Categories
Technology

The first sign of the googlopalypse?

It’s the first sign of the apocalypse – Google is throwing up errors all over the shop. I’ve checked with a few other people to see if it’s happening with them too. My favourite response was from Matt Haughey who essentially said that he couldn’t really chat at the moment since he was currently onstage at SXSW doing a panel on online journalism with JD Lasica, Dan Gillmor and the guy from crabwalk.com. But yes, he’d just noticed it too…

google_bork.gif

Of course everyone’s first assumption is going to be that Ev broke it.

Categories
Technology

Value Judgements on two kinds of networks…

I don’t have the expertise or the discipline to dive into this as fully as I would like, so I’m just going to sketch out a few thoughts which maybe someone else would like to pick up and run with.

There are two articles currently doing the rounds that both talk about the value and utility of being part of the networked world, and what it means to participate within it. The first is about the internet – it’s called World of Ends and it’s by the inspired Doc Searls and David Weinberger. The second is about international politics and it’s called The Pentagon’s New Map and it’s by Thomas PM Barnett.

The first article – Doc Searls and David Weinberger’s – was immediately something I felt a desire to rally behind. It’s states what we have come to perceive as the obvious facts about the internet: that it can’t be controlled, that it should exist without governance, without regulation, that it routes around ‘damage’, that the internet consists of an agreement, that no one owns it, that everyone can use it, that everyone can add to it, that trying to deform the network lessens its power – lessens its democratising utility. I agree with all of this stuff.

The second article filled me with immediate distrust and discomfort. It’s about countries which are disconnected from the ‘network’ of globalisation. Here’s a quote:

“That is why the public debate about this war has been so important: It forces Americans to come to terms with I believe is the new security paradigm that shapes this age, namely, Disconnectedness defines danger. Saddam Hussein’s outlaw regime is dangerously disconnected from the globalizing world, from its rule sets, its norms, and all the ties that bind countries together in mutually assured dependence.”

This is a paean to the power and value of globalisation as a force for good. He continues:

Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder. These parts of the world I call the Functioning Core, or Core. But show me where globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and—most important—the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.

There seem to be some significant parallels that could be drawn between these two models of global scale-free networks that call into question the appropriateness of our (my) judgements about both globalisation as a democratic / capitalist process and the internet as a communications / publishing process. There’s a collision here that I feel the need to investigate.

For me, the freedom and lack of regulation of the internet was an obvious goal – inevitably positive – while the spread of globalisation represented something tremendously powerful, but also threatening, difficult and dangerous. While the internet seemed to dismantle hegemony, globalisation also seemed to support it – promote it. But by seeing them in parallel, depicted simply as analogous networks that operate on protocols, some of my value judgements about each of them seem to be spreading to infect the other.

My anxiety about globalisation as a hegemonising power is now spreading into my feelings about the internet – could the power-law aspect of the internet that I’ve not previously had issue with actually not be analogous with multinational corporations doing terrible soulless inhuman things across the world. Rather than being analogous, could they in fact be the same thing? Could the infiltration of globalisation’s spread through the world be the same ‘liberating’, equalising, opportunity-producing phenomenon that I’ve believed the internet to be?

There are other weird connections or analogies that can be drawn between the two articles / systems – some of which seem to collide with my argument or rephrase it or push it in a different direction. But each one of them seems to be to point towards something out of my reach at the moment. One analogy seems weirdly to be between disconnected states that constitute a threat to the network and to the very organisations that seem to be behind globalisation – large corporations who push for proprietorial behaviours in an interconnected space. Compare and contrast:

Think about it: Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are pure products of the Gap—in effect, its most violent feedback to the Core. They tell us how we are doing in exporting security to these lawless areas (not very well) and which states they would like to take “off line” from globalization and return to some seventh-century definition of the good life (any Gap state with a sizable Muslim population, especially Saudi Arabia). If you take this message from Osama and combine it with our military-intervention record of the last decade, a simple security rule set emerges: A country’s potential to warrant a U.S. military response is inversely related to its globalization connectivity.

