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The Post Tablet Era

Posted: July 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: android, Apple, Companies, Google, iPhone, Lifestyle, Media | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »
google chromebook

Chromebook

The tablet entered with a huge bang a few years ago.  It was staggering, Apple sold in an incredible number of iPads and forced all of the netbook manufacturers and Google to scramble to produce and release a tablet OS, namely Honeycomb, that was arguably not ready for release.

The result with both the iOS and Honeycomb are two excellent tablet OSs, and Ice Cream Sandwich promises to be a stellar tablet and smartphone OS.  What I have been discovering over the past year plus using both versions of the iPad and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is that I don’t really need a tablet for general computing.

This is surprising to me.  I built an IDE for the iPad and iPhone after all, and found myself using my own product more on the iPhone for quick edits than I did on the iPad.

I watch an awful lot of netflix on the iPad, and I play games most of the time that I am using it.  I have found that with the Galaxy Tab, my patterns are much the same gaming, watching videos, occasionally reading ( although I still prefer my Kindle hardware to the tablet versions ).

So I am coming to the conclusion that the pundits were right initially, tablets are clearly for content consumption, not content creation.  The reason, however that these devices are not suitable for content creation is worthy of debate, and is an issue that I’d like to take up now.

Natural User Interfaces

The user interaction that most tablets sport as the default is something that is being called a natural user interface, that is an interaction that uses some of the users other senses, such as motion, to perform an on screen action.  The current crop of tablets mainly use touch instead of a dedicated hardware component to facilitate user interaction with the interface.

This lends itself obviously to gaming, and a “kick back” experience of sorts.  The user can use touch, or the gyroscopes to control a character on the screen, this makes logical sense to just about any user.

As an example, many role playing games have a 3/4 view of the game board, that is, the camera is typically at 5 o’clock high, or somewhere thereabouts.  The control scheme for most of these types of games is to touch a place on the screen to send the character to that location.  Role playing games work particularly well on tablets for this reason, they are almost better with a touch interface than a controller.

As another example, car racing games use the accelerometer in the tablets to control an on-screen car.  This works well, unless you are in a position in which your motion is constrained, such as the bed, most of these games provide some sort of alternate touch based interaction that replaces the accelerometer based input.

The problem with using on screen touch points in auto and first person shooter games is that the controller now covers part of the screen, or your hands end up covering important parts of the game world, causing the player to miss part of what is happening.  I know that in my case, it takes away from the FPS experience and makes it so that I typically don’t buy those sorts of games on tablets, but instead prefer to play them on a console.

Natural user interfaces only work when the content is modified such that the user can interact with it sensibly using the available sensors, gyroscope, touch screen, microphone, et cetera.  In a famously bad case of using a natural user interface to interact with content from a platform that uses traditional input, Numbers presents the user with a typical spreadsheet like the one you would find in Excel for your Mac or PC.  The issue here is that Apple didn’t modify the presentation of the content such that it matches the platform.  Arguably there is no way to do this in a form that makes sense.

The interface for Numbers features beautiful graphic design elements, and is generally pleasant, but when you tap on a grid element, a virtual keyboard pops up and you are invited to type into the fields.  Apple has made a numeric keyboard interface which is pretty nice, but anytime you display the virtual keyboard, you haven’t thought hard enough about the problem.  Displaying a grid of content is not useful on this device, it is amazingly useful on the desktop, but it just doesn’t work here.  Inputting large amounts of data is frustrating, and the virtual keyboard makes mistakes all to common, either because of mistyping or the misguided autocorrect.

Modifying Content for the Natural Interface

Most of the people who are buying tablets today appear to be tolerating these issues, my belief is that they are doing this because tablet computers feel like a piece of the future they were promised when they were children, useful or not.  Eventually, they will likely stop using their tablets at all in favor of ultralight laptop computers, or they will relegate the tablet to the living room table as a movie watching and game playing platform.

