Opinion

John C. Abell

By Nook or by crook

Feb 27, 2013 22:38 UTC

Barnes & Noble, the venerable book merchant whose history spans three centuries, is in the midst of a strategic identity crisis: how to admit defeat on its Nook platform while turning its last-bookstore-standing status into a de facto monopoly. Barnes & Noble did not spark the e-book revolution – now accounting for 22 percent of all book sales – nor has it proven particularly good at evolving it. So now it’s back to basics, which is to say, back to books.

The precise fiscal health of the company’s Nook Division ‑ e-readers and e-books ‑ is not public knowledge. But the company’s most recent results revealed that its total losses had increased from the previous year. This, as you might surmise, is not the desired trajectory for a business unit that Microsoft asserted was worth $1.7 billion a mere 10 months ago (when Microsoft invested $300 million for a 17.6 percent stake). Only three months ago, Pearson reaffirmed that estimate when it took a 5 percent stake for $89.5 million.

Now the New York Times reports that a person familiar with the company’s strategy says disappointing holiday sales in particular “caused executives to realize the company must move away from its program to engineer and build its own devices and focus more on licensing its content to other device makers.”

In other words, not quite four years after it released its first Nook e-reader, B&N is prepared to close the books on hardware.

To wit: The company’s chairman, Leonard S. Riggio, is bidding to buy all 689 Barnes & Noble bookstores, effectively separating the fate of old media from that of the e-book division, which was predicated on the ill-fated strategy of pushing e-reading devices as well as reading material.

Nielsen: the past, the present, but not the future of TV

Feb 22, 2013 22:38 UTC

This week, Nielsen announced that its viewership numbers will include the TV shows that get to the living room via Internet-connected TVs rather than through antennas or a cable/sat box. It’s a modest acknowledgement of the cord-trimming trend by which viewers are turning to non-traditional sources for “TV” such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

That’s good news, as far as it goes. But only a thimble’s worth. Nielsen, television’s quantifier of record, isn’t going nearly far enough to keep up with the times. Not accounting for rapidly evolving viewing habits and methods is a greater threat to the veracity of Nielsen’s numbers than age-old criticism of its method of computing them. 

Video consumption from Internet sources may still be just a blip – it’s at 4.2 percent now, though it’s growing rapidly. But consumption on devices that are not TV sets – tablets, smartphones, computers ‑ is also happening, with perhaps an even more rapid rate of growth. A recent study by The Diffusion Group (TDG) predicts that 10 percent of TV watching will be on tablets within four years. Nielsen itself reports that about 40 percent of Americans use a tablet or smartphone as a second screen, while watching TV, at least once a day ‑ and 80 percent at least once a month.

Go Bag grab bag: Analog accessories

Feb 22, 2013 18:00 UTC

Go Bag LogoBeing a successful road warrior isn’t just about electronics. There are a host of small items that aren’t flashy, but make mobile life easier. Here are a few useful things to help you can get more work done while on the go.
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Winter presents a unique challenge. When it’s cold outside you have to risk frostbite or wear special gloves to operate your smartphone and tablet, whose multi-touch screens respond only to your fingertips and materials that mimic them. I’ve tried a few different gloves, and the pair in my go bag is a recent acquisition: North Face e-tips.

These gloves work seamlessly with touchscreens; I type as well (or poorly) as I do without them. They are cinched at the cuff and long enough to stay tucked under a coat sleeve. The small rubberized dots on the palm and three fingers make it easier to keep a firm grip on your electronics (and good for driving). They keep my hands warm in the bitter cold.

I would recommend going down a size, as I did, so that they are skin tight. This allows for better accuracy and makes them akin to glove liners; you can wear a heavier pair of winter gloves over them during the coldest treks and still be protected as you tap away.

Apple 11″ Macbook Air: No compromise

Feb 15, 2013 18:40 UTC

For years I’ve used a 13″ MacBook Air as my primary computer. Before that, a 15″ MacBook Pro. Before that, larger, heavier WinTel machines. It’s a truism that tech tends to shrink and become ever more powerful, an extrapolation of the famous 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore that chip performance would double every couple of years. But because I can do so many things now with a smartphone or tablet that only used to be possible with a “real” computer, the threshold question comes down to this: What is the least laptop I can get by with, no regrets?

By “least” I don’t mean going as cheap as I can, or foregoing features that I need. I do mean taking stock of what I actually need, or could use. Most of us probably live by an inflated notion of “must-have”; the new $250 Samsung Chromebook that I reviewed is the prototype for this idea of a stripped-down, bare essential machine, but it still lacks necessary utilities.

To find the sweet spot, you need to use a full-service machine, and the MacBook Air makes a strong case that it is worth the 4-5x premium over the Chromebook.

BlackBerry Z10: The empire strikes back

Feb 8, 2013 18:31 UTC

There’s a lot to like about BlackBerry’s new Z10 smartphone, which makes its serious shortcomings all the more disappointing.

BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion, has clearly paid very close attention to how other smartphone makers have thrived over the past few years as it floundered. It has spent two long years preparing for this bet-the-farm moment — and is so desperate for the new traction that could come from a fresh start that it pre-announced a phone it cannot sell in the United States until March.

First, the good news: In look and feel this is a mature smartphone. It is both businesslike and fun to use and easy to imagine as the choice for road warriors and consumers alike. It is sleek and light; it fills the hand properly and can convincingly be operated with one hand most of the time. At 4.2 inches the screen is larger than the iPhone 5 but smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S III. Resolution is greater than on both: 1,280 x 768, matching HTC’s Windows 8X and One X.

Would you like a P.O. Box with that frappuccino?

Feb 8, 2013 16:59 UTC

(Archival photo, circa 2013.)

THE FUTURE – Has it been only 30 years since the U.S. Postal Service, bowing to a hostile Congress, sought to stay alive by ending Saturday delivery of first-class mail — and setting in motion one of the most remarkable and rapid cultural and infrastructure revolutions in history?

To mark the anniversary of the post-Post Office epoch, let’s relive its history. The announcement in February 2013 that regular Saturday mail delivery would be ending became a touchstone moment. The Economist reported that America was doomed. Liberals decried the “decimation” of an institution they insisted bound us together as a nation. Conservatives, who had applauded a Republican-led Congress’s insistence on forcing the Post Office to make enormous pension plan pre-payments, reveled in the prospect they’d transformed the institution.

The fight was never far from the surface. When it became a 2016 presidential campaign issue, it ensured that the next president would have to do … something. But no candidate committed to anything more than “reform.”

Google’s silvery Samsung Chromebook could be gold

Feb 1, 2013 18:44 UTC

You won’t mistake the new Samsung Chromebook for Apple’s rockstar MacBooks or any other full-powered laptop.  But, it’s far more useful than your average netbook, and, at its $249 price, it might be the best value out there. So while it may not be the only computer you own, depending on your needs, it certainly could be the only one you carry.

Even though there are two current Samsung models, plus one from Acer, all Chromebooks are really a physical platform for Google’s cloud ecosystem. They are designed to enable Gmail, Drive, Play, YouTube, Calendar, Maps, Google+, etc, to all work together seamlessly and interactively.

The look of my test Samsung Chromebook — the midrange model — very intentionally mimics the Apple design ethic. It has a plasticky brushed silver case. The bottom of the case tapers slightly, though not nearly as dramatically as the MacBook Air. It is 5 mm thicker than a MacBook Air’s thinnest point, about two inches narrower and an inch shorter than the 13-inch equivalent, and, at 2.43 pounds, is ½ pound lighter.

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