Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

DRM

28 May

By

iPad, Wired App, ecosystem. Or not.

May 28, 2010 | By |

Igor and the iPad

I’m a big fan of Wired. I read it online all the time, I used to have a Wired US subscription (that didn’t work out that well both in terms of shipping times and price, at about 10 times US subscription prices with shipping). These days, I have a subscription to Wired UK that I’m very happy with. So I was really curious about the next steps for the digital version of Wired. The iPad app promised to be just that. So while my Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about the first batch of iPads arriving in Germany, I took the time to read up a bit.

And ended up writing a rant on the iPad’s product philosophy. Please note that I don’t own an iPad, I’ve only ever played around with one on a few occasions.

The Wired iPad ap is like a CD-ROM from the 1990’s

Interfacelab has a great rant analysis of the much-hyped Wired iPad app. The Wired app doesn’t get the best review here. I’d like to quote the whole thing, it’s that good. But I’ll try to stick to the most important parts:

I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin. However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990’s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem… ( …) There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990’s.

It’s not interactive, it’s a slide show

This is very true – I’m told the whole magazine doesn’t only not feel all that interactive: it just isn’t. It’s just a slide show. Which explains the huge size of the Wired app. Just to do some quick & dirty math: If you own the smallest iPad with its 16GB of memory and pack it with 20 movies (say 500MB each) and 10 magazines (Wired: 500MB), it’s full. You couldn’t even fit any music on then. Just saying.

A side note: The iPad’s main line of defense usually is it’s supposedly inspiring and groundbreaking design. But look at it – is it really that amazing? As Cory Doctorow points out (TWIT #249), it’s really only a “moderately well-assembled piece of south-Chinese electronics.” It’s a classic effect of glossy, fullscreen video that we go “aaaah, ooooh”, but does it really live up to the expectations?

What Apple is building is not an ecosystem, but a zoo

What’s more, of course, is that the iPad is built to be a part of the iTunes ecosystem – if you want to use that term in this context. An ecosystem is a living, breathing thing that can sustain itself; it’s has by definition an element of chaos, of not being controlled. The iTunes system is the opposite. The more appropriate metaphor might thus be: a zoo. You can look, but you can’t touch. (Ok, you can point.) You certainly can’t really interact with the animals except for shooing them back and forth within their cages.

If you buy an iPad, you don’t really buy a device. You most importantly buy into a system of software, services and contracts. The iPad is built around iTunes, which most certainly is an only moderately well-assembled piece of software. You must know, buying content through iTunes, that you will never be able to leave iTunes/Apple and take the stuff you bought with you. You will either always have to depend on Apple, or you will need to leave behind whatever you bought – every song, every book, the Wired app – if you move on to the next new system. Apple won’t be around forever. But maybe you appreciate a fresh, clean plate every now and then.

Maybe you also like burning down your house with all your belongings in them whenever you move.

The points above apply, by the way, equally to consumers and developers.

Jeff Jarvis, never short of a good quote, summarizes it graphically as always (sorry, no penis quote here):

I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

The question is: Can large corporations compete with amateurs?

So what’s at the core of all this this? Why do these “multimedia” (is that term still around?) apps feel so… stale? Maybe economics, pure and simple. As Danny O’Brien points out, technology often makes production of digital goods much cheaper – for amateurs. At the same time, production costs for professional products often skyrockets:

But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche? Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts. But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

The announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to be building a $75 Android-powered tablet for developing countries might just be a point in case. (Their first model wasn’t all that great and not very successful, but arguably has contributed strongly to the mainstream development of netbooks.)

