Lately it seems like I find out about every great new thing from the Facebook group I belong to for our upcoming Disney trip in September. These ladies (and gentlemen) know about every deal, sale, neat trick and cool new gadget out there. The other day one of them mentioned that you can watch the Wishes fireworks at Disney World on the Periscope app, almost every night.
Apparently Periscope’s been around for months, but I’m just finding out about it now and I don’t think I’m alone — according to Social Media Week, lots of people are on Twitter asking what the heck it is. Periscope (owned by Twitter, and tied into that network) lets you broadcast live video to the world — and lets everyone else watch broadcasts anywhere, in real time. Your Twitter followers get a notification that you’ve gone live, and anyone else can find you through keyword searching or — here’s the magic, in my opinion — by geographic location.
So by looking at the map, I can check to see who’s broadcasting from the Happiest Place on Earth, for example. Last night Dave and I watched the Wishes Fireworks, and we had our choice of three or four “scopes” to get the best view. We were watching a scope from the Golden Nugget pool in Las Vegas the other day and heard about the fire at the Cosmopolitan. I keep looking for scopes from the Buffalo area, or Niagara Falls, so I can get a taste of home, but so far just one guy broadcasted for a few minutes while he was waiting in line for the Superman ride at Darien Lake.
That’s the thing, there’s a lot of random stuff on Periscope. A lot of “here at Amy’s party” or “walking my dog” or “hanging with my girls at the bar”. And I hope you all are having a great time, but I can’t say I’m interested in watching. I’ve also got to assume there’s a huge potential for more-than-G-rated scoping going on, but I’m going to steer clear of that entirely and would imagine you’d do the same. (Unless that’s your thing. No judgement.)
But there are also people who broadcast regularly, and once you follow them, you get notifications every time they go live. (If you find notifications pesky, you can turn those off, of course.) Apparently some people are in the Magic Kingdom every day. I can’t join them, but through Periscope I can pop in where they are any time. You can tweet to the user while they’re broadcasting, and if they choose, they can answer verbally. So if you ask how the weather is, or if there’s a long line at Haunted Mansion, you get a real-time answer.
I’m not much of a content sharer. If I used Periscope to broadcast, there’d be a LOT of video of George not playing with a toy mouse, since he invariably stops whatever he’s doing as soon as you point a camera at him. But most people these days LOVE to share, not to mention the potential for brands, marketing and celebrity publicity. So I think in the future there’s going to be a lot to watch on Periscope, both mundane and exciting.
You have to excuse me now, though. There’s someone riding the WInnie the Pooh ride RIGHT NOW and I have to stop what I’m doing and watch.
So, we ordered an Amazon Echo in February. It finally came about two weeks ago.
First, I should explain what the Amazon Echo is. Basically, it’s Siri (or OK Google) for your house. You plug it in, and ask it things, and it responds. It also can coordinate with smart home devices, so once you’ve got those all hooked up, you can walk around feeling a little like Jean-Luc Picard. (“Alexa, lights. Lower. Damn you, Alexa, that tea is cold!”)
Second, the wait. Amazon released the Echo in 2014, but on an invitation-only basis. In other words, you had to request an invitation to buy one. I’d claim it was a marketing ploy, but I honestly think they haven’t got that many of them manufactured yet. As a Prime member, I requested my invitation sometime last year, and was finally able to place an order in February. It arrived in the first week of June, which was about two weeks sooner than had been predicted. The question is, was it worth the wait? And, was it worth the price? The Echo was initially $99 for Prime members, but that deal has ended. Currently the the Amazon Echo can be ordered by anyone for $179. (estimated ship date as of this writing: July 14th)
Setting the Echo up is ludicrously easy. You plug it in — and as an aside, the plugging in is kind of nice. As in, there’s no battery concerns with this thing, because it doesn’t run on batteries. You need an outlet, but most homes still have those, so it’s actually nice for once to not be worrying about one more thing to recharge. There’s a quick wireless setup via an app you download (iOS, Fire, and Android both available, or the desktop). And that was it. Again, I appreciate that there weren’t a lot of hoops to jump through.
Questions and Answers
In order to talk to the Echo, you use a “wake word”, which is not at all like a safe word for robots though it sounds like it is. Your “wake word” choices are limited to “Alexa” (the default) and “Amazon”. It’s impractical for us, at least, to use “Amazon”, since we talk about Amazon all the time (as in, whether an order arrived, or whether a movie we want is on there, and so on). They’ve said something about adding new “wake words” eventually, and we very much wish they would. I’d prefer something like “Agnes” or “Beelzebub”.
