Tag Archives: web-services

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.

links for 2008-09-11

  • Avego.com is where travelers cooperate to make the whole transport system more efficient, saving us all money, wasted time and reducing pollution.

    A 5-seat car traveling with only a driver is inherently inefficient, and yet 85% of the time, that’s how cars travel in much of the world. With our iPhone GPS technology, web services and your participation, we can fill up those empty seats.

  • Did I get enough exercise today? How many calories did I burn? Am I getting good quality sleep? How many steps and miles did I walk today? The Fitbit Tracker helps you answer these questions.

  • Swype was developed by founders Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden, along with a very talented team of software programmers and linguists.

    Cliff is the co-inventor of T9, the standard predictive text-entry solution used on over 2.4 billion mobile phones worldwide. He is the named inventor on multiple patents related to alternative text entry.

    Randy is the developer of the onscreen keyboard included in Windows, with an installed base of over a half a billion units. He is a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology and alternative computer input.

    Together, their experience is unmatched in developing onscreen keyboard-based text input solutions for mobile touch-screen devices.

  • ShiftSpace (pronounced: §) is an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web.

  • # Create and track invoices you issue to clients.
    # Determine what you’re owed, by whom, and when it’s due.
    # Keep track of timesheets for yourself and your employees.
    # Notify your clients of new invoices.
    # Create interesting reports and analyze payment history
    # Save time & collect your money.

It’s Not the “Death” of Microsoft, it’s the “Death” of Software

Paul Graham writes an interesting obituary of Microsoft, killed off, as he sees it, by applications that sit in your browser. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before every application we need can grabbed off the server.

This is the kind of established wisdom of Web 2.0 folks these days that prompts only howls of “old news”. In some senses it’s right. I don’t use an email client anymore, nor a news/RSS reader. I try to use a calendar app like Outlook as little as possible. I even use Google Docs sometimes. But we’re a long way from interesting, complex applications running in the browser.

The problem: Most web applications are broken, and if we were paying for them, or Microsoft were making them, we’d be howling. Google Docs’ word processor, for example, quickly breaks down on bigger documents (weird artefacts appear in the text, keyboard shortcuts stop doing what they’re supposed to.) Its spreadsheet program mangles spreadsheets. The functionality in both is extremely limited for anything more than the most basic tasks.

All this takes us to a weird place: We somehow demand less and less from our software, so that we can declare a sort of victory. I love a lot of Web 2.0 apps but I’m not going to kid myself: They do one simple thing well — handle my tasks, say — or they are good at collaboration. They also load more quickly than their offline equivalents. But this is because, overall, they do less. When we want our software to do less quicker, they’re good. Otherwise they’re a pale imitation of more powerful, exciting applications in which we do most of our work.

Like what? Well, what have I got running on my (Windows) desktop right now:

  • BlogJet — blog writing tool. Online equivalent: Blog service tool. Difference: BlogJet more powerful than its browser equivalent, no latency, lets me work offline. Can move it around the screen and outside the browser. Can use ordinary editing shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+K.
  • ExplorerPlus – file management tool. Lets me see what’s on my computer and move stuff around. Online equivalent: None? (ExplorerPlus now appears to be an orphan, sold by Novatix to SendPhotos Inc, but now no longer visible on their site.)
  • Text Monkey Pro – cleans up text. Online equivalent: Firefox plugin Copy Plain Text
  • ConnectedText – offline Wiki type organiser/outliner. Web app equivalent: TiddlyWiki. Jury still out on which is better
  • MyInfo – outliner. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any online outliner. There must be one.
  • PersonalBrain: thought organizer. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any.
  • Mindmanager: mindmapper. Online equivalents: bubbl.us, Mindmeister, Mindomo. Difference: Mindmanager much more powerful, works with more branches without losing effectiveness, integrates with other tools.
  • !Quick Screen Capture: screen capture tool. Online equivalent: Not known.
  • PaperPort: scanner and PDF database. Online equivalent: None.

Now it’s not as if I’m using these products because I think they’re all great. It’s just that no one has come along with anything better (Mac users: your cue to point me to great Mac equivalents). The past seven years, in fact have brought along nothing exciting in the offline apps world so it doesn’t surprise me that online applications, for all their simplicity, are getting the attention. (Don’t get me started on how weak and unimaginative PaperPort is. Mindmanager is still not as good as it could be; outliners are still doing very little more than their DOS forebears, and the lack of decent file managers is a crime.)