“Remember, though, that if you come up with a new agreement, for it to generate value as quickly as the Internet itself did, it needs to be open, unowned, and for everyone. That’s exactly why Instant Messaging has failed to achieve its potential: The leading IM systems of today — AOL’s AIM and ICQ and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger — are private territories that may run on the Net, but they are not part of the Net. When AOL and Microsoft decide they should run their IM systems using a stupid protocol that nobody owns and everybody can use, they will have improved the Net enormously. Until then, they’re just being stupid, and not in the good sense.”

In this model, a fundamentalist state is kind of like a Microsoft or an AOL trying to spread propriety in the interconnected, protocol-based space. In trying to defy or censor or ‘improve’ the architecture to fulfil their needs they simply threaten the existence of the network in the first place. Except that the network is too huge and too integral to everything to be threatened. Terrifyingly / wonderfully / confusingly the network routes around it. Or does it? Am I losing my mind?

I’m far too close to my own mental collision at the moment to know if I’m hallucinating connections that don’t exist or if I’m merely stating the obvious. It seems to me that I’m not – it seems to me that there has been clear lines drawn between them and us through books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo that I think are probably at least more problematic now. If only to me. Anyone got any thoughts? Can anyone shoot me down? Or push it further?

Categories
Politics Technology

How to contact Kim Howells and tell him what a plonker he's been…

Thanks to Matthew Davis, George Wright and Tim Duckett for writing in with various e-mail addresses for Dr Kim Howells, the Minister for Culture who so resolutely confused music piracy online with drug-dealing and prostitution and in the process declared that Robbie Williams supported international gangs and terrorism. If you wish to have a go at explaining to the gentleman in question exactly where his logic went wrong, his address is kim.howells@culture.gov.uk. Here’s my e-mail. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself sounding smug and superior…

Dear Doctor Howells,
     I was disappointed to notice that you recently conflated internet piracy of music (as ‘advocated’ by Robbie Williams) with the selling of fake CDs, videos and tapes. They are – as I’m sure you’ve now been informed thousands of times – completely different issues. The most significant difference is that not even record companies have found any ways yet to sell music online and make money out of it – which is clearly untrue about physical media. That criminals could have exploited this non-market as a way of laundering their profits is at best unlikely and at worst ridiculous.
     The kind of piracy that Mr Williams was talking about is conducted by members of the public putting songs online (either through peer to peer technologies or simply on the web) for other members of the public to download. While this is clearly a morally questionable act that’s been debated in the press over and over again, there doesn’t appear to be any way to make any money out of it whatsoever. This fact is known to the many millions of Britons who have used applications like Napster to download music.
     That the government I voted for could be quite so clueless about things like this – particularly in the area of culture where intellectual property issues, copyright and digital distribution are huge emerging issues – is frankly terrifying to me! Perhaps you should find some way of keeping yourself informed about such matters before standing up and making a fool of yourself (and by association me for voting for you).
     Yours faithfully,
     Tom Coates
     http://www.plasticbag.org

Categories
Technology

Robbie Williams supports prostitution and organised crime…

So Robbie Williams supports prostitution and organised crime? Well – according to the culture minister Kim Howells, he does… And why? Because he supports ‘internet piracy’. After all, as we all know, music distribution online is all about making lots and lots of money – so much money that organised crime had to get in on the act! I suppose it’s more than we could hope that anyone in power would actually get the internet enough to understand which things are likely and plausible and which things are just scaremongering and stupidity. Here’s a quote from Mr Williams:

Williams, speaking at a music conference in Cannes, is reported to have said:”I think it’s great, really I do. There is nothing anyone can do about it. I am sure my record label would hate me saying it, and my manager and my accountants.”

And here’s a corresponding quote full of stupidity from Kim Howells:

“In saying that piracy is a ‘great idea’, Williams is doing the work for international gangs involved in drugs and prostitution who find music piracy an excellent way of laundering their profits.”

