Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Live-ish from Apple Expo Paris

Well I finally managed to find an open WiFi connection here on the floor (literally) at the Porte De Versailles, so it would be churlish of me not to post something. The show seems smaller this year (and I say that every year), but that might be because everything's shrinking. The floor is dominated by iPod accessories, and with the advent of the nano even those are approaching the invisible. Things to mention so far: 1. A gorgeous collection of Japanese iPod and PowerBook accessories from Keiko Mase Napier's Power Support company (They're based in Burbank CA, but they really need to do something about that name). The iPod Kimonos are wonderful, and their traditional Japanese fabrics and designs are being rolled out into a collection of laptop cases too. I'll be talking to Keiko for Radio Usergland later this week with a little luck. 2. Apple seem strangely disinterested this year, which might be to do with the fact that they have nothing brand new to announce. The nano is the big (little?) news, but we got that already. Last year the iMac G5 was everywhere. This year it's ubiquitous on everyone's stands. Today's changes to .mac could easily be missed, for all the attention they're being given (though I fail to grasp how .mac groups will avoid the pit of irrelevance that iReview fell into.. I'll look at it in more detail soon). 3. A little company called RealMac Software from Brighton UK are here pitching their Audio Express and RapidWeaver products. Both look potentially excellent tools for doing things like podcasting, and I've suggested a few features which would make this a no-brainer. This stuff used to be coded in RealBasic of all things, but they've made the jump to Cocoa, and good luck to them. 4. IrisPro OCR software wins the Usergland award for outrageous use of brushed metal. I'm not rabidly anti BM, but this just has to be seen to be believed. My eyes are bleeding from 5 minutes with this interface.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

A few updates

It's been a few days since I posted last, so I thought I'd try to roll a number of things together in this entry. Here goes:

1. The iPod nano continues to behave beautifully (and Maria's ordered hers now, in white), though my Apple In-Ear Headphones have mysteriously given up the ghost. Actually it's even more mysterious than that, as they seem to have lost all power, producing about 20% of their usual volume levels. Surely both ears couldn't have become identically blocked at precisely the same moment, and my ears aren't that waxy. A trip to the Genius Bar tomorrow, methinks.

2. The New Researchers Day at which I presented yesterday threw up a few useful things, including an excellent session from textile designer & fashion lecturer Zoe Hillyard which focused on hand knitting in Peru. Zoe recently spent 3 weeks in Andean villages and has some real insights into how traditional producers work without the centralised structured networks of the UK industry and without anything resembling a precise pattern for the garment. A conference on emerging models for networks and e-commerce would bite her hand off to get this stuff onstage, and I'm going to be coaxing her to chat on Radio Usergland.

3. Fellow presenter David Osbaldestin continues to update the Business As Usual project; the gallery has some excellent new submissions, and David's published the properly-formatted version of the Ronnie Chance article which I authored (plus the mysteriously-added paragraph, but you can't have everything). That you probably need to be some sort of designer to participate is a problem which remains, and I'm keen for David to do something about that soon. I might even lend a hand.

4. Amongst everything else tomorrow (breakfast meeting with DO, check in my headphones at the Apple Store, catch up on a number of outstanding emails, attempt to catch Wolf Creek at the cinema, collect daughter from school) I really want to pin down what I'll be offering to final year Undergraduate students this year. I'm intending it to be two linked 16-week programmes connecting some of the dots between areas like transformative technologies, virtual environments, digital products, community and social networks. Already the map is turning into a sprawl, and I'm feeling like a low-rent Buckminster Fuller. I'll see if I can shape it up tomorrow.
[UPDATE: While the cause of my In-Ear Heaphones losing volume remains a mystery, I'm delighted by the service at the Apple Store. They didn't even test them, simply trusted me that I wasn't going mad and replaced them with shiny new ones. This is why they're doing so well, and why some third-party resellers are whining their way towards bankruptcy.]

