Friday, February 29, 2008

Steve's Phone

Back in Apple's Good Old Days (and I'd always said that the corporate motto should be "Not what it used to be since 1990"), Mac OS was a pretty open development environment. Apple put a lot of work into MPW and decent tools, and--even with abortive efforts like MacApp, now resurrected in zombie-like spirit as Android--there were lots of possibilities for developers. You could pretty much write what you liked, distribute it as you could, and--largely--do what you wanted.

Those days came to an end a good while ago, and they're apparently receding further if the report from iLounge on the imminent "iPhone SDK road map" is accurate. For my part, it seems not only believable, but in character, to me.

First, the only mechanism available for the distribution of applications is going to be the iTunes music store, and the only mechanism for installation of applications is going to be the iTunes desktop. (Is this sounding at all familiar...?)

Second, Apple is going to be guarding the Pearly Gates. You'll have to submit your application to Apple for its "Officially Steve-worthy" seal of approval in order to get it onto the iTunes store. Anyone who's ever tried to get their podcast into the iTunes directory can see the flaws in this notion.

Third, no access to "accessories", which if I understand it, means pretty much no actual access to the hardware. This makes an awful lot of interesting applications pretty much impossible.

Clearly, Apple is strongly motivated to tightly control what people can get on their iPhone, to the point of (in effect) voiding your warranty for installing "unapproved" stuff on the device. The main reason for that would likely be the apparent total lack of anything like a security model on the iPhone. Pretty much everything has, so far, run as root (!), so any sort of mayhem is potentially possible. It's kind of amazing that some level of meaningful security (other than gluing the case shut) wouldn't have been designed in from the beginning on this sort of device.

This will unquestionably hamper development for the iPhone. Good news for the partisans of more open systems, bad news for the early-adopting line-standers. Good news for developers, ultimately, I think they'll be looking around for greener pastures for their efforts. Happily, greener pastures should be coming onto the market shortly.

As for you iPhone owners, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Did you think that was your phone? Not at all: it's Steve's phone, he just lets you use it. And pay for the privilege.

Steve is good. Steve is wise. Drink your Kool-Aid.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

ResourceSpace: An Excellent Open Source Digital Asset Management Package

I keep saying to people that the problem with a lot of open source software is that it's 80% as good as the last guy who worked on it needed it to be. Every once in a while, though, you stumble across an open source project that's just incredibly awesome.

I do a lot of presentations, so I deal with a lot of stock photos, graphs, templates and so forth. Managing these, especially across a globally-distributed organization is no small feat, and things have gotten to the point where we clear need a real digital asset management package. We'd been looking at Canto's Cumulus--proprietary, and in my opinion, the web interface is quite unattractive and inconvenient to use--and then I stumbled across ResourceSpace.

ResourceSpace is written in PHP and requires a single MySQL database. It was originally developed by OXFAM International to manage their own digital assets, and it's available under a BSD license for free use.

It allows users to upload resources of any number of custom-defined types individually via direct http or batched using ftp; image assets are automatically resized to a variety of form factors, and can be distributed either by direct download or via email. There's also a decent facility for defining collections of assets, public, private or shared, as well as "themes" (groups of public collections).

Types of resources, with both global and specific attributes, can be defined, and access can be controlled with high granularity. Users can be freely classified and the access controls are similarly pretty fine-grained.

Tagging and keywords are supported, and the standard keywords and fields can be easily customized, without knowledge of PHP, from the administrative interface. Search capabilities are very good, and, while I haven't loaded my test installation down with pictures, it seems as though it's capable--thanks to reliance on MySQL--with managing extremely large libraries of assets efficiently.

The user interface is clean, easy to use and modern-looking, quite a bit nicer than some of the competing proprietary products. It's also--since the full source code is, of course, provided--completely customizable. Strings can be customized and localized from the administrative interface (which is cleanly integrated into the rest of the site), and the overall look can be modified from the css files.

The biggest missing feature I'd like to see in here is version control, but that's a bit of a side issue to the one I wanted to solve: ensuring that we didn't buy the same stock photos over and over because we didn't know we'd already licensed them and making it possible for our users to access those stock images through a web-based interface, without having to deal with the vagaries of multiple VPNs, etc. For the security-minded, the site requires log-in by default to access resources, has a full supporting facility and can be easily configured to run over https on sites with a usable certificate. Documentation is a little on the sketchy side, but bring-up was dead easy and required a minimum of PHP and MySQL savvy.

