s about it. Very little has changed fundamentally in recent years to compel frequent upgrades. Likewise with e-readers: you’re buying one to read books, and that’s, again, about it. … My wife has a Kindle 2 from 2009, and isn’t the least bit interested in upgrading. She loves it.

(I should note, she only this past week upgraded to a Kindle Paperwhite, but she had her original Kindle for five years. Almost no one keeps a smartphone for five years.)

Todd Wasserman at Mashable recently made this same point:

Unlike smartphones or tablets, e-reader models don’t really evolve, so there’s no need to upgrade. A Kindle you bought in 2011 is pretty much the same as the one you’d buy in 2014. [And] if you own a tablet, a single-function e-reader is also a luxury.

Interestingly, a few months ago I sold my own Kindle because I was reading so much on my iPad. And now I regret it, so presuming I can scrape together the scratch, I’ll eventually be in the market for a new one again.

Kevin Roose echoes the idea of the Kindle as an unnecessary luxury, writing, “The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around.” But I think that’s overthinking it. Kindles are too small and light for the word “lug” to apply to their transport. But there’s no denying that the pressure to buy an additional device that largely mimics the functionality of something you already have (presumably a high-resolution tablet or large, hi-res phone) is something most folks can do without. Especially for those who aren’t voracious readers.

Roose also understands why smartphones and tablets don’t quite cut it for devoted book readers:

[T]here’s no getting around the fact that smartphones aren’t designed for focused, sustained reading. … [They] breed short attention spans. On a phone or a multi-function tablet, e-books have to compete for attention with Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds, and everything else you do. It’s the difference between watching TV intently, and watching TV while folding laundry, talking on the phone, and doing the crossword puzzle.

All of this leads me to think that e-readers are not doomed, but that they’re going to cease to be an explosive category of mass market technology. Instead, I think we’ll see them continue to be honed and improved for a slightly niche market of frequent book consumers. And since they don’t require frequent upgrades on par with phones, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see two general categories of e-reader devices:

  1. Free or nearly-free commodity e-readers that Amazon may just give away to Prime subscribers, for example, because they encourage e-book purchasing, and
  2. High-end “luxury” e-readers (like the Paperwhite) with advanced, ever-more-readable e-ink screens, improved lighting, and premium builds.

And that would be fine! Amazon alone could sustain that kind of market, and even other companies like Kobo could carve out their own corner of the market with their own takes on the luxury e-reader.

So while the adoption of e-readers may be flattening out, I think the device category itself isn’t going anywhere. You just may have to pop your head into coffee shops and libraries to find them in the wild.

Amazon, Kobo, and Sony: I Hope You’re Just Being Weasels

Amazon, Kobo, and Sony are lobbying the FCC not to consider e-readers as the same product category as tablets and other computers, in order to be exempt from certain disability-related regulations. From The Verge, “[A]s it would detract from the core experience and push up the price.”

To further enhance its argument, the coalition says many Americans are now choosing to own both a tablet and an e-reader and that the differences between them are widely understood.

I’m not so sure this is a hot idea.  

(And to be clear, I’m not addressing the importance of accessibility for the purposes of this post, which is a whole other thing, and of course they should just suck it up and make their devices usable for everyone because humanity.) 

For one thing, I have no idea what exactly would have to change on these devices to make them compliant, but I seriously doubt it would even be noticed by consumers who didn’t need or weren’t looking for those features (ask an average user if they know where the accessibility features are on the iPad). I suppose it’s possible we’re talking about some fundamental hardware differences, but since iPads seem to be in no trouble of being altered, I don’t think that’s it. Chances are that these guys have determined that whatever it takes to get these things “up to code” would cost more in time and resources than just lobbying to wriggle out of it would.  

But in the bigger picture as far as the products themselves are concerned, I’m surprised that these companies would want to draw such a definitive line between e-reader and tablet. In making the argument based on the fact “that e-readers do not feature LCD screens, a camera, or ship with built-in email and instant messaging apps like iOS or Android tablets,” it sounds to me like a declaration that the evolution of this product category is over.  Already!

As much as I love having a dedicated, doesn’t-do-much-else reading device — mine in the amazing Kindle Paperwhite (with more here) — I would also be thrilled if it had basic, bare-bones functionality for things like email, Twitter, and reading-based apps like Instapaper. The “experimental” browser on the Kindle is close to basic usability, though it’s still a little too limited to be a go-to tool. Nonetheless, the option to hop into less graphics-intensive operations like tweets and email would be a welcome addition to a premium touchscreen e-reader. I keep hoping this will happen. 

But according to the logic of these companies trying to weasel out of some regulations, this can’t happen. I hope this isn’t really where they see the future of these devices. I honestly can’t imagine it is. 

Apple, Amazon, and the Battle for Mindshare

Horace Dediu compares popular perceptions of Apple and Amazon:

Whereas Apple is perpetually given an expected lifespan of less than a decade, Amazon is expected to have an indefinite lifespan. This is because Amazon is seen as having no competition and Apple is seen as having infinite competition. In other words, Amazon is perceived as a monopoly and Apple is perceived as the innovator that is in a permanent state of being disrupted by the low end.

