The Siri Thing

I was asked to pen a few lines for a Guardian journalist on why I thought Siri was male  in the U.S. and female in the UK. My quote was taken a tad out of context and so offended some folk who either didn’t know I was a technology columnist who makes a living out of irony and flip, or that I’m the most egregious, line-forming mumbler  in British history. So here’s my contribution in its entirety. Make of it what you will.

I don’t know the reason why they chose male and female voices that way: it’s probably something prosaic about licensing or they didn’t have a Female British voice handy, or someone thought it would be good to try it that way first to see what happened.

But there’s plenty of literature to suggest that the gender of a voice is important to the listener. Men, according to researchers from Kansas State University,  tend to take more financial risk if they are given a video briefing voiced over by a woman; the opposite is also true. (Conclusions from this are undermined when it’s added that men are willing to take even more risks if there’s no voice-over at all, which possibly means the less information they’re given, the more comfortable they feel about charging off into the unknown. This might sound familiar.)

Indeed, the problem with most research on the subject is that it tends to be as confusing as that. A paper from academics at the University of Plymouth found that “the sex of a speaker has no effect on judgements of perceived urgency” but did say that “female voices do however appear to have an advantage in taht they can portray a greater range of urgencies beacuse of their usually higher pitch and pitch range.”

We do know this: male German drivers don’t like getting navigational instructions delivered in a female voices. There’s also something called presbycusis—basically hearing loss, where older people find it easier to hear men’s voices than women’s, and can’t tell the difference between high pitched sounds like s or th.

But the bottom line is that Apple may have erred. Brits are notoriously picky about accents: class and regional, and, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh, can’t stand being told what to do by an American female voice. So far so good. But they also found that people don’t like what the researchers called a Male Southern British English voice either. Conclusion: until Siri can do regional female voices, it’s probably not going to be a huge success in the UK.

My tuppennies’ worth: Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative and, well, not American female.

Media’s Future: Retail

(This is a copy of my weekly newspaper column, distributed by Loose Wire Service)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you no doubt know, Rupert Murdoch has decided to put up a front door on the The Times’ website, demanding a modest toll for reading the online content.

Needless to say this has prompted laughter among those who think that content should be free. This is silly: Someone needs to pay for this stuff at some point. And no one else has any better ideas right now, so good luck to them, I say.

Though I would counsel them to be smarter about the way they make folk pay. Demanding a credit card in the age of PayPal, as well as lots of other personal data is old wave. If you want to make light of the pay wall, make scaling it easy and simple.

(Disclosure: I worked, and occasionally work, for another Murdoch company, The Wall Street Journal.)

But what disappoints me elsewhere is the limited range of options being discussed. For most the question is: how do I charge for what we do? This is not the right question—or at least not the only question.

Think about it. We’re in the midst of some of the most exciting viral experiments in the history of the world. Twitter, Facebook, Ning, flickr are all evidence of the extraordinary effects  of high viral coefficients—in other words, the ability to expand users exponentially.

Now we know all about this, especially those loyal readers of this humble column.

But news organizations seem to ignore it.

They have readers. Lots of them. But the only thing that they can think of using that network for is to give them ads, or make ‘em pay.

A better question, then, is to ask: How can we make use of this network?

Well, one way to would be to sell them stuff.

Some news websites do this. The UK’s Guardian website offers books, CDs, gardening tools and holidays to its readers. Not that you’d necessarily know this to look at the website. The “readers offers” link is buried way down on the right hand side of the home page.

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In fact, I was surprised to find that the Guardian has a dozen self-contained mini websites, called verticals, that try to sell their readers stuff. From mortgages to hand trowels.

But I’m guessing this isn’t making a huge dent in the losses the company has been suffering. I couldn’t find anything in their annual report mentioning any of these websites or their contribution to the bottom line. (My apologies if I missed it.)

To me this is an opportunity lost.

Not least because the Guardian, as many English-language newspapers, are developing huge markets overseas. Of the main British newspapers, for example, more than half their traffic comes from overseas, according to Alexa data. For the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent, a whopping two thirds of their readers are outside the UK.

The Guardian website has a quarter its readers from the U.S. For the Times it’s more than 30%. Even the Daily Mail, not known for its global view, has more than a third of its readers in the U.S.

These foreign-based readers are huge opportunities missed. Not for advertising, but for selling them stuff. After all, if people go there to read stuff, wouldn’t they also be interested in buying stuff?

There are signs that this is the case. The Guardian Bookshop, for example, delivers all over the world, and has more traffic from outside the UK (55%) than from within it, with the United States accounting for 17% of visitors.

