The 1″ Gap

Smartphones are phones – devices for one-handed use on the move. They are also devices for consuming information. The restrictions on size by the former, and the requirements for screen real estate by the latter leave a gap between two ideal sizes – and mean that there is currently no device that spans the entire range of uses.

When looking at today’s super-sized touchscreen slabs, one-handed use doesn’t seem to have been a consideration in their design.
This is puzzling in a way. Be it taking a call, hammering out a quick answer to a text, changing a track or checking a map – I want none of these core activities to be restricted to situations where I have both hands free. A mobile should be that – able to integrate seamlessly into mobile use, without the need to pause and put down things before operating it. This, of course, puts restrictions on the size of the handset – which, after all, is mainly determined by the screen size. Anything up to 3.7″ is comfortable for me personally, up to 4″ doable, while something like the 4.3″ of the SGS II is already a stretch. With screen sizes beyond that it’s no longer possible to reach every part of the screen with the thumb. They require two-handed operation. The modern superphone, at 4.7″, is already firmly in that territory of two-handed operation.

But then there are good reasons why screen sizes have grown so much. Browsing the web, watching video, reading books, playing games – most modern uses of our smartphones benefit immensely from more screen real estate.
Small screens limit the amount of information that can be displayed. Even with high resolution displays, they are only a small window on the information space, a frame into which things have to be crammed. It’s not possible to read desktop websites without problems, video remains an at-a-distance experience, and they can’t really replace an eBook reader.
Large screens fix this problem – but not really at the 4.7″ of the modern superphone. Sure, things get better at this size, but the crampedness doesn’t really disappear. They are just a halfway solution. To make the crampedness disappear, we need to add another bit of screen size. My guess would be another .3″ at least. At another .6″, i.e. a 5.3″ diagonal, at the latest, the frame no longer dominates the content. EBooks are a joy, movies acceptable, and the vast majority of desktop websites work without a problem. And while one-handed operation is no longer possible, every adult should be able to comfortably and securely hold  a phone with some screen size between 5″ and 5.6″ in one hand.

So, for the time being, there is a 1″ split between mobile phones that really fit the name by allowing one-handed operation, and mobile handheld devices that allow fully mobile, unrestricted information consumption. The current form factor of 4.7″ superphones trades in the former without really achieving the latter.
I say for the time being since I still hope for the flexible screens and other new display technologies that have been promised to us for seemingly ever. Given these, there is a chance for a device that adjusts for either use without compromise. I’m waiting for a future compact mobile that has a screen that unfolds or unrolls to a larger size when needed. Until then, I guess I’ll be using and carrying two devices.

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A few lost folders

Amongst all the folders with ripped CDs, the podcasts, the netlabels and other downloaded music, there is one single folder which contains all of my digital purchases. It is relatively small, since my new music purchases are still just about evenly split between CDs and digital downloads. One reason for this is that, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s clearly labelled “purchased tracks”, all the purchased albums would be indistinguishable from the rest of my collection. This is clearly not particularly satisfying, and not a great incentive to buy more digital purchases.

It’s as if digital purchases are intentionally ugly, barren and limited, in a ploy to drive people back to a time when the only distribution was via physical artifacts carrying that information. That, as everybody but some top recording industry execs knows, is not going to happen.

So use the opportunities that digital offers. There are some simple ways in which the industry should think differently about digital purchases to change the abysmal experience that buying digital presently is:

  1. It’s not just about. Sure, MP3 and AAC are the current standards, but it really isn’t a standard for purchasing music. While e.g. 320kbit/s MP3s are good enough for the majority of my listening situations, they’re by no means perfect quality. All you need to do is to compare some more or less random sounds like the clapping and other audience noise on live recordings with the uncompressed original – it’s not even close there. For other situations, I might actually be willing to sacrifice some audio fidelity for file size – but I’m unwilling to take the extra loss of audio quality that transcoding brings with it.
    So give me FLAC or some other losless format – and then also allow me to download another compressed format of my choosing so that I don’t have to do the encoding myself for immediate use.
  2. It’s not just a single download. Let me re-download my purchased music. It’s a license, after all, and the individual files shouldn’t matter. Being afraid of the miniscule misuse that people might engage in by sharing access codes doesn’t make sense compared with the immense increase in comfort and value that purchasers would receive. Offer me these downloads in whatever format I choose – and don’t limit this to those at the time of purchase. Future-proof my purchase.
  3. It’s not just local storage. Let me stream my purchases whenever I want. Turn it into from a purchase into a service. Being able to listen to my music from wherever there is an internet connection, without me having to set up anything,  is a huge differentiator from all the other files on my hard-drive.
  4. It’s not just the music. There’s album art (not at 64×64 pixels or some such ridiculous size), liner notes, lyrics, credits, artist photos. Vinyl albums and, to a lesser degree, CDs were about visual beauty as well. This has gotten completely lost with digital downloads – even though the visual designs are still produced for the physical release. So pack these in with my purchase. Large, high-quality JPEGS within a zip file are all right – no need to go out and invent special formats that end up being incompatible with most of my playback devices. I can view JPEGs on pretty much any device I consume music on. Simple does it here. But make it so that I like to browse my purchases, that there are things there for me to discover. Put an end to the barren waste of faceless MP3s that is my music folder.
  5. It’s not just data. Sure, it’s an electronic purchase, and there’s really neither need nor use for CDs or other physical media anymore. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like something physical to connect with my music. I’d still like to be able to do physical browsing of at least my most important albums – and I’d love for visitors to be able to do so as well. I want things to touch, things outside of my computers to remind me of music I love.
    So upsell me to something physical: little booklets with the cover art that I can have in rows on my shelves, a poster, a T-Shirt, a die-cast figure, bedsheets, coffee mugs – there are countless possibilities, and with print-on-demand and modern manufacturing techniques for small series of objects, a wide variety of items is not that difficult to have on offer without great initial outlay. If I really like the artist, the piece of music, and want to spend to show this, then give me the possibility to do so.
  6. It’s not just the present piece of music.This release is a part of a net: other releases by the artist, by the label, within the genre, live performances, merchandise, of the past, present and future.
    So sign me up for a notification for future events:  when the artist has a concert near where I live, a new release by the artist or on the label comes out,  the  new video that I can watch on youtube.
    This one sale may be the only point of contact with me – so exploit it. If the offers aren’t shoved in my face, I’ll gladly give up my data in return for something I like. This can be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Just make it something about the purchase I made. Make me want to come back by offering me the next release at a slight discount.
    And should a continuous relationship be established, do things to reward me here, to wow me. Offer me a bonus track after I’ve bought three releases. Or how about a subscription to the output of your label? The entire back catalog for a fantastic price? Backstage access at a concert? The chance to name a track on the next release? Turn me from a buyer into a fan.
  7. It’s not just me. Music is a highly social thing. You can offer me to tweet my purchase, announce it on facebook, or via other social channels. This is all well and good – but it would be killer if anybody who received my recommendation got the possibility to listen to the recommended music once. Full tracks, with full control, at full quality, without having to jump through any hoops. Can this be abused? Sure, but then guess what: anybody who really wants your music for free can already do so. Creating goodwill, spreading the word, and making people fall in love with your music is so much more important than preventing a few unauthorized listenings. Scrap that, the term “unauthorized listening” itself should be abandoned. People listening to your music is always good. You want to extract value from these people, not prevent them from listening in the first place. Offer them lots of incentives to enter into a relationship with you – and there will be opportunities to do so.

Now some of these points are already being addressed. I can buy FLACs – but at a premium, and by far not of everything. Some shops allow re-downloads, but it’s still very much the exception. Streaming of purchases is being pioneered against, as usual, the fierce resistance of the recording industry. There are attempts at digital albums – but as a premium offering with the mentioned proprietary formats, which is just doomed to fail. I had a look, and one of the stores I download from offers me artist and label alerts – at least my user page says so. Despite having purchased a dozen albums there, I never noticed during the purchase process.

So it’s all more than a bit bit at the moment. So come on, music industry, make an effort. Go all in with digital, and use the possibilities it offers. It’s the second decade of the 21st century. Spending money on music should be fun again,  a journey of discovery, something that surprises and delights me. Not just some MP3s in a folder on my hard drive, as boring and indistinctive as all their unpaid brethren.

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@tomiahonen: Windows Mobile & the lack of a migration path

I used to read Tomi Ahonen‘s “Communities Dominate Brands” blog religiously. Stats, stats and more stats, and analysis that took place outside of bubble of the US blogosphere. Now I mostly just skim what has generally turned into a collection of rants about the stupidity of Stephen Elop (though, strangely, never the Nokia board which has signed off on the strategy), the evil of Microsoft, and the general foolishness of believing that the US are anybody in the mobile space. I also used to be active in the comments there, first often in assent, then trying to argue against the more obvious misgivings and factual mistakes.
Now I don’t bother much anymore. But, very occasionally, I still feel the need to comment on something. In this case it’s a tweet from yesterday: “The collapse of MS happened only after MS moronically announced ‘no migration path’ from Windows Mob to Phone7″. The collapse in question here is Microsoft’s market share in the smartphone sphere.

