Towards the end of bookstores. That terrible sense of finality

When I was a student, I browsed though bookstores in awe at the world revealing itself to me within those walls. Two days ago, on the escalators at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Union Square, New York, I was hit by the terrible sense of finality that comes with visiting a place for what might very well be the last time. I made it a point to visit all four floors of the bookstore, café and magazine racks included, because I thought: I may never see a four-floor bookstore again. The next time I am in New York, there may very well be a clothing store here. And any other bookstore with four floors I may encounter in my travels is doomed. I am sorry but I want to be factual: the large cathedral of the non-specialized bookstore is over.

The writing has been on the walls, of course, for years. I have browsed through many fewer bookstores since Jeff Bezos started international shipping. I have watched museum bookstores convert into design and gift stores. Even airport bookstores, once the refuge of the bored traveler, have become much less necessary. It obviously isn’t true yet, but the other day at Barnes and Noble’s I felt like I could choose any book on any of the four floors and have it downloaded onto one of the devices in my backpack in less than fifteen seconds. (I also felt tempted to add a Nook to my gadget collection, but didn’t. I left the store without making any purchases.)

It is pointless to bemoan the disappearance of the trusted bookseller, supplanted by the faceless algorithm. It is just a fact. The other day, as I prepared to leave the store, I felt as if I were standing in an emptied house that I knew I was never going to return to. Or kissing a loved one for the last time.

Amazon.co.uk, order updates, revised delivery dates and apologies (Updated)

On March 20, I placed an order on Amazon.co.uk.

For a physical book. (I know: for my own consumption, I’ve only bought ebooks for the last six months or so. But this is a richly illustrated book, and it’s meant as a gift, so I want it in its full physicality, its cellulosic, tree-killing, chemically enhanced glossy incarnation. Plus, it’s not sold in ebook form.)

In the space of 40 days, I have received 10 order updates from amazon.co.uk.

The first (April 6) told me:

“We regret to inform you that your order will take longer to fulfill than originally estimated.”

On April 14, I received a new estimated delivery date: April 29. On April 15, I was told “We are pleased to report that the following item will dispatch sooner than expected”, i.e. April 21-22.

On April 18, a new delay (estimated delivery date: April 23-30), together with an appropriately contrite apology statement:

“One of Amazon’s aims is to provide a convenient and efficient service; in this case, we have fallen short. Please accept our sincere apologies.”

On April 20, a new estimated delivery date (April 27 – May 4), with the same statement. Again, on April 22 (estimated delivery date: April 28-May 5), April 24 (estimated delivery date: April 30 – May 6), April 27 (estimated delivery date: May 4-9), and April 29 (estimated delivery date: May 5-10): all with Amazon’s sincere apologies.

Then, the apologies stopped. On May 1, “We are awaiting a revised estimate from our supplier, and will email you as soon as we receive this information.” On the same day, two minutes later, another email with a new estimated delivery date: May 6.

I wonder if I’m heading into another loop of apologies, revisions, notifications and estimates. I have tons of respect for Amazon’s operational abilities and I like knowing what’s going on with my order, but this is starting to feel like a case where making the catalog item available for ordering was perhaps premature.

And in terms of communicating with the customer… more than, say, one update per week feels like too much information. It’s a book, after all: not a kidney, or a new set of corneas. Just get it to me when it’s ready, OK?

Update, May 22: Since writing this post, I received  13 more email updates from Amazon along the same lines. The 14th was different: “We regret to inform you that we have been unable to obtain the following item… We apologise for the length of time it has taken us to reach this conclusion.  Until recently, we had still hoped to obtain this item for you.” After 24 emails, it’s almost a relief.

iPad 3G review: my first impressions

I haven’t stood in line for concert tickets or anything like that in years. Yet, last Friday, April 30, around 2pm, I got a good book out of my backpack and sat down in the line outside the Apple store at the Stanford Shopping Center, three hours before iPad 3G sales started, to make sure I could buy one. (They are not yet shipped outside America, and preordering one for delivery to a friend’s house in California would have ensured delivery by May 7, with a chance that it would only arrive after my departure – although, eventually, I did read reports of iPads ordered online being delivered as early as the same Friday morning.) The line was full of friendly people, bottles of water were supplied by the cheerful store staff, and the time passed merrily enough. The store closed at 4pm for preparations, and when it reopened at 5, the first customers in the line were welcomed in with a round of applause by the blue-shirted store employees.

