Kindle vs. the Apple \w+

A DIY bookscanner from diybookscanner.org
A DIY bookscanner from diybookscanner.org

One of the interesting things about Apple’s foray into mass media is that it has successfully become a mass media giant without making media a major profit center. If you read analysis of Apple’s earnings reports you won’t see much dwelling on how many music tracks Apple sold.

So, today I read this article in Wired about a DIY book scanner built for $300 in parts. The thing that really caught my eye in the article though was that apparently you can buy a commercial book scanner for around $5000.

If we assume Apple’s business model for books will be to sell them at break even with as little copy-protection as possible (i.e. it’s movie and music model) then this means when and if Apple’s \w+ finally comes out it will have a major advantage competing against Amazon which makes money on razor blades, not handles. (Forgetting any other differences, such as the Apple product’s almost inevitably better design.)

It wouldn’t be too hard for Apple to offer, or encourage third parties to offer, a book scanner for iTunes (if it’s still called iTunes) to allow users to rip their existing libraries. It’s a killer application — I for one would rather rip my library than move it. Heck, I’d probably rather build a scanner and rip my library than move it.

Interesting times.

Nikon DSLRs and Lenses, Computer Buying Rules of Thumb, and Twins

There’s a new web page on my site, which is very much under development. You can find it here. As I said, very much under development.

I’ve recently purchased (retail! ugh!) a Nikon 18-200mm lens. This is unquestionably the most jaw-droppingly awesome (cropped-frame) DSLR lens ever, but I’d been putting off buying it because of my general attitude towards digital equipment purchases in general, and DSLR stuff in particular, which has served me well, but cost me in the neighborhood of $150 in the case of this lens. Still, overall, no regrets.

Note: the photo posted above was taken with a Panasonic TZ-3 point and shoot in a dimly lit NICU, so don’t blame Nikon for the image quality. The TZ-3 is a small, cheap camera with a 10:1 zoom ratio optically stabilized Leica lens that can shoot video at similar quality to a MiniDV camcorder. Its successors (the TZ-5) can shoot 720p. And unlke the Canon TX-1 these cameras have good ergonomics and are cheap.

Anyway, when you’ve just had gorgeous twins after four years of trying, you don’t order the camera lens you plan to immortalize them with from the cheapest vendor on froogle, even if it will save you a few bucks, if it means missing their first few days. Or, at least, I don’t.

The Problem with Camera Reviews

The basic problem with online camera reviews is the complete lack of sane standards or criteria. For example, some reviewers such as dpreview and cameralabs (the two best review sites I’ve found) seem to insist on evaluating cameras by using their default settings — which is barely defensible for point-and-shoots, and indefensible for serious cameras — and spending most or all their time looking at JPEGs for cameras that shoot RAW.

Consequently, I’ve yet to see any useful reviews of Pentax DSLRs because they’ve got crappy in-camera JPEG processing and stupid presets. Just one serious review where the reviewer tweaked the settings before writing a “hey this is a pretty good camera with poor presets and JPEG output” review would be nice.

Anyway, the history of DSLRs is such that it’s very hard to really commit to a camera line (i.e. lens line) because everything is in such a state of flux. Consider Olympus who decided to adopt the Kodak-driven 4/3 standard (i.e. standardized vendor-neutral lens mount, smaller sensor) with the tacit assumption that DSLRs would standardize on smaller sensors. Boy is anyone who has invested a ton of money in Zuiko 4/3 system lenses screwed.

Nikon seemed to be sticking to cropped frame cameras too, but then responsed to the Canon full-frame cameras with the D3, which shows us that, in the end, DSLRs will settle on 35mm sized sensors, Olympus will be screwed, and cropped-frame digital lenses will only be useful in special “cropped frame” modes on bodies that ship in 2009 or 2010. Given that most people who shop for camera lenses are used to accumulating their lenses over a lifetime, this means … well just go back to my comment about how screwed the folks who bought into the 4/3 system are.

