Kindle 3 and Science Fiction Short Stories

My Kindle 3, the wi-fi model, arrived Friday, August 27th.  I had bought a Kindle 1 when they first came out, but sold it a few months later to a lady friend who reads and travels more than I do.  At the time I was mostly listening to books and discovered I didn’t read much with my eyes any more.  Well, this year I joined four online book clubs and I’m doing far more eye reading.  Many of the books we read are out of print, with no Kindle editions, but a few are, so I thought I’d try another Kindle.

After unpacking my new toy, I was immediately struck by the Kindle 3’s elegant design.  The Kindle 1 had been clunky to hold, and much bigger and heavier.

kindle

kindle2

The new Kindle 3 is very light.  I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the weight of two books I’m comparing it to above.  The Catcher in the Rye is a trade paperback on the small size, so the Kindle is just a tiny bit taller and wider than the mass market paperback on the right, but much thinner.

My main purpose for the Kindle 3 is to read free science fiction short stories, especially free ones off the internet.  The first short story I loaded was “The Island” by Peter Watts, which I found in .PDF format.  I plugged in the Kindle 3 and found the documents folder and dropped it in.  It appears very sharp on the Kindle 3, even though it had a very tiny font.  Readable, but not font resizable.  If you read it online, the text looks larger, maybe 10-11 pt, but on the Kindle 3 it looks like its 8-9 pt.  Of course on, my 22” monitor, the page is much bigger.

This brings up the whole problem of getting content on the Kindle.  Books bought at Amazon are breeze to load and read with all the options.  These books have a DRM that protects them.  DRM free ebooks in the .MOBI, .TXT and .AZW formats can be copied directly to the Kindle with the USB cable, or with networking via Amazon.  With .MOBI or .AZW all the reformatting features work, but not with .PDF.  You can magnify the page, but that’s not very reader friendly.

Most .PDF documents are formatted for 8.5 x 11 paper – but if people wanted to create .PDF files specifically for ebook readers they should create a custom page size to fit ebook readers.    The Kindle screen is roughly 3 and 5/8th by 4 and 3/4th inches, which explains why the words are so small when reading a normal .PDF.

So I will prefer to avoid PDF stories if I can unless they have larger typefaces.  There are converters for PDF to MOBI but I don’t want to mess with a converter if I don’t have to.  I’d like to plug in my Kindle and just do a Save As to its documents folder.  There are websites like ManyBooks and Feedbooks that offer a variety of ebook formats that are directly Kindle compatible.  That’s nice.  So the second short story I got, “The Altar at Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, in .AZW was font adjustable, unlike the .PDF story.

In my online book clubs we’ll discuss short stories in addition to the novel of the month if they are available online and free for anyone to read.   (It’s too much trouble for everyone to track down a paper copy.)  I wanted the Kindle so I could read these stories not at my desk, but in my reading chair.  Now that I have the Kindle, I’m trying to find the easiest way to get these stories off the computer and onto the Kindle.  If they are too much trouble I won’t get around to reading them.

It’s a shame there isn’t just one format that all ebook readers to use.  Amazon really should support the unencrypted .EPUB format.  That would save a tremendous amount of work for web sites putting free ebook content online.  .MOBI seems to be the go-to format for free Kindle ebooks and it’s easy to get novels that way, but free short stories online tend to be in .HTML or .PDF, which if I want resizable fonts would require going through a converter.

It’s going to be a while before there’s enough people with ebook readers before a popular format will emerge to replace .PDF online.  Sorry Adobe, but .PDF just isn’t ebook friendly.  I tend to think .EPUB will be that universal format, but we will need Amazon’s help.

Besides the free content, there is a wealth of science fiction short stories to buy for the Kindle.  My first purchase for my new Kindle was The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, which turns out to have “The Island” by Peter Watts.  The annual Hartwell collection is available for the Kindle, but not the Horton and Strahan, but I expect that to change.  Amazon offers several years of previous editions of these anthologies too, so my Kindle will become a short story reading machine.

I can also get Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Interzone and Lightspeed magazines for the Kindle through Fictionwise, and Analog, Asimov’s and Lightspeed through Amazon.

Finally, Amazon offers a many reprint, theme and original story anthologies for the Kindle too.  The Kindle 3 will hold 3,500 books, which could mean 40,000 short stories.  That’s pretty nifty, when you think about it.

JWH – 8/29/10

Update: The 2010 Rich Horton collection is available at Lightspeed Magazine Store for $7.95.  Unfortunately, I see no sign of what formats are available.