It is possible to make significant user input acceptable on a tablet, perhaps even pleasurable, by using a bit of creativity.  First, they keyboard is a complete failure.  It has its place, but in most cases it can be replaced by effective gesture (non touch ) and speech recognition.  This is the only viable way for bringing large amounts of content.

On the visualization front, using our example in Numbers, perhaps a flat grid is not something that makes sense on the tablet, maybe we should send the data to a server for analysis and present it as a series of graphs that can be changed by the user, manipulating the graph directly with touch actions, or with spoken commands.  The result of the changes would flow back into the spreadsheet, updating the numbers behind the visualization.

Many would argue that this would not be a rich enough interaction for some of the complex spreadsheets, pivot tables, etc… that they work with, indeed, it likely would not.  Most of these users would not perform these actions on the tablet, instead they would use a MacBook Air, or other lightweight laptop computer.  It takes a huge amount of creativity and intelligence, as well as significant amounts of computer power to manipulate data in this way.

Imagine a speech interface for a word processor that could use the camera to track your facial expressions to augment its speech accuracy.  It could, and should, track your eyes to move the cursor and ask you to correct it when you make a bad face at a misinterpreted sentence.  An application like this could make word processing on a tablet a wonderful experience.

The technology to do most of these things is here.  It is either fragmented with each part patented by a different company, some without any sort of tablet such as the Microsoft with the Kinect.  Or the effort to produce a piece of software to utilize the features of tablet computers to best effect is too great to justify the investment.  For example, doing that sort of work for a word processor doesn’t make sense when people will just jump over to their laptop to use Word.  Would anyone pay $100 up front for an iPad word processing application?  I don’t think so.  Would anyone pay $25 per month for the same application as a service on the iPad?  Its equally doubtful.

What you come to eventually is that, for interacting with content that either naturally lends itself to, or can be easily modified for, the tablet, it is fantastic.  Currently, however it is severely overpriced for how it is being used.  After all, you can get a fairly cheap notebook that can play Netflix and casual games for $200, or 1/3 the price of most tablets.  If you have to carry your laptop anyway, why would you have a tablet at all.  Why wouldn’t you take the Air with you and leave your tablet at home.  It can do everything the tablet can do, and it also can handle any of the content creation that you care to try.

Thinking about the situation, we need to find better business models that will allow for the development of applications that can handle the modifications to content that we need for tablets to be generally useful.  This will take a while, and in the interim it is likely that some companies will produce tablet hybrids, the ASUS Eee Transformer is one tablet that comes to mind.  It is very popular, runs a mobile tablet operating system, but becomes a keyboard wielding notebook in a second.

The Google Chromebook is another example of a lightweight, even in software, laptop that can do most of what a tablet can do, as well as most of what the typical laptop does.  In my own use, excluding building applications for tablets, I always reach for my Chromebook instead of my tablets.  All of this is excluding the huge difference in the difficulty of building applications on the platforms.

Writing applications for tablets is extremely hard with a doubtful return on investment, unless you are making a media or gaming title.  While writing applications for the web is easy and potentially extremely lucrative with many variations on possible business models, and little interference from device manufacturers.

I am starting to think that Ray Ozzie was right when he said that Chrome OS was the future.  It feels more like the near future than the iPad at this point.  The tablet will always have its place, and perhaps with significant advances in natural user interface technology, with accordant price reductions it will start to take over from the laptop.  I am fairly bullish on the natural user interface over the long term, but at the same time I pragmatically understand that we aren’t there yet.  The devices, software, and consumers have a lot of work to do for us to really enter the era of the computerless computing experience.  I am committed to getting there, but I think that the current crop of tablets might be a false start.


