Archive for the Mobile Category

Books, e-books and the e-paper chase

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, Mobile Media, Paper, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by multimediaman

Last November Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle near the campus of the University of Washington. More than two decades after it pioneered online book sales—and initiated the e-commerce disruption of the retail industry—the $550 billion company seemed to be taking a step backward with its “brick and mortar” Amazon Books.

Amazon Books opened in Seattle on November 3, 2015

Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle on November 3, 2015

However, Amazon launched its store concept with a nod to traditional consumer shopping habits, i.e. the ability to “kick the tires.” Amazon knows very well that many customers like to browse the shelves in bookstores and fiddle with electronic gadgets like the Kindle, Fire TV and Echo before they make buying decisions.

So far, the Seattle book store has been successful and Amazon has plans to open more locations. Some unique features of the Amazon.com buying experience have been extended to the book store. Customer star ratings and reviews are posted near book displays; shoppers are encouraged to use the Amazon app and scan bar codes to check prices.

Amazon’s book store initiative was also possibly motivated by the persistence and strength of the print book market. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books have shown a resurgence of late. Following a sales decline of 15 million print books in 2013 to just above 500 million units, the past two years have seen an increase to 560 million in 2014 and 570 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association reported a substantial increase in independent bookstores over the past five years (1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010).

Print books and e-books

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

The ratio of e-book to print book sales appears to have leveled off at around 1 to 3. This relationship supports recent public perception surveys and learning studies that show the reading experience and information retention properties of print books are superior to that of e-books.

The reasons for the recent uptick in print sales and the slowing of e-book expansion are complex. Changes in the overall economy, adjustments to bookstore inventory from digital print technologies and the acclimation of consumers to the differences between the two media platforms have created a dynamic and rapidly shifting landscape.

As many analysts have insisted, it is difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about future trends of either segment of the book market. However, two things are clear: (1) the printed book will undergo little further evolution and (2) the e-book is headed for rapid and dramatic innovation.

Amazon launched the e-book revolution in 2007 with the first Kindle device. Although digital books were previously available in various computer file formats and media types like CD-ROMs for decades, e-books connected with Amazon’s Kindle took off in popularity beginning in 2008. The most important technical innovation of the Kindle—and a major factor in its success—was the implementation of the e-paper display.

Distinct from backlit LCD displays on most mobile devices and personal computers, e-paper displays are designed to mimic the appearance of ink on paper. Another important difference is that the energy requirements of e-paper devices are significantly lower than LCD-based systems. Even in later models that offer automatic back lighting for low-light reading conditions, e-paper devices will run for weeks on a single charge while most LCD systems require a recharge in less than 24-hours.

Nick Sheridon and Gyricon

The theory behind the Kindle’s ink-on-paper emulation was originated in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California by Nick Sheridon. Sheridon developed his concepts while working to overcome limitations with the displays of the Xerox Alto, the first desktop computer. The early monitors could only be viewed in darkened office environments because of insufficient brightness and contrast.

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate to create an image

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate with changes in voltage to create an image on the surface

Sheridon sought to develop a display that could match the contrast and readability of black ink on white paper. Along with his team of engineers at Xerox, Sheridon developed Gyricon, a substrate with thousands of microscopic plastic beads—each of which were half black and half white—suspended in a thin and transparent silicon sheet. Changes in voltage polarity caused either the white or black side of the beads to rotate up and display images and text without backlighting or special ambient light conditions.

After Xerox cancelled the Alto project in the early 1980s, Sheridon took his Gyricon technology in a new direction. By the late 1980s, he was working on methods to manufacture a new digital display system as part of the “paperless office.” As Sheridon explained later, “There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the ‘perfect display.’”

In 2000, Gyricon LLC was founded as a subsidiary of Xerox to develop commercially viable e-paper products. The startup opened manufacturing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan and developed several products including e-signage that utilized Wi-Fi networking to remotely update messaging. Unfortunately, Xerox shut down the entity in 2005 due to financial problems.

Pioneer of e-paper Nick Sheridon

Pioneer of e-paper, Nicholas Sheridan

Among the challenges Gyricon faced were making a truly paper-like material that had sufficient contrast and resolution while keeping manufacturing costs low. Sheridan maintained that e-paper displays would only be viable economically if units were sold for less than $100 so that “nearly everyone could have one.”