Special thanks to Ignacio, whose comment below convinced me to try Calibre.  It solved the PDF conversion problem.  This elegant program does wonders with dicing and slicing ebooks.  http://calibre-ebook.com/

Ebook Ethics

Everything we do in life has ethical considerations, even something simple as buying books.  Ebooks represent a change, and that change has good and bad consequences.

Bad

  • Ebooks will put a lot of people out of work.  Bookstores may disappear like record stores.  This is a horrible consequence in these bad economic times.  The digital world is just more efficient than the analog world and that kills jobs.
  • Ebooks will also kill competition, reducing the number of businesses in the marketplace.  Amazon and Apple could theoretically take over all the book and music business from tens of thousands of small businesses.
  • Ebooks are anti-social.  Instead of buying books at a bookstore and meeting other people you order books directly.  Instead of sharing books with friends, readers are locked into a closed world of DRM.
  • Ebooks could damage cultural heritage and history.  Printed books can last for hundreds of years, and people value them, but ebooks probably have no lasting power at all.
  • Bookstores might become extinct which would be a huge cultural loss.
  • Book ownership is probably a deceptive concept and sellers like Amazon shouldn’t describe their ebooks are “for sale.”  To be honest, sellers should claim they are long term rentals until DRM copy protection is removed.

Good

  • Ebooks are extremely environmental.  Wood pulp technology uses lots of water, energy and chemicals, and those chemicals get into the environment.  Printing takes both energy and chemicals.  Distributing books creates lots of carbon and other pollutants.  The carbon footprint of ebooks is almost zero.
  • Ebooks could mean more money for writers, editors and publishers because ebooks could do away with the used book market.  As long as DRM technology is successful, more readers would actually buy books, instead of borrowing them or buying used, which is more ethical for the writer and publisher.
  • Ebooks might encourage more reading and literacy because of their convenience and possibly make reading more appealing to young people because ebooks are available on smart phones, an essential device for kids.
  • Ebooks could enhance cultural heritage and history.  It’s quite easy to load up an ebook reader with the great books of the western world.  Every child or family could have their own library of thousands of free books.

Ethically, the primary conflict is jobs versus the environment.  But that will be true of all industries and businesses as time passes.  If all books, magazines and newspapers were read on digital readers it would have a positive impact on the environment, but at a terrible cost in jobs.

The secondary ethical concern is which format is better for promoting literacy, knowledge and culture?  This is much harder to judge until after ebooks have taken over.  We won’t know their full impact for a very long time.  But consider this:  What if you could hold a device that had every book you ever bought or read in your entire life with annotations, notes, and supplemental reference essays and reviews?  Would such a superbook library have a positive social impact?

I already miss record stores and LP album covers, but I don’t miss LPs.  I don’t even miss CDs, but I do miss shopping for music at record stores.  I have a subscription to Rhapsody Music and can listen to as many CDs as I can cram into my month for $9.99, but the fun of discovering new albums is gone.   From about 1965-1995 I bought 2-4 albums a week.  I loved going to record stores, but that activity is as ancient as horse and buggy rides. 

I’ve been going to bookstores 1-2 times a week since 1965.  It’s about the only shopping I still like to do recreationally.  I’ve bought far more books than I have ever read, or will ever have time to read.  I will truly miss bookstores if they disappear.

On the other hand, I discover all my books and music now from the Internet.  I’m in four online book clubs.  I’m far more involved with books, authors and readers then when I only shopped at bookstores.  Most of my friendships are based around talking about books or music.  I never really went to bookstores or record stores to socialize with the staff, or ask them for recommendations, although I’ve always liked meeting other book and music fans.

Amazon, with its supplemental content and customer reviews has been a quantum leap in helping me discover new books to read.  It’s far more social in helping me make book buying decisions than bookstores ever were.  Web 2.0 technology is a different kind of socializing.  It’s intellectual over physical. 

JWH 8/21/10

How Kindle and Nook Can Better Compete With The iPad

Last weekend I wrote “To Ebook or Not To Ebook” and I’m still agonizing over which ebook reader to get.  There are two main issues I’m still worrying over.  First, which book is the most comfortable to read for long periods, and second, which ebook reader is the most universal in terms of buying ebooks.  I imagine the light E-Ink readers, the Nook and Kindle, are easier to hold for long periods of time, but it’s obvious the iPad can read books from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and many other smaller ebook sellers.  The iPad is almost the universal ebook reader and I’m leaning towards buying it.

My need for reading comfort might put me in a limited market so my buying desires are of less concern to ebook engineers, but I wished they’d consider them.  I have bad eyes, and back problems that make it uncomfortable to sit long in one position, and an arm problem that makes holding a book pain inducing over time.  I’m getting old and wimpy.  I’d love to sit and read for hours like I used to, but it’s a struggle.  That’s why I fear the iPad – many reviewers have complained its difficult to hold for lengthy reading sessions.

