Wow, I haven’t been home very much. In the last year, I spent at least one night in each of the following cities:
Cambridge, MA (home)
Gulfport, MS (10+)
Biloxi, MS (20+)
Seattle, WA (20+)
Cachagua, Chile (10)
Dublin, Ireland (3)
Chicago, IL (4)
New Orleans, LA (4)
Austin, TX (3)
Sebring, FL (3)
Norwich, VT (3)
Santa Fe, NM (3)
Tuscumbia, AL (2)
Hartford, CT (2)
Danville, VA (2)
Denver, CO (2)
I spent at least one night in the following cities this year (listed in chronological order):
San Francisco, CA
Las Vegas, NV
Watkins Glen, NY
New Orleans, LA
Mont Tremblant, Canada
Bull Run, TN
On the urging of a friend, I recently signed up for Wallop, the latest and greatest social network out of Microsoft Research. Of course, there’s a whole set of questions about whether they’re too late to the social networking party, whether their slick flash interface will help or hurt them, and about whether the ability to make and purchase mods to customize your Wallop page will make any difference.
This blog entry was provoked by none of the above; rather, by an email from Wallop I received this morning:
In this email, I (and presumably everyone else in my Wallop “network”) are receiving the full text of an email I thought I was sending to Wallop, the company. Why did I send such an email?
Because a few days ago, I received a similar “digest” from Wallop. Only this one had nothing in it:
So I hit “Reply,” saw “Digests@wallop.com” come up in the “To” field, and typed “Why are you sending this to me if there haven’t been any updates?”
Never did I imagine that hitting reply would be the equivalent of hitting “Reply All” and that my words would be sent back to me a few days later.
With the product design hat on, I get it. It’s a nice feature, and it’s a nice, low-friction way for people to send updates to their friends without even having to log in. But for Pete’s sake, let people know what’s going on! Set the expectation that any reply is going to go out to one’s entire network, and provide a separate, obvious link to manage their email preferences.
Suddenly, all the beautiful people in Hollywood have become fat — or so you would think from watching TV recently. For it seems as though most of the shiny new widescreen TVs out there are still showing old, lo-res signals meant for a tube that just isn’t that wide. So those expensively toned bodies we’re all used to fetishizing on TV are now being stretched about a third wider than they were before. It’s a little like the opposite of the new slimming feature included with most new HP digital cameras.
The sheer prevalence of this phenomenon leads me to believe that the pundits decrying the insufficient resolution of the “near-dvd quality video Apple is offering with its new iTunes video store are sorely mistaken. If anything, the rise of MP3s and digital music have shown that when it comes to deciding between fidelity and convenience or cost, people will take the easy way.
Update: As yet further proof that I have no original thoughts, this same idea appeared on Slashdot earlier this year. I had no idea.
Following the cities visited meme, my list of cities visited in 2005:
San Francisco, CA
Los Angeles, CA
San Jose de Almeria, Spain
Priego de Castilla, Spain
New York, NY
Watkins Glen, NY
Mont Tremblant, Canada
May there be more in 2006!
Friday and Saturday, I made a quick, two-day trip out to Vegas to get a sense of the digital zeitgeist at CES. Some quick impressions follow:
CES is staggeringly, indescribably huge. Oceans of people, noise, gadgets, 150-yard lines for taxis. There’s no way I could have seen everything in my two days there.
Stating the obvious: PCs are finally coming to the living room. And everyone wants to provide the interface you use to select and manage your movies, music and anything else that might come down the internet pipe. The big question for this area: what’s the right balance of passive entertainment vs. active participation and discovery? Over the next few years, I think we’ll see an explosion of creative, low-cost internet video likeRocketBoom start to consume more and more of our attention. But as of yet, no one knows for sure how we’ll discover all this new stuff, or knows whether we’ll even want to from the living room.
Stating the obvious, part II: Given the porn industry’s long history of pioneering new consumer media technology, no one should be surprised that the Adult Entertainment Expo ran concurrently with CES.
As media of all kinds becomes digital, Digital Rights Management threatens to be an enormous hairball for everyone concerned. For an industry so utterly dependent on convincing people to continuously upgrade to the latest and greatest from older technology that functions perfectly well, locking digital music and videos to specific hardware people have seems to be sheer stupidity. But as long as everything is locked down, it will push people to search for solutions outside the mainstream. How long will it be before we see an open-source media center interface without DRM that integrates CD and DVD ripping with a nice library interface?
The need for storage is starting to be more pressing than need for bandwidth. Three years ago, the industry was consumed with solving the last mile problem. Now, thanks to ever-faster cable pipes, DSL lines and an emerging fiber-optic network, many of the bandwidth issues have been solved. Now, as more and more video and music is digitized at increasingly high resolutions, the digital storage demands of average households are growing exponentially; and for the first time, the cost of storage has dropped to the point where that’s entirely feasible. For portable devices, this means more flash memory; for table-top devices, increasingly large hard drives.
