Category Archives: Digital Culture

Knight News Challenge

David Lee King blogged about this just the other day, but it just came to my attention: the Knight News Challenge. Looks like a really interesting grant possibility. From the website:

The Knight News Challenge is a media innovation contest that aims to advance the future of news by funding new ways to digitally inform communities. Anyone, anywhere in the world can apply. Applicants must only follow three rules: Use digital, open-source technology, distribute news in the public interest, fit into one of four categories. As much as $5 million will be given away this year, apply before midnight EST, December 1st. >>

The idea of using digital, open-source technology to distribute information is right up the alley of librarians…even the four categories (mobile, authenticity, sustainability and community) speak directly to the strengths of libraries and librarians. If you are interested, or know anyone in your community that may be, the deadline for application is December 1, so get going!

Long Bet

One of my favorite sites on the Internet is Long Bet, where people publicly bet on long-term future issues. The third Long Bet has been decided, and it has to do with Video consumption. In 2002, Jim Griffin bet Gordon Bell that:

A profitable video-on-demand service aimed at consumers will offer 10,000 titles to 5 million subscribers by 2010.

If you can remember back to the period when this bet was made, there was no YouTube. Read the comments on the initial bet to see just where people’s minds were in regards to video at the time. The first few comments mention companies like Intel, Sony, Viacom, and Time Warner….and the reasons that Gordon Bell give for the bet not being possible include things that look silly in retrospect: Sufficient bandwidth (at least 1 Mbps), a codec that will deliver TV quality picture, and my personal favorite where Bell says “I don’t think five million people will want to watch movies on their PC screens while checking their email.”

Just goes to show how fast technology changes, and how fast culture and expectations are altered by the technology as it changes.

Anyone want to make a Long Bet regarding libraries? I’m interested. :-)

Responding to the Shifted One

So my previous post definitely got some responses, as I thought it might. Among them was a great, lengthy response from Jenny Levine (@shifted), and it was detailed enough that I decided to just repost the bulk of it here, and respond directly to the issues she raises. Here goes! (Jenny’s text is blockquoted)

As you can probably guess, though, I’m still going to disagree with you. I think Apple makes design decisions that you take for granted that aggravate the average user. For example, why the proprietary cable on the iPhone when they could have helped standardize on mini-USB? Why no right-click button on Macs when that would clearly help users? And don’t even get me started on the VGA dongle-thingy-that-everyone-forgets-at-home. My technophobic aunt wouldn’t know what to do with the apple icon in Mac OS, nor would she understand the command key. Best for n00bs? I don’t think so. Better than some other systems for some people? Sure.

2nd generation iPod connectionI think that the vast majority of Apple’s design decisions have a lot of consideration and thought behind them. Why the proprietary cable? The 1st and 2nd generation iPods didn’t use a proprietary cable at all (I assume here you refer to the 30 pin dock connector). They used a firewire port, standard at the time on Macs but largely missing from Windows machines of the era (2001-2002). By the 3rd generation of iPods, Apple had a problem…they needed to support their legacy products that used Firewire to sync and charge, but they wanted to move towards the now-solidified USB 2.0 standard (keep in mind, USB 2.0 was only ratified in 2001, and the first Apple computers to have USB 2.0 didn’t appear until 2003). So how do they do that elegantly? They design a cable that handles both protocols, and can connect to both USB 2.0 and to Firewire…not a simple thing, technically. The two protocols have different charging standards, and Apple did what, at the time, was the simplest thing they could…one cable for any user. It wasn’t until the 4th generation of iPod hardware that sales really started taking off, and as sales grew accessory manufacturers began to license the connector in order to interface with the iPod. Now Apple had two problems: they needed to continue the march to USB and they had an existing set of accessories that they had to think about. So they kept the 30 pin Dock Connector…and didn’t switch to Mini or Micro USB.

If you ignore all that history, it’s easy to say “why do they maintain a proprietary connector”. But if you look at the timeline of the development of the technology, there’s nearly always a reason for seemingly silly decisions. It is also true that by licensing the dock connector (to which they hold the patent) they make additional money from accessory makers. But I think that’s a side effect, a happy accident on Apple’s part. I think they got here by trying to do the right thing for existing customers.