If you're looking for a DAM package, I'd definitely check out ResourceSpace before you went out and spent money on anything.

Friday, February 22, 2008

In Which I'm Not Actually in Brussels This Weekend

Things got busy for me here—if you look at the last week's press announcements coming out of MWC, you may be able to deduce why—but the long and short of it is that I'm not going to be in Brussels for FOSDEM as I'd planned.

I'm bereft, if that's any consolation. Looks like I'll be in Rome next month, though. Photos to follow, no doubt.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

LugRadio Live USA 2008! Don't Miss It!

I just got the word from my friends Jono Bacon and Stuart Langridge that I'll be speaking at the upcoming LugRadio Live USA 2008 event, this coming April 12 and 13, in San Francisco. It's going to be a terrific event! If you haven't been listening to LugRadio Live, you owe it to yourself to check that out, too.

Registration for LugRadio Live USA 2008 is now open at, and tickets for the two-day spectacular cost only $10 for the full weekend, including full access to all talks, the exhibition, evening events, and a free bag o' swag for visitors. Pre-registrations also enjoy additional benefits at the show and the first 50 registrations will receive a free copy of Postal 2: Share The Pain (subject to age verification), thanks to Running With Scissors. All pre-registrations will also be entered into a raffle to win prizes by a variety of vendors.

LugRadio Live USA 2008, the 'rock-conference' from the team behind the popular LugRadio podcast, brings the successful and unique formula of the UK LugRadio Live events to The Metreon in San Francisco on the 12th and 13th April 2008. The event is supported extensively by Google and also supported by Dice.

LugRadio Live USA 2008 brings together over 30 speakers across three stages, 30+ exhibitors, a range of BOF sessions, debate panels, lightbulb talk sessions, demos and much more, all wrapped up in the unique event that the UK incarnation has become known for, combining an incredibly loose, social, inclusive, and amusing atmosphere - if you are new to LugRadio Live, it is nothing you will have seen before.

Confirmed speakers for the event include:
  • Miguel de Icaza (Mono / Novell / Co-Founder Of GNOME)
  • Ian Murdoch (OpenSolaris / Founder Of Debian)
  • Robert Love (GNOME / Google)
  • Aza Raskin (Mozilla / Humanized)
  • Benjamin Mako Hill (Ubuntu / Debian / FSF)
  • John Buckman (Magnatune)
  • Val Henson (Kernel / VAH consulting)
  • Christopher Blizzard (Mozilla / GNOME)
  • Mike Linksvayer (Creative Commons)
  • David Schleef (GStreamer)
  • Matthew Garrett (Power Management / Kernel)
  • Danese Cooper (Intel / OSI)
  • Aaron Bockover (Banshee / Novell)
  • Liana Holmberg (Second Life / Linden Lab)
  • Emma Jane Hogbin (Hick Tech)
  • Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier (OpenSuSE / Novell)
  • Kristen Accardi (Kernel)
  • David "Lefty" Schlesinger (ACCESS / GNOME Mobile)
  • Joe Born (Neuros)
  • Selena Deckelmann (PostgreSQL)
  • Stewart Smith (MySQL)
  • Dan Kegal (Wine)
  • Ben Collins (Ubuntu / Kernel)
  • Jason Kridner (Texas Instruments)
  • Jeremy Allison (Samba / Google)
  • Christian Hammond (VMWare)
  • Ian McKeller (Songbird)
  • Alison Randall (Parrot / Perl / OSCON)
  • David Huffman (LVM)
  • Brian Will (Pigeon)
  • Belinda Lopez (Ubuntu)
  • Ilan Rabanovich (SoCal Linux Expo)
  • Eddy Mulyono (Packaging)
  • Matthew Walster (Demo Scene)
The show will also see a large number of exhibitors, which will be announced in the coming weeks, with plenty to see and do. In addition to this, the LugRadio team will be recording a live performance of their cult-hit podcast, which has over 20,000 listeners, in front of the LugRadio Live USA 2008 audience - like the UK event, this is always quite a spectacle, and excellent fun for all involved.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The iPod Tripod: The Writing on the iTunes Music Store's Wall...