DHH vs TechCrunch vs Groupon

Posted: June 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Groupon, Media | No Comments »

Its funny to look at DHH’s (David Heinemeier Hansson) post about Groupon’s S-1 vs TechCrunch’s

DHH's Groupon Revenue Twitter Post

TechCrunch's Groupon IPO Post


The Post Free Era and What it Means to Google

Posted: September 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Google, Media | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

For the past few months I have actively quested against using anything that is free, asking difficult questions of the product, and often choosing a paid alternative when the answers were not forthright enough, and I have been noticing similar tension on twitter, and the other social media places that I haunt, as well as casual encounters with friends and family. Why have I have been trying to move off of the free ecosystem? What reason could there possible be? I mean who doesn’t want stuff for free? Well, that answer is complicated, to fully understand it, I think we have to look at some of the things that the “free” ecosystem has brought us.

The first, and most significant negative thing that the expectation of free software and services has brought to us is a huge proliferation of spyware and malware. There are a few reasons that the amount of spyware and malware increased dramatically around the time that software became available for free. It is largely a consequence of the law of unintended consequences. First, fast internet became widely available at costs that are reasonable. In fact, for a while ISPs played around with having a free price point, but that faded away quickly as capital intensive enterprises are incompatible with the gift economy.

The next is a series of unsustainable business models driven by advertising with ever declining value delivered to the sponsoring companies due to consumers being advertised out. This in turn has driven to many choosing not to consume content at all, or destroying once vibrant businesses such as newspapers, music, and movies. What is the answer to the decline, to increase the ads of course, to make up for a clear down trend with increasing the volume and driving down margins while lowering the quality of the product to keep the same profitability. Does this sound familiar, it should, its the same thing that happened in the housing market to continue an unsustainable business model. Instead of innovating out of the crises, the advertising companies are clinging stupidly to the old systems.

Once fast internet became widely available, the GNU / GPL driven software model with distributed version control systems became possible. Now people were able to collaborate on software, in countries where labor costs were cheaper, driving the price of development down in general for large projects. The GPL began with a powerful intent, to make software, and its source code available to facilitate learning and improve the quality of all software. It has largely achieved this end, however it got end users used to being able to download high quality software for free. At first, this was all gravy, but eventually these same people started to get tired of giving away their hard work, some of them graduated college and needed to make money, others just wanted to improve their standard of living, the reasons are too numerous to go into, but the result is that these “alternative” business models started to spring up around software that at its core was free. The service / support model was the first to appear, along with making closed source software available for free but with embedded malicious software. The idea behind this was simple but powerful, by installing covert software on millions of remote PCs you could send spam email advertising whatever you wanted, and no technology ( at the time ) could stop you.

This was the beginning of the advertising ecosystem. Yes it basically came from malware.

TANSTAAFL : There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Truthfully, nothing is free. Businesses saw what was happening in the malware / spam / zombie / email space and wanted to find ways that they could do this in a legitimate way, since millions of dollars were being made off of the spam networks. What the malware / spam networks were getting from users, in addition to their IP addresses, were profiles of their behavior online, the networks could generate information about what sites were trending etc, where people went when they were looking for a product, where they went after the first click. Crack cocaine for marketing executives. It is always surprising to me how many people do not understand what is happening when they use google, bing, yahoo, etc, and why they are free. These are hugely expensive enterprises, with huge costs that could almost never be made up by charging people to use them. I don’t know what Google would cost if they didn’t advertise, but I would imagine that it would cost thousands a year to use it in order for Google to be profitable in the same way.

Webmasters often don’t think about why Google would give away analytics when Omniture has built such a profitable business selling web analytics for years. The reason is simple, Google makes more money from adwords when they can trend users from the Google search page, through their path from site to site. By including Google’s tracking code, an authenticated user logged into Google’s services can be followed.

This has benefits to the user in Google’s case, since Google has so far shown that they can be trusted with the vast amounts of user behavior data that they have amassed, and they do frequently show ads that are highly relevant. So Google’s business is in gathering data points about your behavior, and using that data to present you with the ads that are most appropriate to you. Every application and service that Google builds is to this end.