I would suggest that you e-mail him or fax him explaining internet piracy to him – explaining that no one makes any money from it – but of course he doesn’t have a website or an e-mail address. I was then going to suggest that you send him a fax, but unfortunately faxyourmp.com is down because one of the volunteers who runs it has the builders in. Quite why such a core service isn’t supported by the Government remains a mystery…[Read more idiocy at Google News]

Categories
Radio & Music Technology

Observations and Speculations on Music

I spent much of yesterday in a strange venue – a converted public toilet. In front of a Hawksmoor church near Spitalfields market in London is a small glass structure – probably no more than 7ft x 7ft x 14ft. It’s surrounded by a set of wrought iron railings. If you were looking for a meeting venue or a bar, you wouldn’t notice it. But in fact it’s just the top of a staircase that goes into an underground structure. Underground there’s a new bar and a set of decks, but there also remain traces of public-sector tiling. The roof above is concrete struts with glass tiled pavement slabs forming hundreds of mini-skylights that let in a certain amount of greyish London light… I was in this public convenience for a short brainstorming session about music websites, the music industry and ways in which people go about discovering new music they like. Lots was discussed and I’ve been letting it settle in my mind to see if I can come to any general conclusions. So far my insights into the music industry have been limited to:

  • Like everything else, music is becoming more componentised. Groupings of songs distrubuted as a unit have been a staple of the music industry since the transition from printed to recorded music. But these have often been as much a factor of the media available and the costs and ease of distribution than about how people would ideally like to listen to music. The closest thing we have to how people would ideally listen to music is probably radio – songs selected from a larger assortment based on assumptions of audience preference etc. etc.
  • But is there a difference between listening to music and buying music? The function of an artist or an album is that it provides two easy axes by which we can find other songs that we are likely to enjoy based upon our preference for one song. I like Beck’s song “Lost Cause”, therefore I’m likely to enjoy other songs by Beck, and particularly other songs on the album “Sea Change”. So it could be that compiled batches of media – in the form of albums might conceivably represent useful groupings for distribution.
  • Now – while it’s possible to consider batches or compilations of songs useful for distribution, that does not necessarily mean that CDs, Vinyl albums or other physical media have much of a future. If we are to accept that componentisation is the most likely end result for the the use of music, then at present this amounts to MP3 and comparable formats as representing the primary medium. This also ties into increasing digitisation of media. At present the only effective ways of getting MP3s are via personal ‘ripping’ (copying of songs from physical media to digital media) or the distribution of said MP3s online between individuals, via file-sharing networks or from companies. The distribution of MP3s online represents a relatively fast and effective way of getting hold of songs – if you can find them and if bandwidth is of a satisfactory level. The benefits of physical media at present then are that they make it easy to find the songs you want and at a quality that you want. Physical media are also better catered for in the mass market and can be moved between distinct media players quickly and easily.
  • This aspect is significant and important to people – the ability to have access to as much of their media at any time, in an easily distributable way that can be used across several platforms is of significant interest to people.
  • Technology – bandwidth and storage capacity – are continually increasing. In addition to these inevitable improvements, increased interoperability and improvements in wireless communication between devices are likely to be on the agenda.
  • It’s profoundly difficult to know at what point bandwidth and storage capacity will level out over the next ten years or so. Different availabilities and pricing levels of bandwidth and / or storage capacity will have profound consequences on which technologies become dominant. Alongside the difficulties in prediction come real-world legal, financial, monopolist and inter-company situations that may cheerfully scupper the development of the best or most effective means of managing musical distribution – or indeed the distribution of any media in an effective way.
  • The benefits of centralisation are becoming increasingly clear as well. E-mail protocols like IMAP still haven’t received general take up, but as more people find themselves using multiple computers (which seems to be a likely situation – probably following the approach of people buying multiple televisions or stereos), centralisation away from the home seems to be a plausible way of handling this. There’s clearly a market here in being the company or the ISP that handles all your personal information centrally.
  • Technologies are starting to appear that gesture at early-adopter’s desires to centralise music playing as well. From applications like iHam on iRye (which allows you to control iTunes running on one computer from another) and applications designed to control how music is played on a network to devices that broadcast on short-range FM frequencies the audio output of MP3 players – there is a clear desire to be able to collate music in one place and yet play it anywhere.
  • Closing ‘The Analogue Hole’ – the ‘problem’ of the Analogue hole is one that quite a lot of people are working at in record companies at the moment. The issue is that at present there is little or no way to stop people copying music into a digital format from an earlier analogue version of it. And more to the point, there’s no apparent way of stopping people playing digital music that’s full of encryption through a standard set of interconnects. The music is recorded again – relatively faithfully – but into digital from an analogue input. Fundamentally here, the issue is that there is no way of building in security at this level without self-consciously breaking the technology – you have to fight against the natural flow of development and ‘progress’ in order to build this stuff in. And all you need is one person copying things in an effective manner and one effective means of transmission to make all your work redundant. In essence then, the only way to resolve this situation is to ‘fix’ hardware so that copying becomes fundamentally impossible, which cripples the computer for many legitimate uses. My advice – give it up. Not worth the effort. Take the long term view…
  • Ok. Medium-term, then. Music companies are in trouble. They can’t control copying of music easily or effectively and bandwidth / storage advances will only make the copying of music easier and easier. It seems inevitable that MP3 or an equivalent format is going to come to dominate the playing of music, and I would suggest that this is likely to happen within ten years. Sales of CDs will probably continue at a legitimate and effective rate, but mostly as a music delivery system – nothing more. Devices such as the iPod will quickly come to dominate this market, but the biggest problem will be integration with other music-playing devices. It’s too much at the moment to expect the general public to link up their computers (with all the cables and complexity that that involves) with their stereos either at home or work.
  • Certain technologies allude to how this stuff is likely to work more effectively in the future – increasing broadband, applications like iSync and technologies like wifi and wireless networking really do suggest the possibilities of a large variety of interoperable devices functioning together and separately at the same time.