As Sheridon explained in a 2009 interview: “The holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip.”

E Ink

By the 1990s competitors began entering the e-paper market. E Ink, founded in 1998 by a group of scientists and engineers from MIT’s Media Lab including Russ Wilcox, developed a concept similar to Sheridon’s. Instead of using rotating beads with white and black hemispheres, E Ink introduced a method of suspending microencapsulated cells filled with both black and white particles in a thin transparent film. Electrical charges to the film caused the black or white particles to rise to the top of the microcapsules and create the appearance of a printed page.

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink’s e-paper technology was initially implemented by Sony in 2004 in the first commercially available e-reader called LIBRIe. In 2006, Motorola integrated an E Ink display in its F3 cellular phone. A year later, Amazon included E Ink’s 6-inch display in the first Amazon Kindle which became by far the most popular device of its kind.

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Subsequent generations of Kindle devices have integrated E Ink displays with progressively improved contrast, resolution and energy consumption. By 2011, the third generation Kindle included touch screen capability (the original Kindle had an integrated hardware keyboard for input).

The current edition of the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd Generation) combines back lighting and a touch interface with E Ink Carta technology and a resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Many other e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, the Onyx Boox and the PocketBook also use E Ink products for their displays.

Historical parallel

The quest to replicate, as closely as possible in electronic form, the appearance of ink on paper is logical enough. In the absence of a practical and culturally established form, the new media naturally strives to emulate that which came before it. This process is reminiscent of the evolution of the first printed books. For many decades, print carried over the characteristics of the books that were hand-copied by scribes.

It is well known that Gutenberg’s “mechanized handwriting” invention (1440-50) sought to imitate the best works of the Medieval monks. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, has two columns of print text while everything else about the volume—paper, size, ornamental drop caps, illustrations, gold leaf accents, binding, etc.—required techniques that preceded the invention of printing. Thus, the initial impact of Gutenberg’s system was an increase in the productivity of book duplication and the displacement of scribes; it would take some time for the implications of the new process to work its way through the function, form and content of books.

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

More than a half century later—following the spread of Gutenberg’s invention to the rest of Europe—the book began to evolve dramatically and take on attributes specific to printing and other changes taking place in society. For example, by the first decade of the 1500s, books were no longer stationary objects to be read in exclusive libraries and reading rooms of the privileged few. As their cost dropped, editions became more plentiful and literacy expanded, books were being read everywhere and by everybody.

By the middle 1500s, both the form and content of books became transformed. To facilitate their newfound portability, the size of books fell from the folio (14.5” x 20”) to the octavo dimension (7” x 10.5”). By the beginning of the next century, popular literature—the first European novel is widely recognized as Cervantes’ Don Quixote of 1605—supplanted verse and classic texts. New forms of print media developed such as chapbooks, broadsheets and newspapers.

Next generation e-paper

It seems clear that the dominance of LCD displays on computers, mobile and handheld devices is a factor in the persistent affinity of the public for print books. Much of the technology investment and advancement of the past decade—coming from companies such as Apple Computer—has been been committed to computer miniaturization, touch interface and mobility, not the transition from print to electronic media. While first decade e-readers have made important strides, most e-books are still being read on devices that are visually distant from print books, impeding a more substantial migration to the new media.

Additionally, most current e-paper devices have many unpaper-like characteristics such as relatively small size, inflexibility, limited bit-depth and the inability to write ton them. All current model e-paper Kindles, for example, are limited to 6-inch displays with 16 grey levels beneath a heavy and fragile layer of glass and no support for handwriting.

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

A new generation of e-paper systems is now being developed that overcome many of these limitations. In 2014, Sony released its Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) that is a letter-size e-reader and e-notebook (for $1,100 at launch and currently selling for $799). The DPT-S1 is based on E Ink’s Mobius display, a 13.3” thin film transistor (TFT) platform that is flexible and can accept handwriting from a stylus.

Since it does not have any glass, the new Sony device weighs 12.6 oz or about half of a similar LCD-based tablet. With the addition of stylus-based handwriting capability, the device functions like an electronic notepad and, meanwhile, notes can be written in the margins of e-books and other electronic documents.