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Monday, September 12, 2005

One weekend with the iPod nano

iPod nano As I sat in a cafe this morning listening to Anthony & The Johnsons' delectable I Am a Bird Now, I was aware of something missing. The coffee was fine, the bagel fresh and fruity, and the music just as it should have been. Different though was that normally my jeans pocket feels like it's straining to take the shape of my iPod mini, especially when I'm seated. In fact I usually have to take it out and lay it discretely on the table next to my coffee cup. Today though my headphone cable was snaking into my pocket and I had to keep checking that my newest iPod, a shiny black nano, was actually still there (yeah, I know the presence of music should have given me a clue). It's been said hundreds if not thousands of times since Apple announced the iPod nano last week, but I have to say it again: This baby is small. I have to repeat it, mostly because it's been the gist of a dozen slack-jawed responses to the nano over the weekend from friends, family, and casual acquaintances. They love the screen, the jewel-like finish, the (as per usual) sound quality, the fact that I have 5200 photos on the thing alongside my podcasts and latest music purchases; but the first thing they comment on is the sheer lack of mass of the thing. The nano arrived on Friday afternoon. I'd ordered it at about 8PM BST on Wednesday evening, a mere 2 hours after SJ took the stage in SF to announce this and the Motorola ROKR. This alone speaks volumes: Apple knew what the demand for this thing would be like (it's not like I don't have enough iPods already, but like many other 1st generation mini owners I was itching for an upgrade to what's become the most useful iPod for me on a day-to-day basis), and they ramped up their manufacturing and distribution to cope. When I walked past the Apple store on Friday evening stocks of the nano were good, and other Apple dealers had them in Birmingham city centre on Saturday. That'll please a lot of people, particularly the dealers who couldn't get the iPod shuffle for love or money, and resorted to cross-selling onto other brands (I witnessed it on several occasions, even though the customers were fixated on owning the Apple product). After the relatively low-rent packaging of the shuffle and the latest iPods, the nano box feels much more upscale, with rich black satin print and foil block lettering. Similarly to the original iPods, the feel is of good jewellery or perfume, though simpler than the foam-packing of the 3G and earlier models. Here the cable and accessories are together in a sealed bag that occupies one half of the box, reminiscent of a thicker cd digipak. The first impression of the iPod is (of course) how small it looks in the box, and when I dug it out of its little recess I was genuinely awestruck: The nano really is slimmer than a pencil. This is further confirmed when plugging in either the USB (no FireWire) or headphone cable, as the whole device is as thick as either of the plugs. In fact I have headphones on which the plug is actually thicker than this device. Set-up was typically smooth; I already had iTunes 5.0 and didn't need to update any software. The nano ships in Windows format, and the Mac automatically started updating it for native use. This is fine; the bulk of purchasers will be on Windows (boo!) and besides, can you imagine what this would be like in the opposite direction? The instruction manual seems thicker and more targeted at brand-new users than with previous iPods. This could just be how it seems to me, but everything here (from the availability to the software, to the instructions) seems to indicate that Apple are expecting to sell lots of these to people who've never owned an iPod before. That's not to say they're new to mp3, but they may be moving from a shuffle or a rival low-end device. Even the signature iPod design says this. This is a real iPod, with a full feature set, and a classic Apple user experience. I fully expect this model to outsell the mini in a matter of months. So to that feature set: This is an iPod photo, bar the bulk, the remote connector, FireWire support and a double-duty AV jack. Other than that, it's all here. iTunes optimised my fairly sizable image library to fit the screen, my podcasts were transferred automatically as I selected in the settings, and I pulled my latest cd/iTMS purchases across manually. USB 2.0 felt as speedy as the previous FireWire option (there are issues with this of course, but most new users won't feel a thing, and I suspect that dumping FW was the only way to get the size down to this), and the slowest part of the process (other than converting my iPhoto library (go make supper, unless you're on a dual G5) was deciding what to name the device (seriously, I'm running out of names - I settled for nano noir). The decision to go all-flash on the memory front has implications beyond size and battery life: The device often feels speedier, particularly on booting and accessing data. Scrolling through image libraries is especially smooth and, were this AV-enabled, would make the device a no-brainier for portable presentations. That'd add bulk and complexity though: This is an iPod for listening, like the mini before it, and its rapidly disappearing mass makes it a pleasure to carry everywhere. Who needs a combined phone/pda/camera/music player when this little additional luggage gets you such a slick experience? There are lots of issues opening up around the iPod: Apple's ability to innovate in an expanding marketplace (80% market share may not be sustainable, but they seem to be interested in growing the market rather than just shoring up share); the effective customer lock-in that they're defending (much of Steve's state-of-the-iPod address was targeted at showing how they're the only game in town if you want a mature, functioning ecosystem and a base of paying customers); and Apple's wildly out-of-proportion-to-its-size power over the industry (sure the labels carp on about a still-tiny download market, but ask them about profitability and where they think things are heading. I presume that not even Sony think we're all going to buy our albums on UMD). The iPod nano is Apple's response to all of the articles saying how the labels/cellphones/carriers/chainstores are going to eat Apple's lunch. How do you like them eggs, Sim Wong Hoo? UPDATE: I'm picking up a few other interesting takes on the iPod nano, and issues which impact on it, and I'll post them here. Check these out: LameZone: Nano. Amazing. Confessions of an Undercover Geek:My iPod nano First Hand Experience Tech Shout! Samsung builds 16 Gb Flash Memory Chip

