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September 18, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

If you're any kind of sci-fan, you've probably read Neal Stephenson's epochal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Many consider it his best book to date (though I favor Cryptonomicon). However, his later efforts have fallen somewhat short in my opinion -- long, somewhat turgid slogs like the three-book Baroque Cycle or the near-unreadable Anathem. He is a wonderful novelist, but he tends towards gigantism and Byzantine detail if not checked, and in his past several books his editors have been on holiday. Stephenson's newest book REAMDE (no, that's not a typo) is out, and while I hope it improves over his past several efforts, I note that it weighs in at 1056 pages in the hardcover edition. Sigh. I'll buy it, and I'll read it, but I confess that my enthusiasm for his work gets lower with each successive book.

Frankly, I'm looking forward much more to Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky, which is the sequel to my favorite sci-fi novel of all time, A Fire Upon the Deep.

On the techie side of things: many of you know that I have an Amazon Kindle and love it. However, the current models have several drawbacks -- they lack color screens, they are not touch-screen enabled, and the software interface isn't exactly intuitive. Ever since Apple introduced the iPad, people have been wondering if Amazon would release a competitor product that had the same features: a high-resolution color screen, a touch-enabled interface, and the ability to surf the web, watch movies, and listen to music in addition to reading books. Well, it looks like Amazon is very close to releasing their own Android-based tablet computer to compete with the iPad. (Amazon is probably OEM-ing the tablet from the likes of Asus or one of the other large Asian electronics makers.)

What makes Amazon think they can succeed in the tablet space where the likes of HP and RIM have failed? I think the answer is: software infrastructure. The hardware is actually a less important part of the experience than the software infrastructure is, and Amazon has an incredible software stack to go up against Apple. They have a huge music store, a huge bookstore, and a huge streaming-movie database all online and currently available. All they have to do is flip a switch to make this stuff available on a tablet. (The "Kindle" interface is just software, after all -- you can read your books already on your cellphone or PC if you like.) Amazon may even offer a "Prime" membership with a tablet purchase; in addition to making shipping free for most orders from Amazon, you also get access to hundreds of free movies and television shows via the video-streaming service.

Another interesting tidbit: the new tablet won't be running Google's version of Android. Amazon has apparently forked the Android codebase and is using their own internally-developed build on the 7-inch device. They obviously want to exert a great deal of control over the whole software experience, which has both good and bad aspects to it.

So the upshot is that you have a device which physically resembles the RIM PlayBook or B&N's Nook: a 7-inch capacitive color touchscreen, a single-core ARM CPU, and with WiFi-only connectivity at first. Cost? It'll have to undercut Apple's iPad, which means the low-end model will probably come in at $250 or so. Word is that they're going to try and get it released before the holidays, maybe as soon as October. I think Amazon can leverage their existing content and software stack enough to make a branded tablet computer a big hit.

I'll probably pick one of these doodads up when they get released and see if it really imrpoves on the black-and-white Kindle. I'm betting that the battery-life sucks in comparison -- I routinely get 10-14 days out of a charge on my current Kindle, while the new color Kindle will probably be like every other tablet out there: 10-12 hours on a charge, depending on usage.

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posted by Monty at 09:18 AM

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