Archives for the month of: June, 2012

These are the news you should have paid attention to but didn’t, because you were too busy trying to make sense of a Supreme Court decision.

Microsoft unveiled a preview of their new website. It’s probably the first Fortune 500 to deploy a website with a responsive design (is it?). TL;DR: play around of with the width of the browser window and see how the content rearranges for various display resolutions.

Twitter makes the usage of its API more restrictive in the name of “consistency”. They have done this before. Like last time, third-party developers will react angrily screaming “thank you sir, can I have another”. Note that Twitter  is starting to show encouraging numbers for its mobile ads. “Consistency” in this case probably means making sure those ads connect to eyeballs, something that won’t happen if API rules are too lax.

Today marks the fifth year anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. If you were working in the mobile industry before that day, have you already internalized the fact that your experience is worthless? Like, remember before June 2007, when Flash was poised to become a big deal on mobile? Exactly. Also, RIM announced results this week. Yes. Your experience is worthless.

This Saturday, France is pulling the plug on its Minitel network. Another casualty of the internet, together with record companies and printed newspapers. By the way – guess who was just taken out behind the shed? Somebody has to do something about this internet thing before it does some real damage.

O’Reilly Media launches a great beta feature – now you can sync all your (DRM free) ebooks with your Dropbox account.

And finally: A sensible proposal – why Uranus is called Uranus and why we should stop pronouncing it Uranus and say Uranus instead. Uranus.

Enjoy your weekend and follow me on Twitter.

Why, Google? Why?

(Part 1 here)

If you were attending Google I/O today, you’d be justified to have an overwhelming “Groundhog Day”-level feeling of deja vu. For the second day in a row, attendees were herded into a conference room for a keynote. Again, products were announced. Again, people jumped out of airplanes, did bicycle stunts and rappelled down the side of buildings. You wouldn’t call Google a one trick pony. Yet, they went at great lengths to perform the same trick twice – literally and figuratively. Google managed to steal its own thunder by turning what was supposed to be a magical moment into a “not this shit again”  moment.

Still, there were a number of interesting announcements yesterday and today, and here are some quick notes on some of the things Google had to show:

Nexus 7

The Nexus 7 was a bold move by Google, and at a $200 price it should sell like hotcakes. But just like the Kindle Fire, that price is probably subsidized, and heavily so, considering the hardware specs.

This is where things get a little weird. You can see why Amazon subsidizes the Fire – after all it’s something you use to read books,  books you buy at Amazon. What is the Nexus 7 use case that would generate enough revenue for Google to justify this subsidy? The average service revenue per user of Android devices today is quite dismal.  Do they expect it to be different on the Nexus 7 or is it just desperation?

Bear in mind Google is fighting two separate entities here: Apple, who basically owns the tablet market, and Amazon, who forked Android and told Google to suck it by removing every trace of Google services from the device. It will be interesting to see how both of them react. Apple has been rumored to be working on a 7 inch tablet for ages (with the caveat that Apple rumors are mostly worthless) and Amazon will have to respond aggressively, given that the combination of hardware specs / price point of the Nexus 7 have made the Kindle Fire obsolete.

Nexus Q

This correspondent is completely baffled by this product. It’s like Apple TV but costs three times the price. Why? Hard to say, but the fact that the thing is made in the US of A probably doesn’t help.

It’s a product nobody asked for, at a price nobody will pay. And it’s a real, live reminder of why all your shit is manufactured in Asia.

Chromebooks

Chromebooks will now be available on Best Buy stores, probably so people can actually play with them before deciding not to buy them. This is not gratuitous cynicism – these things cost between $400-500. That’s the price of a low end Windows laptop. Why would anyone buy a Chromebook when they can buy a Windows laptop, install Chrome in it and have exactly the same experience. it’s hard to understand what’s Google end game with ChromeOS. If they want to experiment with other form factors, doesn’t it make more sense to do it by extending Android?

Chrome for iOS

This was actually a nice surprise. A great browser, with many user experience improvements over Safari, and nice synchronization features with Chrome in your other devices through your Google account.

However, Apple has made two decisions that prevent it (or any third party browser, for that matter) from ever dethroning Mobile Safari: You can’t set it as the default browser in iOS, and Safari’s super-optimized Nitro JavaScript engine is only available for the browser itself. Any apps that use UIWebView (that is, render web content by creating an instance of Safari) don’t have access to Nitro, but rather to the older, slower engine. This issue affects Chrome for iOS and would affect any third-party browser or any hybrid web application that uses the web as UI rendering technology but is installed like a native application.