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hybrid composite ghost-written article online

The latest edition of Fused is out, and features the article I wrote on David Osbaldestin's Business As Usual/Secret Art Project. As I mentioned earlier, I was asked to write it under the assumed guise of one of David's own alter-egos, and since I did it seems to have grown an extra paragraph somewhere towards the end promoting a design book. It won't take a genius to spot it. I don't think David's making any money from promoting the book, so it obviously gets a mention because he loves it, but nonetheless it looks oddly out-of-place in a promo for an art piece.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

We'll always have Paris

Usergland will be in the French capital from Monday 19th September for the Apple Expo, so expect some postings from the ever-delighful rive gauche. Actually the Apple Expo is just my excuse, if one is necessary, for spending some time in Paris on, an at minimum, annual basis. This year's Expo is gearing up (if the media is to be believed) to be a bit of a damp squib, with little new to announce, a way to go to the Intel-based Macs & Leopard (and they won't be talking transitions at a consumer show), the big iPod announcements done in SF this week, and (shockingly) no keynote. I'll be wearing my 'K' marked Expo badge as a sign of silent protest. So what is there to look forward to? Well the big thing for most folks will be hands-on time with the iPod nano (mine has shipped, I'll review it here soon), the beginnings of an ecosystem of nano accessories (Paris last year was one big fashion show for the iPod), and most likely the European launch of the Motorola ROKR E1 with iTunes. While I'm not the market for this phone, and I'm not a fan of Moto's kit (ok the RAZR is cool from an industrial design perspective, but the UI still stinks) it's the iTunes integration (and the licensing of Apple's DRM) that makes this an important move. It's a fair bet we'll see some new moves on the pro software side, and there's an outside chance of a final increment on the G4 PowerBooks. There's almost no chance of a G5 Mac mini, though a space on my shelf awaits one, and I fancy pairing it with one of these Sony TV tuner/monitors, unless anyone can tell me a good reason why I shouldn't. Entirely co-incidentally, the fantastic 7" Cinema is holding a French-themed night in Birmingham the following week (27 Sept), and I'm hoping for a chance to interview some of the contributing film-makers for Radio Usergland while I'm in Paris. We'll also be teaming up with Ian Francis and the 7" team to bring some exciting content to the podcast on a regular basis, beginning in October. Stay tuned, and if anyone wants to hook up in Paris during the Apple Expo, let me know here.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Long Tail Education

Dan Hunt and I have been trying to pick apart some of these issues around graduate retention, art & design employment, and curriculum design, and I wanted to share a little about how these things are beginning to tie up for us. Dan was a final year student on the Multimedia Design program that I helmed, just at the time that we were beginning to see real changes in our expectations in terms of student employment in our specialism. A couple of years earlier it wasn't unusual for students to see themselves as fodder for the New Media machine, heading from education out into the world of the new media design agency (either freshly-minted or newly-reinvented as such). By the time Dan was graduating the .com bubble had well and truly burst, and the people with the smarts (us, of course) were beginning to bet on a much more fragmented future. We talked a lot at the time about how the bulk of new media-savvy graduates would increasingly enter niche vertical industries, hungry for clued-up employees to help them make the leap. Dan headed for the world of medical IT, but others have turned up in retail, local government, music promotion, video training, and TV production. Of course it's clear we were seeing the long tail in action, where the old behemoth industries would cease to command the bulk of employment opportunities just as big media is less and less in control of the majority of eyeballs. At the same time we were designing a New Media & Performance degree designed specifically to cater to these multiple (sometimes single student) niches, largely at the behest of Gregory Sporton, a firm advocate of such boutique courses as both profitable and relevant. For the most part the structures of Creative HE are still tied into a big head model rather than long tail: We pitch to large uniform student marketplaces, we design courses for big numbers of students, and we prepare them for a big media employment model (even though most of them will now never experience this). Even our eLearning models reflect this thinking, and that's one area where we'll be doing some work over the next few weeks.

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Gartenberg on the iPod Nano

Hands On with the iPod Nano:

I had a chance to chat with Steve Jobs about the decision to drop the mini and go with the shuffle and I believe it’s a pretty wise move. With mini competitors like the Dell DJ and Creative Zen Micro, it was getting hard for the mini to stand out of the crowd. Apple could have done the expected and upped the capacity of the shuffle to 2gb and tweaked the mini but instead chose to take the road less traveled, to kill a successful product at the peak of success and create a brand new family of product. But making decisions like that is how you make all the difference.

