Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Buy your "geo gifts" here!

At a recent geo-networking meeting in Denver I ran into Tina Cary, who mentioned to me that she had put together an online GeoStore, featuring items from Amazon with a geo flavor. I thought this was an interesting idea, and she's put together a good assortment of items which could be of interest to "geo people", I recommend you check it out. (I receive no commission on this by the way, I just thought it was a nice site ... though if there's a sudden upsurge in traffic maybe I'll be able to get Tina to buy me a beer next time I see her!)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

First impressions: quick review of the Amazon Kindle

I received my Amazon Kindle this afternoon, and my first impressions are good. I think it's really important though to understand what it is, and what it isn't. It's not going to be my device of choice for reading blogs, or newspapers, or magazines, or my business or personal documents. But I do think it is going to be my device of choice for reading BOOKS which you read from start to end (not so much technical reference books where you jump in and out).

I read a lot online. I almost never buy paper newspapers and rarely watch TV - I get most of my news online. I read a lot of blogs. Both of these activities - reading news and blogs - tend to be non-sequential. You skim over headlines, read the stories that interest you, and skip those that don't. When online (as opposed to reading paper newspapers), there are often links in one story that lead you to another. Standard web browsers are a good environment for this - you can fit plenty of information on the screen, it's fast and efficient to move your mouse to select links, the pages can include color and graphics. The Kindle can let you read news and blogs, but it's clunky for this. I could potentially see myself using it occasionally for this if I was traveling and didn't have other options, though even then I would probably prefer the browser on my iPhone in most circumstances - it does have color and graphics, and I can more quickly select links on the touch screen. But in general I would use my laptop whenever possible for these things. The same is true of magazines on the Kindle, only more so - I think that here you lose more by not having color graphics. In general I read more offline magazines than newspapers, as I think it's harder to recreate the full magazine experience online.

For reading my own work or personal documents, again in most cases I think that the Kindle will not be the right choice. In most cases when I am reading a document like this, I may want to take notes, make edits, email things to other people. Again my laptop is really the right tool for this job. If I have some documents that I may just want to refer back to then it's nice that I can download those to the Kindle, but I don't see that being a primary use. On that note, I saw before I bought it that it costs ten cents to convert a document and deliver it wirelessly to your Kindle - I found out after buying it that there is an option to convert it for free and download it to your computer, then transfer it via a USB connection. Though to be honest unless I was really transferring lots of documents, I'd probably pay the ten cents most of the time to save the hassle of doing the manual transfer (not a huge deal, but you will spend several minutes to do that).

So anyway, on to the books, the real reason for having this. Despite all my other online activities, I have never read a whole book online. I have had Safari subscriptions for technical books, where you jump in and out, search for specific items, and read sections at a time, but you typically don't sit there and read the thing from end to end. With the Kindle I think I will be quite happy to read books from beginning to end. The "electronic paper" display really is very easy on the eyes. And all you have to do to flip to the next page is press on the large bar which runs all the way down the right hand side of the Kindle (there's a smaller one on the left too), which you can do without thinking at all. This really just lets you get immersed in the reading more than in most online environments where you might have to use the mouse or even just the page down button to scroll to a new screen or page.

The form factor is nice - it's very light and compact, but the screen is large enough to read comfortably. The design could be slicker, but I like it better in person than in the pictures. It comes with a nice leather book-like folding case. And when you're reading on it you really are just focused on the screen - Jeff Bezos talks about making the technology "disappear" so you can just read, and I think they have been successful in doing that.

And I like the browsing and buying experience, which you can do either on the Kindle, or on Amazon in your regular browser. You can download the first chapter of a book (on everything I've looked at so far, at least) which is nice for sampling before you commit to buying. Prices relative to hard copy books vary significantly. For technical books there is no difference in most cases (which is a shame!). For those I think that O'Reilly's Safari continues to be a good option. Current best-sellers and new books are mainly priced at $10, which is often $10-20 less than the corresponding paper book. And there seem to be some good deals on "classics" - I have bought 1984 for $3.75, versus the cheapest paper version on Amazon being $10, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles for $2.39, both of which had been on my list of things to re-read sometime. So while the initial cost of $400 is pretty high and will clearly need to come down quite a bit before any widespread adoption, the net cost if you read tens of books a year is actually a lot less.