I like weird music. Music that not a ton of people listen to, music that's hard to find. I particularly like a British composer named Jocelyn Pook, who's probably best known for her work on the soundtrack of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut. I've got every album that she's made, or thought I did. I was trolling around last night, and it turns out that Pook has an album I don't have: she did the soundtrack to some film version of Heidi (which I've never seen). So, I decided this morning to buy the album. More particularly, since all I do with CDs is rip the tracks off them and then store them away, I decided to just buy the mp3 files.

So, I checked on the iTunes store, to see if this album was available as a DRM-free "iTunes Plus" download, and indeed it was, for $9.99 (Apple had this and one other Pook album available); I then went and checked the Amazon mp3 Downloads to see if they had it there: they did, at $8.99, and three other Pook albums as well.

So, of course, I bought it from Amazon.

Here's where the business model that got the iPod 70% of the MP3-player market starts to come off the tracks.

What made the iPod such a success? Availability of easily-obtainable music for it. I've run my entire (large) CD collection through my Mac, a disk at a time, correcting tags, consolidating genres (do I really need "Rhythm and Blues", "Rhythm & Blues", "R & B", "R&B", etc...?), correcting artist names (I like the group Mediæval Bæbes, too, which, everytime I add another album seems to spawn a hundred mutations: "Mediaeval Baebes", "Mediaeval Bæbes", "Medieval Bæbes", and so on), but most folks don't have the patience for that, they get them the easiest way: they pulled them down from where they were available, and the only place they were available was iTunes.

Once you'd gotten your music, what were you going to play it on? Again, you had a single choice, at least if you wanted pocketability: an iPod. Those AAC-encoded, DRM-protect tracks couldn't be played on anything else. So, the sales of iPods isn't a mystery: it was, for all practical purposes, the only game in town for the vast majority of consumers of such devices.

You could buy a Creative Zen (and I did) and you'd get better sound quality than you would with an iPod, but getting that music on there was a lot more inconvenient. Creative, and other makers of music players, suffered as a result.

But things have changed: Steve came out against DRM, having seen the writing on that wall, and started offering the "iTunes Plus" DRM-free versions (of some stuff, at a roughly 10% premium). But then, having let the cat out of the bag, the music producers, beginning with EMI and culminating with Sony BMG, declared that they didn't think much of this DRM stuff, either.

Turns out they didn't think much of the exclusive deal that Apple (and at the time it was the iPod driving the music suppliers to the iTunes Store, the mirror image of the iTunes Store driving consumers to the iPod) had given them for access to all those iPod owners, either. So, they've started offering their tracks through Amazon and other places, as well as selling them directly themselves in some instances.

Now, none of those tracks are locking you into either iTunes or the iPod any more: it was Apple's "FairPlay" DRM that did that, and that's increasingly a historical footnote. If you can play your tunes on something other than an iPod with equivalent ease (and downloading music from Amazon, at least, is trivially easy), all of a sudden the iPod is going to have to actually compete with other MP3 players. I'm sure the folks at Creative, not to mention Microsoft's Zune gang, are not entirely unaware of this.

Apple is increasingly going to have to compete on its technical merits (and the iPod has some issues here: the Creative folks asked me once to find the iPod's total harmonic distortion on Apple's web site--you can't) and on cost. Given Apple's deep love of 50% margins, competing on cost is going to be problematical for them. Here's the disadvantage of doing all your own hardware and software: you've got to get really good margins (like 50%) on the hardware to pay for all those software folks.

Apple succeeded in the music business because of the "iPod Tripod": the three legs were the iPod itself (which was the only thing which could play music from the iTunes Music Store), the iTunes Music Store (which was the only place you could get the music to play on your iPod), and the iTunes desktop (which was the only thing that could connect the two). It looks as though every leg has become a lot shakier in recent months.