Apple’s stance on web vs. native was discussed on a recent post and a question was asked: “would [Apple’s support to the open web] continue if the open web starts chipping away at AppStore revenues?” The restrictive APIs and functionality available to third-party browsers or web apps should give the reader a hint to the answer.

Conclusion

That’s the list of stuff this correspondent believes is worth of commenting. There are other things to digest and that may be commented on later. With two keynotes running more than two hours long each, there were many other announcements, and you can find several round ups on the web going through each of them in excruciating detail. All in all, another exciting couple of days in tech, and a nice way to wrap three weeks with major announcements from some of key players in the industry – Apple, Microsoft and Google. After this overdose, it will probably be a slow news summer.

Bro, that doesn’t look dorky AT ALL

You’ll have to excuse this correspondent’s enthusiasm but WHAT DID I SAY? You’ll notice on last Friday’s post a recommendation to Google: set a grand piano on fire in true Jerry Lee Lewis fashion. Well, they didn’t literally set anything on fire, but they did torch Moscone Center ablaze in a ball of  flames, rock and roll, and awesome. They had skydivers broadcasting their jump live via Google Glasses, commando-style rappelling and mountain bike trial antics. BOOM.

Now, haters gonna hate and tweet that Google Glasses look a little dorky. Ridiculous, even. Suffice to say Sergey Brin was the first person ever seen in public wearing a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. This is a man you can totally rely on for fashion advice.

Of course, we came a long way in wearable computing:

“SIRI, ENHANCE.”

And remember the first time you saw someone using a mobile phone? I bet you felt like punching the guy just because.

Please refrain from punching the Premier.

So yes – If you don’t mind making regular people feel totally weirded out by your very presence, are attending Google I/O this week and happen to have $1,500 lying around, write that check and soon you’ll be interacting with people while wearing a device that records everything that happens around you, all the time, sort of like a Nineteen Eighty-Four telescreen bolted to your skull.

But here’s a quick peek into the future. Just like with cellphones, people may just end up getting used to it. And once they do, imagine a world with hordes of Google Glasses users. Add unlimited wireless bandwidth and infinite storage in the cloud. Set Google’s neural network loose on those bajillion hours of footage, carefully annotated with location metadata and information from whatever other sensors Google Glasses is packed with.

Yes, say it: Google has just laid an egg that will hatch the ultimate panopticon.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(Part 2 here)

Straight from the horse’s mouth

By now you’re probably familiar with the 5by5 podcast network. If not, please do yourself a favor and visit their site. They have some great shows – The Critical Path by Horace Dediu is a house favorite. This week Mr. Dediu was a guest on The Web Ahead (another 5by5 show hosted by Jen Simmons) where he discussed how the forces of disruption apply to the web. It was an interesting discussion as usual, but if you’re pressed for time you should turn your attention to the bit after the sixty-five minute mark, when Horace volunteers some of his thoughts on the web vs. native application platforms.

His points are summarized in the notes below. Additional comments have been added in italic.

