Archive for January, 2008

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It’s the Thought that Counts? Gifting in a Virtual World

January 30, 2008

As social networking has become a fixture in our lives, it’s only natural that the personal exchanges that occur in our offline lives — like gifting — are migrating to the virtual realm, too. I’ve looked on with some curiosity as the concept of virtual gifting has taken hold in Facebook and other venues. Can gifts that exist purely in digital form really take the place of tangible, physical presents?

On Facebook, gifts often take the form of graphical tokens that are sold for a small cost (typically $1) and are displayed on the recipient’s profile. They have no functionality beyond the symbolic — their value comes from being tokens of good will or affection, along with being the virtual approximation of a very visible display of flowers delivered at the office.

facebook gifts

Virtual gifting in Facebook.

So are people really buying these things?

I’ve personally sent some of the freebie versions of the Facebook gifts in the past year. Apparently, I believed that these tokens had some value both to the recipient and to me since I went to the trouble of sending them. On the other hand, I was never convinced enough to actually spend real money. By some estimates, however, Facebook is currently selling them at a rate of about 270,000 gifts per week — equivalent to $15 million in revenue, annually. Clearly, a lot of people are not like me — for them, the nominal monetary cost is outweighed by the convenience and symbolic value.

At WOWIO, we’ve been thinking about this phenomenon and considering it against the more traditional venues for gift giving, such as greeting cards and physical objects like books. WOWIO’s ebooks straddle the line between virtual and physical — as digital files, they’re clearly in the virtual realm, but as a medium for ideas and communication, they’re not so different from their paper counterparts. Further, the ebook’s written content has a powerful inherent symbolism that can go far beyond the purely visual representations of Facebook-style tokens.

Given this natural fit, we developed a new feature at the WOWIO site that allows registered users to gift ebooks in just this way. In sending my own ebook gifts, the process is remarkably familiar — it’s not unlike shopping for a paper-based gift book. I find a title that fits with the purpose of the gift and resonates with my relationship with the recipient, virtually wrap it in a decorated dust jacket appropriate to the occasion, and write a note on the ebook’s inside cover. The big difference is in the immediacy and relatively low cost of the gift. Delivery is as instantaneous as the Internet can make it, while the pricing ($3–5) makes it much more of an impulse gift, like Facebook’s tokens.

personalized ebook

Gifting a WOWIO ebook.

It will be fascinating to see how this fares in the coming months. If any of you are using (or even just thinking about using) this feature, I’d love to hear how you are using it and what you think of the process.

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XO Laptop as PDF eBook Reader: A First Look

January 7, 2008

OLPC XO LaptopThe XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is a distinctive little machine. It invites children to come and play with its whimsical form: big rounded corners, bright colors, personality-laden rabbit ear (wi-fi) antennas and kid-luggable handle. With tools ranging from musical composition to writing, painting and programming, it’s intended to foster learning-by-doing and collaboration. But along with these active modes, it also is designed to be an effective ebook reader, promising inexpensive or free reading content for developing world areas where print books are often considered too expensive and rare to entrust to children’s hands.

XO with Mac and iPhone

XO with MacBook Pro, iPhone.

I recently took a first look at the XO in the book-reading realm, viewing several WOWIO non-DRM’d PDFs to get a general sense of its display quality, performance and usability. Along the way, I also compared the little green guy against some of the other ebook-capable devices, including laptops, the Sony Reader and the iPhone.

Happy Surprises on Display

The XO uses a specially-designed twist on the standard LCD technology found in laptops. This variation combines high resolution, very low power consumption (the laptop is designed to run on alternative energy sources, including a human-powered hand crank), full color and low cost. The laptop seamlessly transitions between two display modes — standard backlit color (like a laptop LCD) and unlit monochrome for use in bright ambient light (similar to the E-Ink used in the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, but with an even higher pixel density).

XO vs. MacBook Pro: Displays Side by Side

The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

As you can see from the photo above, the XO’s screen actually fares pretty well in comparison with a MacBook Pro and its designer-grade display (a machine which costs about 10x more than the XO). While the XO’s screen can’t match the Mac in brightness, crispness or color fidelity, it still does a very respectable job in rendering the PDF’s text and graphics. Typography is clear and well formed and images display with good detail. I’ve seen much more expensive laptops with far inferior displays. I suspect that the XO might actually outperform the Mac in bright light outdoors, thanks to its special screen — stay tuned for that test in a later post. From what I’ve seen so far, the OLPC team did a great job in hitting its multiple design objectives with this display.

PDF Performance

View of XO Screen in Tablet Mode

XO Display in Portrait Tablet Mode

Given its modest, power-sipping hardware specs and child-like form, I didn’t really expect blazing speed out of this cute little machine. It lived up to those expectations and exceeded them in some ways.

Launch of the various task-oriented apps generally took a bit of patience, with load times taking many long seconds. Once loaded though, performance of apps including the PDF reader were quite acceptable. Scrolling and screen update performance were reasonably peppy, even for a large 310-page document with many embedded photos (like Letters from St. Petersburg, pictured above).

The fully variable (and responsive) zoom and scrolling controls, selectable display orientation and Transformer-like adaptability (from standard laptop configuration to a tablet-like reader) together make a very functional package for reading a PDF ebook. As with the iPhone, the ability to zoom in on PDF pages is particularly useful, since it allows the book text to be enlarged to fill the screen. This is in sharp contrast to the limitations of the Sony Reader, which has a very limited zoom that leaves some books with uncomfortably small text by wasting valuable screen real estate on blank margins.

Interestingly, XO’s reader software actually seems to be more compatible with some PDFs than that in the Sony Reader and the iPhone. For example, the latter devices (as well as other third-party PDF readers on the Mac or Windows) choke on displaying certain embedded images while the XO renders them just fine (just as Adobe Reader does).

XO compatibility vs. iPhone

XO displays an embedded PDF image while iPhone and other non-Adobe apps cannot.

As I mentioned above, PDF paging and navigation are fairly snappy. Several options are available for navigating including physical buttons for scrolling and paging along with on-screen equivalents and a jump-to-page control. In keeping with the multi-purpose nature of the machine, the physical buttons aren’t specifically labeled. As with the rest of the interface and applications, these functions are best determined through learn-by-playing-with-it trial and error, and that’s a mostly straightforward process. Bookmark functionality is notably absent. Oddly, there appears to be no way to control the cursor when the machine is in tablet configuration, so many of the onscreen controls aren’t accessible without unsnapping the screen and fishing around on the trackpad. Perhaps more experimentation will glean a more usable approach to cursor control, but in the meantime, the hardware buttons accomplish the essentials.

Head-Scratching GUI

The XO GUII tried to view the XO’s interface in terms of its intended audience — young children unburdened by the baggage of established OS conventions. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to reach such a state of innocence, but even after many of the required trials and errors, I found that the seemingly simple act of opening a PDF file was still terribly obtuse and required too many steps to accomplish. I hope to find a more direct method, since this complexity is the single biggest bump in using the XO as an ebook reader. Once the file was actually open, the reader software was easy enough to use and seemed to work well.

Closing Bits

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read full books on the XO. In my initial play, though, it’s clear that a tremendous amount of design and thought went into creating a machine that is physically well adapted for use by children in the developing world. The biggest weaknesses are in OS usability — the all-new paradigm for a simple, task-oriented system needs some rethinking and refinement. As an ebook reader, though, the XO shows enormous potential and I’m looking forward to future developments.