Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

I’ve been thinking for a while about buying an ereader, and I’ve decided that it makes sense if I:

  1. Mostly read old, out-of-print books – say the kind available through Gutenberg. Not as crazy as it sounds – I want to read a lot of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Homer, etc.
  2. Actually read them, rather than saying I’m going to read them, but never getting round to it.

However, if I want to read more modern books, then I’m forced to buy them at store prices. And then, I can’t give them to charity, lend them to friends, or resell on eBay. It’s the same argument with paying for MP3s, or buying CD albums.

And then along comes Mininova, Pirate Bay, Rapidshare, etc. Here we have a vast repository of books which should, in theory, work on my prospective ereader. Even this week’s Economist is available.

Why do publishers – be it of films, magazines, books, music, games – not get the piracy thing? Are they just squeezing every penny from their business models, without considering their future business models? Or are they right to think that those who are honest/stupid [your call] enough to pay full prices can subsidise the more selfish/tech-savvy users?

SUMMARY: Web 3.0 should have more laudable aims than cloud computing and semantic tags. Why not explicitly try to achieve world peace?

World Peace
(Image taken from CapitalStyle.ca.)

On Call to Power II, an oldish strategy game, the same technologies could give different results depending on how one applied them. There were alternate victories, too, but my favourite was developing the ‘Gaia Controller’ which gave unlimited resources and therefore ended war and unhappiness.

So for all its world-changing-ness, what has the web achieved that is good for the sake of all humanity?

Things the web has changed

I can think of three major ways that the internet has changed things. All are cliched, so I’m not going into great detail.

Firstly, it gives much greater coverage of things that would otherwise be hidden from the world. Developments like those recently in Myanmar and Tibet used to be written about on p20 of The Economist; now they are being watched by 16 year olds on YouTube. The same logic applies to corruption in any organisation or company.

Secondly, it has made knowledge more accessible. No more going to the library and borrowing Aristotle’s Ethics for 2 weeks – now I just type it in on the internet and it’s mine to keep.

Thirdly, it has connected people with the wider world. I can speak with old schoolfriends, someone living in Iraq, or the UK Prime Minister.

But for each of the above advantages, very little seems to have changed.

Things the web HASN’T changed

How many of those Tibet-watching 16 year olds studied the origins of the conflict, and made an informed decision about what should happen there? How many of those ‘renewed relationships’ will fade for the same reason they did the first time (i.e. I didn’t like the person)? And I still haven’t read Aristotle’s Ethics, no matter how accessible it is.

But beyond changing people’s perceptions, what tangible difference has the internet made? The Chinese government hasn’t change its policy in Tibet, and the Myanmar junta is still in power. They just wait for our micro-attention spans to move on to the next topic and then carry on as before.

Now that web2.0 is just a meaningless cliche, the great and the good are talking about Web3.0. Current priorities include:

  • Scalable vector graphics (Tim Berners Lee, Lord Tim of the Internet)
  • Cloud computing (Eric Schmidt, Google)
  • 10Mbps broadband (Reed Hastings, Netflix)

But where is the aim of curing cancer, AIDS or malaria? Giving starving people food? Helping repressed people be free?

Maybe it’s not for CEOs of profit-making companies to concern themselves with such high-minded goals. Perhaps it’s not even for geeky whippersnappers like myself. But somebody should be thinking about it.

So the next time you read an article about creating rounded corners, or adding microformats, please try to think how that is really going to help us build the ‘Gaia Controller’.

SUMMARY: The MP3 industry is stagnant, with every player either an iPod or an iPod clone. It needs much better tag management and synchronisation. Sadly, we probably won’t get it because few companies have the money and motivation to take on Apple.

From my (made-up) diary

April, 2000: Working for a computer firm in London, I’m holding a Diamond Rio 1GB MP3 player for the first time. It weighs a metric ton (approximately) and the battery life lasts just enough for the bus ride home.

April, 2001: Hello Apple iPod with your smooth wheel and rounded edges. This thing is smaller, lighter, lasts longer, AND is easier to use. The future is here and this portable music thing will go on getting better and better, year after year.