Conclusions: If music companies can weather the intermediate period between the limited, cable-utilising bandwidth of today and the potential multiple-computer + networked appliance households of the future (indeed if they can help facilitate such a world) then they could still survive and develop brand-new channels which could facilitate a faster and more immersive use of music generally. Increases in bandwidth should mean that there is little or no advantage in storing information locally rather than on some kind of server over the internet – and this should apply equally with music files. Wireless networking and always on internet connectivity could mean that music is streamed to where you are rather than downloaded as well, but until that happens, perhaps some form of ‘syncing’ between client player and online resource could occur. This allows access to your music via any platform wherever you are – and all those geek-pertinent records about what you’re listening to and how.

Functionally if could work a little like this: The record company has a relationship with several different online music providers. The punter registers with any one (or several if they wish) music providers. There is no fee for being a member, no subscription at all. They then input their registration information into their smart stereos, their smart portable players, their phones, their laptops – whatever. Via a computer or via any interface on any of the smart machines, new music can be bought via the music provider for whatever market conditions suggest is an appropriate price (I would suggest in a world where a CD cost around ten units of currency that a download of the complete album should cost around five or six while an individual song from the album (assuming ten tracks) should probably cost one full unit. The song can be ‘sold back’ to the distributor / record company at any given time for half the current sale value (which will clearly drop over time). The provider takes a cut of the money made to reflect their running costs and the quality of their service and the record company takes a cut which it distributes back to the artists concerned. Any machine which has the password and user information of the centralised owner can play their centrally stored songs. The ‘stream’ or ‘sync’ – whatever – only works on one machine at any one time (or you can buy more than one license if you want), but a number of different streams or syncs can be active on any one machine at any one time (ie. if you go to a party and you want to bring some music with you, you just add your logon to the player at the party. Bingo – double the songs available to you. This also means that on your iPod or your home stereo you can have a number of accounts from rival competing distributors of music (say HMV / Amazon / Virgin for example) who compete on price and service. From your perspective, though, you just have one repository of songs…

If you heard a song you liked on the radio or at a friends party too, they would be able to ‘give’ it to you easily by picking it up and sticking it in your files (if they wanted to transfer ownership and stop listening to it themselves), or they could just tell you its name – or you could click on ‘buy this song’ and put in your account and password information wherever you were and it would be added to your account centrally. At the nominal cost per song (according to my working price structure above at current rates, an album would probably cost about ≈Ì7 and a single song around a pound) and the capacity to sell it back / throw it away and recoup up to half of that cost later, there would be little incentive to find a cheaper mechanism – particularly as you’d lose out on the always accessible nature of a centralised distribution.