This chimes with the way I see it too. In the conversations I've been able to have about the iPod nano so far a few things stand out: The move to the iPod signature look and (almost) full-feature set is hugely significant, and will make this device connect with the those who aspire to own the iconic player; the miniaturisation is stunning, and plays to Apple's strengths in getting this stuff right before the competition have figured it out; the price is $50-75 more than many people would have hoped – in other words it's spot on (remember the mini was the same, and they sold as many as they could manufacture, dropping the price a little when demand settled. In all, I'll miss you iPod mini; you've been a great little (silver) bulge in my pocket, but I'm greatly looking forward to meeting your highly-evolved descendant. My podcasts, latest music purchases, a few photos, notes and calendars, all in a (black) package that I don't even notice carrying. 3 days to shipping is just too long to wait. Can I cancel my order and buy it retail this weekend?

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Inclusive Learning

Back in 1996 the UK Further Education Funding Council Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities Committee chaired by Professor John Tomlinson published its Inclusive Learning report which defined inclusion as as the greatest degree of match or fit between individual learning requirements and provision. The summary of the report is definitely still worth a read, and it proposes a "learning eco-system" as the means of achieving this best fit.

From a traditional educational perspective this is still pretty transformative stuff, and while academics widely acknowledge the need for curriculums which take account of learning styles they often seem to do so, at least in my experience, in a way which minimises the effect that this model has on their own planning and delivery. This notion of a process in which we commit to learning in detail about our students and their individual needs, preferences, abilities and challenges is far easier to accept if the resulting learning methods, curriculum, and assessment strategies are in pretty much line with the sort of thing we can deliver. We're unlikely to embrace something that indicates our approach is redundant.
One of the ways this manifests itself is that we appear to believe that this process of matching provision to requirements can be frozen and captured in a traditional course document. Indeed our usual interpretation of the validation process appears to actually require this, and there's no doubt that it encourages it. In truth, the process implied by Tomlinson suggests a dynamic which reacts on a student-by-student basis and continues throughout the course. Some of our work with Personal Development Planning moves in this direction, but it would seem to have little chance of making a real difference if the curriculum itself is static. Some aspects of such a dynamic curriculum can be treated as 'snapshots' and reused, but in light of an accelerating rate of change this itself will very soon become outmoded, and the 'survival time' of our strategies will begin to approach zero.

If you think this sounds like negativist carping, you'd probably be right. I'm a keen advocate of transformative change in curriculum design, and the idea of absolute personalisation just really rocks my boat. I'm developing a paper on next-generation electronic learning which is bound to incorporate some of these notions (I'll post the abstract at the very least here soon) and I'll try to develop some of them here in more detail over the coming weeks.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Graduate Retention

Spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon last weekend catching up with Dan Hunt, one-time student on the (now-defunct) Multimedia Design Subject route in Visual Communications that I headed up. Dan's always been an interesting guy; he's by nature inter-disciplinary, and not in the dilettantish way it often shows up. Rather he seems to find himself drawn towards areas that he knows little of, in the process expanding his own knowledge just enough to give him a new perspective on his core concerns. He's been back working in his home town of Oxford for a little while now, at Minervation who are deeply entrenched in the world of web design and usability for medical applications. Dan's well-suited to such a vertical company though web design wears on everyone after a while (how long depends on how easy you find it to turn off your critical and intellectual faculties in pursuit of a pay cheque), and he's being lured back towards the world of creative education, with a potential role at the VRU.

A good part of me hopes Dan comes back to Birmingham for a while, as it'll be interesting having him around, but much of our conversation centered on more interesting places to be (such as Berlin, from where Dan's architect girlfriend Catha hails), and how the concept of graduate retention in the city (which government types view as highly desirable) increasingly rubs up against the goal of creative education being a springboard to lots of possibilities. Students I've worked with at BIAD are now scattered globally, some returning to their home territories (Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Japan, Norway, France..), others venture outside of what they've known after coming into contact with a much broader cultural base at university (studying for Masters degrees in Paris, teaching English through multimedia in Osaka, web design in New York).

The broadening and cultural enrichment is only part of the equation too; students are attracted and excited by courses that leave them with a global rolodex and a plethora of potential destinations. The counter-argument says that in order to create a culturally-rich city we need to be able to offer graduates employment right here. This is of course partially true, but it's a landscape far more likely to emerge from a fluctuating diverse population of creative individuals attracted to the city as a means of prototyping their future life/work vectors than it is to come from pouring money into ill-advised exercises in cultural parochialism.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Secret Art Project

David Osbaldestin's Secret Art Project kicks off with Business As Usual, a project around business cards, identity, and networks. He's been distributing business cards on eBay and encouraging others to alter them and redistribute. His best idea IMO was to create ASCII versions and email them out, meaning that a reworking was accessible even to those people like myself who can't be bothered to open an image editor. The first reworked card is from me, and it's in the gallery.

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