And, besides that, I don’t want Apple to just crush the competition, so how could the Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Sony ereaders better compete with the iPad?

Universal Reader

First off, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders should make a cross license deal to display each other’s DRM material.  That way any Kindle, Nook or Kobo owner could buy and read books from all the leading booksellers.  The obvious solution would be a universal ebook format and DRM, but that might take years to hammer out.  It might be easier to add competitor’s software to each others readers.  Obviously, the iPad does it with ease.

The reason why I’m leaning towards the iPad is because I can buy books from all the major ebook retailers and read it on the iPad.  If the E-Ink readers want to compete they need to do the same thing.  It was foolish of Amazon to start the trend for proprietary readers.

Add a Handle with Trigger

The second way to compete with the iPad is make the E-Ink readers even more svelte and easier to hold.  I wished they came with a detachable handle so the ebook reader would look something like a church fan.  A nice handgrip with a trigger to page forward would make holding an ebook reader nicer, and make the page turning more convenient.  You can leave the back page button on the reader because it wouldn’t be needed that often.  I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine a handgrip handle would be more comfortable to hold than holding the ebook reader like a book. 

I’m talking about making the device comfortable for reading 8 hours at a stretch.  This is where the iPad is weak.

The Third Option

I’ve even thought of another option, but this one by-passes the E-Ink technology.  Keep the books in the handle and beam the content to a pair of special glasses via Bluetooth.  I wonder if it’s possible to make a pair of glasses that displays words that are even easier to read, something that helps the reader tune out the world and become one with the word.  In the music world we’ve moved the speakers into the ears, why not move the page right in front of the eyes?

Why Reading is Specialized

iPad fans lord their gadgets over the E-Ink readers claiming its a universal solution.  They ask why anyone would want a specialized device when one device, the iPad, can do so much.  I think the iPad is a revolutionary device, it moves the computer screen off the desk or lap and into the hands where it makes a big functional difference.  But is that the ultimate location?  And is it the right weight and form factor?

Bookworms like to read for hours on end, and the ultimate ebook reader will cater to that need.  I tend to believe the lower weight of the E-Ink technology gives it a chance to compete with the more glamorous and universal device of the iPad if they are optimized for streamline reading of text.

Many bloggers and journalists have written about the approaching doom for the E-Ink reader, but I tend to doubt those predictions.  That doesn’t mean I won’t buy an iPad any day now, but it also doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Kindle 3 when it comes out.  The new Pearl E-Ink technology is appealing.  It just galls me to think about buying ebook reader that can’t read all ebooks.

The Deciding Factor

To be honest, the universal ebook reader of the iPad sways me more than comfort of the smaller E-Ink technology readers, and I’ll probably buy an iPad for now.  That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy an E-Ink reader too, especially if they become a universal reader.  I’m greatly disappointed that most books I’m reading right now aren’t available for any ebook reader.  That sucks.  But we’re living in transitional times for books and times will change soon.

JWH 7/4/10

17,081 Songs

I finally finished ripping my CD collection, a task I’ve been meaning to do for years.  I put it off, time and again, but I finally made up my mind that it had to be done, and when I did, it only took a few weeks.  What I did was set up two old computers to be a ripping factory.  The results were 17,081 songs contained in 125 gigabytes.  I immediately copied them to a USB hard drive and took it to work and backed up the library to my office computer.  I figured after that effort I didn’t want to loose my new digital music library to a crashed or stolen computer.  The question now:  How do I maximize the use of my song collection.

As I write this I keep an iTunes window open with a single long listing of my songs sorted by artist.  My collection represents decades of collecting covering centuries of music history.  One lesson from holding every CD I’ve bought while putting them into the burner is learning how many I’ve forgotten I owned.  On CBS Sunday Morning today they profiled Shelby Lynne, and I checked and found I had six of her CDs, but not the one they talked about that I wanted to hear the most – damn!  Just now I noticed I have four CDs of John Lee Hooker and clicked on Chill Out to play as I type.

Other than just random gazing at my list I have no real idea of what’s in my collection.  I can remember my favorites to a degree, but I’ve discovered its easy to find forgotten favorites, albums I played regularly years ago that I’ve since forgotten I even loved, much less owned.  Can you name all the movies you got excited about during the 1980s?  Susan, my wife, told me to go through all 17,081 and rate them.  Sure thing, Susie.  iTunes tells me I have 48.3 days of 24×7 listening.  I wished iTunes, Windows Media Player, or Firefly Media Server would tell me how many albums I owned.