Songs that you own on CD already or as MP3 could be played on the machines in question but could not easily distributed between the various appliances you own. Effectively, they are stored locally – or if someone wishes to set up a service allowing you to store them centrally and play them as a separate channel (like one of the normal distributors above) then I’m sure you’d have to pay for the service.

I want to make clear that I’m not particularly interested in the moral questions around this particular distribution mechanism. It doesn’t seem to me to even be pertinent whether capitalism is moral any more – particularly not in these circumstances. What I am attempting to outline is a way in which record companies might be able to approach making money by giving people real incentives to buy from them by improving the functionality, accessibility and utility of the music-listening experience rather than by trying to shut down technology that they don’t approve of.

This is clearly a rough piece of straight-out-of-my-head thinking which could clearly do with a tighten up and an edit. I may improve it and edit it over the coming days. Any changes I make will be commented on in the source code

Categories
Location Social Software Technology

On the Guardian and UpMyStreet Conversations…

There’s at least one clear analogue for the process of (1) getting exciting by a work project, (2) getting completely involved in said work project, (3) going at it like a mad badger and (4) collapsing exhausted afterwards. And the afterglow is at least equally pleasant. Today UpMyStreet Conversations finally comes out of beta and has been launched to the world at large by an article in the Guardian: The Square Mile. We’ve worked on a few small-scale UI tweaks over the last few weeks and we think that we’re getting closer to making the apparently simple concept easy to use and communicate. There area couple of tiny ones to come – but they’re really enhancements and should emerge over the next week or so. I doubt anyone will notice them but me.

The process of developing the UI and functionality of the site has presented some particularly interesting challenges which I’ve been mostly responsible for working through – along with Dan Burzynski (back-end programmer), Dorian McFarland (front-end programmer) and Stefan Magdalinski (who thought up the idea in the first place). Throughout the process my particular aspiration was to make it almost so obvious to use that people completely ceased to notice how novel it was. This involved paring down the message board functionality to its simplest core and concentrating on fully understanding the very distinct issues that a geographically-organised board might engender.

For example – most discussion boards operate with time as a major axis. This is so common that it almost doesn’t occur to people that it could be done any other way – new ‘topics/threads/conversations’ sit at the top of the page, and either (1) gradually deteriorate in importance through time (Metafilter, Slashdot.org, Plastic – where the content to be discussed is timely and has a limited shelf-life) or (2) move to the top each time they are updated. Time has been the main way that all message-boards have come to be directed – and so removing it as the core organising principle of a board presents profound challenges to users. Core concepts evolved – the ‘here/now’ bar reflects the co-dependency of the two axes of geography and time – as you increase the time-scale you are investigating the more threads become visible across the country. This means that your ten nearest threads are likely to be very close to you. As you decrease the time-scale to short periods, the conversations become fresher, but (since they are selecting from a diluted stock) more geographically distributed. Our concepts of tracked threads as well also hopefully balance this desire to keep it simple and comprehensible while essentially building in a completely different view of the site on offer…

So that’s it – that’s Conversations Version 1.0 – and I think we’re all quite proud of how it’s turned out. And I’ll be more proud still if it continues to be useful and interesting to people…

Categories
Technology

Live Blogging of MacWorld…

And here’s where I will be live-blogging Macworld as I watch it over Quicktime in real-time.

