The Latest, Greatest, Scariest, and the Future of Information

What can I say? It has been a crazy couple of weeks. Not just for me, but for the world in general. Well, not in general, but certainly on some fronts on which I find fascinating and, not surprisingly, I have an opinion. First off, if you wander off into the wilds of planet *buntu, you may notice an increasingly Lucid Lynx prowling around. Be warned, however, that this Lynx is an Alpha and unless you're the sort of person who likes to mess with Alphas, you might want to steer clear until this Lynx turns into a beta. As a side note, you should read Christopher Moore's "A Dirty Job" where he provides us with a wonderfully amusing, and mostly true, description of a Beta Male.

And yes, I'm just the sort of person who likes to mess with Alphas, so I downloaded the Kubuntu and Ubuntu versions, for the sheer unparalleled joy of seeing what's new under the hood. The big news is no more HAL, which is just as well since HAL was an embarrassing choice for acronym given that it never had a chance of living up to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000. HAL (that would be Hardware Abstraction Layer) was certainly insane, but it became an integral part of the system, providing among other things, instant device recognition so that when you plug in your USB stick, it was magically available on your graphical desktop. DeviceKit will, according to the Ubuntu folk, make "Ubuntu faster to boot and faster to resume from suspend. " Sure, but will it still support my wireless card? Remember what I said about Alphas.

Also on the scene is the much hyped, and not at all surprising, release of Apple's iPad. Yes, this magical device will change the world of computing as we know it (again) and save the publishing industry (again). Forget ebook readers. Forget the Kindle. Despite all its shortcomings (no Webcam, no Flash support, no memory card reader, no USB support, no multitasking), the iPad is here.

While I'm not convinced that the iPad will be the publishing industry's savior, I do know that's it's a cool looking piece of hardware -- that's what Apple does best; make cool looking hardware and convince us that this iDevice is a lifestyle choice that defines you as a person. (Editorial note: Marcel does not actually own any Apple hardware ). I also know how we'll know whether the iPad is a success or not. That's right. Somebody will port a version of Ubuntu to run on the iPad. For now, let's call it the Ubuntu iPad Edition Remix . If the iPad touches anyone in the open source community, iPadBuntu is right around the corner.

You know how else we'll know. Google will release plans for its own Linux-based pad. Let's call it the gPad .

On the subject of publishing's future, it's hard for me to step back and be totally objective. As a professional writer (and sometimes editor), I have a vested interest in the success of the publishing industry. There are plenty of ebook readers out there and they've only had marginal impact on sales. They have certainly done nothing to help the slide of newspapers though some would argue it's because we still don't have the right platform to deliver the content we need or want. Part of me shudders to think about the formats this content will take, and whether those formats will be in any way future-proof. What's the point of producing content that is locked into a proprietary format that may be difficult or impossible to access at a future date.

There's a great little book by Neal Stephenson called "In The Beginning . . . Was The Command Line". In his book, which every long time Linux user and enthusiast should read, Neal talks about the history of computing, plain text vs graphical interfaces, Microsoft, Apple, and Linux . . . among other things. He does, as well, touch on the importance of open formats as a means on ensuring that information survives . Plain text is the only format that has shown any sign of surviving beyond a few years. But in this world of instant information, live updates, and up to the minute brain dumps, are we now moving away from static information. Have we already done so?

Your Kubuntu and/or Ubuntu system comes with document readers that support a host a number of different formats. KDE has Okular, which I use to read the countless PDF manuals that envelop the information I need from time to time. It can also open JPG and PNG files, open document text files (ODT), but it can't open plain text.

What kind of document reader doesn't support plain text?

And before you GNOME users get too comfortable and start pointing fingers at KDE, allow me to point out that Evince, the multi-format document reader that comes with GNOME, does not support plain text either (click on the Figure to the right).

Evince can't open plain text.

Which brings me to the big question to which I don't have an answer.

What do people really want when it comes to published content?. Is plain text dead? Are we moving entirely to the Web or do we want tablets of some kind, the sort the the iPad represents? Are ebook readers of any interest to you? Do you own one and buy books with it? What about newspapers and magazines on that ebook reader? What about your friends and family? How do you (want to) consume published works?