April, 2008: I hate you Apple iPod. You are slow, you regularly crash, and managing MP3s between you and my computer is an experience from hell. The iPod may have been good to Apple’s shareholders, but it’s terrible for someone who just wants to listen to music.

This is innovation?

What happened to the future?

A portion of the blame clearly goes to the anti-21st century entertainment industry, who would sue a foetus if it heard an MP3.

But Apple is stuck with early 1990s marketing practices, stifling innovation and competition by handcuffing iTunes customers to iPods.

iPod Problems

Digital music players like the iPod are primarily about playing digital music. Sure, they include video and photo functions too, but the main focus is on the music.

So why is it still so hard to maintain a music library that connects my iPod to my hard drive? In theory, iTunes automatic synchronisation should do this for me, but there are three huge problems.

iTunes: Bloatware

Firstly, iTunes is a monster of an application. MediaMonkey and Winamp both beat iTunes on features, using a third of the resources.

  iTunes Winamp MediaMonkey
Download filesize (default option) 57MB 6.5MB 9.08MB
System Memory 45MB 20MB 15MB

Apple’s marketing policy is partly to blame – bundling irrelevant software as part of the iPod manager. That’s right – Apple uses the same nefarious tactic that it attacks Microsoft for using.

Even more egregious is iTunes’ ‘determining gapless playback’ feature. There is no way to tell iPod that I know which tracks need gapless playback, and not to do it automatically. Hence, this process starts every time I open iTunes, hanging my system and never reaching the end.

I have to use an alternative to play music on Windows, which is MediaMonkey. But even this breaks when trying to transfer my music to the iPod itself.

Copying Music from Computer to iPod

Transferring music from my computer to my iPod, regardless of the software used, simply doesn’t work. I have used iTunes, MediaMonkey, Winamp, EphPod, YamiPod – and that was just on Windows. The most music I managed to copy was around 5GB – I have an 80GB iPod. Any more, and it started making weird noises, requiring a format and reset just to work.

To get to 50% filled, I had to use GTKPod on Linux, but even here, it hangs when I try to add more.

Apple won’t provide an exchange or refund, I guess because they don’t care. They know I’m stuck with them anyway, because I have iTunes tracks and there is no better alternative.

MP3 Tags

With so many MP3s, I need to be able to browse the files effectively, based on a whole range of things I feel about a song. However, there iPod’s tag system has deep flaws.

First, I can’t set multiple tags in the same field. I can’t see The White Stripes both under ‘indie’ and ‘rock’: I have to choose one or the other.

This is even more annoying with artists. I have a duet album (‘Raising Sands’) with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, but I also have other Robert Plant music, and other Alison Krauss music. I want Raising Sands to come up when I look at either artist, but that’s not possible with the iPod.

The whole world of free tagging seems to have passed by Apple. Imagine Flickr where you could set only 1 tag per photo, or Wikipedia where articles must be in only one category. Since the iPod uses its own database, its even more frustrating that they don’t allow this.

Second, I want to add and label my own fields in that database. I could add ‘mood’ as a field and then browse by that. If somebody else has lots of audiobooks, they could add a ‘book genre’ field.

In both these cases there are ways around it. I have built a playlist of all Alison Krauss music and all Robert Plant music, for example. But this requires me to keep the list updated, and it doesn’t scale when you have 1,000 artists and no ‘search playlists’ function.

Similarly, I use the ‘composers’ field to store my mood settings. It sort of works, but means I can’t use that particular field with classical music.

These missing features underpin what’s wrong with portable music. In a more competitive market, features like this would be added to increase sales by product differentiation. But Apple sets the standard for digital music, and hence doesn’t need to upgrade its players. Instead it increases sales of content like TV shows, movies and games.

Competition

Apple’s dominance of both the music download and the music player markets appears to give it a stranglehold on the market. A very large proportion of iPod customers that buy legal music will end up in buying it from iTunes, simply due to lack of awareness that there is any other option.