These advancements and others show that e-paper is positioned for a renewed surge into things that have yet to be conceived. Once a flat surface can be curved or even folded and then made to transform itself into any image—including a color image—at any time and at very low cost and very low energy consumption, then many things are possible like e-wall paper, e-wrapping paper, e-milk cartons and e-price tags. The possibilities are enormous.

The mobile juggernaut

Posted in Mobile, Mobile Media, Social Media with tags , , , , , , , on August 31, 2015 by multimediaman
Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

On August 27, Mark Zuckerberg posted the following message on his personal Facebook account, “We just passed an important milestone. For the first time ever, one billion people used Facebook in a single day. On Monday, 1 in 7 people on Earth used Facebook to connect with their friends and family.”

The Facebook one-billion-users-in-a-single-day accomplishment on August 24, 2015 is remarkable for the social network that was started by Zuckerberg and a group of college dormitory friends in 2004. With Facebook becoming available for public use less than ten years ago, the milestone illustrates the speed and extent to which social media has penetrated the daily lives of people all over the world.

While Facebook is very popular in the US and Canada, 83.1% of the 1 billion daily active users (DAUs) come from other parts of the world. Despite being barred in China—where there are 600 million internet users—Facebook has hundreds of millions of active users in India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, UK, Turkey, Philippines, France and Germany.

Facebook's "Mobile Only" active users.

Facebook’s “Mobile Only” active users.

A major driver behind the global popularity and growth speed of Facebook is the mobile technology revolution. According to published data, Facebook reached an average of 844 million mobile active users during the month of June 2015 and industry experts are expecting this number to hit one billion in the very near future. Clearly, without smartphones, tablets and broadband wireless Internet access, Facebook could not have achieved the DAU milestone since many of the one billion people are either “mobile first” or “mobile only” users.

From mobile devices to wearables

When I last wrote about mobile technologies two-and-half years ago, the rapid rise of smartphones and tablets and the end of the PC era of computing was a dominant topic of discussion. Concerns were high that significant resources were being shifted toward mobile devices and advertising and away from older technologies and media platforms. The move from PCs and web browsers toward apps on smartphones and tablets was presenting even companies like Facebook and Google with a “mobility challenge.”

Today, while mobile device expansion has slowed and the dynamics within the mobile markets are becoming more complex, the overall trend of PC displacement continues. According to IDC, worldwide tablet market growth is falling, smartphone market growth is slowing and the PC market is shrinking. On the whole, however, smartphone sales represent more than 70% of total personal computing device shipments and, according to an IDC forecast, this will reach nearly 78% in 2019.

IDC's Worldwide Device Market 5 Year Forecast

IDC’s Worldwide Device Market 5 Year Forecast

According to IDC’s Tom Mainelli, “For more people in more places, the smartphone is the clear choice in terms of owning one connected device. Even as we expect slowing smartphone growth later in the forecast, it’s hard to overlook the dominant position smartphones play in the greater device ecosystem.”

While economic troubles in China and other market dynamics have led some analysts to the conclude that the smartphone boom has peaked, it is clear that consumers all over the world prefer the mobility, performance and accessibility of their smaller devices.

Ercisson's June 2015 Mobility Report projects 6.1 billion smartphone users by 2020.

Ercisson’s June 2015 Mobility Report projects 6.1 billion smartphone users by 2020.

According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, there will be 6.1 billion smartphone users by 2020. That is 70% of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, other technology experts are suggesting that wearables—smartwatches, fitness devices, smartclothing and the like—are expanding the mobile computing spectrum and making it more complex. Since many wearable electronic products integrate easily with smartphones, it is expected this new form will push mobile platforms into new areas of performance and power.

Despite the reserved consumer response to the Apple Watch and the failure of Google Glass, GfK predicts that 72 million wearables will be sold in 2015. Other industry analysts are also expecting wearables to become untethered from smartphones and usher in the dawn of “personalized” computing.

Five mobile trends to watch

With high expectations that mobile tech will continue to play a dominant role in the media and communications landscape, these are some major trends to keep an eye on:

Wireless Broadband: Long Term Evolution (LTE) connectivity reached 50% of the worldwide smartphone market by the end of 2014 and projections show this will likely be at 60% by the end of this year. A new generation of mobile data technology has appeared every ten years since 1G was introduced in 1981. The fourth generation (4G) LTE systems were first introduced in 2012. 5G development has been underway for several years now and it promises speeds of several tens of megabits per user with an expected commercial introduction sometime in the early 2020s.