  • There’s apparently a video stream of the keynote stream going into the Vatican.
  • 68% of people going to Apple’s Switch Pages are using Windows.
  • 51 Apple Stores across the US.
  • Revenues: $148 million from stores, with 50% of these sales going to Windows users.
  • News about iSync and iCal updates.
  • In Japan iPod has 42% market share. Burton.com have built the iPod controls into the sleeve of the jacket. Trivial, but entertaining…
  • There are 5 million currently active users of Mac OSX.
  • “If you’ve got Windows apps that you’ve got to run (for some reason)…” Virtual PC has been released. Pro Tools stuff has been released. Or whatever that might be…
  • Final Cut Pro, number one Pro editing package in the world. Apple now releasing Final Cut Pro in a cut-down version as Final Cut Express.
  • No new products will boot into OSX. Steve made a dumbass slip and said we’re focusing all our efforts on 9. Ha! Loser.
  • Digital Hub – they’ve launched all their iApps, and now they’re getting them to work together better. Putting music on Movies, putting music on iPhoto, putting photos into Movies. They’ve completely integrated these applications now.
  • iTunes: “There are hidden features in iTunes 3 springing to life today!”
  • iPhoto: New version – iPhoto 2 launches – integrated with iTunes, One-click Enhance, Archive to CD-Rs and DVDs, Retouch brush…
  • iMovie: New interface, more precise audio editing, soundtracks from iTunes, “Ken Burns Effect” for inserting still images into movies, added some sound effects from Skywalker sound, Chapters, etc.
  • iDVD – now on version three. All integrated and stuff. Weird professional ‘filtery’ things… You can age your movie to make it look like old film.
  • You can still download iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie for free, but iDVD is really expensive to send through the net, so you can only get it with al the other apps on a CD for $49. Calling it iLife.
  • New Application! Safari – turbo browser for OSX! Tested against all the other browsers including Chimera, and it’s apparently faster than all of them – three-times faster than IE on a Mac for downloading stuff and showing pages. Launch times, 40% faster the IE, and much faster to do Javascript.
  • “They wanted to innovate”, Google integration, a whole new way of doing bookmarks and ease of use. Looks really good. Looking forward to seeing this one, even though it’s got the brushed metal appearance. The bookmarks feature operates just like iTunes’ libraries and playlists. You can send them rendering bugs on the fly as you surf the web as well.
  • Safari is based on Open Source KHTML stuff and they’re excited by Open Source and are planning to release all their improvements on the web today. Beta release. Free download starting today!
  • Keynote – presentation application “for when your presentation really needs to work”. And it was built for Steve… Alignment guides. Could this be a cheap or free PowerPoint killer? Full Alpha-channel transparent graphics based on PDF. Exports into PDF and Quicktime and Powerboat. But it also can open and edit PowerPoint files. How much? $99. Available now.
  • 17″ Powerbook. And still only 1′ thick. And it’s got the industry first of underlit keys so that people can read the keyboard. Ambient light sensors to tell when they need to come on as well! 6.8 lbs. And it’s not Titanium any more – Aircraft-grade Aluminium that’s ‘hard anodized and not painted’. 1Ghz G4, 1Mb L3 Cache, Superdrive, geForce4 64 mb of memory with Firewire 800. Wireless equipped with built-in Bluetooth. Lithium Prismatic battery tech – 4.5 hours of life even with 17″ screen. $3299.
  • Airport news: 2 million 11 Mbps speed – now Airport Extreme takes things up to 54 Mbps (802.11g) – fully compatible with all current hotspots. New Base-station has up to 50 users. Wireless Bridging. USB printing. Selling for $199.
  • One more thing: 12″ inch Powerbook. 1.2 inches thick. 4.6 lbs. Smallest Powerbook ever. Full-sized keyboard. Smaller than the iBook. 867Mhz G4. geForce4 420 Go. 32 Mb of Graphics. Slot-load Combo. Wireless built in. Bluetooth build in. Airport Extreme ready (extra $99). 5 hours battery life. Cost: $1799. Looks pretty amazing.

All in all, it’s been a pretty astonishing MacWorld – with some seriously good kit up for sale. I don’t regret getting the iBook though – the only comparable product that I’d be interested in is the miniature Powerbook, and i don’t think I’d have been able to afford it anyway. Next time. Next time.