Note that Kodak has this strange history of trying to popularize retarded film formats. Can you remember 135 cartridges (basically drop in film cartridges that used 35mm sized film but didn’t require tricky threading… but didn’t hold the film flat on the focal plane guaranteeing crap pictures)? How about 110? How about disc film? How about APS? The only “successful” launch they seem to have managed was disposable cameras, an achievement roughly as praiseworthy as the invention of spam (email, not the meat by-product, which is actually useful). Each of these formats was intended to combat the (basically non-existent) problem of loading film into a camera at the cost of sharpness and resolution.

Moore’s Law and Digital Equipment Purchases

The rule of thumb I use to buy all forms of computer (and DSLRs are a computer with a lens mount) are as follows.

  1. Buy the best option that’s substantially cheaper than top-of-the-line
  2. Only upgrade when the replacement is at least twice as “good”
  3. Avoid Vendor Lock-In Unless Absolutely Necessary
  4. Buy only the barest chassis from Apple

Here are some examples:

If you buy a top-of-the-line Mac Pro (ignoring RAM and hard disks) you’ll pay $1600 more for 0.4 GHz of CPU speed. That’s at best a 15% speed improvement for nearly 60% more cash.

If you bought a Nikon D200 instead of a Nikon D80 when they both came out, again you got basically the same camera but in a better constructed box for a lot more money. Sure, it’s less likely to break, but (unless you make your living from Photography, and if you do, you don’t need my advice) you could spend the difference on lenses which (subject to the extinction of cropped frame cameras issue touched on above) won’t go obsolete in the time it takes UPS to deliver your new camera.

The Future Will Be Corrected On-The-Fly

The Nikon D3/D300 are, at least for the moment, a special case. They have the ability to compensate for lens distortion — at least by Nikon lenses — during in-camera processing, so you can shoot JPEGs in burst mode and have lens aberrations corrected on-the-fly. Moving forward, this threatens to turn many characteristics of lenses into software, and thus put optics into digital overdrive. Today, lenses designed and made before WWII compete with anything produced today, making lenses a lifetime investment. But if cameras can correct for lens flaws (chromatic and geometric aberration, falloff, etc.) on-the-fly, then you could basically stick a magnifying glass in front of the damn thing, completely changing the economics of camera lenses.

Some time ago, Panasonic (I think) pioneered digital cameras which continuously took photos and then simply grabbed the one that was taken as you pressed the shutter button. Casio has gone well beyond this with their latest camera which can (in one mode) temporally bracket your shot for 30 frames to either “side” of the point you release the shutter (at up to 60 fps at full resolution). You take a picture, and then select from the 60 frames the camera grabbed for the shot you really wanted. No more missing the point at which the bat struck the ball, the bride’s lips touched the groom’s or whatever.

Aside from having Casio optics, sensors, and ergonomics, the principle is brilliant. A future digital “point-and-shoot” could have a crappy lens whose bad characteristics are corrected on-the-fly by the onboard computer, and temporally shoot “around” the shutter press. Resolution is already high enough to allow composition after the fact (just keep zoomed out a little and you can crop in Photoshop).

Twins!

So I’ve been shooting a lot of pictures of baby girls for some strange reason, using a Nikon D50 with a new 18-200mm VR lens (after being blown away by this thing’s versatility, sharpness, and fast focusing, I must note that the damn thing is heavy, I may end up buying an 18-55mm VR lens for more casual use) and also my TZ-3. The TZ-3 pretty much makes SD video camcorders obsolete, although its video quality isn’t quite as good. I would imagine that the TZ-5 really does stomp SD camcorders.

The Nikon D50 was the first Nikon DSLR that was under $1000 and well-featured. It was, in essence, identical to the D70 (including having a focus motor and top-side display, things the D40, D40x, and D60 all lack). Following my own rule of thumb, I’ve yet to upgrade since there’s been no camera that’s twice as good at roughly the same price, so far. (The D80 has actually hit the price-point, but it’s not “twice as good” and it will presumably be supplanted by a D80x or D90 which will be “twice as good”.)