But all this just proves to me that there has been little real innovation in software in the sense of making programs do more. Web 2.0 has excited us because we lowered our expectations so much. Of course web apps will get better, and one day will deliver the functionality we currently get from desktop software. They may even do more than our desktop applications one day. But isn’t it a tad strange that we think this is all a huge leap forward?

It’s Downhill From Here: Web 2.0 Awards

It’s a sign either that Web 2.0 has become an important and integral part of things, or that matters are getting out of control, but here’s another of what you should expect to be a long line of Web 2.0 Awards. This one is from SEOmoz, of whom I’ve never heard before, but which is actually a search engine optimization consultancy. In ordinary speak an SEO company sells its services to web sites that want to get higher rankings on Google. Why is a company dedicated to fiddling search engine algorithms making awards to companies claiming to be part of some new Internet Holy Grail?

I have no idea, but the scent of snake oil and hype can’t be far away. Web 2.0 is, for those of you who don’t spend your whole day reading memeorandum, is the term used to describe a growing — now, fast growing — array of web services aimed at the end-user. What used to be a niche area of interest only to pie-in-the-sky bloggers is now attracting big money, not least because there is a lot of money out there and not many places to put it. So now more or less anything new, and not so new, can be called Web 2.0, especially if it’s got the words “tagging”, “social”, “AJAX”, “mashup” in it somewhere, and if it’s not spelt correctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been a fan of what is now being called Web 2.0. I loved del.icio.us, and I love tagging. I love stuff that is simple to use, and put together with passion. It’s just that awards like this merely highlight how entrenched, predictable and money-oriented the whole thing has quickly become. Now, with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL dropping silly amounts of money to buy up some of these services, there’s no real way to measure the enthusiasm, commitment and longevity of any of these services. Money attracts people interested in money — or primarily interested in money — and while I’m sure not all, or even many, of the 800 or so Web 2.0 services now available are purely motivated by greed, we won’t know. So, as an end user, why bother investing time and effort in them?

Another problem with Web 2.0 stuff is that each service requires a degree of commitment from the user. Some services are beginning to understand they cannot merely offer walled gardens of service, where you enter your data — photos, appointments, bookmarks or whatever — but cannot access that data through any other service than theirs, but they are few and far between. Until we can do that, these services will remain smallscale, niche affairs that most people beyond early adopters won’t bother with. Indeed, the very plethora of services now appearing doesn’t lead to critical mass, it leads to critical failure, because the chances of two people finding that they use the same service and therefore can share their data falls the greater the number of services on offer.

People talk about a bubble a la 2000. Could be. I would be more afraid of just simply too many services chasing too few interested people. There are three main areas here:

  • Social networking sites follow more of what I’d call The Trendy Restaurant Model. Patronage tends to be fashion-driven and short term. Everyone flocks to MySpace because that’s the trendy place (or Consumating, or wherever). Then they move on (does Rupert Murdoch know this, by the way?).
  • Then there’s the Long Stay Parking model: bookmarking, business networking, project management and calendar tools. Here the payback for the user is longer term — the more one adds data, the more useful it becomes over time. But why should I bother adding data if there are a dozen very similar competing services, and if I can’t easily move that data to a rival service if I get a better deal, or prefer their features? Or even if I want someone who is not a member of that service to be able to access my data? The likes of Flickr, LinkedIn et al which dominated their corner don’t need to worry too much here, because they’re the default choice for anyone considering using a service in that space. But elsewhere long stay parking is asking a lot of the user. Too much, I suspect.
  • Then there’s the shorter term Eat and Rush Buffet model: here I’d include things like online editors and collaboration tools like Writely or Campfire. Great for one hit sessions of collaboration, but no real loyalty on the part of the user (and no great business model.) This in a way is the heart of Web 2.0: short, sweet services that individuals don’t need to invest much time or data in mastering. But how many of these can the Internet support without a business model?

There are other areas, I guess. And this is not to say that some services currently finding themselves being called Web 2.0 won’t thrive and dominate. But the arrival of awards, issued by a “search engine optimizer” (which puts SEOmoz top, for now, of the Google news search “web 2.0, awards” which I suppose was the point of the exercise), makes me start reaching for my gun. Or the door. Or the sickbag.