So why does everybody (or rather: journalists) look so enviously at the iPad? Is it really the big hope, or are journalists (sorry for the generalization) really just too desperate to think clearly? In Cory Doctorow‘s words:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of “content” isn’t just that they can get it for free, though: it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

Or as the Information Architects put it, referring to the iPad edition of Wired:

The future of journalism is definitely not a stack of banners spiced with videos, exported from a paper layout program. You need to try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. By now I’m all infected with the excitement about the form factor of a tablet. I never thought I’d say it, but I do see a niche in my life where the tablet fits in. But it has to be more open. If I use a device to store all my content, if it is my direct way of accessing culture in all its forms, I have to really own it. And I’m not even talking about taking apart (I think it’s important that’s possible, but I hardly dare doing that) or installing Android on an iPhone. But I like a world where that is possible. I mean you should be able to install what you like, and take your music along to the next device you get.

I just can’t have a company being able to pull the plug on me with a software update anytime they choose to do so.

Image: Igor, who doesn’t like iPads the least bit, in the tempting glow of an iPad, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph’s photostream

01 Feb

By

iPad, so what?

February 1, 2010 | By |

iPad

So Apple announced the tablet after all. Going by the name iPad it’s just that – a tablet computer, or maybe rather a tablet phone as it runs on the iPhone operating system. A quick recap: the iPad does have wireless, a browser, multi-touch, motion sensors for gaming and many ways of purchasing content through Apple (by ways of iTunes store and a book store). It does not have a camers (so no video chat), not phone capabilities (no calls), no real ways of customizing anything.

It is, in other words, a media consumption device.

I’ll let this sink in for a minute since I think it’s profound. Both Apple laptops and iPhones are clearly devices to communicate and create. The iPad is more like the iPod in that it doesn’t enable you to input anything but text. (Which is fine for email, potentially a blog post and some Facebook status updates, but not much more than that.)

Some pundits claim that the iPad will revolutionize online content consumption, others say that it’s closed-system-approach will be the end of hacking & tinkering. (Johannes Kleske listed a number of articles with much more profound analyses than mine. Go read them!) I don’t think any of those are really true, nothing will change as profoundly as these articles suggest.

Instead, I do see some ups and downs being triggered through the iPad. My take in random order:

First, eventually ebook readers will make progress tremendously faster than they have done so far. The iPad really pushes this genre, which overall is great. It’s the kind of competition the ebook reader market really needed. (Let’s hope the competition will actually come up with great alternatives and not just give up like in the mp3 player market, where there’s still mostly crap because the iPod captured the largest market share.) So: thumb up for ebooks.

Second, if the iBook store (is it called that?) is implemented anything as well as iTunes, it’ll be interesting to see Amazon and Apple clash over a potentially huge market. I certainly hope that Amazon will be driven to switch of DRM in ebooks like with their mp3 downloads, and thus do everybody in the industry (and the consumers) a huge favor and beat Apple that way. Again, thumb up for ebooks.

Third, it was about time for a new category of device that’s slightly less ugly than a laptop to keep near your couch for random email & facebook checking. However, I wouldn’t bet a $500-900 device fills that niche for me. A tablet? Sure, why not. But it’s one of those $199 max things.

Fourth, I don’t think the iPad will stop anyone from tinkering. However, if you’re interested in how UIs disconnect us from the technology we’re using, please do read (or re-read) Neal Stephenson’s classic “In the beginning… was the command line“.

Fifth, Apple is trying to push their pay services down our throats. They’ve been doing this for a long time, of course. And the way iTunes demonstrated that you could actually sell music online was great – practically everybody profited from this. However, it feels like the iPad takes this to a whole new level. “Here’s your shiny new tablet”, Apple seems to say, “but you won’t be able to do anything with it unless you buy your music, your books, your games in our stores. Any maybe we won’t change our terms of services ever, in which case you might be able to consume all the stuff you bought for awhile.” After all, it’s important to keep in mind that every dollar you spend within the Apple ecosystem stays there, and dies with Apple – you can’t take your (paid) content outside this system. It’s total lock in, and it sucks like there is no tomorrow.