  • After the introduction of the iPhone, before the AppStore was born, there was this notion that people would get web apps on the iPhone. (Very true. The iPhone was launched in June 2007 and it wasn’t until mid-2008 that the iPhone SDK and the AppStore were announced. Upon launch, and for an year after that, the web was the official iPhone development platform)
  • There’s merit to the theory that the HTML5 technology will be disruptive to native apps, but nobody has solved the problem of where the money is going to come from. Usually the improvement of a technology comes from profits – the money tells you what’s the path the technology should take to improve itself. Horace calls this “the signal of pricing”. If you don’t have that signal, you’re dependent on intuition and committees (he probably means the W3C and he’s probably right, though HTML5 is more “market oriented”, having been born as a market reaction, in the shape of the WHATWG, to the slow-moving processes of the W3C ), and that doesn’t give you better information than the market does. The problem of HTML5 right now is that it doesn’t  have this “pricing signal” to tell it where to go. As a technology it probably has perfect or infinite potential, but it lacks that signalling. (This is an interesting claim, and while this correspondent is a believer in the efficiency of the markets, isn’t one of the characteristics of disruptive innovation the search for lower value markets that are ignored by an incumbent too busy with his cash cows? Isn’t Apple the incumbent and the AppStore the cash cow in this case?)
  • Native apps, on the other hand, are very well signaled by the marketplace (Signaled yes, very well signaled – well, that’s up for debate). And even if you consider the web technology superior to native technology, there are many examples of “less good” technologies with great market signals beating a better technology with less or no market signals. So HTML5 is an exciting technology with potential to disrupt native code, but we’ll need to see the revenue model.
  • Jen Simmons, the host, asks him to clarify what he means by a “market signal”. In case of apps, the market signal is the app store (you can probably assume he means application stores as a general concept encompassing the solutions from Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft and not the Apple App Store specifically). Apps didn’t come with the iPhone, Symbian had apps and Palm had apps. The word ecosystem as applied to an app market was coined by Palm’s marketing people.
  • The AppStore innovation (and here you can probably assume he means Apple’s, as it was the first to market with this model) is providing a central place, as prior to that you had dozens of stores all over the web for Symbian, Palm and Windows Mobile applications. When the AppStore came along and centralized it, it exploded like a supernova. The reason was improved discovery, quick publishing turnaround in a single storefront giving developers the ability to get metrics, actionable data to tweak application performance on the marketplace.
  • What is the HTML5 equivalent of this? You have the app, you have an advertising model, but that doesn’t resonate as well in this domain, so you haven’t solved that puzzle yet. The truth is we don’t know. Someone may figure it out at some point. ( There are web equivalents of some of the features mentioned above, and being centralized isn’t necessarily a boon for discovery. AOL wasn’t better than the web for content discovery, you just need the right tools – i.e. Google. Apple’s treasure trove is their database of hundreds of millions of credit cards and the AppStore billing engine with subscription and in-app purchase models. This is the killer feature of the native application distribution model that the web didn’t figure out yet).
  • On the subject of Google, he believes there are inherent conflicts. Here’s something Google should be nervous about: someone creates a killer app on Android, a content consumption app like Flipboard or Instapaper (call it Flippaper or Instaboard) and people start gravitating towards it, using the browser less and less. Android exists as a platform to enable an ad model and suddenly people are being pulled away from it, from their browsing behaviors that puts them in front of ads. How would Google react to this loss of eyeballs? Would they throttle back their support for apps? (Alternatively, you can ask what would happen if web apps start taking users away from the AppStore. Would apple throttle back their support for the web? Apple’s commitment is unquestionable. From the horse’s mouth: “We support two platforms at Apple. The first is HTML5, a fully-open, uncontrolled platform (…), and we are behind this 100%. It is fully open. The second platform we support is the AppStore.”  But would this level of support continue if the open web starts chipping away at AppStore revenues?)

Nothing that is said above is new to someone who has been following this closely, but it is overall an interesting overview of the Web vs. Native discussion. This is one of the favorite subjects around these parts, by the way, and one of the key battlegrounds on the upcoming web wars (FUD alert). Expect to hear more about it as this battle heats up.

Machines could be doing your job

This correspondent has just finished watching the first episode of  HBO’s The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new show. The show is irrelevant. These are a couple of quick notes about the man who conceived it.

Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters in show business that gets top billing (probably the only one – feel free to name another). Nobody gives a damn who’s directing the thing. Maybe a few will ask out loud “what movie was that guy in again?”, but this is first and foremost a Sorkin joint, in the parlance of Spike Lee.

The other noticeable thing about the show is Sorkin’s visceral hatred of the internet. While it is hard to pinpoint why,  it’s easy to concoct some theories. Maybe it’s the whole disintermediation thing – he could just be feeling threatened by the upcoming multitudes of Aaron Sorkins out there. Or maybe it is just an attempt to get kids to vacate his lawn. If you didn’t figure out how much Sorkin dislikes the internet when you watched The Social Network (a movie whose message amounts to “if that annoying little nerd had gotten properly laid, none of this would ever had happened”), it will become quite clear to you in The Newsroom. There were three clear references to the internet on the first episode. First, Jeff Daniel’s character reacts with absolute disgust when he learns his show has a blog. Second, the chief editor – stories about Vietnamese prostitutes, bow-tie and all – dictates a long missive about the beauty of producing a live news show to the hot social media intern. She informs him she can only use 140 characters, to which the chief editor reacts by kind of rolling his eyes and saying “you’ll figure it out”. And third, as an executive producer requests a short memo on the history and mandate of a government agency to a subordinate, someone else intervenes and says “let me work on that – she will just copy it off Wikipedia” .

It is rich to watch a man using a cable TV show about a cable TV show as a platform to try and kick the internet in the groin, specially considering that cable TV ratings and subscribers have been falling off a cliff:

Decline of cable TV ratings

Decline of cable TV subscribers

It is easy to guess where the lost cable TV viewers and subscribers went. They’re all on the internet. This correspondent could spend hours dissecting the irony of it all, but not much else needs to be said – it’s like the internet is Jack Johnson and Aaron Sorkin has been asked to play the role of the great white hope – and he’s going at it with gusto.

Update: The first episode is available on YouTube.

These are the news you should have paid attention to but didn’t, because you were too busy hating on Larry Ellison.

