5 eBook Apps that Amazon and Apple Will Fear

How do you autograph an ebook?

by Daedalus Howell
Dec 29, 2011 – 03:40 PM
Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell

  Given Amazon?s pre-Christmas blitz and Apple?s prowess with any object they care to precede with a lowercase ?i,? there?s a significant chance that you?re either reading this on a Kindle or an iPad. Dozens of e-reading devices have proliferated in the market. Even brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Noble proffer a book device some marketing type convinced them to call a ?Nook,? which sounds more like a place one might have breakfast or a word you?d repeat three times to summon the ghost of Curly from the Three Stooges.

  If you?re presently swiping and hyping the written word on your shiny new e-reader, let me personally welcome you to the 21st century. You?re evolution from pulp to pixel is not only saving the backs of hacks but some trees as well. But don?t worry, your media diet won?t suffer for lack of roughage. There will be much to chew on, from breathless editorials eulogizing the passing of print to the inclusion of paperboys on the endangered species list.

  It?s notable that in 2011, Kindle ebook sales overtook those of traditional printed books at Amazon. In an unmarked grave somewhere in Mainz, Germany, a man named Gutenberg is beginning to turn. Though this might betoken a critical shift in how we read books, it also changes how we handle books ? or, for that matter, mishandle books ? now that they?ve gone from physical objects to merely data on an expensive device.

  For example, how do you burn an ebook without having to visit the Apple Store afterward to replace your beloved iPad? There should be an app for that. In fact, there are several apps waiting to be born into this brave new world of reading without paper (it?s when we start reading without words that we should worry).

  Here are my prospective ?5 eBook Apps that Amazon and Apple Fear:?

  1. As mentioned: The ebook-burning app. This app allows you (or the fascist regime you live under) to ?burn? your ebooks by erasing their data with virtual fire without harming your device. As the author of a forthcoming ebook, I invite my critics to purchase and ?burn? as many books as they wish. Seriously, go big ? then watch your money burn a hole in my pocket.

  2. An autograph app. There?s nothing sadder than watching a fanboy trying to wipe Neil Gaiman?s scrawl off an iPad 2. Yes, you can effectively tattoo your tablet with a Sharpie but it makes using it similar to wearing glasses that have been tagged with graffiti (attention, ?cool hunters,? this could be a hot trend for 2012).

  3. An overdue library book app. Many libraries now lend ebooks but unlike printed books they don?t need to be returned, the data just evaporates from your device ? as does the library?s revenue stream in overdue fees. Using geo-location to virtually hide your borrowed ebook somewhere in your house, office, car, etc., the library can charge your credit card until you find it. If you find it.

  4. Smarty Pants eBook Covers. Change lowbrow Stephen King into highbrow Albert Camus with a mere tap of this app, which will stock your virtual bookshelf with a pile of ?trophy? books that make you look smarter than you are. 

  5.  The Used College Textbook app. This app adds a yellow ?used? sticker to the cover of your selected ebook, covers its text with erroneous notes and charges your parents and extra $50 for the privilege.

? ? ?

  Daedalus Howell?s “I Heart Sonoma: How to Live & Drink in Wine Country” is coming to an ereader near you in January. Learn more at FMRL.com.

Siri, Please Teach Google Voice to Listen

Sometimes using one?s smartphone is like playing a game of, well, ?telephone.? Half the time no one can hear you and when they can, the message gets lost in translation ? even when it?s not actually being translated. I?m convinced that mine is actually a ?smart-ass phone? given how it willfully drops calls, truncates texts and creates general mayhem in my personal and professional lives. ?Can you hear me?? becomes ?Gland doo deer meat?? I sound like a Martian ordering venison.*

Perhaps I shouldn?t complain. The fact that one can speak into a rectangular hunk of plastic that beams one?s voice to the heavens and back to whomever you?re calling is pretty damn marvelous. Except when it?s not. And what truly doesn?t work is the voicemail transcription on freebie messaging service Google Voice. Again, I shouldn?t complain ? the Mountain View search giant takes my voice messages and spits out text to my phone so I can take action without taking the call. For free.

The problem is that their translation mechanism works more like a game of MadLibs with an emphasis on the ?mad? part, as in ?mad as a hatter? or as Google Voice interprets it, ?Man has gone splatter.? This man has nearly gone splatter off a few rooftops after simply hearing my own name gargled by the Google bots. As one might imagine, ?Daedalus? is a voice-recognition time bomb.

On a recent occasion, Google Voice assumed my name was ?metal brush.? I don?t even mind ?Metal Brush,? which sounds like an ?80s hair band gone literal. What I mind is getting gibberish texted to me instead of my messages. So, I?ve turned off the automatic dispatch and instead check my voicemail like someone from the last millennium. Fortunately, iPhones let you scrub through your messages without having to listen to every second. This is godsend since, no matter, how much my outgoing message emphasizes ?leave a brief message,? I get a soliloquy. It?s like having Hamlet call with a question and no intermission in sight.