Sixth, the iPad might actually really help the struggling newspapers sell their content online. I’m really torn on this one. On one hand, this is great news since many newspapers and magazines have been fighting for survival for awhile now, and here’s a potential savior. On the other hand, I could go crazy thinking that the less experimental, more conservative, no: more lazy and old-school newspapers, those who just never got a hang of how to work the internet, could actually profit most from this. It’s quite possible that all the laggards in this field are better off than the risk takers and innovators, by just leaning back and blocking and complaining and waiting for Apple to come along and invent a gadget that allows them to keep doing what they had been doing for decades. I really hope the net savvy competitors in the field will win over those fighting the web. But Apple might have just awarded the technophobes. We’ll see.

That’s my two cent. What’s your take?

Image: by mattbuchanan, some rights reserved.

28 Dec

By

Tech year 2009 wrap up: cloud computing, Android, privacy discussions

December 28, 2009 | By |

retro future

A couple of days ago I’ve given a short look back at the year 2009 from a personal point of view. Right after, I realized there were a couple more things with a wider tech perspective that I’d like to include – again, more for personal documentation than anything else. So here goes.

Everything went to the cloud We had been talking about cloud computing for a few years, but for me, 2009 clearly was the year The Cloud took off. I moved practically everything to the cloud, and cloud often equals Google these days. My email has been living inside gMail for years, but in 2009 I’ve ditched my email client altogether. Now I’m IMAP-ing browser-based between my computers and my phone.

Everything but my most sensitive documents live in the cloud, especially most collaborative docs. (Again, Google Docs or Etherpad, but Etherpad has also been acquired by Google recently.) My calendars are 100% up in Google Calendar.

Am I happy about this focus on Google? Far from it. But at this point, I see no equally well-executed alternative. For an overview of just how googley 2009 was, head over to Gina Trapani. Also, I recommend This Week In Google, a great weekly podcast with Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and, again, Gina Trapani.

Still all this is clearly just the beginning. It should be interesting to watch where cloud computing goes in 2010.

Android killed the iPhone (for me) Ok, ok, Android may not have killed the iPhone officially. But ever since I switched to an Android-based phone (HTC Hero), I haven’t felt the urge to get an iPhone. Not a single time. Before I had been playing with the idea, and had always restrained. (I really don’t like the product policy behond the iPhone.) Android is a gorgeous, stable, powerful platform, and it’s all open source. It’s clear to me that while I might change phones a few times over the next couple of years, it’s not likely I’ll be leaving Android anytime soon.

Speaking of open source, 2009 is also the year I ditched Windows for good. I now live a Windows-free live (with a mix of Mac OSX, Ubuntu and Android), and boy, it’s feeling good.

The fight for our data 2009 has also been a year of intense battles in the digital realm, although certainly it’s not the last (or worst) to come. These fights have been along many different fronts, and not all have been going well at all.

In politics, Europe has been covered in conflicts regarding data retention. (German government introduced excessive data retention laws which are now under court review as far as I know.) Also in Germany, the basis for government-run censorship was laid under the pretense of fighting child abuse, search for #zensursula for details. The best German-language resource for these topics is certainly netzpolitik.org, so check them out for more details and updates. Good news, if not a solution to the problem: President Köhler has so far refused to sign the law.

In the corporate world, the conflict lines have been a lot more fragmented and twisted. However, one thing has become clear: Internet consumers will have to make a clear point regarding their expectations in terms of privacy and data control in digital contexts. Be it Facebook and its privacy settings, be it data ownership in other social networks. Important keywords in this field are: Data Portability identification systems like OAuth, microformats or the decentralized social web. (Like so often, Chris Messina is right in the middle of it. Check out the DiSo Project.) The same goes for End User License Agreements (EULA for short). Everybody is so used to just clicking those pages upon pages of legalese away that we’re bound to have a discussion about their use and legitimacy sometime soon. This isn’t new, but hasn’t been solved either, so maybe 2010 will bring some news there.