But the actual volume of traffic is still tiny for these verticals, suggesting that they’re not really part of the Guardian vision of its future. Still, at least it’s trying. I couldn’t much except wine for sale on the Times’ homepage, and nothing on the Daily Mail’s.

To me it’s obvious that if you’ve got an audience you try to sell them stuff. Especially if you’re not charging them for what they are there to see. And ads aren’t filling the coffers. So somehow you’ve got to sell them something else. And if your audience is overseas then that’s a clue about what they might not be able to get where they’re accessing your site from.

Books is an obvious one. Food is another. More than 10% of Brits live overseas, so it’s fair to assume that a fair few of them miss their PG Tips and bangers. Indeed, there are dozens of websites catering to just that.

But of course it’s expensive. At one website I visited $20 worth of chutney will cost you $60 to ship to Singapore, for example. And many won’t ship to far-flung places that aren’t the U.S.

Which is where we come back to the network thing. Newspapers still don’t really understand that they have a readymade community in front of them—defined by what they want to read. So while I may not be willing to pay twice again to ship the chutney, I might be willing to split the shipping cost with others living nearby.

But whereas I may not be willing to take that risk with people I’ve met on eBay or a porn site, I might be more inclined to do so if they’re the kind of people who read the same paper as I. So it’s both common sense and good business sense for The Guardian, say, to leverage its existing network of readers and to use the data it has to make it easy for that community to make those kinds of connections.

The readers get their chutney at a reasonable cost, the paper gets a cut of the sale.

In short, a newspaper needs to think of itself as a shop. You may go in for one thing, but you may come out having bought something else. Indeed, online shops have already figured this out.

Take Net-a-porter for example. It’s a fashion clothing e-tailer, run by a woman who was a journalist and who wanted to be a magazine editor. Instead Natalie Massenet set up an online shop, but which is also a magazine.

A recent article (in The Guardian, ironically) quotes her as saying: “I hadn’t walked away from being editor-in-chief of a magazine – I’d just created a magazine for the 21st century instead, a hybrid between a store and a magazine that was delivered digitally.”

In other words, Net-a-porter goes at it the other way round: It’s a retailer that also informs. Newspapers could be informers who also retail. Of course fashion is relatively easy, and the road is littered with possible conflicts of interest. But probably fewer than the sponsored editorials we’re starting to see even among serious broadsheets.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell your readers something, if you feel that something reflects your brand and your commitment to quality. Indeed, your readers may thank you for it. The power of the network, after all, isn’t just about size: It’s about trust.

Google’s Suicide Watch

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I don’t really know what to make of this, but I occasionally trawl Google Search Trends/Insights to see what people are looking for, and whether they’re changing much over the past few years.

This seems to me to be as good an indicator of things as anything else.

I did it back in 2005 with Web 2.0, the tsunami,the economic crisis and seinfeld and tina fey.

But how about this one: the rise and fall of the search for “commit suicide painlessly”: things had been pretty flat since 2004 and then suddenly, over a period of three or four months from October 2008 to March 2009, the index goes from about 18 to 100:

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It’s not good to read too much into Google Insights for Search, but I reckon there’s some interesting stuff in here. For one thing, the spike is a real one. That’s no blip.

(I should point out that these figures are relative. What Google does is to take the highest point—the largest volume of searches for that term since they started saving data in 2004, and then work out the volume in relation to that.)

Secondly, by mid April things on a global scale return, more or less, to where they had been in August 2008, before the crisis hit:

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But if you look at individual countries, the picture is more complex:

In the U.S., where the search term rose from a relatively low base (actually it shows up as zero, meaning not enough data) it rises to 100, and then falls back by April to around 20. Only in the past few weeks does it seem to have returned to where it was to start with:

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Look at the UK, by comparison, and we’re not there yet: From zero it rose—a week or so earlier, apparently to 100 by January, and then dropped, but only to around 40. It’s now around 35:

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In other words, if one could take this data literally, the British are still very depressed and are still likely to be exploring ways of committing suicide. That’s pretty scary.

By the way, if you take these figures and compare them with the official UK statistics [PDF], they don’t tell you a lot. Brits have been killing themselves less since the late 1990s (though without figures from 2008 until now):

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This pretty much dovetails with the Google results, 2004-9

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PS I should point out that I used the term above because, having searched for “how to commit suicide” on the Google Trends page, I noticed that “commit suicide painlessly” was a popular search, rising 190%. Confusingly, “how to commit suicide” has, as a search been trending downward since 2004:

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PPS Google’s nonprofit arm does use its data for this kind of thing, at least in the area of flu. It now carries data on Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S.:

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The Alarm Clock is Dead, Long Live the Cellphone

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Gadgets, like software and services, often end up being used in ways the creator didn’t intend. But how many companies make the most of this opportunity?

