Saturday, July 29, 2006

1 Million Pages in your Pocket

What's Apple Doing With eBooks? - Cult of Mac weighs in on the rumours of proper eBook functionality for iPod:
That would be a radical move for the company, as no eBook has achieved the kind of breakaway success predicted for the devices during the overly optimistic early '90s. ... It's a great idea, and if libraries get on board with this, I might never read physical books on my commute again.
I'm definitely with you on this one Rui, but I don't think it's such a surprising move. Apple made the only (non-dedicated) handheld device I would ever have considered reading a whole book on way back in the 90's, and if they can beat the Newton's clarity of text and battery life then I'll be one happy commuter too. The other aspect of this that makes it a natural for Apple is precisely what Rui considers radical; the lack of success of others in putting the pieces together in an area with so much untapped potential. It's what Apple did with the mp3 player market, then with podcasting, and (Apple hopes) with short-form download videos too. With the right deals (please tell me O'Reilly are on board and, while we're dreaming, Dorling Kindersley too), the right device (a music player with expanded functionality, intuitive navigation, sharp on-screen text, and good-to-great battery life), and a smart technical implementation (a compact format with lots of sources of free content - something like pdf), the eBook revolution might take a giant step forward. The need for sources of 'free' content is key. Ripped CDs - and file-sharing - provided the kindling for the iPod, and we all have huge amounts of documents we could be persuaded to carry around on our iPods. Create a Gutenberg Project section in the iTMS. Let me autosync an iPod bookmark folder in Safari via iTunes just like I do with my photos and podcasts. Build hooks into Leopard to let other developers easily add this functionality (what wouldn't I give for Newsfire to go every morning?). Grab my unread mail as a continuous scrollable eBook and let my iPod read it to me, Nike + Apple style. None of this needs to add unnecessary complexity to the basic iPod functionality - it can all slot nicely into what's already there. What's more, this parlays well with Apple's education strategy for the iPod and iTMS, adding serious functionality for those Universities who've already built iTunes portals, and a major lure for others to jump on board. Many of the educators and edu administrators I work with would kill for a good cheap eBook reader, never mind one that students willingly purchase themselves. If Apple get this one right 2006 could turn out to be the year eBooks really start to happen, and while the other players are fussing over downloadable movie content the iPod could become even more entrenched in the mainstream through the humble medium of black on white type.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Zune and the Art of the U-Turn

Magic 8-Ball Answers Your Questions Regarding Microsoft’s ‘Zune’:
Q:  And so now that Microsoft is abandoning the licensing model (or at least deprecating it) in favor of a closed model that they completely control, will all those pundits who’ve been predicting doom for the iPod for the last four years declare that Microsoft, like Apple, is now making the same mistake with Zune that Apple made with the Macintosh in the 1980s? A:  DON’T COUNT ON IT.
Daring Fireball, right on the mark as usual. I expect that the usual pundits will claim that Microsoft's entry into the own-brand mp3 player market is a repeat performance of what they did to Apple on the desktop, when it's almost the polar opposite. On the PC Microsoft changed the business model from a proprietary closed OS (Mac OS and others) or a bought-outright OS (what IBM wanted with MS-DOS but didn't get) to a license-to-all-comers model. With a hard-to-use platform like the PC this worked beautifully (at least in business terms), freeing manufacturers from having to invest in software but forcing them to compete on price (and to keep outdoing each other in performance), while software companies (can we guess who that would be?) cashed in big-time on the huge expansion of marketplace for applications. As Roughly Drafted and others have pointed out, this platform and licensing model has failed on pretty much everything that Microsoft have tried to apply it to with the exception of PC Windows. It's failed for Windows CE and Mobile on PDAs and the mobile phone. It should hardly surprise anyone that the mobile device manufacturers want to avoid getting locked into a relationship like the one the PC vendors have with MS. Even on the desktop it only works while things are spiraling upwards: more desktops, more speed, more OS innovation, more application sales. Microsoft's complete failure to deliver Vista anything like on time or spec might be an indicator that the tornado has begun to die down. Hell, it might even be the cause of the slowdown. So now MS have been forced to completely abandon the model that common wisdom would say wiped out Apple's early GUI lead and adopt the very same end-to-end proprietary approach that Apple have used to build the iPod ecosystem (in the process screwing all the companies that bought into the Plays-For-Sure platform model). This of course is similar to the XBox, but there are important differences. For one, MS never had a platform license model in the game industry. Secondly there's never been a really successful platform license model in the game console market (even back as for as the home computer market - remember MSX?). Thirdly the XBox is a standard razor blades business model like all the other consoles - throw huge amounts of development cash at the hardware, stuff the boxes with cash, and make all your money from games licensing. This is exactly the opposite of the iPod, where the content has been priced to drive sales of (and profits from) hardware (this has forced Apple to design simple, relatively cheap devices and to make them appeal to the broadest audience possible - hence the lack of advanced features with geek appeal). So can Zune make the games strategy work for music? Will MS stuff Zune with $600 of hard-to-use technology selling for $250 and try to battle it out on features (wireless networking, music sharing)? Certainly there's no evidence that's what consumers are looking for in a music player (it hasn't helped Creative, and their shares didn't exactly rebound on the news of the Zune either). And while MS have deep enough pockets to make no money on either player or content just to put a cap on Apple's growth in this market they've shown little ability in turning expensive complex hardware into consumer-friendly devices. All of sudden, Microsoft isn't on home turf: I don't think we're in Kansas anymore Bill. The strategy that won the desktop won't work here, the battle for the home is far from done, and this is still Apple's game to lose.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Notes on Hotels

