The revenge of the artificial regions

This is the third post in a series, as it happens — part 1 and part 2 are both available.

Let’s see how am I currently set up — I’m still in Italy for less than 30 days; I have bank accounts in the US and in Italy with their associated cards, and I own four “mobile devices” — two tablets (iPad and Kindle Fire with CM10.1 so that it works), a cellphone running CM7 and an iPod Touch. The two iOS devices are associated with an American iTunes account (since that’s the only way I could buy and watch TV series in English), and thus get apps for the US region. The cellphone and the Kindle Fire are similarly associated with an account with US billing address for a little while longer, but then it seems like the Play Store restrictions apply depending on the currently-in-use SIM on the cellphone. I then have one Italian, and one US, SIMs that I can switch to — the latter does not even associate with the network because there is no roaming coverage on that contract.

This turned out quite interesting as the Starbucks application is not available with an Italian SIM, and my (Italian) bank’s application is not available with an US SIM. And this was what I complained earlier in the series.

Now I’m getting ready to move to Dublin. Among the things that I’m looking at I’ve got to understand the way the buses works… the Dublin Bus website sports a badge in the homepage that a mobile application (an App) is available on both Apple’s AppStore and on the Play Store. Unfortunately the latter (which is the one I would care about) is not compatible with any of my devices. A similar situation happened with a cab company app that a friend suggested me. Luckily it seems like getting a SIM in Ireland is quick and easy, so then I should have access to these two apps — probably losing access to some of the Italian apps I have installed.

Can somebody tell me why applications like these are limited to regions, when they are very useful for tourists, and for preparation? Sigh!

The odyssey of making an eBook

Please note, if you’re reading this post on Gentoo Universe, that this blog is syndicated in its full English content; including posts like this which is, at this point, the status of a project that I have to call commercial. So don’t complain that you read this on “official Gentoo website” as Universe is quite far from being an official website. I could understand the complaint if it was posted on Planet Gentoo.

I mused last week about the possibility of publishing Autotools Mythbuster as an eBook — after posting the article I decided to look into which options I had for self-publishing, and, long story short, I ended up putting it for sale on Amazon and on Lulu (which nowadays handles eBooks as well). I’ve actually sent it to Kobo and Google Play as well, but they haven’t finished publishing it yet; Lulu is also taking care of iBooks and Barnes & Nobles.

So let’s first get the question out of the way: the pricing of the eBook has been set to $4.99 (or equivalent) on all stores; some stores apply extra taxes (Google Play would apply 23% VAT in most European countries; books are usually 4% VAT here in Italy, but eBooks are not!), and I’ve been told already that at least from Netherlands and Czech Republic, the Kindle edition almost doubles in price — that is suboptimal for both me and you all, as when that happens, my share is reduced from 70 to 35% (after expenses of course).

Much more interesting than this is, though, the technical aspect of publishing the guide as an eBook. The DocBook Stylesheets I’ve been using (app-text/docbook-xsl-ns-stylesheets) provide two ways to build an ePub file: one is through a pure XSLT that bases itself off the XHTML5 output, and only creates the file (leaving to the user to zip them up), the other is a one-call-everything-done through a Ruby script. The two options produce quite different files, respectively in ePub 3 and ePub 2 format. While it’s possible to produce an ePub 3 book that is compatible with older readers, as an interesting post from O’Reilly delineates, but doing so with the standard DocBook chain is not really possible, which is a bummer.

At the end, while my original build was with ePub 3 (which was fine for both Amazon and Google Play), I had to re-build it again for Lulu which requires ePub 2 — it might be worth noting that Lulu says that it’s because their partners, iBookstore and Nook store, would refuse the invalid file, as they check the file with epubcheck version 1… but as O’Reilly says, iBooks is one of the best implementation of ePub 3, so it’s mostly an artificial limitation, most likely caused by their toolchain or BN’s. At the end, I think from the next update forward I’ll stick with ePub 2 for a little while more.

On the other hand, getting these two to work also got me to have a working upgrade path to XHTML 5, which failed for me last time. The method I’ve been using to know exactly which chapters and sections to break on their own pages on the output, was the manual explicit chunking through the chunk.toc file — this is not available for XHTML5, but it turns out there is a nicer method by just including the processing instructions in the main DocBook files, which works with both the old XHTML1 and the new XHTML5 output, as well as ePub 2 and ePub 3. While the version of the stylesheet that generated the website last is not using XHTML5 yet, it will soon do that, as I’m working on a few more changes (among which the overdue Credits section).

One of the thing that I had to be more careful with, with ePub 2, were the “dangling links” to sections I planned but haven’t written yet. There are a few in both the website and the Kindle editions, but they are gone for the Lulu (and Kobo, whenever they’ll make it available) editions. I’ve been working a lot last week to fill in these blanks, and extend the sections, especially for what concerns libtool and pkg-config. This week I’ll work a bit more on the presentation as well, since I still lack a real cover (which is important for eBook at least), and there are a few things to fix on the published XHTML stylesheet as well. Hopefully, before next week there will be a new update for both website and ebooks that will cover most of this, and more.