Take the cellphone. More than a third of Brits use their mobile phone as an alarm clock, according to a survey by British hotel chain Travelodge (thanks textually.org):

Budget hotel chain Travelodge quizzed 3,000 respondents on waking up habits and 71% of UK adults claimed that alarm clocks are now obsolete. The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone. Sixteen million Brits (36%) now prefer using the latest ring tone to rouse them from sleep rather than the shrill bleeping of an alarm clock.

Why? The article doesn’t say, but the answers are pretty obvious:

  • Who wants to take an extra device with you when you travel?
  • Ever come across an alarm clock with a dozen different ring tones?
  • Ever tried to program an alarm clock you’re not familiar with?
  • Ever tried to rely on wake up services?
  • Most alarm clocks are badly designed.

This might even reveal itself in the Alarm Clock Law: if another device can handle the task of a dumber gadget, it will replace it. So does that mean that the alarm clock is dead?

Not exactly. The alarm clock performs a single function: wake the person up. But that has turned out not to be as easy as it looks. While the design of most alarm clocks have been outsourced to the brain-dead, other designers have recognised the potential of alarm clocks that don’t merely wake up the owner, but keep them awake long enough to get up.

This list, for example, illustrates the thriving world of alarm clock design (think Clocky, that has wheels and has wheels and . And in this post about Seth Godin last September there was a bunch of responses suggesting that in fact alarm clock designers have tried to add features to make the alarm clock relevant. As one of the commenters pointed out, the problem is that we’re just not ready to pay more for those features because alarm clocks have become a commodity.

I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than this. There may be other factors:

  • the decline of radio, and therefore the decline of alarm-clock-radios (34% of respondents wake up to the radio in the Travelodge survey);
  • We travel more and carry more gadgets with us, so something had to stay behind;
  • As home alarm clocks became more sophisticated (music, radio, mains-powered) so we were less likely to take them on the road with us;
  • Then there’s security: I know I stopped bringing an old-style ticking alarm clock with me because it made airport security professionals nervous.

Perhaps most important, we have developed a comfort level with our cellphone’s inner workings, and few of us would like to entrust a morning alarm to something or someone we don’t know.

Cellphone manufacturers, to their credit, seem to have acknowledged this new role: I tried to find the alarm function on a Nokia 6120 and did so in five seconds. I bet it would take me longer on any digital alarm clock. The process is quick and painless, and a little bell logo on the home screen reassuringly indicates it’s set. The alarm itself is cute and starts out unobtrusively but then gets louder until you’re up and about.

Or, more ominously, have thrown the phone across the room where it now sits in pieces. Maybe there is something to be said for keeping the alarm clock separate.

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The Rise of the “How To” Movie

Screencasting goes commercial?

I’m a huge fan of screencasting — short “movies”, most often of what you’re doing on your PC as a easier way of explaining how to use a piece of software — and I think it has huge potential. (Here’s a loose wire directory of screencasting stuff.) So it’s not much of a surprise that folk are going to try to make money from it. One of the first out of the traps is Tubetorial, which offers a bunch of “how to” screencasts supported by ads.

Initial reactions are mixed. Lee Odden of Web Pro News interviews the guy behind Tubetorial, Brian Clark of Copyblogger, who says he’s hoping viewers will submit their own screencasts. Darren Rowse of problogger wonders whether it’s going to be possible to maintain quality and whether video lends itself to the kind of audience they’re after. Martin Neumann of ePublishingDaily.com wonders at the mismatch between the (wet floor Web 2.0) glitz of the site, and the rather less polished videos themselves.

My tupennies’ worth? These kinds of things, like podcasts, can vary in quality wildly. It’s easy enough to do a screencast, just as it’s easier enough to do a podcast. But to raise the quality to a professional, or semi-professional level, requires a lot of post-production work. I would expect to see more of the latter in something like this, if the user is expected to view it as a ‘commercial product’, with what we Brits call commercials tagged on the end.

Secondly, delivery is important. A huge amount of blog inches is dedicated to making blog posts zing, and yet a lot of people making podcasts and videocasts and screencasts don’t seem to apply the same rules. The script should be tight, entertaining and informative. The delivery should also be, and, if video is involved, so too should that. If you’re talking to camera, as presenters on tubetorials do, look good, rehearsed and at the camera.

That said, I think screencasts as a way of conveying information are the way to go, and these guys are definitely worth watching.