Clausnitz without the black and white

If you haven’t heard about the events at Clausnitz involving a bus of refugees and an angry group of 100 protesters, then first take a look at e.g. this  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/19/mob-chanting-bus-refugees-germany-politicians, which should give you an idea. (There are plenty of articles to be found with a simple Web search if you want to dive deeper.)

After this incident, the usual black and white accusations started up in the German press and in the few online comment sections which are not yet closed for any refugee-related articles. There was hate against the police for failing to control the situation, personal accusations against individual policemen for dragging refugees from the bus, massive blame on the refugees for not staying calm throughout, and even the always regrettable accusation against all protesters of being “non-human”.

From what I’ve read about the incident, most of this lacks balance, and a lot of it is just plain wrong.

There seem to have been too few police there on the ground to disperse the mob. So getting the refugees out of the bus and into their assigned housing looks like a sensible idea. This greatly reduced the interface surface and increased the refugees safety. If some force had to be used to get them out of there, then so be it. I was not in the situation, and I will not judge any police personnel in the situation about how specifically they did this if there do not appear to have been any obvious excesses (which there do not seem to have been). Criticism at the police for doing the correct thing, but not doing it as well as they might have are valid, but do not warrant the hate, and should not be the focus in this situation. They certainly don’t warrant personal attacks on any personnel involved. I do not expect our police to be perfect. I do expect them to act reasonably. This seems to have been the case here.

Where criticism towards the police is due are two areas, and in both cases these are towards the police leadership, not people on the ground.

The first is that there was not enough backup sent to bring the situation under control earlier. A large group of protesters blocking the way of a legal and necessary transport of refugees and refusing to follow police orders to desist in their actions is not something that can be accepted. It certainly isn’t in the case of the regular transports of nuclear waste, which was rightfully brought up often in the discussions I read. In those cases matter is transported, and passive resistance is dealt with swiftly and, nowadays, mostly calmly and professionally. The costs are huge, but it is done every time. Here people were transported, and the protest situation obviously was one where the police expected that escalation to violence against these people was possible. This also requires bringing in any amount of personnel necessary to resolve the situation. Not doing so and capitulating to a hundred protesters (one hundred!) shows a deep lack of judgement of the leadership. If it was not possible to bring in the necessary amount of personnel, then this calls for a statement to this effect by the police leadership, and for efforts to remedy the underlying problems. (Calling for more security and downsizing the police at the same time has always been nonsensical. It is time to end this. I am a strong supporter of civil liberties, and firmly convinced that these are better protected by a police force which has the personnel to enforce the laws than by indiscriminate automated surveillance and data collection which has little real effect but a huge potential for abuse!)

Secondly, the official assignation of blame in the situation and the announced criminal proceedings are way off.

The people who assembled to protest did not have a right to block the way of the bus. They did not have a right to stay assembled after the police told them to disperse. To be clear, these are minor infractions, and I generally support the moral rights to a peaceful protest irrespective of such minor infractions. I certainly do not want to see anybody prosecuted for showing up there. Blocking a bus with innocent people in it for hours, constant angry shouting, threatening behavior, on the other hand, are not acceptable. People have a right to their opinion about the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis. They have a right to express this in protest. They do not have a right to threaten individual refugees. Not dispersing after it became clear that this was not a peaceful protest and that there was a risk of escalation is not acceptable morally as well as legally. The ringleaders here should be prosecuted. That may only be a few people, and I do not expect any heavy punishments to come out of it, but there should be an investigation as a signal that these are not acceptable actions.

Unlike the protesters, the refugees on the bus were not there voluntarily. They did not have the possibility to leave and end the situation at any time. They should not have made insulting gestures at the protesters (one never should insult anybody, really), but there is a lot less blame on them. Losing patience in a situation you’ve been trapped in for a long time and that you cannot escape is understandable. Blaming a ten year old child in this situation is plain ridiculous. Announcing on the day after the incident that there will be further investigation who to assign blame to on the side of the refugees, with possible criminal punishment as a consequence, while not stating anything about investigating the other side is absurd and inexcusable.

tl;dr: The blame here lies not with the police on the ground, but with the leadership for its utter failure of action during the situation and ridiculous reaction afterward. Focusing blame on the refugees in this situation is just wrong.

 

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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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