Why no right click? I’m sorry, but every time someone busts out this canard, I laugh. Apple has had right mouse button functionality built in since OS 8.6, over 10 years ago. And the fact that you assume that right-click helps users only illustrates your point made later, that everyone who is familiar with a technology assumes it’s the right way to do things. Right-clicking is a UI choice, and it’s one that Apple downplays, on purpose. If you’ve ever had to walk a new computer user through the “no, that’s a left click…yes, now that function is a right click” dance, you’ll understand why Apple makes the decisions it does on the OSX interface. But if you want, it’s there, and has been for a decade now.

The VGA dongle annoys me. But it annoyed me the same amount that having a VGA connector and needing a DVI connector does on non-Mac machines. I don’t fully understand why Apple chose to go down the mini Displayport route, but if I had to guess, I would guess it had something to do with aesthetics, and keeping the profile of their laptops where it is. But on the scale of computing annoyances, it’s pretty low…and I use the dongle all the time. Most laptop users never hook their system up to an external display.

And after all, if Apple truly is designing the best experience for the average user, why deliberately price their products in a way the average user can’t afford? I think Apple fails to understand that the average user cares more about the cost of the data plan than having the highest number of pixels on a screen.

This is another point where I think you underestimate how non-fanboys feel about this issue. You say yourself that you honestly don’t care about cost, and that’s fine. But I don’t believe that’s how most people feel. I realize you’re giving your opinion here, but it’s the statements that imply “best for everyone else’s purposes” that I think cause those misunderstandings.

I’ve never said that “I don’t care about cost” end-of-sentence. I’ve said that cost isn’t a function of what I judge to be well-designed on the user interface front. I think that the en toto user experience of a 2011 Jaguar XK is probably objectively better than the user experience of the Honda Civic that I drive. The fact that I can’t afford the Jaguar doesn’t effect my ability to identify that it’s a better car, in a specific set of ways that could be enumerated, than my Civic. If you asked the average person which they thought would be the better experience, I think most people would choose the Jaguar. And if you had the ability for people to drive each of the two cars, I think that more people would say that the Jaguar was easier to drive, more pleasant, and that they like it more. All of those things are independent of whether or not a particular person can actually afford the Jaguar….and if you don’t like Jaguars, insert your car-of-choice into the equation.

As for the AT&T piece, if you want to talk about a revolution, Apple blew the telecom one big time by limiting the iPhone to AT&T. That’s more my complaint than the crappy networks in big cities. Apple could have opened up all cell carriers but instead chose its traditional path of high-end, expensive monopoly. That’s their choice, but we don’t all have to agree that its the best one they could have made. So while they’ve innovated in some areas, they’ve hurt innovation in others. Like any company, they’re good and bad but I’d hardly call them the best, certainly not for everyone. Ask your friends on Ping how they feel about that “best” or “innovative” label. ;-)

No, as a matter of fact, Apple could not have “opened up all cell carriers”. Apple didn’t limit the phone to AT&T…as a matter of fact, Verizon turned Apple down when it was offered to them. Apple’s decision point had nothing to do with which carrier to offer the iPhone on, it had to do with shaking up the traditional balance of power in the mobile industry.

In the US, all of the power in the cell phone equation once lay with the carrier…the carrier, whether it be Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint, decided what features the phones they offered could have, how those features were implemented, and what limitations could be placed on them. The manufacturer of the phone had to bow to the wishes of the carrier, because otherwise they couldn’t sell their phone at all. Verizon was once legendary for this behavior, forcing handset makers to limit the bluetooth stack on their phones to prevent customers from being able to connect and retrieve the pictures from their phones without paying Verizon a fee for doing so! When Apple, a complete upstart in the mobile phone world, went to the carriers and said no to the usual demands for limitations on the phone hardware. Cingular was, at the time, the only carrier who agreed to Apple’s demands…most people forget that it was Cingular that actually got the iPhone contract, and that it purchased AT&T Mobility and changed it’s name afterwards. Apple signed a deal with Cingular/AT&T precisely because they were the only carrier who would let them make the phone they wanted…a phone without the crapware, without the custom UI skins, and without logos emblazoned all over it.