Apple's A8 mobile processor is 50 times faster than the original iPhone processor.

Apple’s A8 mobile processor is 50 times faster than the original iPhone processor.

Mobile Application Processors: Mobile system-on-a-chip (SoC) development is one of the most intensely competitive sectors of computer chip technology today. Companies like Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung are all pushing the capabilities and speeds of their SoCs to get the maximum performance with the least energy consumption. Apple’s SoCs have set the benchmark in the industry for performance and the iPhone6 contains an A8 processor which is 40% more powerful than the previous A7 chip; and it is 50 times faster than the processor in the original iPhone. A new processor A9 will likely be be announced with the next generation iPhone in September 2015 and it is expected to bring a 29% performance boost over the A8.

Pressure Sensitive Screens: Called “force touch” by Apple, this new mobile display capability allows users to apply varying degrees of pressure to trigger specific functions on a device. Just like “touch” functionality—swiping, pinching, etc.—pressure sensitive interaction with a mobile device provides a new dimension to human-computer-interface. This feature was originally launched by Apple with the release of the Apple Watch which has a limited screen dimension on which to perform touch functions.

Customized Experiences: With mobile engagement platforms, smartphone users can receive highly targeted promotions and offers based upon their location within a retail establishment. Also known as proximity marketing, the technology uses mobile beacons with Bluetooth communications to send marketing text messages and other notifications to a mobile device that has been configured to receive them.

Mobile Apps: The mobile revolution has been a disruptive force for the traditional desktop software industry. Microsoft is now offering its Office Suite of applications to both iOS and Android users free of charge. In August, Adobe announced that it would be releasing a mobile and full-featured version of its iconic Photoshop software in October as a free download and as part of its Creative Cloud subscription.

With mobile devices, operating systems, applications and connectivity making huge strides and expanding across the globe by the billions it is obvious that every organization and business should be navigating its way behind this technology juggernaut. This begins with an internal review of your mobile practices:

  • Do you have a mobile communications and/or operations strategy?
  • Is your website optimized for a mobile viewing experience?
  • Are you encouraging the use of smartphones and tablets and building a mobile culture within your organization?
  • Are you using text messaging for any aspect of your daily work?
  • Are you using social media to communicate with your members, staff, prospects or clients?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it is time to act.

AI and the future of information

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, Social Media with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2015 by multimediaman
Amazon Echo intelligent home assistant

Amazon Echo intelligent home assistant

Last November, Amazon revealed its intelligent home assistant called Echo. The black cylinder-shaped device is always on and ready for your voice commands. It can play music, read audio books and it is connected to Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based information service. Alexa can answer any number of questions regarding the weather, news, sports scores, traffic reports and your schedule in a human-like voice.

Echo has an array of seven microphones and it can hear—and also learn—your voice, speech pattern and vocabulary even from across the room. With additional plugins, Echo can control your automated home devices like lights, thermostat, kitchen appliances, security system and more with just the sound of your voice. This is certainly a major leap from “Clap on, Clap off” (watch “The Clapper” video from the mid-1980s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ny8-G8EoWOw).

As many critics have pointed out, the Echo is Amazon’s response to Siri, Apple’s voice-activate intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator. Siri was launched as an integrated feature of the iPhone 4S in October 2011 and the iPad released in May 2012. Siri is also now part of the Apple Watch, a wearable device, that adds haptics—tactile feedback—and voice recognition along with a digital crown control knob to the human computer interface (HCI).

If you have tried to use any of these technologies, you know that they are far from perfect. As the New York Times reviewer, Farhad Manjoo explained, “If Alexa were a human assistant, you’d fire her, if not have her committed.” Often times, using any of the modern artificial intelligence (AI) systems can be an exercise in futility. However, it is important to recognize that computer interaction has come a long way since the transition from mainframe consoles and command line interfaces were replaced by the graphical, point and click interaction of the desktop.

What is artificial intelligence?

The pioneers of artificial intelligence theory: Alan Turing, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil

The pioneers of artificial intelligence theory: Alan Turing, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil

Artificial intelligence is the simulation of the functions of the human brain—such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages—by man-made machines, especially computers. The field was started by the noted computer scientist Alan Turing shortly after WWII and the term was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy, a cognitive and computer scientist and Stanford University professor. McCarthy developed one of the first programming languages called LISP in the late 1950s and is recognized for having been an early proponent of the idea that computer services should be provided as a utility.