Okay, that's more than just one question. It just seems to me that the answer to the ultimate question of the future of the publishing industry isn't another device, but something basic that we've all overlooked. I just don't know what it is.

Until next time . . .



If I drop a print book on concrete it maybe gets a bit scuffed unless it falls in water. If I drop an ebook on a hard surface what happens?
Broken? All content contained in it gone? End of story for me. Wouldn't touch one with a hundred foot pole.

where would an electronic book reader be useful

I would love to have an electronic book reader (notice that I did not say eBook as I don't like closed formats) but until the manufacturers clean up their act and provide one without a remote kill switch, I will stay away from them. I cannot afford to have my information deleted because some computer illiterate bean counter from the manufacturer's corporate headquarters decided that "the device may contain inappropriate content". Inappropriate cos' it was not sold by them to me.

Now for the use of it: I commute about 1 hour each way to work, spending most of the time standing in a packed train and having only one hand free. The other one keeps me upright with a good grip on the hand-rail. So a device that fits in one hand, can be manipulated with only one hand, and has a reasonable screen size would be just the thing for me. I saw that Dell was planning to release an Android device with a 5 inch screen, and I was suddenly interested.

Such a device would help me gain 2 hours each day, reading something, being it a novel or some documentation. Sure I can always take a book with me. Just try to turn the page with only one hand. U-huh.

But the remote kill switch, or any other way to restrict my use of the device is an absolute no-no.

It's all about control

The cloud is a control freaks paradise. It is about pulling the wool over peoples eyes and leading them to believe they are in control, but they are not. We'll all be a happy go lucky herd of compliant bleaters, content to chew grass while the controllers fleece us.

I'll keep control of my data thanks. On my nice big fat hard drive (they are so cheap). Why do i need the cloud to control my experience? I have free (dom) programs that i have under my control, that i can change if i have the inclination. Why would i give that up? How can the cloud be more convenient than having the power and control in my hands rather than theirs.

Anyone who thinks their data stored on somebody elses servers are secure, well i have some swampland to sell you with a bridge going nowhere. Sure accuse me of being paranoid, but hey, just because i'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.

plain text

When reading I think 'we' want plain text. Publishers, however, seem to want to charge us 9.99+ for some closed format. Ultimately raw text is rather boring and static. Perhaps this is the appeal to the web and web 2.0.

When I buy a print publication I can cut images and text out, I can draw mustaches on peoples faces.. I can rip pages out... With digital publications either the content has DRM or the device used to read the content allows for only that, reading. . In a sense paper wins...Publishers just need to realize, when I purchase content, especially when I pay good money, I want to "OWN" this content. I dont want to be locked down to a particular device or set of devices either, I dont want to purchase mutiple copies of something I already own! I would like point to a paper by Mark Weiser 1991 ... perhaps it hopeless to dream of something like this now... but hopeless or not I am dreaming of ubiquitous computing.

long live print... and online... and cave walls

Nice post, Marcel! I don't have any ebook readers, but some of my best friends are people with ebook readers. ;-)

My stepmother has a Kindle so I asked her what she likes about it. She thinks it's convenient and she brings it along in the car, to work, etc. (My own car is full of magazines and paperback books -- as is my office, obviously.)

If I want a quick piece of information, nothing beats an internet search and online content. If I want something in-depth, I prefer a book or printed article. If I'm reading for pleasure, good old printed books or magazines are my top choice again. And if I don't know what I don't know, that's where a great print magazine comes in. Good editors help collect and polish the articles from a variety of authors, package it up, and deliver the glossy printed pages to the newsstand or my mailbox. I even bought an issue of Atomic Ranch ( one time because it's such a beautiful magazine -- I don't even own a ranch-style house. In addition to the cool articles, I loved the ads and I went to several websites after seeing their ads in the magazine.

The beauty of all these new gadgets is that you have choices for how you get your content, but what's even better is that you don't have to pick just one.

The expanse of space surrounding Planet *buntu is getting busier and busier. As a result, achieving a stable orbit is particularly difficult when you're easily distracted. Consequently, Marcel Gagné's blog looks at pretty much anything and everything that orbits Planet *buntu. News, howtos, rumors, opinions, controversy, tech tips, helpful hints . . . you'll find it all here. Oh look! A shiny object!

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