Re: Ping. I never claimed that everything Apple does turns to gold. They’ve had some real flubs in the past…iPod HiFi anyone? Ping isn’t likely to go anywhere without Facebook support, and they are still working that bit out. But to list Ping as an indication that Apple isn’t innovative? Come on…you’re kidding, right?

I’ll also reiterate what Josh said. Using market cap as a criterion is a little crazy. By that measure, Microsoft was a better company than Apple until this year. Is that really the point you want to argue? I sure don’t, least of all because I don’t see how that can be considered “objective.”

I wasn’t using Market Cap as an illustration of the better company. I was using market cap as an illustration of whether or not people believe the company is doing a good job of the thing that company does. I would never begin to argue that Exxon-Mobile is a morally good company. I would, however, argue that they are very good at what it is they do…that’s why they are worth what they are worth. Microsoft was, for many years, better at what they did than Apple was…but I don’t think they were at all doing the same thing. Market Cap isn’t a measure of Apple’s actual innovation, but it is very much an indicator of what the public qua public believe about Apple. And clearly they believe that Apple is doing a good job at what Apple does. We can bicker about what it is that Apple does, however, which is what we are doing with the rest of the discussion. :-)

If you want to argue it is, then let’s talk about how quickly the Android OS is catching up to iOS. If it overtakes Apple in the smartphone market, are you prepared to acknowledge that more people think Google is a better and more innovative company than Apple? You made a prediction earlier this year that the $99 iPhone would blow everything else out of the water but it hasn’t, so I would counter-argue that a lot of people *disagree* with you, too.

Apple has never been concerned with being having the highest market penetration rates for their hardware….and I don’t think anyone paying attention would disagree that Android is going to dominate the cell phone market. It already is! Android is winning the overall market in the same way that Microsoft did for the PC market in the 1980’s: it’s providing a hardware-agnostic OS that will run on just about everything. Consequently, just about everything is running it. As well they should…Android is a phenomenal operating system. I said before: I wanted to buy an Android handset instead of the iPhone 4. But I couldn’t because the good handset was on another carrier (sound familiar?).

I’m obviously not daft enough to argue that numbers alone decide the best in anything.

I think the second-to-last paragraph started out to be your strongest (well, except for the market cap detour), and I wish you’d fleshed out some of the additional “and another thing” pieces, because I think that would help address the “blind fanboy” label. This post still comes across as “yay Apple, best company ever,” rather than as a balanced critique. Each of your main points above still ends with a “but Apple’s still awesome and right and releasing unicorns into the world.”

I am, honestly, completely agnostic about Apple qua Apple. I don’t own Apple stock. I think that they have some incredibly talented people…Jobs is a mad genius, and Jon Ives is a brilliant designer. When Apple still had DRM on the music they sold in the iTunes store, I couldn’t stand it…so consequently I didn’t buy things from the iTunes store. Still don’t, for the vast majority of things, because I prefer the Amazon MP3 store. But what I didn’t do was conflate the issue that the iPod was still the best MP3 player I could buy, even though I didn’t like the store attached to it. I really disagree with the rules associated with developing for the App Store, and have publicly told libraries that have asked me that they are better off developing for the web than for a given private platform. But I can believe that, and still think that the User Experience for an iOS device attached to the App Store is best-in-class. As Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Whew. If you’ve read both these posts, thank you. I’m tired of writing about Apple now. Maybe I’ll curl up with my iPad and read some more Whitman. :-)

Problems with Apple

Apple TV has overheated againI will fully admit that a Twitter debate about Apple products is possibly the most First World thing in existence, but…here we are. Today I spent some time debating with a number of my library friends on Twitter about the relative merits of the Apple UI and whether or not it is superior and/or better in an objective way than it’s competition for the average user. One tweet in the stream that particularly caught my eye and made me feel like I needed to respond more fully was from Jenny Levine (@shifted):

@griffey I used to think that because I haven’t seen blog posts or other pieces you’ve written that note/address Apple issues & problems.