Going back to my dissing of camera reviews, another major point is that for almost everybody, the real difference between cameras is low light performance, and yet almost no space is devoted to it. E.g. dpreview’s galleries usually only feature one or two pictures taken at high ISO. Given the price differences between cameras with it and cameras without it, image stabilization is simply a must-have. Cameras without it should simply be pointed, and laughed, at. Optical is better than sensor-based. (My TZ-3 shoots like a steadicam.) Electronic is a joke. When reviewing digital cameras, a camera without image stabilization should simply be rated “useless” unless it has some incredible redeeming quality (like awesome high ISO performance).

Of all the photos I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks, only in one case was I shooting in ideal lighting conditions. And, guess what, even disposables shot pretty good photos in “ideal lighting conditions”. Pinhole cameras rock. When you’re shooting hand-held shots without flash at 1/4s in a dimly lit NICU, or at a family reunion, or in a museum, or at a concert, or any of the other zillions of badly lit places most photos get taken, “studio lighting comparisons” and “sample landscapes” are irrelevant. The ability of a DSLR to fire off 3-8 full resolution frames in a second through top quality glass is simply incomparable to smaller cameras.

One of the truly beautiful things about shooting baby pictures with a VR lens at very low shutter speeds is that I can capture the subject’s motion without camera shake. It’s a beautiful thing.

Oh well, feeding time…

A Little More Hedonic Regression

While it’s very reasonable to be suspicious of changes to the way CPI is calculated based on the increasing utility of decreasingly expensive goods (i.e. “digital convergence”) it’s important to note that it really makes a lot of sense and is not without precedent.

Imagine if you will that you’re an economist measuring CPI using a “fixed basket of goods” at the advent of printing. Now, while the ensuing information revolution will take place in slow motion compared to the digital revolution, consider just the following:

A member of the growing middle class will belong to some form of trade. In order to learn the necessary skills he/she becomes an apprentice and, in essence, provides several years of free labor in exchange for being taught the rudiments of his/her chosen profession. The printing press will eventually make this information available, essentially, for free.

An economist who includes “training” in the fixed basket will see food prices rise (as labor moves to the city during the industrial revolution) and the price of training and pins, say (Adam Smith’s famous example) plummet, but anything not in the fixed basket won’t be taken into account, and the trained workforce will consume vastly more training at very low prices from information which is now widely and cheaply disseminated.

This is exactly what’s happening with computers today, and economists are struggling to accurately represent this in their calculations. As more things go digital we’re finding computers more and more useful, and the fact that they’re better and cheaper is a huge benefit to us all.

And lest you think my earlier comparison of the Nintendo DS to a desktop workstation is artificial (because the DS isn’t a direct replacement for the workstation), you can buy a $10-20 gadget in Walmart today which has 20 or more 1980’s arcade games in it, the equivalent of $500 or more worth of consoles and cartridges. And the fact that people prefer $500 PS3s to these things is a pretty compelling argument that the PS3 really is perceived as being worth more than 25x as much as $500 worth of 1980s arcade games. Similarly, the OLPC (which currently costs about $200) is a direct workstation replacement, and again it is far superior to any $5000 computer available in 1990. (Indeed, the company I worked at the time for bought a laptop in 1992 for $3500 which was a sad joke compared to the OLPC.)

Finally, consider how digital technology is constantly expanding its reach. In 1974 (when I first got interested in Photography) a typical SLR cost $200 or more in 1974 dollars, an enlarger cost another $200, and the other stuff you’d need to make your own pictures cost another $200. That’s for black and white photography, and a single SLR with a fixed focal length lens. All these prices basically remained constant until cameras went digital. And when I get a faster computer for less money today, it’s improving my photos and videos as well as my word-processing and gaming.

One of the fascinating aspects of all this is that there’s an absolutely enormous opportunity for computers to deliver free “deflation” in the future. Optimization of software has almost become passe thanks to Moore’s “Law”. A typical web browser today uses 10-100MB to handle one web page. At some point, we assume, Moore’s Law will run into a brick wall , and optimization will suddenly become more important. The staggering inefficiency* of modern software affords huge potential for future optimization and it’s likely that enormous benefits will accrue, and much of it will likely be free (as improvements are made to the open source software than underpins most commercial software today). CPI calculations will get even more interesting.