So, the Echo hears the “wake word” and then listens to what you ask it, and replies. Simple, but not really, because — look, this thing is new. There’s stuff it can do, and stuff it can’t. It can tell you the weather and the news and what year “Avatar” was released, but it can’t tell you when “Jurassic World” is playing in your area, and it can’t tell you when the Tony Awards are on. It can read you entire Wikipedia articles, can tell you knock knock jokes, and has a few smart answers to some trick questions. It can sync with your Google calendar and add things to it, but can’t tell you if you’ve got something scheduled on the 19th. You can order things from Amazon that you’ve ordered before (and you can turn that function off, if it seems too fraught with possibilities for error, which it does to me — “Who ordered fifty jugs of cat litter?!”). You can make lists, you can get traffic updates, you can get recipe help, set timers, and hear sports scores. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot it can’t answer. Which is kind of a pain, but because all of the Echo’s technology is in the Cloud, I’m willing to be patient about it.
There’s one other advantage for the truly lazy among us. With Siri, my iPhone has to be plugged in for it to automatically answer “Hey Siri” queries. Either that or I have to, ugh, actually pick it up and touch a button. So tiring. But truthfully, sometimes my phone’s in another room, not plugged in. The Echo takes all of that out of the equation.
The Echo is a Bluetooth speak, so you can pair devices — your iPhone, for example — with it and listen to music that way. To be frank, I don’t have any use for this feature. We have other speakers we already use. I’m told that in the world of Bluetooth speakers, the Echo’s sound quality is so-so. You’d be silly to buy it for just that reason, though.
We have used it to listen to Prime music, though. As Amazon Prime members, we have free access to the Prime music library. While there are some glaring omissions (no Prince! no Maroon 5!), there’s a lot of great music there. I can say, “Alexa, play George Michael” and she’ll shuffle through his catalog. There are some ready-prepared stations and playlists, too. It’s Amazon’s version of Pandora, essentially, and since we’re getting it for free as Prime members already, it’s a nice feature.
(Side note: You can upload all of your music to Amazon, too, and listen to it through the Echo. But right now you’re limited to 250 songs for free, and $24.99 a year for 250,000 songs. Frankly, that’s crazy. I’m not paying a yearly fee to listen to my own music. Google Play lets you upload all your music for free. Amazon, get with the times on this one.)
Supposedly you can shop through the Echo. On Amazon, of course, and (I think) items you’ve ordered before. I can’t say that’s too useful for me, since we don’t tend to order the same things over and over again on Amazon (or if we do, we subscribe to them).
But you *can* make a shopping list through the Echo. Any time you say, “Alexa, add Fiddle-Faddle to the shopping list”, she does. You can access that list through the app. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it’s a good 75% of what we use the Echo for. Running low on eggs? Tell Alexa. Need to add more mushrooms to the FreshDirect order? Tell Alexa. Realize that you’re about to eat the last Hostess cupcake? Tell Alexa. She won’t judge. Seriously, it sounds stupid, but this is hugely useful for us. We tried keeping a plain old pen & paper list in the kitchen, but half the time when I realize I’m out of something, I’m busy cooking, or just on the couch and too lazy to move. And since Dave and I both have the app on our phones, when we’re at the store, one or both of us, we’ve always got the list with us.
Things to Come
The Echo really is just a slightly stupider Siri for your house, at this point. But the reason I’m still a fan is that since its hardware is basic and all of its functionality comes from the cloud, there’s no knowing what it’ll be able to do in the future. Since it was released last year, they added voice control for Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, a funny Simon says feature, and integration with home automation devices. Rumor has it they’re releasing an SDK for third-party developers, and at that point, things could get really interesting.
When All is Said and Done…
I like our Amazon Echo. It’s a fun gadget. The problem, though, is that I can’t recommend it at the price. $179 is just too steep for something like this — at least now. Maybe when home automation become more prevalent, then I could see it being justifiable. But I wouldn’t have paid $179 for this. I’m not sure I would have shelled out $99 for this — I bought the Echo myself, but used some gift cards I had to do so, so it wasn’t like shelling out hard-earned doubloons. Still, a hundred bucks for something to keep a shopping list on and tell us whether or not tomorrow is going to be a pool day? That seems silly. Basically I’m saying it was a great thing to get, as a gift, but I wouldn’t in good conscience say — as it is now — it’s worth the price tag.
Geeks like cool tech stuff. We like gadgets, electronic thingamabobs, we can fix your laptop and we often have a spare USB drive just when you need one. Nerds, on the other hand, know a lot about Star Trek, always win at Trivia Night, and recognize the African Anteater Ritual when they see it. I’m both, and proudly so.
For the record, though, in my opinion, the level of enjoyment I’ve gotten out of setting up shop at my brand new spiffy site, whatamiholdingonto.com, marks what is probably both my geekiest and nerdiest moment to date. I mean, registering a domain and setting up a self-hosted blog, that’s just mildly geeky. Gleefully looking forward to playing with plugins all weekend? Pricelessly nerdy.
I got an email today about whether or not I want to have the book I edited, Dearest Girl of Mine, included in “Amazon Unlimited” (I said yes; it was a project I enjoyed thoroughly in another time of my life, but it was never anything more than an academic exercise). I had heard rumors about the new service but didn’t know it was ready to go.