Twitter went down for a bit yesterday. It was so serious that even the Fail Whale failed to make an appearance. As expected, the internet freaked the fuck out.

Microsoft was on a roll this week. First, they announced the Surface tablet on Monday and then the long awaited Windows Phone 8 on Thursday. Existing devices won’t be upgradable, but to assuage the disappointment of Windows Phone 7 users, they also announced Windows Phone 7.8.

Responding to Apple’s announcement in the map space, Google drops prices and simplifies limits on the Maps API. Which is a nice move, but a defensive one. Remember, Google I/O is next week. Apple and Microsoft have put together a couple of tough acts to follow in the past two weeks. How can Google upstage them? This correspondent recommends they pull a reverse Jerry Lee Lewis and set a grand piano on fire.

In a horrifying display of lack of wisdom in picking their battles, the U.S. Olympic Committee sent a cease-and-desist letter to social network Ravelry because of their ongoing kitting competition “Ravelympics”, attracting the ire of two million knitters on the internet. Startled by the angry reaction that came upon them like the heat of a thousand suns, the U.S. Olympic Committee backpedaled, dropped the complaint and apologized. TWICE. Which was timely, because by then the internet was already busy hating someone else.

And finally: the video that’s causing absolute furor in the amateur mycology community.

Enjoy your weekend and follow me on Twitter.

Looks complicated – can you summarize?

Once upon a time there was hypertext, as imagined by Ted Nelson. It was to become an enabler of a distinct kind of media, named, not surprisingly, hypermedia. An upcoming boom of non-linear entertainment was upon us. Every written work would come in “choose your own adventure” format and new modes of storytelling would be created. As digital media evolved, people experimented with it, with varied levels of success. If you’re old enough (and geeky enough), you’ll remember Pepe Moreno’s Hell Cab. Or maybe Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel.

And then came Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. It soon became the first (some would say the only) real, widely distributed, mainstream application of hypermedia. Soon everybody was consuming internet-based hypermedia content through the magic of the Web. And though content adapted itself to the new medium, it wasn’t exactly revolutionized by it. A Wikipedia article has a beginning and an end. You may choose to jump from article to article without reading them whole, but you also could easily print an article and read it while sitting on a Chesterfield sofa with a Calabash pipe hanging from your lips and a trusted old corgi at your feet – like you would with an article from the Britannica, if the Britannica had an article on Furry Fandom.

[A somewhat related sidenote: Berners-Lee was very invested in the content creation side of the web. His first web client was both a browser and a content editor. In his book “Weaving the Web”, he describes how much time he spent prodding the makers of the early browsers like Viola and Mosaic to add content creation features to their browsers. He wasn’t very successful at that and it wasn’t until the advent of modern blogging tools that the less technically inclined became really able to publish on the web.]

But hypermedia isn’t dead (this correspondent was surprised to discover that Adobe is still shipping Director). And with the advent of “post-PC devices” (an euphemism for “the iPad”), now we have a myriad of hypermedia titles available – only we call them “apps” . Of course, some apps actually perform some sort of task, but many are storytelling programs that use hypermedia to deliver content. American Presidents or 50 Places of a Lifetime are good examples. This is the kind of software you would buy in the multimedia CD-ROM section of CompUSA in 1993.

But given the widespread availability of the technology enablers, hypermedia was supposed to replace books, or at least that’s what they told us in the nineties. This  is clearly not happening, though. While there are a bunch of hypermedia titles disguised as apps in the App Store, people are still massively going after the good old linear e-books acquired via iBooks or the Kindle store, and consuming them pretty much the same way books have been consumed since the St. Cuthbert Gospel was published.

That’s the market opportunity Citia wants to address.

From a user interface perspective, the solution is quite clever – Citia’s app lays out a book’s content as a 3D landscape, called the “glyph”, subdivided in the main ideas of the text. The main idea sections contain several “decks” which are then subdivided in “cards”. The cards are bite-sized concepts from the book and contain links to videos, other sources and additional text. If it feels familiar, that’s because it is – it’s a rehashed implementation of the old hypermedia promise. This time, however, it is quite well executed and pleasurable to use and read, with the exception of a few messed up UI affordances (it took this correspondent a little while to figure out how to change pages in the decks), and some weird UI oversights (the app doesn’t chart your progress through the text, so there’s no clear indication of what you have already read).

