Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The End of the Web as We Know It?

We know it as a platform where:

  • website or other on-line source (any web site or media store like iTunes),
  • media (e.g. MP3),
  • local software or client (e.g. Media Player) and
  • device (PC, Mac, Phone, Flash Drive, Netbook ...)

are not coupled with each other. Many competing companies are providing products or services for each of the components.

This open model resulted in huge innovation over the last two decades, and spawned a lot of competition in creating the websites, media formats, software and the devices, driving the price down and quality up. All this possibly at the expense of the content providers who have huge problems protecting their content, because, to be universally playable, all parts of the system need to be well documented and interoperable, with any kind of security and copy protection clumsily pasted on top of it all.

Apple Closing the Web?

Kindle, Nook and much of the Apple Store stuff signal a possible end of this model. But with music and videos is it a lot like putting the ghost back into the bottle. Any device can play an .mp3 and any website can sell it. Not to mention the P2P networks.

The last major media area where the digital has not taken over the material are newspapers and magazines. So if one could make a closely linked system between a website, a device, its software and the media format, one could offer something very special to the content owners: reliability that people will pay for content and that they will not be able to copy it. And that is worth trillions! Rumors are that Apple is doing just that:

The press will be the killer app for the device, but if the people had their wallets out, they will try to sell any other digital stuff as well.

Turning the tables

On the short run at least, this closed model is good for the content authors. Quite likely a lot of quality content will be exclusive to this device. It offers a sustainable business model, contrary to the advertising model (the Google model) which is not. Why? With the economy increasingly digital, advertising material stuff to support digital content will eventually bite its tail. More and more of the digital will have to be supported with ads for less and less material.

But the closed system can be disastrous for innovation everywhere else in the chain, and disastrous for the richness of the content that we read. We have seen Apple censoring the content of its on-line store. Asking a single company for an opportunity to distribute information is open society's the worst nightmare. It will not be one US company indexing all (European) content, it will be a company deciding what (European) content can be available on-line.

(There is little incentive for those devices to offer access to free content. It would be like selling printers who could use free ink. But surprise me.)

Need for functional separation

Therefore, the regulators will have to look at this very carefully. In the chain of digital content production, distribution and consumption we will need what was called "functional separation of telecoms". The latter is irrelevant today. But breaking links between Amazon and its reader, Barnes Nobe and its reader, iWhatever and Apple Store and iTunes ... will be essential.

The end? Perhaps not, but it got you reading this. Major disruption? Sure.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wishlist for a Perfect Twitter Client

From time to time I get unhappy with my twitter experience and join the install party, trying out new clients. So far I did not find a perfect one. This is what I want:
  • handle multiple accounts
  • allow me to define groups of people I follow
  • allow the "join" and "filter" operations over streams of tweets (sounds complicated but it is in fact an enable of so many features. Think of filter like Gmail's labels and think of join like Google Reader's folder).
  • example of a "join" would be to show a single stream of all friends' tweets across all my accounts
  • examples of a "filter" operation would be to split a stream into groups, mentions, directs ...
  • notifications should be based on configurable filters too
  • show one stream (per account or not) of all directs, sents and mentions (it is a join).
  • sort messages with new on top OR old on top (I like reading from old to new, top to bottom)
  • display whole discussion thread at a click of a button (all replies)
  • display my interaction with one person (all replies and directs exchanged with another person - it is a filter)
  • allow to PASTE images into posts (like Digsby)
  • manage a user (add to group, follow, un-follow, ignore X for the next Y hours)
  • automatically split long posts into two
  • let me choose when I want to be notified (e.g. on a direct message, on a word mentioned, on a user's post) (like ???)
  • synchronize across machines, phones all read/unread, settings, groups, filters, joins ... (like Google Reader or Gmail)
  • have a no clutter interface that takes one single narrow column at the edge of the screen (like Nambu).
  • keep a local searchable backup of everything (like ??)
  • ...
Now how hard is that?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Apple solves the magnetic MacBook lid problem

One simply has to love some features of the aluminum unibody MacBooks. Like the magnetic lid "lock". Not only it keeps the lid closed, the magnet has no moving parts, so there is nothing that could break. The design is clean. The magnet is also radiating magnetic energy, bending properly the cosmic waves and preventing the carpal tunnel syndrome. And if you keep the MacBook on your lap, as a laptop, the magnet is well positioned to heel your body.

But many users are reporting problems with the magnetic lid lock. Mac simply would not stay shut. If I put it vertically in my trusty Tumi bag, for example, it springs opens for about 5 millimeters. Like on the picture below:

This is quite annoying, because you don't know what will happen in the bag. If it opens some more it would wake Mac up from sleep mode. It happened to me a few times, even if it was bumped closed again it stayed on, drained the battery, got hot, very hot ... Not very pleasant at all, because in the bag the cooling is a problem.

I asked some Apple using friends for advice. The answers were something like:
  • "mine shuts just fine",
  • "why would you want to carry it in a bag; people would not know you have a Mac then",
  • "why would you want to have its lid closed? If MacBook opens itself, it has a reason to do so. Why do you always want to be smarter that Apple?",
  • "it is because you are running Windows 7 on your Macbook",
  • "You radiate negative energy towards the Mac",
  • ...
I was contemplating many solutions, such as a big elastic band, a suitcase locker band, duct tape, Velcro, neoprene sleeve, elastic bandage ... Duct tape is perhaps the best, however, even with a silver one I don't think it would be aesthetically a match for the design of a Mac. I could take it to a service, but then I would have to work on my 230€ Lenovo Ideapad Netbook (that does keep the lid close, without a magnet and without a latch). For who knows for how long!

Apple proved, however, that it is superior to all competitors, and fixed the problem! The lid stays closed! I can take my MacBook places again!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tax carbon, but not Hanson's way

In a letter to Michelle and Barack Obama, NASA’s Jim Hanson makes some valid critique of the “cap and trade” approach to the reduction of CO2 emissions that we also embraced in Europe:

Policies being discussed in national and international circles now, which focus on ‘goals’ for emission reduction and ‘cap and trade,’ have the same basic approach as the Kyoto Protocol. This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity.

“Cap and trade” generates special interests, lobbyists, and trading schemes, yielding non productive millionaires, all at public expense. The public is fed up with such business.

The physics of the matter, together with empirical data, also define the need for a carbon tax. Alternatives such as emission reduction targets, cap and trade, cap and dividend, do not work, as proven by honest efforts of the ‘greenest’ countries to comply with the Kyoto Protocol

But the way a carbon tax is proposed is IMHO flawed:

The most effective way to achieve (decarbonisation of the economy) is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels. The public’s near-term, mid-term, and long-term lifestyle choices will be affected by knowledge that the carbon tax rate will be rising. The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts.

What is nevertheless positive about this is, that it is neutral. The money collected as a tax is not spent by the government. It is given away to the people on a per capita basis (a nice touch of social demagogy). But the proposed system of taxing energy at the “port of entry” effectively increases the price of energy in a country thus making all its products and services less competitive vis-a-vis countries without such tax. So imported goods become even more competitive and carbon leakege and even greater problem.

Instead I proposed a gradual phasing out of the VAT and replacement with a tax on CO2 embedded in the products and services. Regardless whether domestic or imported. This would make carbon intensive products more expensive and others cheaper.

Countries need to tax something. Now they tax labour. They could just as well tax CO2. And if it turns out that the relation between man made CO2 and climate is not quite as strong as claims the current “scientific consensus”, not much harm to the local industry and jobs would be made.