But the Bed's Still Useful: Michael Gartenberg writes:
As I'm sitting here in the hotel in Chicago working and waiting for my Chinese food to arrive, it occurs to me that I haven't used a hotel phone, hotel TV set of Hotel internet access in a very, very long time.
I certainly couldn't say the same thing. Here in Bangkok I'm pretty dependent on fixed Internet access from my hotel room (charged hourly or daily) and the network access (occasionally ropey but no worse overall than at my University in the UK) from where I'm working. Judging by the constant trickle of people through the hotel lobby taking advantage of the free but slower wifi, and the use of the half-dozen Wintel machines there, other visitors are pretty reliant on the hotel facilities too. I can get (and have gotten) email via my UK mobile phone's roaming agreements (GPRS, but no 3G here it seems, at least not for me) but the cost is extortionate. Eye-wateringly expensive in fact. So for now the hotel is where it's at, and it was pretty much the case in Hong Kong earlier this year too (though there, in-room wired fast network was gratis). Of course Gartenberg's right when it comes to the long-term prospects, and the idea of hotels making wads of cash from this sort of thing in 5 years' time just seems ridiculous. Richard Watson over at Fast Company tracks some current trends in hotel innovation, but for what it's worth here is just a few of the things on my wish list after almost 2 weeks in the Royal Orchid Sheraton Bangkok:
  • Technology Locker: It's a hit and miss affair knowing whether your in-room safe will hold anything more than a wallet, some jewelery and your passport. Don't make me buy a sub-notebook just so I can stash it in my room safely; give me a sensible sized secure locker, and while you're at it put some kensington locks around the place too (extra points for the luggage company that starts adding security lock ports on their hand luggage).
  • Lighten the load: Have you seen what we have to carry with us now just to keep going? Spare batteries, chargers for cameras, chargers for phone, chargers for laptop, chargers for PDAs, and cables to connect them all together. When I book my room let me choose from a variety of common adaptors and connectors that are ready-to-go when I check in. A powered USB port and set of phone cables will handle a lot of models, and is there any reason the same thing can't trickle feed my camera batteries too? Feeding a laptop that way might be a bit much to ask, but there are multi-adaptor chargers there too (though as yet, no MagSafe adaptor). Again, manufacturers could help by giving us more standard power ports (kudos to Canon for giving their pocketable camera battery chargers a standard 2 pin (radio style) power lead and to Apple for their tiny plug-in international power plugs on their chargers (with a standard port underneath, natch). I shouldn't even have to ask for an iPod dock and speakers, I really shouldn't. Really, get with the program.
  • My Space: I might be one of the few people in the world who quite likes hotel rooms, but even I would love to feel a little bit more at home. Think of all the things I could customise from the comfort of a website: Pillows, room temperature, reading material, choice of toiletries (I'll have Body Shop or Lush thanks very much, some cooling talc, and I won't be needing the sanitary towel disposal bags), fresh pressed pyjamas waiting for me, and the Thom Yorke cd that I haven't yet gotten around to hearing. Flowers and fruit would be nice too. You can skip the lousy beer in the minibar, but I'll take a couple of Erdinger Dunkel, or a nice Paulaner.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Notes from Bangkok