After using the iPad 3G for a few days, I think it’s a winner. (Ha – I know that’s easy to say now, after Apple has sold the first million iPads, although mostly WiFi only, in less than half the time it took to sell the first million iPhones.) I may not be the most sophisticated customer, but still, the device surpassed my expectations. Here are my observations so far.

Form factor. The screen resolution is a pleasure and the size of the device will define a new standard for women’s purses. I carried the device with me all day and, while my bag did feel heavier than usual, I probably won’t carry a laptop anywhere ever again. Buy the Apple iPad case – it folds back to give the device a nice angle for typing or reading when set on a horizontal surface – and beware of neck strain: after the first couple of days, my neck felt odd. The virtual keyboard works better than I expected, and I will probably only take my iMac keyboard along for the ride on trips where I plan to write a lot. I did not have to take the iPad out of my backpack at security controls at San Francisco and Heathrow airports. (I did, however, switch it off in those last 10 to 20 minutes of each flight, when you have to switch off all electronic devices.) But all in all, the only thing the iPad does not do is let me read comfortably in the sun – for the beach, I think it’ll still be e-ink or good old paperbacks for a while.

Content. As a naive European, I was shocked to find out that you can go to Netflix or access the iTunes store in America and – yes! – download movies. Like, good movies. In America, you don’t have to mortify your digital consumption patterns. I purchased Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild”, a movie I’ve wanted to see ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s book, for $9.99. In the Italian iTunes store, the only movie I’ve ever been able to buy in years is the iPhone version of  Alina Marazzi’s excellent documentary “Vogliamo anche le rose” (a bargain at €1.59), which I watched on my way to San Francisco and recommend passionately. It is, however, a bit of an indie production: and we need the majors to get into the game. We need to buy books in iBooks, or something similar, regardless of where we are. We need Hulu to be available worldwide. As Fréderic Filloux wrote: “Release windows, regional rights restrictions no longer make sense […] Most of us are global consumers who want one thing: being able to flash our credit card and buy every single piece of dematerialized cultural or informational good we want.”. We need, in short, content owners to take the lead in reversing the Balkanization of the Internet. Apple, as a gatekeeper, is right there with the content owners and shares their responsibilities.

Language. It’s a pain to type in two languages on the iPad, unless you switch the language settings back and forth all the time, because the English spellchecker is so annoyingly aggressive. Alternatively, set auto-correction to “off”.

Applications. There’s no way around it: the iPad sets a higher bar for apps. When the browser is as good as Safari is on the iPad, apps may become, well, less relevant. On the iPhone, for example, I often use the LinkedIn and Facebook apps, because they do what’s just right for the size of the screen. On the iPad, they look tiny and cramped – and they don’t have an iPad version yet: but is it needed? I’m much more comfortable using the LinkedIn and Facebook sites from the browser. Even Gmail works just fine in Safari. I am starting to believe that applications will evolve – from a way to simplify the user experience by stripping out features to, on the contrary, a way to enrich the experience via immersive environments, exclusive content, or unconventional storytelling.

Browser. I have little to add, other than to say that tabbed browsing is missing. We need it. I hope it comes soon.

Multitasking. Coming soon.

Camera connector. This accessory was not available in either Stanford or San Francisco, and the Apple site currently says it ships in 2-3 weeks. Get it on its way, Apple. We need it.