Since I started this project I’ve been playing music a lot more and loving the rediscovery of old friends, but I’ve also been bummed by how many songs I own that I just don’t dig – not in the least.  Some songs were filler to begin with, but in other cases I guess I’ve just changed.

How To Be My Own Disc Jockey

What I need to do is organize the playing of the best songs and musical genres in a way that educates me about my own collection.  The traditional way to organize playing digital music is playlists, but that assumes you know what you want on your list before you build them.

Another option is shuffle play.  The random jumping between 17,081 songs can lead to some weird song combinations, but it does get me to hear songs I would never try from just memory.  And it can be surprisingly surprising.  “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” by Daniel Lanois just started playing.  Hell, I didn’t even know I had a Daniel Lanois CD, but it’s from a soundtrack to movie called Until the End of the World, a film I only vaguely remember.  The next song is “Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call” by Janis Ian, which is just as good.  I knew I had several Janis Ian CDs, but never remember even hearing this song, but I’ve played the album several times I know.  The next song is “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen, from the Live 1975-85 album.  Again, another song I like but didn’t remember.  Either I have a terrible memory or most music is not very memorable.

So far, I can say that random play succeeds the best to teach me about my own record collection.  However, I just discovered I can’t rate the songs as I hear them because I’m using the Firefly Media Server on a separate computer server to feed them through iTunes, and to rate the songs would require my library being in iTunes on my Vista machine.  This brings up another huge problem for having a digital music library.

Where Do I Keep the Master Library?

Right now my collection is on an old Dell server, ripped and stored under Windows Media Player, but distributed throughout the house by the Firefly Media Server.  I can play songs through iTunes on any machine, or I can play songs through my stereo using a Roku SoundBridge M1001.  I can remotely manage the SoundBridge with VisualMR, so I can use my laptop to select which songs to play on my stereo.  Supposedly, I can use Windows Media Connect to share songs between any Windows Media Player on any of my machines, or use Windows Media Center to distribute songs throughout my house with Windows Media extender devices like the Xbox, but I haven’t figured out how to use them yet, and I don’t own an Xbox.  The Roku maybe an extender, but I haven’t explored that angle either.

I could put a copy of the library on each computer I own, and on my iPods, but what if I decide to delete a song, I’d have to go to each machine and delete the file to keep all the libraries in sync.  That would be messy.  Ditto for adding new songs.  I could buy a 160gb iPod and make it my master library, but that means being tied to iTunes.

I’m thinking about buying a larger hard drive for my main Vista machine and putting the library there and installing Firefly Music Server on the same machine and taking down my extra machine.  Why burn watts on two machines with work that could be done by one?  This would also allow me to backup my library with Mozy.com, which I can restore to my work machine occasionally – so work and home will stay in sync.

Now that I have a master library, I want to clean it up and delete all the songs and albums I don’t like.  And with the master library on one machine I can catalog it in both Windows Media Player and iTunes because I have yet to decide which I like best for browsing songs and making playlists.  And if I ever get a Windows Media Center extender I could browse album covers from my HDTV and play songs on my living room stereo.  Both Windows Media Center and iTunes have the nice cover flow browsing feature.  Let’s hope in the future that cover flow can be expanded to include all the CD jacket data and editorial content.

Another advantage of having a single master library is collecting ratings.  If the files are on the same machine I can rate songs in both iTunes and Windows Media Player.  I have no idea how this information is stored, or whether it migrates well to new computers and new operating system upgrades.

Yet, another advantage to saving my music library on my main home computer is when I buy new songs.  They will be added immediately to the master library.

Where To Play Music?

Most people think the iPod is the sole venue for playing digital music but I don’t.  I maybe an old fuddy-duddy because I don’t like separating myself from the world by plugging the white buds into my ears.  I have nice speakers on my computers at work and home, and I also have a nice stereo system in the den with comfy La-Z-Boys for truly devoted music meditation.  Sure I have iPods to carry around, but strangely, I prefer to listen to audio books on the go.  My wife does like playing music in the car on her commutes, but it’s easy to sync songs to her iPod and play them through the car’s stereo.

I share my music collection with my wife.  We can play music in the den that’s heard well in the kitchen and breakfast room, meaning we can do dishes and groove at the same time.  Eventually I think I might like to pipe my music library into my bedroom too.

Ripping music to MP3 has made it easy to play songs anywhere without the hassle of finding CDs and filing them back afterwards.  The key will be maintaining the master library.  It will be annoying if I delete a hated song one day and then be listening to music the next and that deleted song pop up again somewhere else.  Or conversely, if I buy a song at home but can’t find it on my work computer later.