Yahoo and Microsoft are desperately trying to copy this business model, as are many smaller vendors, and that is the problem. While Google can be trusted, I do not believe that the others can be, and frequently I am not 100% certain about Google. The problem is that Google is behaving as though it were the only company out there doing this, and they seem to be oblivious to the fact that people don’t want to see ads, even good ads. I keep hearing that poor targeting is the culprit, but I am not so sure that is true any more. There is a class of people that is rapidly growing who just don’t care what type of ad it is they are just tired of the cognitive noise. I would be included in that class.

With so many different ad networks trying to copy Google, the result is end-users inundated with ads, everywhere they go there are these behavioral ad networks trying to determine what ads to show you, with varying success and quality. They are all clamoring for data, trying to convince site owners to put their little tracking code into their stream. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped at the web, iPhone apps, Blackberry and other mobile apps, even desktop apps are showing little ads in order to compensate the developer, whose time is extremely valuable, for their hard work.

The problem for a company like Google that is interested in doing the right thing, or at least trying to, is that the lesser companies are producing ad-fatigue in users, which has lead to adblock pro and other advertising blocking solutions as end-users try to reduce the noise around them. These companies, realizing that their ad driven dreams are beginning to fade have moved to making ads look like content in the old 30’s radio business model. The funny thing is that those old tactics led to the FCC getting involved and setting guidelines as to how advertising should be embedded into programs. It is a vicious cycle that is reproducing itself in all mediums.

The embedding tactics range from “independent” product blogs, to product shils on twitter, to television programs designed to specifically and only show you a car gratuitously. Again, not all of these are bad, I follow several businesses on twitter that do not annoy me, and actually behave more like a partner than someone trying to cheat me out of my money with a product that I don’t want, and can’t use. Some of these ad sponsored “apps” on the iPhone for example are so thin as to be a press the monkey with a batman logo. What is the point of that? It is just noise.

So what’s the problem? Everyone is getting paid.

The overriding problem is this… its too much sponsored content in general. Everyone seems oblivious to this and I’m not sure why. It could be the same thing that lead to the housing crash, everyone was making way too much money to look at the obvious. People are tired of being advertised to. Everyone is touting some kind of free future where everything is free and companies are always making money in “other” ways. Typically these “other” ways are not specified, but I can fill in what “other” is. They are increasingly nefarious and opaque ways of capturing your behavior and data, then using that information to influence your behavior, usually resulting in you buying stuff with you not being able to remember why. This is bad, and is not really a proper way to run a business. It can only end with massive data leaks and a public so unhappy that government legislation is required.

I don’t think this will happen. I believe that the public is smarter than this and that they will start to back away from free software due to being saturated with ads, and begin to embrace paid software from companies with clear agendas and business models. I think that the VC money will begin to follow suit, heading instead to companies with models that a 5 year old could understand, as opposed to models that only a PhD in macroeconomics can comprehend. We make a product ( content ) and then we charge more for it than what we paid to make it.

Another of the problems with the ad model is that where once it liberated artists to develop art without needing to think about how they were going to get paid for it, it is now doing the opposite. Companies are hiring artists to make movies, television, plays, books, video games, you name it just to push some product. Artists are now the slaves to the master that they were once masters over. I would argue that the newspapers have it right, that they just need to start charging for content. It is critical, however that they get their pricing right. I think that PayPal and micro-payments will be the Visa of the future, if Visa gets their act together and drops their rates, perhaps they could be the one. Perhaps newspapers’ circulation will drop, but they would be more profitable and healthy. One company has demonstrated that this is a sound business model, and they are standing astride the world right now as a colossus.

Apple is poised to do very well in this system. Not only have they always chosen to provide high quality products and charge top dollar for them, we see that the public is more than willing to pay for quality software and hardware. MobileMe may have had its issues, but Apple’s motive in making it is simple, they want to sell more iPhones and Macs, they make 50% profit or more on each one, there is no ulterior motive, they are not selling my data, there are no ads, period. They make money in a way that I can explain to my daughter in one sentence. They could put some ads in the iLife suite and give it away for free, but why? They have proven that people will pay not only for the Mac to run the software, but they will pay a reasonable amount for software on top of that.