McCarthy worked with Marvin Minsky at MIT in the late 1950s and early 1960s and together they founded what has become known as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Minsky, a leading AI theorist and cognitive scientist, put forward a range of ideas and theories to explain how language, memory, learning and consciousness work.

The core of Minsky’s theory—what he called the society of mind—is that human intelligence is a vast complex of very simple processes that can be individually replicated by computers. In his 1986 book The Society of Mind Minsky wrote, “What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle.”

The theory, science and technology of artificial intelligence have been advancing rapidly with the development of microprocessors and the personal computer. These advancements have also been aided by the growth in understanding of the functions of the human brain. The field of neuroscience has vastly expanded in recent decades our knowledge of the parts of the brain, especially the neocortex and its role in the transition from sensory perceptions to thought and reasoning.

Ray Kurzweil has been a leading theoretician of AI since the 1980s and has pioneered the development of devices for text-to-speech, speech recognition, optical character recognition and music synthesizers (Kurzweil K250). He sees the development of AI as a necessary outcome of computer technology and has written widely—The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), The Singularity is Near (2005) and How to Create a Mind (2012)—that this is a natural extension of the biological capacities of the human mind.

Kurzweil, who corresponded as a New York City high school student with Marvin Minksy, has postulated that artificial intelligence can solve many of society’s problems. Kurzweil believes—based on the exponential growth rate of computing power, processor speed and memory capacity—that humanity is rapidly approaching a “singularity” in which machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. He predicts that this transformation will occur in 2029; a moment in time when developments in computer technology, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will transform the minds and bodies of humans in ways that cannot currently be comprehended.

Some fear that the ideas of Kurzweil and his fellow adherents of transhumanism represent an existential threat to society and mankind. These opponents—among them the physicist Stephen Hawking and the pioneer of electric cars and private spaceflight Elon Musk—argue that artificial intelligence will become the biggest “blow back” in history such as depicted in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While much of this discussion remains speculative, anyone who watched in 2011 as the IBM supercomputer Watson defeated two very successful Jeopardy! champions (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) knows that AI has already advanced a long way. Unlike the human contestants, Watson was able to commit 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content, including the full text of Wikipedia, into four terabytes of its memory.

Media and interface obsolescence

Today, the advantages of artificial intelligence are available to great numbers of people in the form of personal assistants like Echo and Siri. Even with their limitations, these tools allow instant access to information almost anywhere and anytime with a series of simple voice commands. When combined with mobile, wearable and cloud computing, AI is making all previous forms of information access and retrieval—analog and digital alike—obsolete.

There was a time not that long ago when gathering important information required a trip—with pen and paper in hand—to the library or to the family encyclopedia in the den, living room or study. Can you think of the last time you picked up a printed dictionary? The last complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—all 20 volumes—was printed in 1989. Anyone born after 1993 is likely to have never seen an encyclopedia (the last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was printed in 2010). Further still, GPS technologies have driven most printed maps into bottom drawers and the library archives.

Instant messaging vs email communications

Among teenagers, instant messaging has overtaken email as the primary form of electronic communications

But that is not all.  The technology convergence embodied in artificial intelligence is making even more recent information and communication media forms relics of the past. Optical discs have all but disappeared from computers and the TV viewing experience as cloud storage and time-shifted streaming video have become dominant. Social media (especially photo apps) and instant messaging have also made email a legacy form of communication for an entire generation of young people.

Meanwhile, the advance of the touch/gesture interface is rapidly replacing the mouse and, with improvements in speech-to-text technology, is it not easy to visualize the disappearance of the QWERTY keyboard (a relic from the mechanical limitations of the 19th century typewriter)? Even the desktop computer display is in for replacement by cameras and projectors that can make any surface an interactive workspace.

In his epilogue to How to Create a Mind, Ray Kurzweil writes, “I already consider the devices I use and the cloud computing resources to which they are virtually connected as extensions of myself, and feel less than complete if I am cut off from these brain extenders.” While some degree of skepticism is justified toward Kurzweil’s transhumanist theories as a form of technological utopianism, there is no question that artificial intelligence is a reality and that it will be with us—increasingly integrated into us and as an extension of us—for now and evermore.