The Tag Report I: A Chat With Gen Kanai

In today’s column (subscription required) for WSJ.com and The Asian Wall Street Journal‘s Personal Journal section I write about tags — the kind found on del.icio.us and Flickr. I spoke — or at least IMed — with some interesting people to research the story, and thought I’d post excerpts from some of the chats, with the permission of the source, in case anyone is interested in reading more.

Here’s the first one, from Japanese American Tokyo resident Gen Kanai who was very good at walking me through some of the ideas about tagging. He declined to let me identify his own current involvement, but it sounds interesting indeed. Hopefully we can talk more about that later.

JW: i was playing around with delicious and started reading stuff, including your posts on it, and was trying to see where it’s all going…
Gen Kanai: Its definitely been the hot topic of the past few weeks.
JW: from what i’ve read this is all about metadata, and making it so it’s not just personal categories, but sharing… is that anywhere near?
Gen Kanai: yes, the key is the sharing aspect.
Gen Kanai: as we all know, people are lazy,
Gen Kanai: so a little bit of investment up-front in tagging (photos, a url, etc.) means you can find a lot more related information afterwards
JW: ok…
Gen Kanai: especially when web services start sharing that data
JW: what’s in it for web services to share this stuff?
Gen Kanai: good question
Gen Kanai: More readership, a greater audience
JW: could you give an example?
Gen Kanai: sure.
Gen Kanai: if delicious was merely a bookmark saving service, it wouldnt be interesting.
Gen Kanai: delicious is compelling because the users save the bookmark but also associate metadata in the form of tags with each URL.
Gen Kanai: that “tag” is then automatically associated with other “tags” and so one can find other URLs related to “ferrari”
JW: how would that work exactly? if someone gave a tag ‘car’ and another ‘roadhog’ would they be matched? or lost?
Gen Kanai: or whatever keyword or phrase.
Gen Kanai: The other important part
Gen Kanai: is that both Flickr and Delicious have APIs for sharing.
Gen Kanai: Application programming interfaces.
Gen Kanai: a simple way for the data (Photos or URLs) to be shared on other websites.
Gen Kanai: Amazon also has an API for their system
JW: for sharing book lists etc?
Gen Kanai: its one important way Amazon is more successful than other Ecommerce sites
Gen Kanai: yes.
Gen Kanai: on sites OTHER than amazon.
Gen Kanai: but getting back to tags
JW: ok, i’m with you. still not sure how the tags work if they are just keywords assigned by individuals. how do they get matched up?
Gen Kanai: its all very serendipitous and chaotic
Gen Kanai: at the same time.
Gen Kanai: librarians would have a fit.
JW: heh…
Gen Kanai: anyway, the other key is that “tags” are user generated.
Gen Kanai: it doesnt sound like a big deal, but it is.
Gen Kanai: because in the past, with XML, for instance
Gen Kanai: there was a need to make agreements across industries to standardize
Gen Kanai: and that’s all thrown out the window with tags
JW: ok…
Gen Kanai: basically its a way to find other similar information
Gen Kanai: the user does a bit more work tagging, but it results in a wealth of information once the tagged information is cataloged and associated with other data that has the same tag.
Gen Kanai: I would say, however, that this is all VERY new, and no one is really sure what this means in the long run.
Gen Kanai: Whether it will scale.
Gen Kanai: etc.
JW: ok. i’m still a bit clueless how the serendipitous tagging works: if my idea of tagging and yours don’t gel, won’t that be duplicated effort?
Gen Kanai: that:s ok
Gen Kanai: it doesnt have to gel
Gen Kanai: it not a perfect system
Gen Kanai: but so far, when used, it works well enough that people are excited and more and more sites are implementing tags as a feature
Gen Kanai: the best sites have APIs so they can share that information with other sites…

Thanks, Gen, for walking me through it. I’ll post some more chats soon.

The Moleskine Report, Part II

Continuing to add material that I could not include, or could not include much of, in my WSJ.com, piece (which comes out today), here’s the second emailed reply that I thought might interest readers. It’s from Mike Rohde, a graphic and web designer, working for the international engineering and web services firm MakaluMedia, and I include his reply in its entirety because it’s very interesting:

I work remotely from home with colleagues in Germany, Spain, France and Ireland, helping design and building web applications, web sites for small & medium-sized firms and corporate identity work.