And this is happening at a time when--coincidence or conspiracy?--iPod sales seem to be slowing, or perhaps dropping. Apple's reportedly cut its parts orders for iPods and iPhones or all sorts pretty dramatically, first by 50%, then by 60%. The iPhone is reportedly sitting on the shelves at AT&T and not doing so well in Europe, either. It seems to be popular in China, though, which can't make AT&T any happier...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Does the iPhone Have a Future?

I recently pointed out to someone (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty) that for all the media hoopla, Apple's nowhere near achieving, say, Nokia's success in the mobile phone market. He scratched his head for a while and advised me,

Nokia sells crap.

I wasn't entirely certain how to respond (or "retort" as Samuel L. Jackson might say) to this incisive and in-depth analysis. Fact is, Nokia's got 40% of the worldwide market and has for a good while, whatever they're selling, and Apple's not even a blip on the radar in terms of sales impact: for every iPhone sold, Nokia sells a hundred phones. He went on to advise me, with slightly better sense,

And the iPhone woke them up to the fact they sell crap.

The iPhone certainly raised a certain sort of user experience in Nokia's priorities, as it did for all handset vendors—they've been talking about work on haptics, and they demonstrated a prototype touch-based Series 60 implementation at MWC. So, they're certainly not standing still.

This is one of the reasons that the iPhone is going to have problems, long term. Apple's always been based on the notion that they could (and many times did) come out with a product that could command the kinds of margins they needed: 30 to 60%. Companies like Nokia, and—even more so—companies like Samsung and LG are quite comfortable living on much thinner margins, margins Apple can't possibly survive on.

Apple was once the largest manufacturer of personal computers in the world, between one out of every four and one out of every five computers sold had an Apple logo on it. What happened? Windows 3.1 came out, and there was now something that was 80% as good for 60% of the price. And the Mac's share dwindled down to the single digits it's historically enjoyed since. (And don't tell me about their recently improved share, because it supports my point: you can run Windows on your Mac now.)

Apple's set themselves up to make exactly the same mistakes with the iPod and the iPhone: they can't make 'em cheap enough to compete well with something that's going to be almost as good, in its own way, and quite possibly better in some, given the shortcomings of the iPhone's hardware and software.

Now that DRM's gone down the drain, Amazon and others are starting to eat the iTunes Music Store's lunch. If you're not locked by Apple's DRM into your iTunes desktop/iTunes Music Store/iPod tripod any longer, Apple's business model is starting to look a little shakier overall. It's going to be an interesting couple of years, but Apple has as many challenges as anyone else, and they're the kind of challenges that they haven't handled especially well in the past.

It's called "hubris". And they've got a real bad case again.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Battle for the Best Buggy Whip

Google and Microsoft are in the news right now, Redmond having dropped $40B in market cap in response to their bid to buy up the Yahooligans for another $45B in order to produce a "credible number two" to Google's far-and-away number one in the online advertising space.

They're all fighting to be the best buggywhip manufacturer in town, particularly when it comes to the mobile space.

Horizontal search, which Google unquestionably excels at, has its uses, but those uses become more and more limited as information (much of it useless) becomes increasingly "available" (i.e. findable). Simply finding a chunk of information that matches your inevitably incomplete attempts at what you think it might look like isn't usually enough, not when the matching process is driven by how many randomly-chosen others point at this chunk, without regard to who's looking for it.

A couple of concrete examples: if you just know me by first and last name, you'll have one hell of a time finding anything that's actually about me with Google−there's a guy who's worked for Reuters for years with exactly the same name, who gets pointed at a lot more than I do (I'm working on this, I assure you). Most of what you'll turn up is about him, unless you know more about me than that.

I live in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz, California. When I try to find out something about Santa Cruz,I frequently find myself wading through a stuff about Santa Cruz County, Arizona, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Santa Cruz Island (aka Indefatigable Island) in the Galapagos archipelago, and so on. These are all places, which−while I'm sure they're quite interesting, kinda−are not locales that I'm likely to be looking for information about. Because I'm me, but Google doesn't really know that (although they have enough information to know it better than they do).

I travel a lot. Type "plane flight to Brussels" into Google, and you'll certainly turn up pointers to places that could get you one. Quite a few of them, in fact, both of the "sponsored" (i.e. AdWords ads) as well as of the "organic" (i.e. directly generated by the search) variety. Now, your work really starts. Out of the, oh, three-quarters of a million responses there, which one gets you the cheapest ticket on the nicest airline leaving (or arriving) at the time you want, and so on...?