I decided to poke around a bit. As it turns out, Jenny is right…I haven’t written much here about Apple’s shortcomings. So, I decided to list, once and for all, the Things that Bother People About Apple & Their Products (complete with why I don’t think they are a big deal):

The lack of ability to load apps on to iOS devices outside of the App Store

WWDC 2010I would love to be able to load apps directly onto my iOS devices outside of iTunes, whether for testing or just because I want to use an app that doesn’t fit into Apple’s licensing terms for entry into the App Store. Of course, I can do this…I could jailbreak my phone (and I have, whenever I wanted to test something non-Apple approved). There is a very good reason that Apple doesn’t allow this by default: the average user benefits from having a controlled ecosystem for their mobile device. It ensures stability, battery life, consistent interface, and (mostly) prevents malware. It has been suggested that the proper course of action here is for Apple to bury a “let me sideload” option deep in the Settings somewhere, and let people choose to open their device up if they want. However, having jailbroken my phone a half-dozen times, I will say: I have consistently reinstalled to the stock OS.

Apple Hardware is Expensive
Apple's two most recent handheld computersThis one comes up every time I talk about the iPhone or any other piece of Apple hardware…Apple is largely perceived as considerably more expensive than its competitors. First off, this is a relative value proposition, placing unsure values on things like build quality and discounting the cost of software completely…neither of which is a fair comparison.  Apple systems come with the iLife suite built in, some of which can be adequately mirrored by free software on the PC side (Picasa) and some of which really don’t have a good free analogue (Garageband). Windows Movie Maker is better than it used to be, but it’s not really in the same class as iMovie, when you get to actual usage.

But my real issue with this point is: So What? If I argue, as I did today, that Apple puts together a better user experience than any of the other PC makers, what difference does it make that they are more expensive? It’s probably the case that a Lexus dealership puts together a better user experience than Lying Larry’s Used Cars does, even though both sell things with four wheels that move you around. I don’t have a problem with Apple products not being price-competitive with generic PC makers. That’s not what I’m concerned with, and has nothing to do with why I think that they are a better user experience than Generic Windows 7 PC #47 (although in all fairness to Microsoft, Windows 7 is a HUGE improvement on everything they’ve done before).

People hate AT&T
Not happy with AT&T right nowLet’s be clear: people in certain large cities hate AT&T. San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, and more are under-towered for the number of users that are attached to them, but in many cases this isn’t AT&T’s fault. AT&T would LOVE to spread towers over every inch of San Fransisco, but they can’t because SF won’t let them. The converse of this problem is that in many rural areas (like mine) AT&T is literally the only option…where my house is, the only provider with a tower anywhere even close is AT&T.

I wanted to get an Android phone for my last upgrade, and almost certainly would have bought a Droid or an Evo, except that I can’t use either of them in my house. But I don’t blame Verizon for that, or Motorola for that matter. If it made economic sense for Verizon to have a tower in my area, they would…it’s ridiculous to think that corporations wouldn’t move into a profitable area if they thought there was profit here. But there isn’t, so I have exactly one option for carrier where I live: AT&T. And I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute that the best phone on AT&T is the iPhone…they are beginning to get a few decent Android handsets, but 6 months ago it was a wasteland.

I wish that Apple devices were less expensive, and I wish that Apple would allow OSX to be installed on non-Apple hardware, and I wish that Jobs didn’t hate buttons quite as much as he appears to. I really hate the arbitrary rules in the App Store process. I despise their use of DRM. But I do believe, strongly, that even with the problems, Apple devices are almost always better designed, more elegant, more thoughtful, and just straightforwardly more usable than the competition. There are a lot of people that disagree with me, and I’m sure I’ll hear why in the comment on this post. But I think there is objective proof that the public agrees with me…take a look at Apple stock over the last five years. Apple is, by market cap, the largest technology company in the US right now, and the second largest company, period. They could, in theory, overtake Exxon-Mobile in Market Cap…which is insane.

I also admire Apple because they are one of a very, very few technology companies that have consistently changed the fabric of the technology landscape. Apple changed personal computing with the Macintosh, and they changed media consumption with the iPod, and they changed mobile computing with the iPhone…and it’s possible that they’ve now changed personal computing again with the iPad. I defy someone to name another company that’s had such an effect on the landscape of technology over the last 30 years. Microsoft is a great business, but Apple is a revolution engine. Do I wish they did some things differently? Absolutely. But I also think that nobody else comes close to them for usability and user experience.