Buying New Music

Now that I have my nice digital music library and my CDs are all filed alphabetically away, how do I add new music?  Over the past few years I have occasionally bought digital songs that are now trapped in ancient DRMs and stuck on the computers on which they were purchased, and in some cases lost on dead computers.  So no more buying DRM shackled music.

If CDs are about the same price as digital downloads, should I get CDs or files?  I’m tempted to get CDs, but digital downloads are a better deal for the environment.  As long as I keep my master library backed up and migrate it from new computer to new computer digital files should be safe.  If my house burns down I have my backup on Mozy and my work computer.

Yet, it depresses me to think that I’m limited to the sonic quality of 256kbps rips.  With CDs I could re-rip my collection to a new standard in the future, or even rip them to a loss-less format when I have enough main storage.  The Shelby Lynne CD I referred to above is $9.49 as a download and $9.97 as a CD at Amazon.  Which would you buy?  Of course I can listen to it for free on Rhapsody.

I am a subscriber to Rhapsody Subscription Music and I don’t have to buy new music for the most part since I rent.  However, if a CD goes out of print it disappears from Rhapsody.  I have Shelby Lynne CDs that Rhapsody doesn’t offer.  Strangely it seems for a service that offers unlimited plays from an almost unlimited library that you’d think once they offer a song it would never be deleted.  But it appears if it isn’t for sale somewhere it gets dropped by Rhapsody.  That’s why I ripped my large CD collection.  I have many out-of-print CDs that aren’t always on Rhapsody.

If Rhapsody offered everything, and promised to be a business that would last forever, I would have just packed away my CDs without ripping them and lived by Rhapsody alone.  It’s easy to play Rhapsody music from any machine attached to the Internet, and I can send Rhapsody music to my stereo via the SoundBridge, and if I owned a certified player, I could carry it around too.  But right now, Rhapsody is only good for new music – the kind you can buy from Amazon.

I’ve been playing 17,081 songs on shuffle play all afternoon and through the evening and I’m delighted by what it brings me.  Taking the time to rip my music is paying off fast, I should have done it long ago.  It’s like having the most eclectic radio station ever.

Jim

The Joys of Technology

Today, the title of my post is in all seriousness.  I’m having a very good technology day.  Other days, the title would be sarcastic.  For years now I haven’t quite figured out how to live with MP3 music.  I don’t like listening to music on my iPod – instead I want to play MP3 music on my living room stereo.  To that end I bought a Roku Soundbridge M1001 last year.  This nifty gadget plugs into my receiver and listens to my WiFi network and watches my computers for iTunes, Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody and other UPnP AV MediaServers where I store MP3 files.

What the Roku does is display a list of songs stored on my computers in other rooms that can be played on the connected stereo system.  It displays lists by artists, albums and songs via a small LCD readout and lets me select and play them with the aid of a palm-size remote.  The trouble is I have over a thousand CDs, and flipping through their titles one LCD line at a time is a pain.  I thought at the time I first set up the SoundBridge it needed a TV output which would let me select songs through a TV interface.  There are media servers that also fetch video and photos from your computer, as well as songs, which are controlled through your TV screen.  The SoundBridge is just for songs.  By the way, the newest Roku is for Netflix online films and does work with your TV.  It’s too bad they didn’t combine the functions for a single product.

This morning I jumped on the web because I just knew there had to be an answer to my desires, and I found an excellent solution, Visual Media Remote.  Installed on my laptop, which normally sits in the living room, this program lets me to control the SoundBridge.  I know this sounds weird.  My music is stored on a machine in my library/office.  The SoundBridge is in the living room.  The laptop could be in any room but it controls the SoundBridge.  If I had SoundBridges in other rooms, it would control them too.  This screen shot taken from the VisualMR site best illustrates why the software is so useful:

visualmr_pc_jukebox

This display shows a listing of artists on the left, their albums in the middle, and the songs from the highlighted album on the right. And I can filter too, by genres. This very quickly lets me drill down into my collection and find songs and add them to the player queue. I can sit in my La-Z-Boy with my laptop on my lap and just lean back and play songs about as conveniently as I could ever imagine, other than using telepathic mind control over my computer.  VisualMR has been around a long time, but I didn’t have a laptop for the task before.  VisualMR will also work with PDAs.

Searching through Google shows a lot of people use this same setup, but I don’t think it’s a massive crowd.  My guess is most people give up on stereo systems when they get an iPod, or they buy a cradle that attaches to their receiver that lets them use their iPods as CD players.  And I thought about reducing my music world down to one handheld device, like the iPod.  I could reduce my equipment footprint if my laptop had a large enough hard drive to store all my music.  Or I could just buy some high quality headphones and listen to the music directly from the iPod.  Hell, no one seems to like to listen to music together anymore, although I got my wife singing and dancing last night while we made dinner when I was showing off my SoundBridge setup.  But I had to play the songs she liked.