3G. A must, if you don’t live in a place that’s blanketed with free WiFi (and Italy is, for political reasons, quite the opposite). You may try AT&T’s international roaming in order to be fully functional while you procure your local MicroSIM card, but it’s expensive (I ran through a medium-sized plan in the first 24 hours or so). Also, to buy an international AT&T plan you need to buy a domestic AT&T plan first (the fine print: “If the Domestic iPad Plan expires prior to the completion of the International iPad Plan, all usage, domestic and international, will be deducted from the International iPad Plan until such time as that iPad Plan expires or another Domestic iPad Plan becomes active (i.e. if you cancel your Domestic iPad Plan after ordering an International iPad Plan, U.S. domestic data usage will be counted against your International iPad Plan, until you order another Domestic iPad Plan.)”) Apparently, if the good souls who curated the Wikipedia entry are right, “Unlike the iPhone, which is usually sold locked to specific carriers, the 3G iPad is sold unlocked and can be used with any compatible GSM carrier.” Since roaming works, I trust that I’ll find a “compatible” local network.

In sum, I am impressed with the iPad. I think it is about 70% consumption device (that’s why content availability will be so important) and 30% communication and creation device. Or 70% lean-back, 30% lean-forward. It’s the first in a product line that will surely keep evolving and mutating, and that will go far. I only wonder what the next few years will bring.

On Writing: Uni-Ball Vision Elite 0.8mm

As a rather compulsive note-taker, I go through a lot of pens. These Japanese pens – to me, as close to perfection as a disposable writing tool can get – came to me via eBay in the US. They’re one of the joys of globalization.

Finally, on writing here: this is my first post written with the iPhone WordPress app.

Human capital

View from Pont de la Tour restaurant, London

I am back from two days in London and still thinking about the experience. This was a different trip for me – no museums, no galleries – just long walks, some shopping, some dining, some warming up at the fireplace in the lounge at the hotel. I must not have noticed before, but this is what hit me this time: everybody we dealt with was on top of their game. I think this means if you’re very good at something, you go do it in London. Some outstanding people were:

  • The Albanian head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay’s at Claridge’s. We had very good conversations, both about wines and about Albania.
  • The South Asian saleswoman who sold me two pairs of jeans (Hudson and 7 For All Mankind) after having me try on about a dozen to find, in her opinion, the perfect fit.
  • The young pale blonde English woman who took us through the entire range of Jo Malone fragrances until we found the two that were just right.
  • The Italian maitre and staff at Pont de la Tour, where we had a festive lunch and felt at home despite eating turkey and looking out at Tower Bridge.
  • Everybody at 41 Hotel, including a concierge with the fantastically literary name of Adele Coetzee.
  • The hostess at the lounge we used at Gatwick airport, who gave us a most enthusiastic overview of her facilities and truly looked sorry we couldn’t stay longer when it was time for us to board.

This sample is, I admit, biased towards the retail and hospitality sectors, places with brutal competition where staff can’t help but being eager to please in the current downturn. But if this small sample says something about the quality of human capital in London that holds true across the board, then it must be one of the reasons why London is such a great city.

Monetizing LinkedIn: this is where it gets creative (Banana Republic promotion)

LinkedIn has long been admired for its thoughtful and apparently highly effective approach to monetization. Yet, today I was a little surprised to be offered a pop-up promotional box (pop-up! yes, a pop-up!) after a minor update to my profile:

I like 25% off coupons as much as the next person, I guess, and may well use this one on my next trip to the mall. But the thing is: I go to Banana Republic exactly once a year, and I always buy the same stuff (say: three pairs of pants, a dress, a sweater or two). So, for them, it’s money that they basically leave on the table.

For LinkedIn, it’s another way to essentially sell their audience to an advertiser. Is there an opt-out? Of course each promo has its own opt-in mechanism, and you can just close it if you don’t care for it, but is there an overall button to opt out that says “I only want to use LinkedIn as a professional tool and online Rolodex, so please do not show me any pop-up sweepstakes or promotions“?