I hope everyone’s had a good MacWorld! And I’ll post again when I’ve had a bit of rest!

Categories
Technology

On the ethics and responsibilities of running a web-site…

The ethical and legal problems that occasionally Google is confronted with are essentially the same as any site run by any individual or business: Do I have an obligation to the people who use my site? How do I reconcile that with legal considerations? How do I reconcile that with my personal need to make money (either from my site or without my site interfering with that process)? A recent (but already well-linked and not particularly new) article in Wired – Google vs. Evil – talks about the kinds of decisions that have been made in what must now be the world’s most useful search-engine company. If only all online enterprises were as angst-ridden and committed to self-examination…

The company’s growth spurt has spawned a host of daunting questions that no data-retrieval system can easily answer. Should Google play ball with repressive foreign governments? Refuse to link users to “hate” sites? Punish marketers who artificially inflate site rankings? Fight the Church of Scientology’s attempts to silence critics? And what to do about the cache, Google’s archive of previously indexed pages?

Categories
Social Software Technology

Towards a way of measuring a stale paradigm… (ps. needs an edit which I'll come to later)

Let’s start by positing the idea that Thomas Kuhn is right when he talks of paradigm shift – that ideas don’t simply change slowly over time, but instead occasionally move with seismic speed, size and repercussions. That the progression from Newton to Einstein could never be accomplished piecemeal, but had to happen by an instantaneous leap.

Let’s split this concept in two directions which will interact with it differently – that it’s not only theories that can operate in this way, but also products. Let’s think for a moment why a theory reaches the point where one can tell a paradigm shift is about to take place… Normally it’s because a large-scale incongruity of data appears that seems to contradict the theory. Small scale contradictions emerge all the time – and they can be treated as exceptions (or more precisely circumstances where the theory is unlikely to fall down, but where it seems likely that there is more going on than we are able to perceive initially). But the more minor contradictions that emerge, the more special circumstances that appear, the more likely it is that someone will try to resolve them with a higher level theory that will encompass more of them…

What’s the equivalent for products? I would argue that the mark of a stale paradigm – one in which there is significant need for a paradigm shift – would be one in which one (or both) of two things happens. Firstly branding could emerge as the most important aspect of the product itself – with a complete absence of reasons to distinguish between two products (since both accomplish precisely the same function) then the arms race moves into pure marketing. This is a significant difference between products and theories, in that there can be two products that are essentially identical (or functionally competing for the same mindshare in the same area) in which neither can in and of itself ever be dismissed on any grounds other than taste.

The second (and more interesting) aspect might be that the product would experience non-essential feature-creep – the complementary opposite (mirror-image) of the flaws in the theoretical paradigm – minor issues with the way they are used or interacted with that are resolved by the partial dilution – or working around – of the initial paradigm. Thus a product might evolve hundreds of secondary features, none of which are crucial to its use, and which are mostly used by very niche audiences or by all audiences on very rare occasions. A side effect of this might be a market saturated with apparently radically different solutions to the same marginal problems, none of which achieve any apparent dominance simply because none of them have enough of an edge over any other.

Classic examples of stale paradigms? Shoes (evidence is branding and redundant feature-creep), Word Processors (evidence is redundant feature-creep) and Community websites (evidence is massive feature-creep [cf. Infopop‘s Ultimate Bulletin Board] and a recent proliferation of subtly different community applications, none of which have achieved paradigmatic dominance).