I manage projects with my colleagues and clients via email, IM chat, voice over IP, phone and web, from my home office. So as you can see I work pretty digitally during the day.

Personally I am quite digitally oriented as well, writing a weblog, reading many weblogs, using email, chat and VOIP with international friends. Specifically, I have text and VOIP chats with one friend living in the UK on a weekly basis via Apple iChat.

I was introduced to PCs and technology as a teen, when my dad explored his interest in computers. I now see this was critical to the way I work now, as my experimentation and use of computers then, reduced the fear of technology very early, and gave me the sense that I could bend technology to my needs.

My higher education was focused on graphic design. Following graduation, I spent 9 years as a print designer and system manager for a design studio, moving into web design in the late 90s. In 1998 I began working with MakaluMedia, remotely from my home office.

As you know I have an interest in sketching with Moleskines; I also use a Miquelrius sketchbook for generating ideas and layouts for my business activities, like design ideas, logo concepts and so on.

However, after some thought, I chose to use a digital approach for recording my business diary, which I have found works quite well. Further, I enjoy using paper diaries to record personal thoughts and observations, mainly because I enjoy the tactile feel of paper and pen.

So, I enjoy both digital and analog means of recording thoughts, depending upon the use and context. Hopefully that provides you with a good starting point about me and my approach. 🙂

Here are my answers to the questions you have posed:

What do you use, exactly, in digital and paper terms?
How do you use them?

1. Business Diary: I keep a business journal as a plain text document on my Mac Powerbook. There I record MakaluMedia related thoughts, web links and comments of clients and colleagues. I separate entries by date and archive each month’s diary to dated plain text files (Makalu-Diary-2004-12.txt). The current month’s diary is synchronized to my palmOne Tungsten E PDA via DataViz DocumentsToGo.

2. Project Specific Notes: These kept in DayLite, a networked Mac OS X business application very much like ACT! for PC (http://www.marketcircle.com/). Notes relative to projects recorded in my business diary and emails are copied into DayLite as notes for access by myself and my MakaluMedia colleagues.

3. Business & Personal Links: I store interesting business and personal web bookmarks at my del.icio.us account (http://del.icio.us/rohdesign) and also in the Safari browser on my Mac.

4. Personal Blog: This is my public forum for thoughts, ideas, reflections, designs, sketches and whatever else seems pertinent to my personal and business life. I try to be encouraging, inspiring, humorous, serious here, but the entries are definitely for public consumption. I do share personal details but have an internal gut feel for where the line ought to be.

Because I built a reputation writing the Palm Tipsheet for many years (it was sold in ’03), many of my longstanding blog readers are Palm users who came from that newsletter. I do like to discuss mobile tech, but intentionally explore other topics, because I think life is broader than technology.

5. Personal Notes & Sketches: I also occasionally write notes (Memo Pad) or make digital sketches (Note Pad) with my palmOne Tungsten E, which are then synchronized to my Mac Powerbook.

Paper (Analog):
1. Business Concepts & Sketches: Stored in my Miquelrius gridded notebook. This is the place were I start ideas going, work out concepts (visual or textual) and sketch layouts for websites or logos. Often my sketches will be scanned and presented to clients and colleagues to show concepts or direction before I flesh out ideas on the computer.

2. Personal Sketches: Small Moleskine sketchbook for sketching (e.g. proj: exhibition sketchtoons), and a small Moleskine gridded notebook for ideas and concepts I come up with (e.g. ideas for home or personal projects, dream tech concepts, etc.).

3. Personal Diary: Small Italian-made notebook for recording thoughts of the day, reflections and goals. Usually I enter thoughts at night in bed, or at the café over coffee in this diary. Entries are not regular (daily) but rather entered when I have the need or urge to get something down.

(Note: I can provide scans from my paper sources if they are helpful)

Why still use paper?

Refuge & Escape from the Digital World. Paper is a refuge from my very digital lifestyle. I spend quite a bit of time on my Mac (at work and personally), so time with a nice pen, rich black ink or smooth pencil lead on crisp paper, are very much an escape from bits and pixels.