The opinion expressed in this tweet contains two huge mistakes:

It is first of all taking correlation for causation. There is the direct assumption that Windows Mobile was still a viable OS at the time Microsoft announced the switch, and that what prevented users from buying Windows Mobile handsets in the time between the announcement and the launch of Windows Phone was just the announcement of no migration path.
But when you look back at any review of new Windows Mobile device at the time, the main question software side was how well the manufacturer had skinned the device to avoid bringing the user in contact with the system itself. The ideal Windows Mobile device would have been one that completely hid this fact (were, apparently, the HTC HD2 came pretty close). Windows Mobile wasn’t just criticized by reviewers – it was ridiculed, in far worse a way than either Symbian or Blackberry OS have been since. This was universal, not just by the US tech press/bloggers. HTC, as the main quality provider of Windows Mobile devices, had already started to enter the Android Market, and all the other manufacturing partners that Microsoft had were either starting to explore alternatives, or were already on a shift away. Windows Mobile was about to crash and burn no matter what.

The second mistake is assuming that a migration path from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone was an option at all. Migration paths are not a simple matter of decree by the management. They are hugely difficult technical undertakings. Keeping the old enabled while introducing the new doesn’t just add complexity – it multiplies it in parts. The resulting system is universally less perfomant, less reliable, and presents a worse overall user experience than a complete fresh start would have provided. This was doable up to a point with Windows on desktop systems, where each new generation of hardware has always had computing cycles and memory to spare, and the electrical juice to run the extra burden. Processing power, memory and, most of all, battery life are at a premium on mobile devices, so that the extra overhead presents much bigger problems here. More importantly, on Windows for desktops, the input paradigm for the UI has remained constant across versions up until now: mouse-operated pointer control. Migration paths have been a question of under-the-hood technology. Windows Mobile to Windows Phone represented a transition from resistive screens and stylus operation to capacitive screens and touch. This is not just a change of technology, it’s an entirely different UI paradigm. Integrating the old would have meant accommodating these two different input paradigms – which, on a mobile phone, is a recipe for sure disaster. Offering a migration path that enabled the old software to run on the new devices would have accomplished little for the users (just try hitting that 5 x 5 pixel button in a row of three like ones with your finger instead of a stylus), but dramatically worsened the overall experience, and terribly restricted what Microsoft could do in terms of new architecture. There was no way to salvage anything from Windows Mobile without endangering the  viability of Windows Phone in the marketplace.

So: Windows Mobile had to die. That Microsoft made a clean cut and did not offer a migration path is what enabled them to come out with a system that at least has a shot at #3.

PS: regarding the developers, who really were pissed off at Microsoft at the time? Windows Phone currently is the third ecosystem in one respect only: developer mind share. It’s surpassed the Blackberry AppWorld and Symbian, and the new developer tools are universally lauded as the best in the business. There are now more applications for Windows Phone than there ever were for Windows Mobile, and that with the new system at a fraction of the old one’s market share. This was a gamble, but it didn’t turn out as quite the catastrophe that could have been expected.

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Podcast Diet – “The Web Ahead”

As with any kind of content on the web, the choice of podcasts is immense. I suspect that many share my problem that even the number of those that I subscribe to means that more than I could ever listen to piles up on may various devices. When I find some time for listening, I’m often close to the total petrification that too much choice can bring with it.

“The Web Ahead” is a podcast that recently has managed to snag me out of this state a few times. I’m not necessarily a fan of the ultra-conversational and free-ranging style that this and other 5by5 podacsts adopt. Whether this works depends entirely on the particular combinations of guests and hosts. On “The Web Ahead”, at least for the few episodes that I’ve listened to so far, it stays on the right side of things. Jen Simmons, the host, gets the balance between geekiness and accessibility right, and it’s always good to have somebody host who’s actively and deeply involved in the field a show is about. The guests deliver a good broad overview of their topics, and the topics themselves are highly relevant and current. While the entire thing is something that can easily be listened to while being slightly distracted from e.g. doing something around the house, there are enough nuggets of insight there to make it well worth the while.

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The content industry – crying ‘Wolf!’

As William Patry in his excellent book “Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars” states, most of what the content industry has been doing for the past decade is a campaign of spreading moral panic. They have consistently claimed that the end is nigh, and that the internet, piracy, and modern times are about to annihilate them. There is certainly no denying that times are changing. They always have.

Vaudeville is a sideshow now, hardly anybody listens to radio plays, you don’t need a band anymore to listen to music, and breaking news no longer needs to be printed as a special issue. Technology creates markets, and the next technology takes some of it away. Trying to halt this development is foolish, anti-competitive, and most often, fortunately doomed.

Yet that is exactly what the content industry has been trying again and again. From campaigns against the player piano, which was going to destroy music in America, to statements to congressional committees that the VCR would be to the movie industry what the Boston strangler was to women, every new development signaled the end if it wasn’t stopped. None of them did when they weren’t.

So it’s always good to see reports, or read about them, that make clear that life goes on for the content industry as a whole, such as the one referenced in this ars technica article. As this, and lots of other studies and statistics make clear, there is change, there is redistribution, and the pie may shrink some or grow some, but its certain that not everybody has turned to piracy, people still have a budget for content, and there is still money to be made with the right content and business model.

