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E-reader innovation has stalled

Next month marks 10 years since the first Kindle debuted. It’s a virtual lifetime in consumer electronics terms, but compared to its mobile brethren, e-readers’ pace of innovation has been glacial. Front lighting for night reading and waterproofing have been heralded as major upgrades, but beyond that, little about the space has changed. The core of the product has remained largely unchanged, down to the basic e-ink screen that’s the centerpiece of practically every one of these devices.

Why has the e-reader stagnated? Demand has played a role, certainly. Analysts just don’t keep stats the way they used to, but most agree that demand for devoted e-readers peaked around 2011 — though the longstanding declarations of their death have been ringing out since well before then, with most pointing the finger at the rise of low-cost tablets. The fact that all the big e-reader manufacturers also make a mobile app has likely also helped ease that transition.

There was bound to be market contraction regardless. In an age where a smartphone serves as everything from a dating tool to a health monitor, it’s become increasingly difficult to market a device that’s really only built to do one thing. And that’s resulted in a pretty significant thinning of the herd. Barnes & Noble’s Nook reader exists in name only at this point, and Sony threw in the towel a few years back.

There are a number of readers with a bigger presence outside the States. French company Bookeen sent me an email earlier today to remind me of their existence (and the fact that they’ve just launched a “revolutionary” new reader) and the fact that they’re apparently huge in Brazil. In the U.S., Amazon runs the show. Kindle has become synonymous with e-reader for most mainstream users. It’s not quite a monopoly, sure, but the company’s utter domination of the American market is the sort of thing that tends to slow innovation.

Case in point: Kobo. Now owned by Japanese retail powerhouse Rakuten, the company mostly flies under the radar here in the States. It’s a shame, really, as the company has been one of the primary innovating forces in the category in recent years, experimenting with different screen sizes, premium readers and introducing a waterproof model years in advance of yesterday’s Oasis announcement.

And certain additions like expandable memory and additional file formats will likely never come to the Kindle, as they detract from the company’s core model of selling content through its own store. Kobo’s longtime embrace of the ePub format is one of the things that’s kept me coming back to the company.

An even larger roadblock is the nature of the space itself. E-readers are, by their nature, feature-limited. Each subsequent generation is likely a battle between what to include and what to leave off. In a sense, these devices are defined as much by what they’re not. Once functionality starts infringing on the smartphone, you begin to lose sight of the key focus: an unfettered and undisturbed reading experience. Every superfluous notification detracts from that goal.

Ten years after the first Kindle, e-ink remains the best technology for the devoted e-reader. It’s easier on the eyes than an LCD, is readable in daylight and gets stupid-long battery life — these devices routinely boast between six weeks and two months, an unparalleled feat among consumer electronics devices. But the technology hasn’t evolved all that much in over a decade. Refresh rates are still a major hurdle to doing anything beyond page flipping.

Color e-ink, meanwhile, has seemed perpetually just out of reach. Technologies are just too expensive, too glitchy or both. And besides, a move to color brings us back to that earlier question: at what point would users just be better off with an inexpensive tablet? As an avid comics reader and frequent e-reader user, the idea of trying to marry the two is downright headache-inducing. Even comics like Manga, designed to be read in black and white, are much better served on an inexpensive tablet. The screen size and refresh rate do a disservice to reading anything but straight-up text.

Rumors of the e-reader’s death have, as they say, been greatly exaggerated, but for those who follow the consumer electronics industry as a whole, progress has slowed. And barring some combination of a massive reversal in popularity, huge technological breakthrough and reintroduction of competition, it’s hard to imagine that changing any time soon.

That lack of major evolution year over year is likely contributing even further to a decline in sales. As with tablets, people are comfortable hanging onto their readers for a number of years, while the relative lack of new features makes upgrades even less compelling. But the simple truth is, as long as it keeps selling those users new e-books, Amazon doesn’t really mind all that much.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Amazon Prime Wardrobe officially launches to all U.S. Prime members

Prime Wardrobe, Amazon’s “try before you buy” shopping service first announced last summer, is officially out of beta and open to all Prime members in the U.S. as of today. The service has been gradually opening up to more customers over the course of the year, so many Prime members may have already had access before today’s official unveiling.

Prime Wardrobe is Amazon’s answer to the increasingly popular personalized shopping services like Stitch Fix and Trunk, which send a curated box of clothing to customers on a regular basis. These services allow consumers to try on clothing and other items in the home, then keep what they like and send back the rest.

However, Amazon’s service is more of a DIY version – instead of using stylists, you fill your own box with at least three and as many as eight items at a time. You then have a week to try on the items and return those you don’t want before being charged.

Like many of its rivals, Prime Wardrobe isn’t just aimed at women – it features collections for men, children, and baby, too.

The service is largely meant to help address one of the biggest problems with shopping for clothes online: fit.