I could surmise that the music industry doesn’t want a serious iTunes competitor, who would push down prices and profit margins. (They don’t want iTunes either, but at least some recognise that they have no choice.) This gives Apple an easier ride in signing big bands like Radiohead and The Beatles.

Peer to peer networks are the elephant in the room here. These, and not iTunes, are the most popular place to download music. They have all the artists on iTunes, and the file format is MP3, which works on all mainstream players. So Apple is not quite so dominant after all.

Why, then, has nobody developed a player with better features than the iPod, based around the MP3 file format?

Inertia is a powerful force. For the majority of people, an iPod is the same thing as an MP3 player. Other manufacturers develop iPod clones that work the same, look the same, and cost the same.

Another reason is that there’s nobody with enough motivation and cash. The main candidates include:

  • Microsoft: They launched the Zune (one of those iPod clones), but failed to grab much market share. Microsoft could use Windows and Media Player to give better integration, but this would raise eyebrows in regulators already imposing big competition fines.
  • Sony: They have their own line-up of shiny curvy iPod wannabes. Unfortunately, the software is even worse than iTunes – God only knows how. Plus, Sony is also a content provider, with Columbia, MGM and Sony-BMG. Would Warner, EMI and Universal be happy handing over market-dominance to one of their main competitors?
  • Google: They have deep pockets, seem to be interested in every single market, and are already developing Android, a software platform for mobile phones. But an MP3 player does not need a connection to the outside world to function, so its CPC advertising model might not work so well. It’s an outside bet, that just could come to pass.
  • Amazon: They’ve already got a foothold in the MP3 and movie download market. Plus, they recently entered the hardware market with the Kindle, an electronic reading device. Could they launch a combined ereader-MP3 player? Maybe, but probably not. They already make a lot of money selling MP3 players, making it very risky.
  • Nokia: With the iPhone, Apple have taken a big chunk out of Apple’s profits. Going on the attack by getting into Apple’s market might be an interesting strategy, but there’s a lot for Nokia to do. Their phones already have basic MP3 functionality, but nothing to seriously differentiate from Apple. Their only attempt to diversify their product range was with the N-gage, a gaming platform designed to compete with the Nintendo DS. However, it’s an expensive flop that will probably make them think twice about going after Apple. The same logic applies to Motorola, Samsung, LG, and other phone manufacturers: they probably don’t have the appetite for the risk right now.
  • Winamp: Owned by AOL, who themselves are owned by Time Warner, are one of the most popular music players on computers, the original software to play MP3s. This is more hope than expectation, but if Winamp could put its software onto an MP3 player we’d have something like a good MP3 player. Now there’s a thought.

Predictions (or Hopes) for the Future

My best guess is that the iPod will remain the dominant player, with all its flaws, and us users will keep on buying it and complaining. Only when some new technology emerges will the iPod be swept away, in the same way as Sony with the Walkman. I just hope it happens soon.

SUMMARY: Twitter gives a revealing look at the personalities of the most influential bloggers. Some are nice, some are whingy, and some are downright nasty.

I’m new to Twitter, only having registered about a month ago. I methodically went through and added the most important bloggers. I added them because I assumed Twitter would provide a constant stream of interesting comments, informed debate, and professional analysis.
Instead, I get things like this pop up regularly on my Twhirl:

note to that dick Matthew Ingram: I’m going to bed now and cant update posts when I’m sleeping. We’re not all in central dick time 🙂

Duncan Riley, Twitter

I’ve never met Duncan, Matt Ingram, or any of the other people I’m writing about here. I live in Brazil, and before that spent most of my time holed up in a small house in London. I’ve never been to California or Silicon Valley. Hence, maybe this is just the kind of bantering that goes on there.

But from reading Twitter, and personal blogs, I think it’s something else. It’s like it’s a big playground, full of little gangs and cliques.

The Gangs

When you first arrive, you get shown around by some nice guys called Robert Scoble, Louis Gray, and Matt Ingram. They tell you how to be a good student, and they’re immensely popular amongst most of the children.