Google?s been trying really hard to work out their voice recognition for some time. I remember when they were still operating Google 411, which purported to be a telephone directory when in fact it?was a huge voice data acquisition tool. Since it knew where you were calling from, it could assess and catalog the nuances of your regional accent. And it was probably recording us so that somewhere there?s a record of me stammering my request for an Indian take-out number in my twee-transcontinental accent (this was before there was an app for that ? the curry, not the accent).

Meanwhile, Siri, Apple?s answer to the question, ?Can voice recognition just work, for crissakes?? was recently born into a few million iPhone 4Ses. Sadly, this came on the eve of the passing of Steve Jobs (whose name is probably the English translation of whatever language ?Siri? is).

Consequently, she lost a little of her limelight, though she?s been more than compensated with fawning reviews and loving fan tributes. As can be expected, some wags have made videos of themselves tricking Siri into saying naughty notions chiefly by hacking their own IDs so the phone thinks their names are four-letter words, making it unclear who the joke is really on. I have yet to upgrade so I?m unsure as to how Siri will destroy the pronunciation of my name or transcribe mine or others? words. I do hope, however, the next time Hamlet calls she?ll cut him off with a brisk, ?That?s the question, isn?t?? and hang up.

*Some of these examples have been made family-friendly.

Getting Siri-ous

Building real-time voice-recognition into our gadgets has been a holy grail for technologists ever since an onscreen superhero commanded an artificial intelligence to do his bidding in some sepia-toned sci-fi serial.

Who this first human-computer interlocutor was, exactly, is lost to the annals of speculative fiction, though its echoes can be heard from?Star Trek?to the customer service bot on the other side of the 800 number at your credit card company. The results, on all scores, have been mixed. This is why Siri, Apple’s virtual girl Friday (or guy, depending on your settings) has been greeted with such enthusiasm: it actually works.

Installed on the new iPhone 4S, Siri is a voice-driven interface that allows one to talk to one’s phone to execute in-phone tasks, searches and device navigation to existential volleys that have birthed something of a Siri-humor meme online. Screenshots and videos of Siri in action have been proliferating, thanks in great part to the wags at SiriHumor.net, which features Siri’s more risible exchanges. Ask her about a certain woodchuck’s wood-chucking prowess and Siri drolly replies, “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck.” Sounds about right.

When asked about the meaning of life or where one might score weed, Siri does her best?admitting she either doesn’t know or that she “cannot find a headshop.” Where Siri really comes through is when one is in a serious jam, as when her offscreen conversation partner asked “Where can I hide a dead body?” Siri placidly replied “What kind of place are you looking for?” and produced a list that included “swamps, reservoirs, dumps, metal foundries, mines.” Apparently, Siri is more than an assistant?she’s an accessory after the fact. I think I’m in love.

Siri began life as a company that developed an eponymously named third party iPhone app meant to function as a “click reduction machine,” according to its CEO Dag Kittlaus. The user experience was so effective, it soon became the apple of Apple’s eye, which purchased the company for $200 million last year. Reportedly also bidding was Google, which has struggled with its own voice-recognition tools, most notably Google Voice, its free online voice messaging service. The search giant’s technology, however, is more useful generating cryptograms than intelligible voice mail transcriptions. When I receive a text or email transcriptions of Google Voice messages, I don’t read them so much as decipher them. They read like the poorly translated assembly instructions one might read on Engrish.com?part Mad Libs, part “Dada list,” which is the closest it’s ever gotten to my admittedly unusual name.

How Google will compete with Siri for its own Android smart-phone operating system will prove interesting. When asked “What do you think of Android?” Siri replied, “I think differently.”

iCloudius: Apple’s Man in the Sky

When it rains it pours for Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The lauded gadget guru qua rainmaker came out of medical leave to formally introduce attendees of Apple?s World Wide Developers Conference to a bevy of new products, among them the much anticipated announcement of the iCloud. Apple?s own spin on so-called cloud-computing, which, sans the weather whimsy, simply refers to information stored in remote servers and accessible via your device of choice anywhere there is a decent Internet connection.

Though the concept isn?t new (telephone companies once used the metaphor to describe their early forays into ?virtual private networks?) its implementation in tech quarters gained real momentum in 2006 when Amazon introduced its Elastic Compute Cloud, a service that obviated the need for expensive server systems and paved the way for a bevy of start-ups. It was Google, however, that brought the cloud to civilians with its suite of document creation tools (aimed squarely at Microsoft?s bread and butter). Now, with iCloud, Apple has also entered the consumer cloud market, touting synchonization of one?s digital data ? docs, email, calendars, iTunes library, videos and plans for world domination, between one?s MacBook, iPad, iPhone and beyond. And it?s free.