Clothing designers have their own interpretation of sizing, and it’s often difficult for shoppers to get a sense of how something will really look without trying it on. Items may be too short or long, too long or tight in some spots, or shoppers might have an issue with how the fabric feels, the draping, the hemline, the quality of the workmanship, and other concerns.

Home try-on eliminates this obstacle to online clothing shopping, because it makes it easy to send items back when they don’t work.

Not all of Amazon’s online inventory is included in Prime Wardrobe, which means you can’t just browse the site and pick anything you want for home try-on.

Instead, you have to visit the Prime Wardrobe section to fill your box.

The site favors Amazon’s in-house clothing brands, but also features a good handful of bigger names, like Lilly Pulitzer, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Guess, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Nine West, Fossil, Lacoste, Hugo Boss, Stride Rite, Disney, Puma, Crazy 8, Gymborree, New Balance, Stuart Weitzman, Rebecca Taylor, J Brand, A|X Armani Exchange, and many more.

The retailer says that during its beta period Prime members have ordered “thousands of styles.” Women have bought denim and dresses; men bought tops, jeans and casual pants; for kids, shoes have been most popular.

Also of note, Amazon says its private label brands Lark & Ro, Daily Ritual, Amazon Essentials, and Goodthreads are the top-ordered items. That means Prime Wardrobe is doing well for Amazon, at least, even if it’s a more limited selection of clothing than online shoppers may have wanted.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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The long Cocky-gate nightmare is over

I’ve been wanting to write about Cocky-gate for some time now but the story – a row between self-published authors that degenerated into ridiculousness – seems finally over and perhaps we can all get some perspective. The whole thing started in May when a self-published romance author, Faleena Hopkins, began attempting to enforce her copyright on books that contained “cocky” in the title. This included, but was not limited to, Cocky Cowboy, Cocky Biker, and Cocky Roomie, all titles in Hopkins oeuvre.

Hopkins filed a trademark for the use of the word Cocky in romance titles and began attacking other others who used the word cocky, including Jamila Jasper who wrote a book called Cocky Cowboy and received an email from Hopkins.

After taking up the cause on Twitter and creating a solid example of Streisand Effect, Jasper changed the title of her book to The Cockiest Cowboy To Have Ever Cocked. But other authors were hit by cease and desist letters and even Amazon stepped in briefly as well and took down multiple titles for a short time.

From the Guardian:

Pajiba reported on Monday that the author Nana Malone had been asked to change the title of her novel Mr Cocky, while TL Smith and Melissa Jane’s Cocky Fiancé has been renamed Arrogant Fiancé. Other writers claimed that Hopkins had reported them to Amazon, resulting in their books being taken down from the site.

This went on for a number of weeks with the back and forth verging on the comical…

to the serious.

Hopkins went to court to defend her trademark and then bumped up against the powerful Author’s Guild who supported three defendants including a publicist who was incorrectly named as the publisher of one of the offending titles, The Cocktales Anthology.

“Beyond the obvious issues with the merits, it is evident from the face of the complaint that Plaintiffs failed to conduct a reasonable pre-filing investigation before racing to the courthouse. Indeed, the number and extent of defects alone call into question whether the filing was made in good faith. Plaintiffs’ lack of due diligence failed to uncover the stark difference between a publisher and a publicist, i.e., non-party best-selling author Penny Reid is the former, while Defendant Jennifer Watson is the latter (Ms. Watson’s website even states that she provides “publicist and marketing services” and nowhere indicates that she writes or publishes books),” wrote Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York. “In sum, there is nothing meritorious about Plaintiffs’ situation, let alone urgent or irreparable. Defendant Watson cannot offer Plaintiffs the relief they seek as she bears no responsibility for The Cocktales Anthology they wish to enjoin from further publication. Defendant Crescent’s first allegedly infringing book was published over nine months ago. Plaintiffs have admitted that her use of “cocky” in titles would not likely cause confusion as to source or affiliation; moreover, she has publicly stated that she has not suffered lost sales.”

Online communities are wonderful but precarious things. One or two attacks by bad – or even well-meaning – actors can tip them over the edge and ruin them for everyone. In fact, Cocky-gate has encouraged other authors to try this tactics. One writer, Michael-Scott Earle, has attempted to register the words “Dragon Slayer” in a book title and there is now a Twitter bot that hunts for USPTO applications for words in titles.

Now that the cocky has been freed, however, it looks like the romance writers of the world are taking advantage of the opportunity to share their own cocky stories.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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After twenty years of Salesforce, what Marc Benioff got right and wrong about the cloud

As we enter the 20th year of Salesforce, there’s an interesting opportunity to reflect back on the change that Marc Benioff created with the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model for enterprise software with his launch of Salesforce.com.

This model has been validated by the annual revenue stream of SaaS companies, which is fast approaching $100 billion by most estimates, and it will likely continue to transform many slower-moving industries for years to come.