There are the fashionistas like Jason Calacanis, who drive to school in a BMW and walk around preening themselves. They’re OK, as long as you don’t insult their hairstyles.

After a while, you’ll bump into the seniors, led by Dave ‘the Whiner’ Winer. Often they exist as a gang of one, loners who spend most of their time complaining that it’s not really a school any more, since the younger ones have arrived.

It doesn’t take long to bump into the playground’s bullies, led by Micky Arrington. When there’s a fight somewhere in the playground, they either started it, or turn up with fists at the ready. You kind of respect them because they know what they’re talking about, but you always wonder why they have to be so aggressive about it.

Occasionally, somebody new appears, like Loren Feldman. Desperate for attention, he shouts horrible things at everyone. People fairly quickly become bored with them, though, and they fade back into obscurity.

As a New Kid

I’m only a new kid here, not many friends, not part of any particular gang. I wander around, listening to other people’s conversations, sometimes impressed but a lot of the time disappointed by my heroes.

SUMMARY: Offer a publicly-commentable version of my entire Yahoo profile (Flickr, del.icio.us, Upcoming, etc), and a one-screen interface to my network (including sending email). And fix the irrelevant advertising.

My Yahoo is attractive and loaded with features, but few of those features are innovative. It has completely ignored its own properties, such as delicious, Flickr and Upcoming. The only obvious differentiation is the inclusion of a huge irrelevant advertising block.
The service was relaunched about a year ago to incorporate more of the DHTML/AJAX features included on its competitors, Netvibes, Pageflakes, and GoogleIG (aka iGoogle). I registered at the time, and was initially impressed by the design, but was disappointed by the lack of functionality compared to my Netvibes account.

Initially impressed by the design, but disappointed by the lack of functionality compared to my Netvibes account.

A year later I returned to check it out. There are some good bits. The AJAX-ified address book search is the best I’ve seen on the internet. And it looks much better designed than iGoogle, while content is easier to read than on Netvibes.
But it still has the same inherent problems. A few weird cross-browser bugs – in Opera, I couldn’t change the colour background, or click the ‘Add RSS feed’ button, for example.
But my bigger complaint is the total lack of integration between all my Yahoo stuff:

  • Why can’t I send an email straight from the MyYahoo page? OK security on a page you are going to leave open… so give me an option just to enter the password when I send.
  • Where is the Flickr module? It could work like Flock, so that I could drag and drop photos onto my account, but there’s no option to upload at all. There’s not even an option to see recent activity on my photos. Sure, I can get my feed URL from Flickr and set it up myself, but why doesn’t Yahoo do that for me?
  • Delicious is equally ignored, even more strangely given that Netvibes has quite a good delicious module. Of course, I have a ‘bookmarks’ function on My Yahoo, but why doesn’t it automatically pull my content from delicious or allow me to post to it?
  • I don’t use Upcoming.org much, but I might if it was integrated with my other Yahoo stuff. OK, you get the picture by now.
  • That huge block of advertising – today it’s telling me I can watch the new ‘Leona Lewis’ video. Yahoo’s ‘innovation’ in this space is adding content based on what I do on the Yahoo network. So why don’t they know that I never go to Yahoo music and hate pop music? Later I get the offer to buy a UK Virgin Media package, even though I have lived in Brazil for a year. It’s possible to find this information on the Yahoo network.

Suggestions for Improving MyYahoo

My suggestion would be to look through everything for which I have specifically registered on the Yahoo network and auto-build THAT page for me. Offer a public version in which people can view my recent photos, bookmarks, questions/answers, events, etc. Allow people to comment on it, and send me email through it. Then a private page in which I can upload, edit and delete my content, while offering a fully integrate email service.

Assuming that Yahoo is making little money on the service today, it would continue to make little money with my suggestions above, but it would at least be a better service.

So My Yahoo looks nice, but fails to do anything to pull me away from Netvibes. When it allows me to use my whole Yahoo network from the same page, I might reconsider. I might even ignore the totally irrelevant advertising.