I’m happy with this present setup.  I wished iTunes and Windows Media Player used the same three-pane approach to selecting songs like VisualMR.  I can pack up my CDs and store them away.  Now that music is sold as DRM-free MP3 songs, this kind of equipment might become more popular, because it’s very easy to just shuffle these tunes from machine to machine and room to room.  Microsoft has sold Windows Media Center for years hoping the idea would catch on, but it hasn’t – not big time.  Linksys, Dlink and Netgear all have media servers that work with their wireless equipment.  The tech is there, I just don’t know if they are popular solutions.

Like I said, the iPod has changed everything and I think people have just adapted to it.  It makes me wonder if sales of CD players and receivers have fallen since the success of the iPod?  Well, duh, if people aren’t buying CDs, sales of CD players must be tanking.

All of this reminds me of the fat people in the movie Wall-E – they don’t notice the world around them because everything comes through their video screen, inches in front of their faces.  Now that iPods have added cell phones, movies and television shows to the music lineup, as well as photos and audio books, there’s all the more reason to stay plugged in to your iPod 24×7.  Who knew that electronic gadgets would bring so much fun and joy to people.

Jim

What Does the Demise of the CD and DRM Mean?

Yesterday I went to my favorite Borders bookstore and was shocked to see that they had removed their entire music shopping area.  Life is getting mighty hard for record stores and High Fidelity type dudes.  Now, it’s been awhile since I bought any CDs at Borders, so I won’t miss it, but seeing that big gapping space in the back of the store made me realize that the era of the CD is over.

If you go to Google News and search on DRM, you’ll see all the announcements about how Rhapsody Music will now sell DRM-free songs and albums.  I’m in the process of ripping my old CD collection, which is very time consuming.  From now on, whenever I buy a new song or album I’ll just get the digital edition.  The last CDs my wife and I bought were a few Beatles titles we didn’t already have.  Beatles For Sale might have been our last CD purchase.

It’s a whole new world for music fans, that’s been evolving since the advent of the MP3 player, and especially since the iPod.  But what does this paradigm shift mean?

Cover Art

When music albums shifted from LPs to CDs, cover art moved from major galleries to refrigerator art.  Going from CD to MP3 we lose the art altogether.  I think a marketing angle record companies should pursue is adding cover art to sales of digital albums.  I’d recommend setting up a free standard for desktop art gallery software, like I envisioned in Inventions Wanted #4 – The Desktop Art Gallery.  Or at least back existing desktop software like Webshots.  Then if buyers select a whole album to buy, reward them with several desktop scenes of music related pop art.

Liner Notes

Another feature to be missed is liner notes.  I loved the liner notes on the old huge 12″ record jackets, but hated the microscopic booklets that came with CDs.  It’s time to bring back good liner notes with lyrics and band/fan info in elegantly designed Acrobat Reader files that size to the computer screen.  Maybe music lovers don’t buy albums because they aren’t the art form they used to be.  I know aficionados that still buy vinyl records because they miss the whole experience that was once part of buying an album.

Shopping and Listening

Hanging out in records stores used to a great way to waste time and even a prime activity for dates.  No wonder sales are down.  Without the word-of-mouth recommendations gained from social record buying there’s not a lot of incentive to shop for music like there used to be.  See my post, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?”  Record companies need to invent software for FaceBook that puts people together for song listening parties.

Also, online record stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and Amazon need to create a virtual store experience that enhances the shopping experience beyond searching a database for new music.  One feature I would like to see is accurate discographies that list which songs are in print and are for sale and which are out of print.  There’s no reason in our digital universe that all an artist’s work should not stay in print.

Peach Crates

In the old days people stored their albums in wooden crates that made it easy to flip through the LPs one by one and easily see the covers.  When you met a new friend you’d go through their LPs to see what kind of person they were.  An album collection, with their beautiful artistic covers, were as revealing as a deck of Tarot cards laid out.  Kids today can give each other their whole collections, but what good is that?  Stolen music is indiscriminate.  And long iTunes Library lists are just rows and rows of black and white words.  No personality.  Record companies should allow music fans to decorate their blogs with songs, cover art and lyrics.

Ownership

The downside of digital music is ownership.  Protecting your digital collection is going to be a hassle.  Sharing is iffy.  Selling used albums on eBay will be weird.  Handing down your fabulous collection to your children probably won’t happen.

Personally, I think MP3s are not the ultimate format for music, and even wrote my opinions in “Are MP3s at the End of Their Lifecycle?”   My prediction, people are going to discover that owning invisible intangible objects will be a pain, lacking in style and glamour.