Categories
Radio & Music Technology

Apple and the Pirate Everyman

“Don’t Steal Music” says the sticker on the top of every new iPod – a 5-20Gb Firewire hard-disc with built in MP3 player. But is Steve Jobs’ Apple being disingenuous? Because from the outside, their entire operation seems built around helping information to be free – every effort is being made to make software and music and imagery as easy as possible to create, copy or disseminate. And why? Because they’re in the hardware business…
Let’s go back to first principles here and quickly scout through some of Apple’s offerings. First things first – computer hardware. Apple have done a huge amount to popularise and demystify the writable CD/DVD culture, with almost all of their computers coming with either a CDR or Superdrive as standard. The functionality for such devices fulfils a double function – as a storage media for backing-up or transporting large files or as a way of printing media hard-copies – CD duplicates, home-made DVDs.
Now the software that supports it – iTunes is just an MP3 player with a few bits of fluff on it. But it is a good MP3 player, and more importantly it’s a non-proprietary, non-copyright enforcing, song-organising MP3 player. While default players on PCs use technology like Windows Media, iTunes very specifically sticks with the most popular, least controllable and most readily available form of music format. iTunes makes the process of ripping CDs incredibly simple – and that doesn’t only mean your own CDs, it means any CD you get close to. And in order to stop the use of these MP3s to be restricted to your computer (even if they might sound great with your high-quality Harman/Kardon speakers), you can also take them anywhere you want with your iPod.
iMovie and iPhoto meanwhile may not allow you to rip DVDs to your computer, but they operate on the principle that if you get digital footage onto your computer it should be as easy as possible to edit them and burn them on convenient media. Create, edit, burn, distribute.
Now to software distribution – OSX’s disk-copying software (released as standard) makes it simple to take full images of any install media you have and keep them on your computer. Or burn them to CD and give to your friends. Or put them online. Or distribute them however the hell you like.

But none of this is unique to the Mac platform or to Apple as a company. So what is it about the way that Steve Jobs operates that sets Cupertino apart?
In order to answer this you have to look at their own software offerings. From operating system through all its consumer applications, Apple actually doesn’t seem to particularly care if you pay for them or not. The vast majority (iTunes, iSync, iDVD, iMovie, Mail, iChat etc) are completely free. The odd one – like Quicktime – consists of a free element with a small upgrade cost. Some, like the software upgrade to OSX.2, seems like quite an expensive pay-for software option (�Ì90), but can easily be copied and distributed on CD-R without ever having to type in a software registration key.
It’s only at the professional end of the software market where Apple asks for money, and even then that doesn’t seem to be there only reason for selling the software. The fact that major music-software companies can be bought up by Apple – companies that then immediately stop selling the PC versions of their product – makes it clear that the financial aspect of the deal is almost secondary. They’re simply (for the most part) not interested in selling software.
And this vision extends even further to the way they write their software now – OSX.2 is based on an essentially free form of Unix, iTunes stores all its information in XML, iCal uses a publically formed standard way of holding calendar data. In every area, Apple has pushed away from proprietary software technologies and restrictions and moved towards the creativity, interdependance and freedoms of open standards. Apple has tried – wherever possible – to live by the adage that information wants to be free. It’s decided not to fight this aspect of information but instead encourage it, help it to be free. And in fact try to make it as free as possible…
The reasons for all this, of course, are that – for good or ill – at the moment copyrighted material and intellectual property are endangered and cornered beasts anyway. As yet no-one really knows the effects of this development, but I think it is clear to all concerned that (whether or not it is really happening at the moment) the gradual increase in technology, bandwidth and storage capacity provides an enormous potential for simply routing around traditional media-distribution outlets. Whether this will hurt the entertainment and software industries is as yet unclear – because as yet they mostly haven’t even tried experimenting with different types of consumer-interaction – but whether it hurts them or not, it will certainly have an impact.
In my opinion Apple sees such battles as essentially over already, and has moved in a completely different direction. Why try to sell the intellectual property itself when you can simply sell the best platform for distributing it? Why worry about software sales at all – when you can work instead on making it so that people have to buy your hardware to use it? And why consider one off payments on products when you can move towards getting people to pay for services (like .mac – the value of which is directly related to the number of free applications that gain more value when you pay your yearly fee).
Apple is one hundred percent ahead of the game here – so far ahead, in fact – that it’s completely unable to say it loud and clear. That’s why they have to keep saying again and again, “Don’t Steal Music”, when everyone knows that they’re only doing it to cover their own backs. The fact is that they know that however much money is being made through the selling of software, music and copyrighted material, the future isn’t in protecting the trade routes – it’s in making everyone a pirate