The final word has to clarify one thing: both Amazon and Google Books put the review on hold the moment when they found the content available already online (mostly on my website and at Gitorious), and asked me to confirm how that was possible. Amazon unlocked the review just a moment later, and published by the next day; Google is still processing the book (maybe it’ll be easier when I’ll make the update and it’ll be an ePub 2 everywhere, with the same exact content and a cover!). It doesn’t seem to me like Lulu is doing anything like that, but it might just have noticed that the content is published on the same domain as the email address I was registered with, who knows?

Anyway to finish it off, once again, the eBook version is available at Amazon and Lulu — both versions will come with free update: I know Amazon allows me to update it on the fly and just require a re-download from their pages (or devices), I’ll try to get them to notify the buyers, otherwise it’ll just be notifying people here. Lulu also allows me to revise a book, but I have no idea whether they will warn the buyers and whether they’ll provide the update.. but if that’s not the case, just contact me with the Lulu order identifier and I’ll set up so that you get the updates.

Artificial Regions Redux

It’s now over two months ago that I landed in the US with the idea of doing my job, do it well, and then consider moving here if the job was right. And two months ago I wrote about some stupid limitations of services based on where you were when you registered.

Now, even though I’m not here stable yet, I’m getting there: I have a bank account and a check card, and I have some billing address that I can use. So finally for instance I got access to Amazon’s App Store, which is not enabled even if you’re paying for Amazon Prime, as long as you don’t set your primary form of payment to a credit card (and address) in the US.

This should be easy, shouldn’t it? Not really; as it turns out, once I switched that around, Amazon stopped letting me buy Italian Kindle books…. which sounds silly given that they let me buy them before, and I haven’t removed my Italian credit cards, just not set them as default! Furthermore I’m not stopped from accessing them if I had them before.

The absurdities don’t stop here though; since I now have a check card in the US, I moved my iTunes Store account over… this actually enabled a few more functionalities, such as the “iTunes in the Cloud” and the fact that I can now re-download my purchased music as well as Books and Apps (which is the only two items that can be re-downloaded in Italy), but on the other hand, it threw off the previous purchases, showing all my purchased Apps as not available. While I was neither expecting nor hoping that my previous music purchases were available, I was pissed by the fact that it asked me to purchase again the software, especially things like TeamViewer, which is quite expensive. Luckily Apple’s tech support solved the issue relatively quickly.

So there you move to Android Market Google Play, that actually enabled me access to the US software simply by popping in the AT&T SIM card… well, while they did enable access to the US software, they still thought better to keep me off the Google Play Music store, as I was still registered in Italy. And while at it, when I actually purchased an App there… it ended up being charged in euros instead of dollars — this might sound strange, but it means that you pay more for it simply because the bank is going to ask you extra money for the currency exchange. Technically, the MII should tell them which currency the card is using by default, but instead of relying on that, they rely on your billing address… which they also don’t validate against the bank (as Newegg does instead).

Oh well… at least things seem to be more or less sane by now: most of the Italian books I had in my Amazon wishlist are available through the publishers’ group webshop which also provide most of them without DRM. Looks like Amazon is making it much nicer for everybody to buy eBooks now. Not all of them of course, but it’s still a step in the right direction.. and at the same time I’m very happy with buying them on the Kindle if I’m on the go, as I’m sure they are not going to kick me in my balls like Kobo did with The Salmon of Doubt (which I’m currently reading, after buying it again).

Artificial Regions

I’m writing this while waiting to go to the office, I’ll probably finish the post over the hours that I have to spare waiting for my tasks to complete. I’m still in Los Angeles and very happy to be.

We’re all pretty used to the artificial region limitations that Big Content force us to deal with: DVD and BluRay both have region-coding, the former actually having two region codings (a Japanese DVD would be Region 2 and NTSC, whereas Europe is under Region 2 but PAL). We’re also grown used to, although unhappy about, content store being limited by the country you live in — which is why many people, me included, wondered if Google forgot that a world exists outside of the US, as the recent rename of Android Market to Google Play Store forgets that their Music offering is limited to the United States.

But sometimes regionality comes to ludicrous levels. As I’ve said before I’m spending some time in the US, near Los Angeles, for work reasoons. The office I work in is just a staircase away from a Starbucks shop and I’m very happy about it since I love their coffee. My customer/employer also gave me the first day a Starbucks Card to use, and yesterday, after some time, I went to register it online… let’s ignore the fact that you can’t register it without an US address (since I sorta have one now, one could say).

If I want to charge the card in-store, my European MasterCard works just fine, although the Visa refuses, as usual, to work without CAP. If I go online, I can use my Italian Visa as well just fine. If I try to use PayPal, though, the website refuses the transaction because it only works with US-based account. Wha?

Okay nevermind, I register the card, fill in the form (and I’m now waiting to reach Gold status — I should be able to go there before leaving the US!), and see they have an Android application. Nice, so I don’t even have to get my wallet out.. but where is it?

From the Play Store (sigh!) I can’t find it; from the Starbucks website I can get to the web version of the store which tells me that none of my devices are compatible. And it’s not a matter of software version)

Indeed, since today I received a local AT&T SIM to use on my phone, I noticed the change: it was enough to have the phone report an American contract, and the region is unlocked for me, including, it seems, the Starbucks application that as of yesterday I was ineligible to use. Logical!

What’s next? I’ll enter a shoe shop and they’ll tell me that they can’t sold me Nike shoes (or anything else) because I’m not a permanent resident?