Unless music is freely traded, it’s going to be hard for songs to become hits.  If songs are freely traded, nobody will want to buy them.  Thus, the value of subscription music.

Playlists

Playlists will be the sharing medium of the future.  Everyone will be their own DJ – creating musical mood experiences, showing off talents for discovery, and defining identity.  Send your favorite playlist creations out to your friends, and if they have a subscription to the songs, they will play.  Or build blog pages and web sites around playlists, so when surfers drop by that are subscribers, they will have instant background music.

Next

I expect music to start disappearing from Targets and Walmarts.  Not everyone has a MP3 player yet, but the tsunami is bearing down on us.  It will be interesting to see what an all digital music world will be like.  Won’t it be strange to live in a world and never to see a LP or CD?

Jim

Living with Music Technology

The options of how you played music used to be rather simple.  You bought a record, put it on the turntable and played the songs you wanted.  Sure, you had to manually pick up the stylus arm and move it carefully to the exact track you wanted, and if you loved a particular song you had to jump out of your chair over and over again to keep that cut playing, but that technology required little thinking because there was little choice.  Of course if you were an eight-track or cassette user, the whole job was even more complicated and time consuming, but the tech skills were still pretty low.  In the twenty-first century you need to be a skilled computer operator to listen to your favorite tunes.

I am a fan of the Rhapsody Music service where I have no stylus arm to maneuver or cassette tape to position, and I no longer have to worry about scratching records or dealing with skips and pops, but it’s not all snap of my fingers easy.  I got so mad at Rhapsody that I almost canceled my subscription last week.  My browser kept disconnecting from the service, interrupting the songs I was playing, which was very annoying.  And I’ve yet to get the Rhapsody client software to play nice with Vista, even after being patient and giving Rhapsody a year to work out the kinks.

Luckily, the browser client has gotten better and better reducing the effort to listen to music down to being able to remember the name of the artist and track I want – not quite that easy as I get older – typing said information in the input box – again, not perfectly easy because I have to be able to spell those bits of data perfectly – but after that the only required effort to play a song is the physical exertion of a mouse click.  Just now I was in the mood to hear live versions of “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds.  Within seconds of thinking of this whim I discovered a newly released live CD on Rhapsody and was playing the song.  After that I remembered the live cut on the (Untitled)/(Unissued) CD, just a couple mouse clicks a way.  This is a breeze compared to the good old days.

This is not to say everything is perfect in tune heaven.  Ease of use depends on how closely tied I am to my computer.  If I’m writing like I am now, the work required is very minimal.  I have to keep a browser window open and pick out songs I want by typing their names and clicking on the play button.  If I want to play music away from the computer it gets more complicated, a lot more complicated.  My life would be easier if I just accepted I had to buy a compatible MP3 player to match Rhapsody’s requirements and pay the extra $5 a month, but I don’t like listening to music through earbud headphones.  What I’d like to do is go out to the living room, sit in my La-Z-Boy and play songs on my big stereo without having to get my lazy butt up whenever I think of a new song to hear.

Before I switched to Vista I had a nice setup with Windows XP, Linksys WiFi, Rhapsody, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 and Firefly Media Server.  I collected my favorite music by downloading files from Rhapsody, ran a system service called Firefly that talked to all my music libraries on my computer.  The M1001 was installed in the living and attached to my receiver via an optical cable and talked to my computer via WiFi.  I was in music nirvana except for all the clicking I had to do on my Roku remote to find songs I wanted to play.  And it was annoying I couldn’t stay in my La-Z-Boy to pick out the music either because the LCD readout on the Roku was too small to see across the room.

For months I dreamed of finding a small device that would allow me to control everything from my chair, with the ease of selecting music just like I was at my computer.  I thought of laptops, PDAs, and the emerging tech like the Nokia N800 Linux handhelds.  Before I could make a decision I upgraded to Vista and my lovely setup stopped working.

I wanted to give Rhapsody the benefit of the doubt and allow them time to catch up with Microsoft, however they never did.  I don’t know if it’s my HP computer, Vista or the Rhapsody software client, but they have never worked together.  Without the Rhapsody software, its DRM would stop Firefly from sending songs to the M1001.  Now I could have easily solved this problem if I was willing to spend a $1000 and buy a Sonos system.

Sonos talks to Rhapsody directly over the Internet, bypassing the computer, and even offers a handheld song selector device that would allow me to keep my fat ass in my chair and play music through my big stereo, or any stereo in my house if I that I was willing to purchase another Sonos connector.  Very cool tech but the price is too hot for me right now.  I keep hoping Sonos and Rhapsody will become a huge iPod level success and come down in price, plus give me some assurance that they have a long future before I invest even more money in my music system.