Microsoft and Adobe are as guilty for creating the free / illicit software market as anyone, by charging ridiculous amounts for their software for what it does, people had to figure out alternative means to get their work done. This feature of software engineering is furthering the dependence on these opaque difficult to understand business models. If you make a solid product and charge a reasonable sum, even a high-reasonable sum, people will pay. Otherwise, they will pirate or find ways to cannibalize the standard method of doing business.

To sum up, the free era is over, Google’s business model is in danger, and Apple and content companies that create quality product and are willing to charge for it stand poised to make a comeback. Microsoft and others following Google are lemmings headed off the cliff. I think the advertising bubble is about to be popped.


NBC Still Doesn’t Get It

Posted: February 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Hulu, Media, NBC | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I was wondering how long it would be before NBC started to bite the hand that feeds it with Hulu.  I still think that eventually NBC will completely kill it, with help from Comcast.

First of all, I was amazed that Hulu was allowed to exist, and once it did, I started to count the days until it was killed.  Not that I don’t love Hulu, I do.  I think that Hulu, Joost, and other sites that blend big media programs with net content are awesome.  It allows me to watch television again.

For several years, I didn’t care what was on TV, I didn’t really watch TV.  All I did was watch Netflix and YouTube, when I wanted to consume video.  I know that I am not the only one that doesn’t have time to sit down and watch my favorite TV shows in primetime.  Not to mention that I don’t even know when most of  the shows I like air.  Before Hulu, and Joost, I didn’t even care, I just stopped watching.

What I can’t understand is why NBC seems to not understand that no one wants to watch TV at preset times anymore.  Not to mention that if I am going to be advertised to, I don’t want to pay for the “privilege” to watch shows at a time of my own choosing.

As far as Comcast is concerned, I can’t believe that it is a mistake that everytime I watch a show on Hulu, now that Comcast has run my local ISP out of business and bought it at bargain basement prices, all I see are US Military and Comcast ads.  Comcast, I am not going to pay more for your cable package, I am not going to pay for your “on demand,” and as soon as there is an alternative that can provide some semblance of decent speed, I am not going to pay for your compromised internet.  They claim that they are packet prioritizing to ensure network integrity, but Hulu is much slower than it used to be, even while doing speed test show something like 14MB burst downloads.  That doesn’t make sense.  I went from 4.5 MB down to 6 with 14 burst and it is slower?  I have all this speed, but I can’t use it for anything… Fail…

By removing its content from Hulu affiliate sites, NBC is proving that they don’t get that consumers want to consume video in the way they want to consume it.  I am seriously considering just buying this stuff from iTunes and being done with it.  CBS gets it, and are doing a good job, the only problem is that they just don’t have the content.

I think they must believe that if people can’t get the NBC content anywhere except for the TV, that they will just sit in front of the Boob Tube and watch it, but they are wrong.  People will stop knowing about the shows, and will begin to look for alternatives like video games, or short, indie programs that will be readily available on online only networks link ON Networks, Revision 3, etc…  I already consume way more video podcasts than TV shows anyway, it wouldn’t take much for me to just drop TV entirely.  What would that do to NBC’s ad revenues?  Comcast needs to get a clue and realize that they are a dumb pipe, and they need to forget about the Coax business and get with the TV over IP business.  If they want to compete, how about creating their own quality content to get the ad business instead of crapifying my internet connection, and spamming me to try to get me to embrace their dying business model.

NBC will never get it.  They need to just go away.  I like a few of their programs, like Battlestar and Heroes, but I am not sure that it is worth the effort, especially with iTunes and Netflix around.  If they take that away, well I just don’t know, perhaps I’ll have to write and produce my own Sci-Fi stories.

NBC (Hulu) Removes content from Boxee