Sadly I missed the futon gig at bed supper club this Thursday through a combination of being tired out and having a day full of student assessments on Friday morning, so futon's live presence still remains an unknown. Word is they're great though, and I'll try to catch them when they play London later this year. It remains possible that they'll prove to be that rarest of birds: an asian band that translates to a western audience. Of course futon aren't really an asian band, in the same way that Bangkok isn't really an asian city; more an amalgam of influences that add up to something called Bangkok, and it's only partially Thai in character -at least to farang eyes- though it's administered and branded with ruthless nationalism. In fact National Pride seems to be the main national product here, in a sort of amplified version of the way that's true in Capitals the world over: The Nation's outpouring of concern over the health of the King seems manufactured to cynical western liberal neo-european-republicans like me, but there's an undeniable authenticity about it (witness also the swarms of yellow commemorative shirts worn semi-voluntarily to work on Mondays in this the 60th year of the monarch's reign) and an eagerness on the part of people to play the role of loving citizens that reminds me just how far Britain has moved from the relationship it had with its own monarchy in the first half of the twentieth century. Momus' comments about national cultural identity being largely arbitrary seem apposite here: Who's to say that this blending of east and west, this at once everywhere-ness and nowhere-ness, isn't precisely what constitutes Bangkok, just as it constitutes Hong Kong, Singapore, London and so many other capitals? Perhaps the capital city is becoming an idea of connectedness, as between-places a space as the international airports that sit on their periphery. Maybe it's this very quality that makes futon a truly asian band (after all they're a Bangkok band in which the majority of band members are from countries other than Thailand), whilst making them easy to love in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, KL, Paris and Tokyo. A Capital act indeed.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

A cool 28ºC in Bangkok

Well I arrived yesterday afternoon Bangkok time, remarkably fresh as a result of flying business class by Swiss Air from Zurich, and the temperature here being noticeably cooler than it was on my first visit in April. Thunderstorms are forecast as the rainy season gets well-underway, but as of this morning I've seen nothing but blue/grey skies. I'm in the sumptuous Royal Orchid Sheraton again, which is particularly handy for getting to work: I can completely avoid the legendary Bangkok traffic and take the river taxi up the Chao Phraya. It's about 10 minutes and 18 Thai Baht (€0.40) and I'm practically on the doorstep of Silpakorn University of Arts where I'll be teaching for two weeks from Monday. If anyone in the UK wants to call me they should use my SkypeIn number (+44 121 288 9576) as my mobile phone is extortionately expensive. I'll be picking up voicemail a couple of times a day, at least. If I can get my old Sony Ericsson T610 unlocked here I'll put a local SIM card in it, for local callers. Who knows what the next two weeks have in store? The last time I was here the Multimedia Design course at Silpakorn was still being finalised. Since then there have been quite a few staff changes, and there's undoubtedly a lot to get my head around but I'm looking forward to it. The University, and Bangkok itself, has a great deal to commend it, not least the delicious food for implausibly little money. In the meantime I've some hooking up to do with various people, mostly farang artists, that I met last time around, starting with lunch today with lecturer, photographer and multimedia designer Peter Mantello, who I'll be quizzing about his research and his forthcoming exhibition back at Birmingham Institute of Art & Design. It's a hard life, but hey, someone's gotta do it.

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