I think that the form factor is really good for travel. I like to travel light, and if I throw 3 or 4 books in my bag I really feel the difference. The Kindle is very lightweight (lighter than a single paperback book), so I really like that aspect.

In conclusion, I think it's highly likely that having the Kindle will result in me reading more books than I did before, especially when I'm traveling (though I'm not doing that much these days). But I think that a combination of the ease of the buying process, the good prices (in many cases), and the convenience (and novelty factor, at least initially) of the device itself will encourage me to read more. But only time will tell whether this really will be the case or not ... I'll report back in a little while!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon Kindle electronic book

I just came across the Amazon Kindle electronic book, which was released today, and found it very interesting. Check out the video overview in the preceding link. They have obviously put a great deal of thought into it. I thought that one of the most interesting things from a technical and business model perspective is that the book has wireless connectivity (using EVDO 3G cell phone technology) with no ongoing service plan. You order books directly from the device and they are downloaded within a minute. The device itself isn't cheap ($400) and you pay for the books, but nevertheless this is the first service like this that I'm aware of without a monthly fee. You can also order a number of newspapers and magazines, and read certain blogs (not clear if you can add RSS feeds from the stuff I've seen so far), and all of these are automatically delivered wirelessly to the device. You get free wireless access to wikipedia. And there's a way of emailing your own documents to the device ("for a small fee").

They have put a lot of emphasis on making the actual reading experience very book-like, and use the "electronic paper" technology which was also used in Sony's e-book, which I haven't experienced (yet) but which has good reviews. And the form factor is quite book-like. But then they've added in additional technology where it makes sense, like having a built in dictionary, bookmark capabilities, etc. And of course you have all of the good features of shopping at Amazon like book reviews and recommendations, and it is automatically tied to your existing Amazon account.

I'm always interested in significant new innovations in how users interact with technology (like the iPhone), and this seems to me to be a candidate for something in that league - in fact it could be more significant than the iPhone if successful, in terms of changing the way people do things (reading, in this case). So anyway, I was sufficiently intrigued that I have ordered one to give it a try - it should arrive tomorrow, and I'll report back on my experience. 

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Startup diary - 7 weeks in

I've concluded that running a stealth mode startup is not the optimal role for doing lots of blogging ... for one thing you're extremely busy, and for another you don't want to talk about most of the things you're doing (just yet)! This is just a quick post to say that I'm alive and well, and we're making good progress towards getting a first release out around the end of this year or early in the new year. I've been writing some Java code, which I've been enjoying after not writing much code the past few years - have decided that software development is like riding a bike, you don't forget how to do it :). And I've been getting into other things which I haven't done directly before, like looking at future funding options for the business. The startup scene is pretty active in the Denver-Boulder area, and I've found the Boulder Denver New Technology Meetup Group to be an interesting forum and good place for networking - they meet on the first Tuesday of each month, and the general format is that 5 startup companies present for 10 minutes each. I plan to present at one of the upcoming meetings on what we're up to. Anyway, more news soon ...

Friday, November 2, 2007

Never a dull moment in the Social Networking space

Well, I knew we were jumping into a hot space when I started Spatial Networking, but the activity in the social networking area in the five weeks since we started has been pretty mind-boggling. First, Facebook announced their fbFund (actually just before we formally incorporated the company) which aims to encourage application development on the Facebook Platform by offering grants of $25,000 to $250,000 - which seemed like one good indication that we were getting into an interesting area. Then, after Steve Ballmer saying that social networks seemed "faddish", Microsoft invested $240m for a 1.6% stake in Facebook, valuing them at $15 billion when they only have an estimated $150m in revenues. For a few weeks now there has been great anticipation about Facebook launching a major new advertising initiative, which is expected to be announced next week on November 6.

And then yesterday, there was a major announcement from Google about a new open platform called Open Social, which is as the name suggests a new open approach to social networking. As Techcrunch puts it, "within just the last couple of days, the entire social networking world has announced that they are ganging up to take on Facebook, and Google is their Quarterback in the big game". The impressive list of partners involved includes LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo and - interestingly - and Oracle, who are (presumably) looking to applying some of the principles of social networking in a business environment. We had been thinking about potential applications for our system with before this announcement.

So this all seems like good news for us, in terms of enabling us to integrate the location related functionality we're developing (focused on Facebook initially) with multiple systems using one standard approach.