However, for the cornerstone market in IT — large enterprise-software deals — SaaS represents less than 25 percent of total revenue, according to most market estimates. This split is even evident in the most recent high profile “SaaS” acquisition of GitHub by Microsoft, with over 50 percent of GitHub’s revenue coming from the sale of their on-prem offering, GitHub Enterprise.  

Data privacy and security is also becoming a major issue, with Benioff himself even pushing for a U.S. privacy law on par with GDPR in the European Union. While consumer data is often the focus of such discussions, it’s worth remembering that SaaS providers store and process an incredible amount of personal data on behalf of their customers, and the content of that data goes well beyond email addresses for sales leads.

It’s time to reconsider the SaaS model in a modern context, integrating developments of the last nearly two decades so that enterprise software can reach its full potential. More specifically, we need to consider the impact of IaaS and “cloud-native computing” on enterprise software, and how they’re blurring the lines between SaaS and on-premises applications. As the world around enterprise software shifts and the tools for building it advance, do we really need such stark distinctions about what can run where?

Source: Getty Images/KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The original cloud software thesis

In his book, Behind the Cloud, Benioff lays out four primary reasons for the introduction of the cloud-based SaaS model:

  1. Realigning vendor success with customer success by creating a subscription-based pricing model that grows with each customer’s usage (providing the opportunity to “land and expand”). Previously, software licenses often cost millions of dollars and were paid upfront, each year after which the customer was obligated to pay an additional 20 percent for support fees. This traditional pricing structure created significant financial barriers to adoption and made procurement painful and elongated.
  2. Putting software in the browser to kill the client-server enterprise software delivery experience. Benioff recognized that consumers were increasingly comfortable using websites to accomplish complex tasks. By utilizing the browser, Salesforce avoided the complex local client installation and allowed its software to be accessed anywhere, anytime and on any device.
  3. Sharing the cost of expensive compute resources across multiple customers by leveraging a multi-tenant architecture. This ensured that no individual customer needed to invest in expensive computing hardware required to run a given monolithic application. For context, in 1999 a gigabyte of RAM cost about $1,000 and a TB of disk storage was $30,000. Benioff cited a typical enterprise hardware purchase of $385,000 in order to run Siebel’s CRM product that might serve 200 end-users.
  4. Democratizing the availability of software by removing the installation, maintenance and upgrade challenges. Drawing from his background at Oracle, he cited experiences where it took 6-18 months to complete the installation process. Additionally, upgrades were notorious for their complexity and caused significant downtime for customers. Managing enterprise applications was a very manual process, generally with each IT org becoming the ops team executing a physical run-book for each application they purchased.

These arguments also happen to be, more or less, that same ones made by infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) providers such as Amazon Web Services during their early days in the mid-late ‘00s. However, IaaS adds value at a layer deeper than SaaS, providing the raw building blocks rather than the end product. The result of their success in renting cloud computing, storage and network capacity has been many more SaaS applications than ever would have been possible if everybody had to follow the model Salesforce did several years earlier.

Suddenly able to access computing resources by the hour—and free from large upfront capital investments or having to manage complex customer installations—startups forsook software for SaaS in the name of economics, simplicity and much faster user growth.

Source: Getty Images

It’s a different IT world in 2018

Fast-forward to today, and in some ways it’s clear just how prescient Benioff was in pushing the world toward SaaS. Of the four reasons laid out above, Benioff nailed the first two:

  • Subscription is the right pricing model: The subscription pricing model for software has proven to be the most effective way to create customer and vendor success. Years ago already, stalwart products like Microsoft Office and the Adobe Suite  successfully made the switch from the upfront model to thriving subscription businesses. Today, subscription pricing is the norm for many flavors of software and services.
  • Better user experience matters: Software accessed through the browser or thin, native mobile apps (leveraging the same APIs and delivered seamlessly through app stores) have long since become ubiquitous. The consumerization of IT was a real trend, and it has driven the habits from our personal lives into our business lives.

In other areas, however, things today look very different than they did back in 1999. In particular, Benioff’s other two primary reasons for embracing SaaS no longer seem so compelling. Ironically, IaaS economies of scale (especially once Google and Microsoft began competing with AWS in earnest) and software-development practices developed inside those “web scale” companies played major roles in spurring these changes:

  • Computing is now cheap: The cost of compute and storage have been driven down so dramatically that there are limited cost savings in shared resources. Today, a gigabyte of RAM is about $5 and a terabyte of disk storage is about $30 if you buy them directly. Cloud providers give away resources to small users and charge only pennies per hour for standard-sized instances. By comparison, at the same time that Salesforce was founded, Google was running on its first data center—with combined total compute and RAM comparable to that of a single iPhone X. That is not a joke.
  • Installing software is now much easier: The process of installing and upgrading modern software has become automated with the emergence of continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) and configuration-management tools. With the rapid adoption of containers and microservices, cloud-native infrastructure has become the de facto standard for local development and is becoming the standard for far more reliable, resilient and scalable cloud deployment. Enterprise software packed as a set of Docker containers orchestrated by Kubernetes or Docker Swarm, for example, can be installed pretty much anywhere and be live in minutes.