But the UI is only part of the problem, and usability issues are not the reason why hypermedia still doesn’t pose a credible threat to books. The proof of the pudding is in the content, and that’s where Citia still falls short. They have only one title out, “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. And while this is a fantastic book, that’s where things get a little funny. For the hefty price of $9.99 (in the deflationary app economy, any price about $0.99 is hefty), you won’t get a copy of the book, but a glorified CliffsNotes of it. The app offers you a summary of the main ideas of Kelly’s book in hypermedia format. If you enjoy it, there are convenient links to several bookstores where you can purchase the whole work for an additional $9.99 (if you’re getting it from Amazon). Nicholas Negroponte said “the value of information about information can be greater than the value of the information itself“. You should keep that in mind to avoid thinking you were just swindled out of ten bucks.

The promise of hypermedia is well known. Ted Nelson has been talking about it since the 60’s. And while the underlying technology to make it possible is finally here, the content is mostly not. And Citia’s approach doesn’t seem poised to solved that problem.

Swedish prisons beat the Hilton

As we speak, Julian Assange is being the world’s most inconvenient house guest at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the skinny: Assange is being accused of raping two women in Sweden and has been fighting extradition from the UK  for some time now. Alas, he lost his final appeals and now it’s time to get on a plane to Stockholm and face the music. Except Assange had a card in his sleeve.

Back in 2010, a high-level official from Ecuador offered Assange asylum and residency should he ever need it. Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, is a Chavez-like figure trying some stunts in the global arena to call some attention to himself. There is no better way to do that than pissing off the U.S., hence offering a safe haven for Julian Assange sounded like a great idea. And now it has come to this. Assange is sheltered in the embassy and UK police has made clear that the minute he leaves the building he’s fair game, regardless of being in a diplomatic vehicle.

These diplomatic stand-offs  can last forever. During the cold war, a Hungarian Cardinal lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years.

It is hard to decide what would be the most fitting punishment for Julian Assange: serving some time at the pleasure of the Swedish Crown or making his way to Ecuador to live a productive life as an anti-imperialist symbol for the current regime.

Some years ago, this correspondent went to Ecuador, specifically to Guayaquil, for a week. If ever faced with the choice of few years in a Swedish prison or another week in Guayaquil, there wouldn’t be much to ponder – lock me in a Swedish cell and throw away the key.

Here’s to hoping Assange gets a one-way ticket to Equador – specifically to Guayaquil.

I demand to see the long form death certificate

These are a couple of notes on the disintermediation of the content supply chain. There are victors and losers and disruption all around.

***

If you’ve been to the Amazon home page today, this is what you saw: a letter from Jeff Bezos telling you the story of Jessica Park – an author who, after getting rejection letters left and right by the mainstream publishing industry, finally published her book through Kindle Direct Publishing and now claims Amazon saved her life. Bezos dropped an interesting data point: almost a quarter of the top 100 best selling Kindle books come through the Kindle Direct Publishing.

 ***

Emily White, an NPR intern and General Manager of her college radio station, wrote a post at the All Songs Considered blog in which she recalled buying at most 15 CDs in her lifetime. At the same time, she has 11,000 song MP3 collection. How does she explain this disparity between what she paid for and what she ended up owning? Well, silly, she pirated the shit out of it. David Lowery at The Tricordist wrote an open letter to Ms. White, which basically amounts to a 4,000 word “WTF, girl”. While Mr. Lowery starts out by saying he doesn’t want to shame or expose Ms. White, he doesn’t hesitate to break out the big guns to make his point, which is can be summarized as “musicians are being driven to poverty, addiction and suicide because of you, you heartless bitch”. The “new” model (if there is one) is driving artists revenues to the ground. Meanwhile, “Spotify’s CEO is the 10th richest man in the UK music industry ahead of all but one artist on his service.”

***

A couple of weeks ago, much was discussed about HBO’s refusal to  go to a direct sales model with the HBO GO product. This correspondent thought that the two examples above align nicely with it and show how the same conversation happens regarding different media. Basically trying to solve a single problem – getting part B (the receiver) to pay part A (the source) in a way parts A and B agree it’s fair. A problem that sounds so simple when reduced to its most basic parts, but as usual, the devil is in the details.

To all my “House of Cards” homies out there

So Microsoft announced a new tablet today. Unfortunately, outside of very vague statements, no pricing nor availability date were defined. Probably because old habits die hard, and it takes time to learn to market products by speaking directly to consumers and avoid leaving crucial detail TBD because there are still stars to be aligned with middlemen in the value chain.

Nonetheless, it is a fantastic product. A number of small annoyances that prevent the iPad from becoming a true PC replacement are addressed. The Microsoft Surface is a product that is bound to make a splash in the market and take the Windows brand to new segments. High-end Android tablet OEMs have reasons to be very worried.

You might very well think Microsoft OEMs have reasons to be worried too. But this correspondent couldn’t possibly comment.