Not surprisingly, the consumer electronics industry remains much better at hardware design and engineering than software interfaces and usability. Sony’s new MP3-playing walkman, for example, is shockingly hard to use. Some of the whizzy new twisting phones from Samsung look cool, but are way, way harder to use and figure out than they should be. It’s acceptable when used horizontally as a keyboard; but when you’re actually trying to use it as a phone, the important buttons are so small and poorly distinguished that usability is seriously impacted.
CEScamp was fun. It wasn’t really a BarCamp in the way I had expected, but more of an informal blogger gathering, which I think was what most people wanted anyway. Thanks for organizing it, Albert!
Famous faces: Todd Rundgren wandering through the Microsoft booth, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock presenting for XM. And of course, Robert Scoble, Doc Searls and Amanda Congdon at CEScamp.
After my recent rant about Bluetooth, it appears as though some help may be on the way. In the latest issue of their excellent Technology Quarterly, the Economist writes (subscription required) that near-field communication technology — think Mobile Speedpass, or the Suica cards used on the subways in Tokyo — are likely to be used as an easier way to pair various devices, which could then communicate at a higher rate.
In other words, hold the two devices within a couple centimeters; let them work out the pairing process; then, they can communicate using a higher power technology with more bandwidth.
In contexts like this, physical gestures can be a vast improvement over typical general purpose screen-and-menus interfaces.
I’ve been using Bluetooth in its various iterations for about four years now, and I’ve become quite frustrated by how unfriendly it is so much of the time. I tend to be an early adopter, and was willing to forgive many of the little bugs and difficulties early on. But after four years, just as many Bluetooth phones and several new versions of the software, I’m disappointed with the lack of progress.
Apple PowerBook, 1.5ghz
Jabra BT 250v headset
Apple Wireless Keyboard
I use bluetooth on a regular basis with four devices:
The keyboard connects to the PowerBook; the headset to both the phone and computer; and the phone and PowerBook are paired to sync contacts and occasionally use as a GPRS modem.
Some things work very well. The keyboard and laptop have been flawless; after some initial hiccups, the phone now syncs reliably with the computer. As a whole, though, the technology is still very rough around the edges, with a few major points of frustration. Specifically:
1. Pairing takes too long.
The Jabra headset connects to the PowerBook (for skype) and to the phone. I use both on a regular basis, and every time I want to point the headset at one or the other, I have to go through the whole pairing process again; not the kind of thing you want to do when you’re trying to answer a phone call.
2. It forces me to be more aware of security than I should have to be.
On a recent trip to Europe, my phone was pinged repeatedly on the subway by people trying to sending me software over bluetooth. I rejected all the messages and nothing happened; but obviously people are taking advantage of the ‘discoverable’ mode to try to hack into bluetooth phones.
3. Some common needs seem to be ignored or underpromoted
Why can’t I cut and paste directions someone emails to me right onto my phone without first saving it to a text file? Why can’t I do a mass download of photos from my phone to my computer without selecting each one on my phone, and selecting ‘send to computer?’ Each of these things takes way more steps than it should. But that’s not even the biggest problem; many people don’t even know that these things are possible.
4. It’s still buggy.
Of the four devices I own with Bluetooth, the PowerBook and the keyboard are the only two that work together consistently and reliably. A good thing, too — the prospect of an unreliable keyboard is just about the last thing I want to think about when using a computer. I consider myself lucky if any of the other pairings work well. My phone and computer often need to be rebooted to talk to each other; the phone will think the headset is attached when it’s really not. All my devices are pretty recent; after over four years and millions of dollars, a protocol at this level has simply got to be more reliable.
It’s a hard problem.
To be fair: I don’t envy the challenges the bluetooth team faced. They had a hard technical problem, an international consortium of hardware manufacturers to please, long manufacturing lead times, etc. Compromises were inevitable, and it’s understandable that it would take a while to shake out.
What I would most like to see most is a physical interface to pair devices. Don’t make me decide of things are discoverable or not discoverable. Don’t make me navigate through 6 layers of menus just to connect two devices together. I want to plug my headset into my phone and wait a second and half for a light to tell me that they’re paired. Once I see the light, I’ll unplug the headset and put it on my ear.
Trying to pair devices wirelessly and securely poses all kinds of thorny usability hurdles. But it’s a problem that really doesn’t need to exist. A physical interface might make the hardware a little more complicated to manufacture. But in my view, the simplicity and improvement in usability would make it well worth the trouble.