So the next time the content industry demands that we break the internet to prevent piracy, to shut down people’s internet connections based on mere accusations of wrongdoing, or any of the other insanity they are in the habit of asking nowadays, let’s all remember that there is no real reason for their panic. We’ll still be able to enjoy content we pay for if we ignore their cries and don’t buy into the world behind the looking glass that they want us to create.

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Apple != Invention

When discussing Apple, sooner or later somebody will disgustedly ask what Apple ever invented. The question itself is easy to answer: not much. The PC, the GUI, PDAs, MP3 players, touch screens, smartphones and tablets all existed before Apple released the first product in the category. Apple did not invent them. In most cases, though, their releasing a product fundamentally changed the playing field in the category. (As the inclusion of the PDA shows, this is not universally the case. And they needed two attempts for the GUI.) This is because Apple are not an invention company. Their strength is taking the technical basis for an existing product, and then transforming it into an Apple product. This entails leaving out any features that do not work well enough yet, cutting any other features they deem not essential to the core experience, and polishing what remains. This polishing includes all parts of the experience, from packaging to casing to small details of the UI and UX. They then apply a bit of pixie dust (aka the reality distortion field) and market the hell out of it. It is this entire chain that makes Apple, not any particular huge inventive step. Accusing Apple of not inventing new technology thus misses the point of the company entirely.

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Pioneer One Percent

Internet distribution has not only opened up possibilities for distribution outside of the established channels – it’s also opened up the possibility of zero-infrastructure distribution. Put something you’ve produced up on a filesharing service such as BitTorrent, and if it becomes popular the consumers themselves will provide the bandwidth for the distribution.

A project that is using this method of is the independently produced science fiction series “Pioneer One”.  The 720p version of the fifth episode has, at the time of writing, about 25,000 seeders. (For torrent size, that is on par with a popular torrent of a current episode of a major TV hit show.) The website claims over 250,000 downloads for the episode, and 3.5 million downloads total. All distributed at next to no cost for the makers.

Of course there still has to be a budget. Cameras are cheaper than ever, the cost for film material and development has vanished with digital production, and the technical means for post-production are there in the form of a standard PC and free software. Everything outside of the technology hasn’t joined the race to zero cost.  Even if all people involved in a project donate their time, there are still items like paying for props and locations, renting lights and other auxiliary equipment, catering and so on. Film production is amazingly complex and expensive.

There are quite a few ways of raising money on the internet for projects like this, and “Pioneer One” is employing a few of them. You can pay for online streaming access, with different price points that give you better quality and added digital incentives. Then there are the donations that give you things up to producer credits and mentions on the eventual Blu-Ray/DVD release. So far only 2100 tickets have been sold, and $ 33,000 collected.

This is a conversion rate in the range of 1%. I have no idea whether this is good or bad for an internet media project. If it is about average, then it might just be that you need viewer numbers on par or in excess of that of a conventional TV show to get equivalent budgets. Crowd-support is not an easy thing.

The packages on offer start out low enough at $ 5 that every fan of the series should be able to afford one.

The average payment/donation was around $ 16, with the last ten contributions listed showing only two $ 5 ones and one $ 50 one (and being relatively close to the average). So once somebody is willing to support the project financially, they are probably willing to spend more than the bare minimum contribution amount. How much more may then just be a question of clever incentivizing. “Pioneer One” is not doing too well on that. I spent $ 10 after watching the first episode, but that was a gesture of goodwill. The silver ticket I bought gives me nothing I want over the episode itself that I torrented (and I watched the torrent instead of streaming, which just doesn’t work while on a train). Even more importantly, the  $ 50 and $ 100 donations are hardly used. Credits may be appealing to some, and it’s possible somebody gifts a stream to a friend, but generally it might the web comics route of offering some physical goods such as T-shirts at a significant markup over cost seems like a better idea.  These are on offer, but not linked to in any obvious way from the streaming website that I first landed on. Clearly there’s room for improvement here.

The series itself? I’ve only just watched the first couple of episodes. The limited budget and production means generally are visible at every point. They’re keeping location shots to a minimum, going for lots of close-ups instead. The dialogue could have needed a more professional script doctor, the acting is often so-so, and even on no budget, the initial voice-over is really, really bad. But overall? There’s a story there, or at least enough hints at one, it’s got a heart, and it’s in the right place. It’s amazing how often this is lacking in modern series storytelling. The minimalist means  also lead to a style that is often refreshingly relaxed. There’s something to be said for a complete lack of Hollywood show-off and just telling what you have to tell. And, most importantly: it’s a SF series, and there aren’t too many of them around to watch. I’ll certainly watch the other episodes once I find the time. If that keeps up the standard, and they offer me a nice coffee mug, I’ll be happy to contribute more, to do my small part to keep the show alive.

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