My wife recently got a new laptop and gave me back my laptop she had appropriated, so I decided to set it up as a Rhapsody music play station.  I reformatted the drive and put a fresh copy of XP on it, and then loaded the Rhapsody client.  I then took a patch cord and plugged the mini-headphone jack into the laptop’s headphone jack and the the split left and right channel RCA connects on the other end into my stereo’s CD input jacks.  I do believe the optical connector from the M1001 to the optical input on the receiver provided better sound, but I decided to leave the M1001 out of the mix right now.  My plan is to use a very long stereo cable so I can sit in my La-Z-Boy and put my laptop in my lap and use it as a music selector.

This isn’t a perfect setup.  The laptop is much bigger than a Sonos remote, and it gets hot on my thighs, but it does the job.  However, I can imagine a fair number of improvements.  Rhapsody provides an extremely large library for $120 a year, but it’s not complete.  It appears to offer almost everything in print – there are a few holdouts like The Beatles and Led Zepplin, but that’s not the big problem.  I have hundreds of CDs in my library that are out of print and no longer offered by Rhapsody.

Now I could consider Rhapsody’s millions of songs all I need and ignore my older CDs, or I’ll have to develop a dual music library system.  I’d have to rip all my old albums to supplement Rhapsody.  That would be a huge job that I’ve avoided until now.  I’d need a newer laptop with a larger hard drive, and I’d have to make backups and keep them off site, and all of that becomes a long job list that bums out thoughts of my future free weekends.  It makes me wonder if the old days were better, even if I could only play one LP in a sitting, and had to leap over to the stereo every time I wanted to skip a song.

I can understand why young people love the portable players like the iPod.  If only Steve Jobs would bless the concept of subscription music.  I could buy an iPod Touch and call it quits.  This past year I finally got rid of all my LPs I had been dragging around the country for forty years.  What a relief that was.  My wife and I still struggle with storing and shelving all our CDs.  Susan hasn’t embraced subscription music because she believes music should only be played in the car where God and 1950s America intended.  Susan recently discovered the powers of the iPod for music, a device she previously only used for audio books, and has began ripping her favorite CDs and taking her iPod for rides and leaving the CDs at home.  Sadly for me, she’s refused the job of becoming our MP3 librarian though.

Even if we did rip 2000 CDs, I can’t imagine using iTunes with so many songs.  Nor can I imagine protecting all those hundreds of gigabytes from now until eternity.  In my quest for finding simplicity in my old age I’ve considered following two musical paths.  One would be to give up digital music and go back to CDs.  The second would be to give up all physical music and live completely with subscription music.  There are even portable players out there that will talk directly to Rhapsody over WiFi, but can you imagine what the world will be like when iPhone 3.0 has subscription music?   Can you see the future where you have a device that goes anywhere and allows you to just name a song and it plays.  That’s pretty damn Sci-Fi to daydream about.

Why choose CD only?  Well, they’re paid for, and if I retire to some nice little town and never relocate again until it’s time to move into my coffin, taking care of all those CDs wouldn’t be too bad.  However, if I make several more moves before I retire, it will be a blessing to go all digital because my old back doesn’t like humping all those boxes of CDs.  To be honest, it’s no choice.  Since I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber I’ve seldom even touched my CD collection.  I would make the decision right now if I knew subscription music had a solid future.  But except for one blogging friend, I don’t know anyone that enjoys subscription music.  All my music fan buddies prefers to buy digital songs or CDs.

No one seems to understand the Valhalla of digital subscription music, so I have to wait to make my decision.  If the concept of subscription music goes the way of the 78, LP and SACD, I’ll have to rip my CDs and start buying tunes from Amazon one at a time and figure out how to schlep those gigabytes around for the next thirty years.  If only Steve Jobs would give his kiss of approval, owning music would be over.  Why has he embraced subscription movies but not music?

I’m in a holding pattern with music technology.  I’ve heard that Rhapsody and other subscription music services can be had through Tivos and cable TV boxes, but I haven’t played with such devices.  What would be better than Sonos is selecting tracks to play through my HDTV that’s connected to my receiver in the living room with the same remote I use for selecting video to watch.  Now that would be converging technology!

When I’m working at my computer I could play Rhapsody.  If I was in my living room I could play Rhapsody though my TV.  For those people with portable players they can get music over cell phone technology.  And when the Internet comes to the car, music subscription could follow me there.  What more could I ask for from technology?  A chip in my head that when I think of a song it plays in my brain and I hear music like I had a $100,000 stereo system in my head?  Would people call us songheads, and look down on us like we’re dopeheads?

Jim