Sourlce: Getty Images/ERHUI1979

What Benioff didn’t foresee

Several other factors have also emerged in the last few years that beg the question of whether the traditional definition of SaaS can really be the only one going forward. Here, too, there’s irony in the fact that many of the forces pushing software back toward self-hosting and management can be traced directly to the success of SaaS itself, and cloud computing in general:

  1. Cloud computing can now be “private”: Virtual private clouds (VPCs) in the IaaS world allow enterprises to maintain root control of the OS, while outsourcing the physical management of machines to providers like Google, DigitalOcean, Microsoft, Packet or AWS. This allows enterprises (like Capital One) to relinquish hardware management and the headache it often entails, but retain control over networks, software and data. It is also far easier for enterprises to get the necessary assurance for the security posture of Amazon, Microsoft and Google than it is to get the same level of assurance for each of the tens of thousands of possible SaaS vendors in the world.
  2. Regulations can penalize centralized services: One of the underappreciated consequences of Edward Snowden’s leaks, as well as an awakening to the sometimes questionable data-privacy practices of companies like Facebook, is an uptick in governments and enterprises trying to protect themselves and their citizens from prying eyes. Using applications hosted in another country or managed by a third party exposes enterprises to a litany of legal issues. The European Union’s GDPR law, for example, exposes SaaS companies to more potential liability with each piece of EU-citizen data they store, and puts enterprises on the hook for how their SaaS providers manage data.
  3. Data breach exposure is higher than ever: A corollary to the point above is the increased exposure to cybercrime that companies face as they build out their SaaS footprints. All it takes is one employee at a SaaS provider clicking on the wrong link or installing the wrong Chrome extension to expose that provider’s customers’ data to criminals. If the average large enterprise uses 1,000+ SaaS applications and each of those vendors averages 250 employees, that’s an additional 250,000 possible points of entry for an attacker.
  4. Applications are much more portable: The SaaS revolution has resulted in software vendors developing their applications to be cloud-first, but they’re now building those applications using technologies (such as containers) that can help replicate the deployment of those applications onto any infrastructure. This shift to what’s called cloud-native computing means that the same complex applications you can sign up to use in a multi-tenant cloud environment can also be deployed into a private data center or VPC much easier than previously possible. Companies like BigID, StackRox, Dashbase and others are taking a private cloud-native instance first approach to their application offerings. Meanwhile SaaS stalwarts like Atlassian, Box, Github and many others are transitioning over to Kubernetes driven, cloud-native architectures that provide this optionality in the future.  
  5. The script got flipped on CIOs: Individuals and small teams within large companies now drive software adoption by selecting the tools (e.g., GitHub, Slack, HipChat, Dropbox), often SaaS, that best meet their needs. Once they learn what’s being used and how it’s working, CIOs are faced with the decision to either restrict network access to shadow IT or pursue an enterprise license—or the nearest thing to one—for those services. This trend has been so impactful that it spawned an entirely new category called cloud access security brokers—another vendor that needs to be paid, an additional layer of complexity, and another avenue for potential problems. Managing local versions of these applications brings control back to the CIO and CISO.

Source: Getty Images/MIKIEKWOODS

The future of software is location agnostic

As the pace of technological disruption picks up, the previous generation of SaaS companies is facing a future similar to the legacy software providers they once displaced. From mainframes up through cloud-native (and even serverless) computing, the goal for CIOs has always been to strike the right balance between cost, capabilities, control and flexibility. Cloud-native computing, which encompasses a wide variety of IT facets and often emphasizes open source software, is poised to deliver on these benefits in a manner that can adapt to new trends as they emerge.

The problem for many of today’s largest SaaS vendors is that they were founded and scaled out during the pre-cloud-native era, meaning they’re burdened by some serious technical and cultural debt. If they fail to make the necessary transition, they’ll be disrupted by a new generation of SaaS companies (and possibly traditional software vendors) that are agnostic toward where their applications are deployed and who applies the pre-built automation that simplifies management. This next generation of vendors will more control in the hands of end customers (who crave control), while maintaining what vendors have come to love about cloud-native development and cloud-based resources.

So, yes, Marc Benioff and Salesforce were absolutely right to champion the “No Software” movement over the past two decades, because the model of enterprise software they targeted needed to be destroyed. In the process, however, Salesforce helped spur a cloud computing movement that would eventually rewrite the rules on enterprise IT and, now, SaaS itself.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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