* Actually it’s efficient with respect to development effort, and inefficient with respect to performance. The calculations will change dramatically when Moore’s Law gives out.

What’s Wrong with the Kindle™?

I’m late to the party commenting on the Kindle, and I don’t own one and haven’t touched one. The physical layout (e.g. easily mishit next page buttons) is dumb and the UI seems sluggish from videos. I have touched several Sony whatever-they’re-calleds: none of them were working properly, but I could see the display well enough to not care for it that much.

Here’s my one line summary of what’s wrong with the Kindle that no-one I’ve read seems to have picked up on:

It’s yet another damn thing.

Here’s a secret to setting the world afire with a new gizmo. It should be better, smaller, more convenient than a market dominating thing at some particular task, e.g. taking photographs, reading books, keeping track of contacts and appointments, browsing and playing music, or making phone calls, or watching videos, or browsing the web. And it should be at least adequate at a bunch of other things you either already do but carry other devices around for, or think you might do but don’t because you can’t stand carrying around other devices for.

Examples: cell phones didn’t really break out of the niche market until they replaced address books and business diaries. There was that moment when hundreds of thousands of business professionals suddenly stopped copying phone numbers from their Filofax (Dayplanner for Americans) and started doing the reverse. Suddenly you got a pocket-sized electronic diary and, oh, look, it’s also a cellphone, which is quite handy.

The iPhone is awesome precisely because it’s a world-beater at a couple of things you already do (e.g. use an iPod) and it’s perfectly adequate at a ton of other things.

I already carry a laptop, a cellphone, a Nintendo DS, a digital camera, and several other gadgets everywhere. I don’t want to add a frickin’ Kindle. Do I need to take that out of my bag at airport security as well?

Cringely’s latest column revives the biggest ongoing unfulfilled rumor in the Apple world (predating the Newton, I believe):

The fact that an iTablet could be a great e-book reader, too, is not a driving reason for such a device, I don’t believe. But it’s a nice capability. Read the book and watch the movie. Then watch Amazon’s new Kindle go up in flames.

My MacBook Pro has a great display and automatically adjusts its screen’s brightness to the ambient light level, making it a superb book reader — if it didn’t run so damn hot and had sufficient battery life, it would have everything the Kindle has as a bookreader (except the free Sprint network connection) with the advantage of not being one more damn thing. Rip off the keyboard and add wireless keyboard support, and yeah, where do I buy one?

It’s a pocket-sized one of these…

I just read one of the most intelligent articles I’ve come across in the last few months, and it wasn’t in the New Yorker. I recommend you click the link and read it, but if you prefer an executive summary: the iPhone is a pocket-sized networked computer that replaces all the crap you currently need to carry around to do business (i.e. PDA, phone, laptop), is cheap enough that you can buy it yourself rather than wait for IT to relent and support it, and it’s being sold as a phone because people understand phones.

I remember when the Newton came out in 1992 (or was it 1993?) and I thought it was going to be equally disruptive. In the end, the Newton failed largely because while it eventually did more-or-less everything it set out to do very well (as of the MessagePad 120) it wasn’t a rounder wheel — it didn’t replace anything you already needed to carry around, it was just a really good … whatever it is that it was.

The iPhone is a better phone than your phone, a better iPod than your iPod, and a better laptop than your laptop (well … it’s smaller, has better battery life, and it always has a ‘net connection). OK, it won’t replace my laptop across the board, but it certainly can replace my phone and iPod, and I’ll always have it handy, whereas I don’t carry my laptop with me when, say, I go shopping. So if I see an interesting game, I can’t look up reviews of it until I get home.

Oh, I’m not buying an iPhone until I see what the next version or three look like. Specifically, I want more storage capacity and SD media support. 7.2 GB just doesn’t seem like nearly enough.