Must watch, right now

My favorite talk I’ve heard in a long, long time was at the LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit, from Eli Neiberger, about How Ebooks Effect Libraries. He’s recently put the recording and slides up on Youtube in two parts. Every librarians needs to watch these, and take notes…Eli gets the issues, lays them out, and doesn’t pull punches. Love. This. Presentation.

Part One

Part Two

For the record, I haven’t forgotten about my ongoing discussion with Bobbi Newman (and now spreading across the web onto other blogs). I’ve still got lots to say, but I’ve been tied up. Will get the words out ASAP, promise.


Amazing article in the New York Times from Kevin Kelly about home schooling his 8th grade son, and the lessons learned from the effort. Some amazing pieces of advice about technoliteracy and what everyone should know and learn about technology…here are my favorite bits:

  • Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.
  • Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.
  • Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.
  • Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

Just brilliant stuff. Read the whole article.

Seriously, AT&T?

In preparation for ordering iPhone 4, I went about adjusting our AT&T plans this evening…the new tiered pricing actually works out for us, as Betsy rarely uses over 200Megs of data a month. As I was switching her over, I read this amazingly silly EULA from AT&T:

DataPlus 200 MB for iPhone

Terms and Conditions

DataPlus 200MB for iPhone may only be used for the following purposes: (i) internet browsing, (ii) personal email, and (iii) consumer applications. Using iPhone to access corporate email, company intranet sites, and/or other business solutions/applications is prohibited.

Bwahahahaha. Corporate email is prohibited? WTF? Talk about your unenforceable EULA’s….you can’t visit an intranet, for frak’s sake? Seriously, AT&T? Seriously?

And you wonder why people hate you.

Quick Office, not Goodreader

After some prodding from Glenn in the comments of my post on Goodreader and the iPad, it turns out that the security culprit doesn’t look like it’s Goodreader at all. It’s the Port 4242 that gave it away, and much thanks to Glenn for pointing it out…I was too concerned with publishing fast, and didn’t follow up the details as well as I should have.

It looks like Goodreader lets you SEE any shared iPad on wifi, but it doesn’t share openly in the way that I described. The bad guy here appears to be QuickOffice, which DOES use port 4242 and share files by default across a shared wifi LAN. I could see in Goodreader the files that someone else had on their iPad in QuickOffice…not the normal set of events for the iOS devices, as the file systems are normally sandboxed to not allow that to happen.

So: revised security alert! If you use QuickOffice on your iOS device (iPhone, iTouch, iPad) please ensure that you have sharing off by default, so that others aren’t able to see your stuff at all.

Interfaces, part 2

This distinction from the post below, that media can either be collapsed (Content, Container, and Interface as a single piece, as a book) or expanded (each separated, as in a DVD, remote, and screen) explains a bit about why the Touch interface is so visceral. The iPad feels different from other devices when you use it, and one of the reasons that I believe it does is that it collapses what have been expanded media types. With the iPad (and to a lesser degree, the iPhone, Android devices, Microsoft Surface, etc) you directly interact with the media and information you are working with. When you watch a video on the iPad, the Content, Container, and Interface are as-a-piece, and you interact with the video by touching the video itself.

This has a lot to do with the revolutionary feel of these new touch devices…and I think it explains why previous attempts at things like Tablet PCs may have failed.


I’m sure this isn’t an original thought (so very, very few are), but it was novel enough to me that I needed to write it down…and that’s pretty much what a blog is designed for.

I’ve written and talked about how libraries need to become comfortable with the containers of our new digital content, as since we move into the future the containers (ereader, ipad, tablet) will be important to users. We already know, more or less, how to deal with content. I’ve also been thinking about the interfaces that we use to access this content, and it just hit me:

Print is the only example of a media where the User Interface, Content, and Container have been, historically, the same thing. With music and video, we are completely used to the container, the content, and the user interface each being distinct: we put a tape into a player, which we control with kn0bs or buttons, and the content itself is ethereal and amorphous. With print, until very recently, the content, container, and interface were all the same thing…a book, a magazine, a broadsheet, a newspaper. All are content, container, and interface wrapped into a single unit. This may point to one of the reasons that people seem to feel a deeper connection to print materials than to the 8mm film, or the cassette tape.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these distinctions between container, content, and interface….I think that these three concepts could inform the way that libraries conceptualize what we do, and maybe find better ways to do it.