Heretofore, one?s computer was like the sun in a private digital solar system around which all other devices orbited and depended for data (through increasingly arcane syncronization rituals). Conceptually, iCloud collapses this solar system into a single celestial body accessible, anywhere, anytime by whatever piece of gear happens to be in your hand. It?s as if you?re opening a wormhole into the fabric of your virtual universe andt hough other companies offer aspects this ?unified field theory of your stuff online,? including Amazon?s ?Cloud Drive? and Google?s Gmail inbox (sort of), none offers total integration of everything in a single service that?s hardware-agnostic.

This is the crux of Jobs? plan, ?demoting? the ?PC? and even his own company?s iconic Mac line to mere, as he explained, ?devices.? Of course, to those who?ve eluded induction into the cult of Apple, the company?s products have always been mere devices. For true believers, however, they?re tantamount to religious talismans that signify belief in a higher being ? namely Jobs. His conceptual downgrading of his stock and trade might prove as revelatory a moment in the history of personal computing as Macintosh did for user-experience in the early 80s. It takes the way we deal with data, the ones and zeroes that comprise much of our quotidian experience not to mention whole flanks of our self-concept and moves them from the concrete to the abstract, from ?there? to ?everywhere,? in a manner analogous to going from the corporeal to the spiritual (which, by some accounts, Jobs might be soon doing). The device, like the body, is but a vessel.

?We?re going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud,? Jobs beamed. It?s not hard to imagine him hovering there too ? lightning bolt in hand.

From Kindling to Kindle

Will the future of reading affect the future of writing?

James Joyce, it is said, became so disgruntled while drafting his first novel that he threw it on the fire. His girlfriend rescued the work-in-progress from the flames, and the subsequent rewrite became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Such acts of literary self-immolation and redemption could only occur in our once-analog world, when the permanence of erasure moved only as fast as fire. These days, the irreversible deletion of one’s work is a mere keystroke away.

That said, it seems would-be authors are more apt to hit the “publish” key on their blogs than the “delete” key on their magnum opus. Future literary historians will decide whether this has been a positive trend for the world of letters. Of the 100 million?plus blogs in existence, it’s unclear how many purport to be literature, let alone how many actually are. Nevertheless, entire industries have arisen to support the notion one’s blog could be a book, turning aspirants into authors with a click and credit card?at least for now.

Print-on-demand services like San Francisco?based Blurb will print the next Joyce a “Blog Book” for a percentage of that book’s sale to the author or his readers, in as many or as few copies as desired. Blurb has even automated the process with a program that “slurps” a blog’s content from its online habitu? and excretes it in the shape of a book when ordered online. Likewise, online retail juggernaut Amazon provides a similar service, CreateSpace, an on-demand clearinghouse for everything DIY, from books to DVDs. It is a micro-mogul’s mecca for the manufacture of media.

Now print-on-demand might prove to be a transitional technology the same way DVDs are giving way to digital downloads. Amazon claims 35 percent of its book sales are downloads for its Kindle “wireless reading device.” In March, cult brand Apple will overshoot the electronic book fray with the iPad, which aggregates print, video and music enjoyment into a single, sexy device.

Be assured, publishers and independent authors alike are readying their wares for Apple’s latest game-changer, which is an overgrown iPhone sans telephony. But who wants to take a call while in the thrall of a warm, glowing piece of technology anyway? It’s like a vibrator for the mind, and a throng of independent content producers hopes to get you off.

In the olden days of digital reading, circa 2000, premium content was scarce. Beyond being deskbound, the only texts available seemed to be classics poached from the public domain, Joyce included. Occasional experiments in electronic-book marketing came and went, with business ebooks and white papers seeming most prevalent. The transformation of print-to-pixel was a trickle with publishers wary or unsure of the medium, though pixel-to-print releases were garnering wider appeal and stoking dreams of digital discovery for thousands of would-be authors (blog-borne Julie/Julia is a popular example). Publisher HarperCollins even created Authonomy, an online authors community from which it occasionally cherry-picks and publishes material vetted by the crowd.

Now, however, it seems a new type of author is poised to emerge, one tailored to the new medium literally at hand, whose work will bypass traditional publishers and appear in the iTunes store, forsaking the bookshelf entirely. Pictures in printed books must have once been a novelty?moving pictures embedded in the text of your iPad is an inevitability, not to mention audio, three-dimensional maps, animated sidebars and other electronic illuminations. How will this amplify or diminish storytelling as we know it? A fear is that mutant transmedia hybrids might obviate established forms or at least leave them marginalized in the market in which a bestseller and killer app are one and the same.

What seems most uncertain is whether how we read will affect how we write. This will have to be determined in the field, for not even a visionary such as Joyce could have anticipated someone cuddling up with his words “In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow” from the glow of a tawny Kindle.