Thus, the limitations of the horizontal approach to both search and advertising. Luckily, in this particular instance, there are vertical search engines, like Kayak and SideStep, effectively meta-search engines, which go out and troll every travel and airline site they're aware of (and they're aware of quite a few more than I am) and collect the results, allowing me to sort and filter them in a pile of ways. Then, there's a whole other site which can tell me where the best and worst seats are on a given model of aircraft, and ones that can give me suggestions (and reviews) of hotels in Brussels (and let me book reservations), and ones that can provide some ideas of things to do, or places to eat while I'm in Brussels...

But we're back to horizontal again. Tons of stuff to wade through. Because it's not about me.

What if, my putting an entry into my calendar that indicated I was going to be in Brussels for a week made certain information about me available: when I'm going, my history (and ratings) of my past hotel stays in other places, my various travel affiliations (frequent flier clubs, etc.), the kinds of food I like or the kinds of things I like to do (based on an "interests" list, or restaurant reviews), and so on...? What if that information enabled the right kind of vendors to come looking for me? I'd need to have some way of matching potential responses against the information I'd provided−but if a response came in from, say, a restaurant that had overall poor (or no) ratings, or one that didn't match well with my history, it'd be "ranked" lower than responses which were a good match, or which had many positive ratings.

Since responses would come in after my "expression" of a concrete need, there'd be a good incentive for prospective vendors to "cut me a deal". Knowing (from my history) that I like Japanese food, if there were a good sushi bar in Brussels, they'd probably be interested in offering me a free bottle of sake to come in, and−if their reviews were good−the odds are that I'd take them up on the offer. Moreover, there'd be an incentive for them to offer me something in exchange for reviewing them on an independent site, information which could feed into other people's future "findability".

Because the new model isn't going to be about searching: it's going to be about allowing yourself (or aspects of yourself, more properly) to be "found" by prospective vendors and to allow them the chance of being "found" by you. Advertising is going to be a lot more targeted, much more so than even AdWords can manage, since its responses suffer from all the limitations of horizontal search in general, and then some.

Simple search-generated ads are like billboards: they appear in front of your eye by relative happenstance, and if they happen to actually be of interest to you, it's pretty much by chance. While there's a certain probability that I'll be driving past a billboard for a McDonald's at a moment when I'd both be interested in a Big Mac and have the time to stop for one, it's not all that large. And when I get a thousand ads for plane tickets to Brussels, the odds of any given one being the one I pick are looking like the blllboard's chances of getting my market share.

This won't apply only to travel, eating out, and so on: it can be extended to things like music, movies, and almost anything that can be sold, whether a good or service. By looking at my buying history (what I'm willing to share of it, via reviews or otherwise), my interests (again, what I make available, and there's already a lot on FaceBook, Plaxo, etc.), and by comparing that information to similar information from others, you can identify potential "outliers" in my constellation of interests. Amazon already does this with their "Recommendations", and not too horribly−they're frequently recommending CDs or horror movies to me that I actually already own−but it can be a lot better. They could know (from the information I share about my music collection) what I already own. You see some interesting progress in the direction of music from sites like, the Music Genome Project, iLike, and others.

As I said at the outset, this approach (some aspects of which Doc Searls has referred to as "vendor relationship management") will be increasingly important as our access to information becomes increasingly mobile. Because of factors like small screen size, there's not going to be a lot of room on mobile and converged devices for ads. Nor, because of the I-need-to-get-it-done-now, task-oriented nature of the use model of such devices, is there going to be a lot of patience for advertising that isn't very specifically targeted at what I'm likely to be interested in right now. What would be nice would be something akin to an email or SMS notification on my phone, at lunchtime on a day when I had some free time, for places (in a specific radius of where I am right now, as provided from my GPS information, say) which wanted to show me just how good their miso ramen is, with a tag on each showing the number and distribution of reviews the places had gotten.

So, good luck to Microsoft and Google. While they're duking it out over the billboard rights on the Information Highway, I suspect someone else is going to be sneaking in with a better idea.