I think these perceptions are largely correct, and not because I think “Apple is doomed” or for some other click-baity nonsense.

Each company relies on its brand occupying a significant tract of mindshare in the consumer psyche. But while both companies may have overlapping territory they’d both like to claim, largely their domains are remote.

So, to game out prospective lifespans for these companies, you have to think about what might cut those lives short (or shorter, anyway), what might cause them to lose ground in the battle for mindshare. The big difference between to the two to me centers on what it is each company is understood by the consuming public to make or provide.

Apple is primarily a hardware/device company, though one that also provides services and content to augment that hardware’s value. Apple’s considerable mindshare could hypothetically be erased by the simple fact that hardware products wear out, new devices need to be purchased, or new categories of hardware can emerge. When that happens, gadgets made by other companies may pop up with lower prices, more compelling features, superior design (I said it was hypothetical), etc. With each device cycle, Apple is potentially vulnerable to losing ground. That’s not to say it’s likely or imminent (and certainly not “less than a decade”), but the threat is real and ever-present.

Amazon’s mindshare is, because of its foundation in a service, has the potential to be far more resilient. Amazon benefits from the simple fact that when people want to shop online, they think of essentially one brand. When they think of price comparisons, they think Amazon. When they think delivery, they think Amazon. And when they think of entire product categories like media and electronics, they think of Amazon. This has been the case for years, and there’s no sign of any other company challenging this state of affairs. And as more and more time passes with this as the status quo, it will become only more entrenched. Perhaps another outlet will begin to compete on price, or another on delivery times. But then they’d still have to catch up on selection, ease of use, content synchronization, and myriad other factors before they even began to catch up psychically. In the battle for mindshare, Amazon is very, very safe.

It feels unfair, particularly to followers of The Steve (peace be upon him), to talk about the steely Apple in such (relatively) precarious terms in comparison to the cacophanous Amazon. But it’s just a reflection of the fact that one company sells stuff, and the other makes stuff. More or less.

Additional Thoughts on the Kindle Paperwhite

I posted some initial thoughts about my first couple of hours with the Kindle Papaerwhite a few days ago, and after some more substantial use, I have a few additional thoughts on what I think is an important device.

First, the hardware really does feel good to hold. The finish of the back feels different from the finish of the bezel, and they feel very different from the texture of the screen (a papery matte finish, almost, yes, pulpy), and all feel just right.

It’s just — just! — on the border of being a touch heavier than it ought to be, especially in comparison to the vanilla Kindle 4, which delightfully, is barely there. But this means that the magnetic cover makes it just a smidgen more awkward to hold in one hand than would be utterly idea, but we’re in ultra-micro-femto-nit-picky territory here. That said, the Amazon-made cover is itself really excellent. It wakes and puts to sleep the device, and feels sturdy and, well, classy.

I also mentioned the “blotchiness” of the screen light that appears at the very, very bottom. It is a touch distracting, just barely, but I’ve found I find it less annoying when I change my thinking from “this is a disembodied screen illumination” to “the light emits from the bottom so that’s why there are sight shadows,” it somehow mitigates how much it bothers me. Again, very small stuff.

Most importantly, I’ve found a way to make the most of the higher resolution of the new display and the new menu of fonts. I noted in my first post that though Amazon was offering additional typefaces, they seemed to me to look blocky and sloppy, unlike the much-improved default font. Turns out the real problem is the frequency of page-refreshes for the e-ink. The default setting for the later-generation Kindles is to only do a complete screen refresh (see the screen go black for a split second as every pixel refreshes) every six pages. Though I suppose this speeds up page turns and removes what some see as a distracting black-flash for five out of six pages, it also compromises the integrity of the lettering on the non-refreshed pages. The characters look, well, pixelated and craggy.

By going to the device’s settings and turning off the option for a delay on the full refresh, what you get is, yes, a quick flash of black with each page turn, but also a huge improvement in the resolution of the typefaces, and, more importantly, a huge improvement in the consistency of the typefaces’ quality with each page. No more degradation. Suddenly, the additional font choices, which I had poo-poo’d initially, look much better and cleaner. That said, they’re still not as solid as they ought to be, and the default font still looks best, but now the additional fonts are genuinely usable options.

Allowing the device to refresh the screen with each page turn probably has a detrimental affect on the Kindle’s battery, but given that it’s supposed to last for something like two months, I’m willing to take the hit.

Thinking more globally, as much as I’m enjoying the Kindle Paperwhite, I find myself wishing it wasn’t necessary. The iPad 3 I have has an amazing display, but it’s too big and heavy for really comfortable long-form reading (though I’ve done plenty of that on it). Meanwhile, the Kindle is, by design, less functional as it is exclusively an e-reader. What I wouldn’t give for a device that had the size and comfort of the Kindle and the display quality and functionality of an iPad. Such a device will likely exist soon, but it’s not the iPad mini in its current form. Not with that crummy display. And so I wait.