Amazon’s long-rumored e-book subscription service is now a reality: “Kindle Unlimited.”
The company announced the $9.99-per-month service on Friday and said that it would let users “freely read as much as they want from over 600,000 Kindle books.” A portion of Audible’s audiobook library is also included.
Of course, the 600,000 titles represent only a small slice of all the Kindle books for sale through Amazon’s sprawling online store. This is due in part to disagreements between Amazon and some major publishers.
But the service has a number of hit titles that Amazon is promoting, including “The Hunger Games,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and the new Michael Lewis book “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.”
I’m not super-familiar with Powermat technology — I wonder if it would work for Kindles and iPads.
“Starbucks Corp. (SBUX:US), the world’s largest coffee-shop operator, is teaming up with Duracell Powermat to let customers recharge mobile devices wirelessly instead of hunting for available wall outlets in stores.
Customers can place their compatible devices on so-called Powermat Spots on counters and tables to recharge them, Seattle-based Starbucks said in a statement. While shops in Boston and San Jose, California, already offer the service, a national rollout in company-operated Starbucks stores and Teavana outlets begins in San Francisco today. The company, which operates more than 20,500 stores worldwide, plans pilot programs in Europe and Asia within a year.”
21 percent of those in the U.S. say they’ve read an e-book in the past year, and while many are gravitating to e-readers and tablets, a surprising number say they read books on their computers and cellphones.
Many new authors have found most of their success online, selling self-published books at Amazon for the Kindle and other e-readers.
They handle the entire process themselves — from downloading stock photos at $4 to $5 a pop and making covers in Gimp, a free photo software tool, to converting the manuscripts into formats compatible for the e-readers.
“If I can do it, anyone can,” says Nicholson, 49, who writes four novels a year from his home in Boone, N.C. He won’t say how much he makes, but it’s a “comfortable living,” solely on e-book royalties. “I’m self-taught on every part of this.”
What excites me most about ereading is the ability to borrow ebooks from the public library. After a shaky start, a few recent developments have helped libraries to move forward with digital lending, though not without some roadblocks.
After a tentative foray into digital lending on PCs and e-readers several years ago, public libraries are opening the next chapter for smartphones and tablet computers.
The movement kicked into high gear in September when Amazon finally turned on its Kindle for 11,000 local libraries, triggering a flood of new users. App developers are also working with libraries to enable book lovers to borrow on their smartphones.
“With more devices for consumers to try, they’re going to get better,” says Christopher Platt of the New York Public Library. “And the e-reading experience will get better.”
The evolution is playing out amid some challenges, including an ongoing squabble between eager-to-grow libraries and publishers that fear copyright infringement and losing money on digital distribution, their fastest-growing segment of business.
Some large publishers — such as Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hatchette — refuse to sell to libraries, thus limiting the availability of popular titles.
Still, customers’ appetite for e-book lending is growing unabated. According to Library Journal, public libraries increased their offerings by 185% this year. E-books will account for 8% of their materials budget in five years, it says.
I can’t afford to buy every ebook I’d like to read, nor do I really need to, just like printed books. I’m a frequent library borrower, but that often involves requesting copies from other branches, waiting for them to come in, scurrying to the library when it’s open and I’m not at work, an intersection of events that can sometimes be rare. To borrow an ebook, though, all I need to do is go online, browse, and download in minutes. Magic!
I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with people who are wary of embracing ebooks. They’re die-hard print book lovers and they all share a bit of fear, really, of something that may be trying to take their place. With Amazon reporting that ebooks are outselling print books, it’s a real possibility. Or is it? Either way, is this a change we book lovers should worry about, or a new opportunity we should embrace?
Forbes blogger Stephanie Chandler states succinctly, “Just because ebooks are exceeding print book sales online, it doesn’t take away my desire to own books.” I’ve purchased a number of ebooks and especially enjoyed borrowing them from the library (instant access, right from home, and free!). I find that a good book is a good book whether I’m reading it in print or on my iPad, and by the same token, a bad book is very much a bad book no matter what the format. I’m not resisting the format entirely, but I still like my print books. I still enjoy the feel of a paperback at the beach, or a brand-new hardcover in bed. Still, I don’t think one really has to choose. Once again, Chandler states it well:
So instead of resisting all this change in the publishing world, I’ve decided to embrace what is happening. My bookshelves are bulging, my digital bookshelf is stocked, and even my iPod is loaded with audio books. Variety is good and anything that promotes reading and makes it easier to access is okay with me.
The bottom line is, a book in any form is something I’m interested in.
Barnes & Noble on Tuesday unveiled a simplified touchscreen e-reader: the Simple Touch Reader. Designed for a “pure and simple” reading experience without buttons, keyboards or complexity, the new compact Nook will be available around June 10th in stores or online.
It’s got a 6-inch Pearl E Ink display and weighs in at just under 7.5 ounces, 35% lighter than the original Nook. It’s selling for $140, the same price as the Kindle 3, but not as cheap at the $114 Kindle with ads.