But worry not, it’s not all lost – these topics seemed to be very niche, and maybe still are. However, everybody in their right mind will come to the conclusion that there’s a line to what consumers have to bear before just moving on to another brand or product. (Even my mom was asking about the insanity of DRM the other day!) It looks like these topics, obscure as they may seem, are getting more publicity and more people to help out. Hopefully we can all collaboratively take some of the load off of the few individuals that have been doing such a tremendous job of raising awareness so far. (You know who you are.)

Obviously I’m happy to be able to end this post on a happy note.

So, again in short: the tech year of 2009 the way I perceived it = year of privacy discussions, cloud computing, Android.

Did I forget anything important? Let me know…

(image source)

17 Dec

By

Unprinting Journalism?

December 17, 2009 | By |

The discussion about the future of journalism, and how print media can move on to digital devices, has been going on for awhile yet. Time has recently announced a “magazine tablet” that’s demonstrated in the video below. It goes by the name Manhattan Project or SI Tablet (for Sports Illustrated, named after the first magazine to first appear on it), and supposedly will be out in 2010.

The demo (that looks so computer-generated it’s really nothing more than a rough project outline) left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it looks really good, in a glossy, slick way. (Then again, everything with a large, sharp screen does.) But on the other hand it’s also just too much like a glossy print magazine. It’s large and shiny and glossy, yes. But it’s also void of text and kind of dull. Why exactly it would be called the “most compelling media device” I’m not sure. Maybe I’m missing something.

The SI Tablet seems to offer some very basic sharing functionality (“email this picture to a friend”), but besides that it’s completely non-interactive as far as I can tell. Seriously, how many time a month do you want to share something out of a magazine with anyone? Everything I want to share is either from websites (usually blogs or photo/video sites) or maybe a newspaper. Magazines just don’t have the kind of content that’s really worth talking about. Magazines can be awesome (like some design mags), but mostly they’re awesome mainly for advertisers. (Which is probably why other companies are working on similar concepts, too.)

Personally, I’ve been waiting for a decent ebook reader for a long time, because that’s something I’m totally in the market for. (Here’s an ebook overview.) In theory. Only so far, none has appeared that really convinced me.

The Kindle looks decent enough (although it’s getting mixed reviews from the people I trust with these things). The Kindle certainly has the marketplace pat down with iTunes style ease of use. However, the Kindle is so totally closed and flawed by DRM that I simply don’t want to support it. The open source models I’ve seen haven’t been able to convince me either. And glossy stuff like the SI Tablet certainly won’t be my solution because they look like you need to take care of them.

Frankly, what I’m looking for is a device that lets me read ebooks, has long-lasting batteries, is open and rough & cheap enough so I don’t have to pay more attention to it than to a paperback novel. And, importantly, a device that takes advantage of sharing functionalities: If I can’t share it, it doesn’t exist. I want to be able to tweet quotes, blog them, post them to Facebook. I’d like to send quotes and references to Endnote or other reference management tools. Being able to annotate text would be great, even though it’s not essential. (Maybe the txtr will do the trick, we’ll see soon.)

That’s all personal preference of course, and you might have very different needs. But as long as all this isn’t wrapped up in one small device, I’m not going to get an ebook reader. And it shouldn’t take too long. After all, the technology is all out there, it’s just spread out over several devices. But I’ll take this functionality over a glossy magazine viewer any time.

Update: Just minutes after posting this little rant of mine, I happened upon the video below:

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

What we see here is a design study called Mag+, and here’s what it is:

This conceptual video is a corporate collaborative research project initiated by Bonnier R&D into the experience of reading magazines on handheld digital devices. It illustrates one possible vision for digital magazines in the near future, presented by our design partners at BERG.

Frankly, it looks like it might incorporate all the things I mentioned above (including the cool, yet cheap-ish look that’s so psychologically important when you just want to throw the thing in a bag or backpack…)