Immediacy. The immediacy of paper is very gratifying. I can knock out several concept sketches in the time it might take to fiddle around with Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop on just one tight drawing. Further, immediacy and looseness of ink or pencil on paper lets me explore with more latitude. I find that once I move to the computer, my ideas naturally tighten up and loose their loose qualities.

No batteries required. I love that my sketchbooks require no battery or wall connection. If the power goes dead, I can still work with my sketchbook and pen. The simplicity of a book and pen keeps me from getting hung up on technical issues as often pop up carrying a laptop and peripherals to support it, or choosing which café has WiFi so I can remain connected.

Portability. When I need to be creative, I just grab my sketchbook and head for a local café or library — the ideas just seem to flow. I also like that a sketchbook can be kept in a pocket at all times, without regard to cold or heat, or location. Sketchbooks can also take a beating better than techy gadgets. 🙂

Any particular Eureka moment on using paper?

Probably about a year ago I started realizing that I was using sketches less that I had in the past for my business design work at MakaluMedia. I decided to focus on making sketching an integrated part of my work. Since integrating sketching I’ve noticed my creativity has improved greatly.

Are you alone, or does everyone you know follow the same practice?

As I work alone from my home office, I can only comment on my own methods directly, though the posts I have made related to use of paper sketchbooks and diaries have brought interesting comments from other digital folks who also integrate paper into their lives. Mane are Moleskine fans like me, others feel that paper offers them options not easily available digitally.

Do you get odd looks for using paper?

Quite to the contrary — people who see my business or personal sketchbooks are always interested in having a look at them, and comment how they wish they could draw. I encourage them to give it a try, because a paper sketchbook or journal are just tools to get your mind working creatively.

Do you think paper and digital might merge, a laLogitech’s io Pen, or is that the wrong way of looking at things?

I think there is an overlap. I have not used a Wacom tablet for some time, but am actually considering one now, to see what options it might offer me on the digital side of things. I do think there is a wide open market for digital tools which work in conjunction with analog sketching and notes, such as the IO pen. I would love to try the IO pen as well.

Thanks, Mike, for such a long and interesting answer.

Yahoo Grabs Oddpost

I hate people who quote themselves, but here goes: A few months back I wrote in my column about how “eventually, RSS will replace e-mail. Or rather, it will dovetail with e-mail so that it appears in the same place, in the same program, so you can read Aunt Edna’s newsletter as well as the news feed of your favourite football team.” I also mentioned a great little program/service called Oddpost, which I said came closest to this ideal: “One great example of this is Oddpost, a subscription e-mail service that folds nearly all of what I’ve just outlined into one place, from RSS feeds to your Web mail accounts.”

Well, for once it seems I may have not been too far off the mark. Last week Yahoo! bought Oddpost for an undisclosed sum. The folks at Oddpost write that “from this day forward, we’ll be working on a new, advanced Yahoo! Mail product (one that, in press release terms, might be described as “a powerful combination of our award-winning web application technology with the world’s #1 Internet brand and email service”)”.

Unfortunately new users won’t be able to sign up for Oddpost in the meantime, but this represents a significant move for the whole merger of Blogs/email/RSS. In part, of course, it’s Yahoo playing desperate catch-up with Google over Gmail and search. But it may end up as more than that. As Iam Bumpa puts it: “This is about RIAs (rich internet apps), integrated web services and open standards being fused with productivity software, micro-content and social networking and offered as hosted experiences.” In short, putting lots of different bits and pieces in one place that you can really control, and access from anywhere. Think of it as MyYahoo! but one that doesn’t look like something out of the mid 1990s.

News: Is Windows About To Be Defenestrated?

 Interesting story about how Linux seems to be catching up with Windows in its user friendliness, at least among Germans. According to an article from ComputerWorld’s IDG News Service, “study findings suggest that it’s almost as easy to perform most major office tasks using Linux as it is using Windows”.  The study was conducted by Relevantive AG, a Berlin-based company that specializes in consulting businesses on the usability of software and Web services.
Linux users, for example, needed 44.5 minutes to perform a set of tasks, compared with 41.2 minutes required by the XP users. Furthermore, 80% of the Linux users believed that they needed only one week to become as competent with the new system as with their existing one, compared with 85% of the XP users. But when it comes to the design of the desktop interface and programs, Windows XP still has a strong edge: 83% of the Linux users said they liked the design of the desktop and the programs, compared with 100% of the Windows XP users.