An Android update

November 22, 2010 | 2 comments

Following my less-than-stellar reviews of my Android-based HTC Desire, I thought it was only right to follow up. This weekend, O2 finally sent an over-the-air update, which brought me in line with the rest of the Android world – and what a difference it made.

In short: Android 2.2 rocks.

My phone’s battery life has dramatically increased. The “hard disk full” errors are gone, because I’ve been able to move a bunch of apps over to my SD card. (I wish I could set my SD card as being the default location for new apps, but this is still an improvement.) Interface glitches that made the experience feel unfinished have now gone.

Best of all, now that I’m unencumbered, I’m free to see Android’s strengths for what they are. This morning, I recorded a video using the built-in Camcorder app, and saved it directly to Dropbox. That’s not because the Camcorder app has built-in Dropbox integration; it’s because both apps talk to the Android system in a friendly way. Whereas apps on iOS work in isolation, apps on Android interoperate in clever ways.

There’s still room for improvement. For example, I’d love to see well-designed UI component libraries for Android, that developers can just pick up and run with in order to effortlessly create a unified user experience between apps. Having to know about my SD card and manually push apps in its direction also grates. But I’m certain these, too, will get fixed, and all in all, I now don’t have any hangups about recommending Android as a mobile platform.

Keeping the web decentralized

November 20, 2010 | 2 comments

3Com Campus in Massachusetts: 1999Tim Berners-Lee has an article in December’s Scientific American about the future of the web. It serves, in many ways, as a list of baselines – things that should be obvious to anyone who’s worked with the web for any real length of time. He argues for net neutrality, for open standards, and for the decentralization of web-based functionality; all things that I agree must be fundamental to the platform if it is to have a healthy future. It’s required reading, and worth sending to all your non-technical friends who use websites as part of their lives.

Decentralization is another important design feature. You do not have to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link. All you have to do is use three simple, standard protocols: write a page in the HTML (hypertext markup language) format, name it with the URI naming convention, and serve it up on the Internet using HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol). Decentralization has made widespread innovation possible and will continue to do so in the future.

[…] Several threats to the Web’s universality have arisen recently. Cable television companies that sell Internet connectivity are considering whether to limit their Internet users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment. Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.

The full article is over here.

I’m waiting for an application layer to emerge that embodies these traits (here are some ideas about how to make it a reality), but funnily enough, most web companies don’t seem to like the idea of letting go of their proprietary databases and competing on features rather than lock-in. Of course, the likes of Status.net and Diaspora are making a go of it, but in both cases, the applications create communities in themselves (which are interoperable with other communities) rather than single, WordPress-style nodes with social hooks that sit directly on the web.

In some ways, these applications aren’t directly social at all – certainly not in the “social networking” sense. There don’t have to be profiles, friends lists, or even direct sharing. They might be social in the sense that they are web applications – by definition, applications that are connected to the web (and therefore the billions of people who now use it). They provide notifications to their operators, allow access to content to be controlled according to a standard access control list, and allow that content to be commented on and relinked elsewhere. The “decentralized social web” is really just an evolved form of the standard publish-and-read model we’ve been using with blogs for over a decade, combined with the linked data concepts Berners-Lee champions.

So when do we get to use it? Well, to be honest with you, it’s kind of irritating. This is one of those inventions that are discovered rather than created as such: I have a complete picture of how this software would work in practice, and I understand how to create a business model that would render the software both widely attractive and financially sustainable. At some point I’ll give up on waiting for it to magically emerge and set to work – right now there is no competition (aside from other, different communication models), and a bunch of real-world problems that it would solve.

What kind of problems? Here’s a hint. Stop thinking in terms of publishing on the web, and start thinking in terms of distributed communications, and distributed, open markets. (Not just markets of ideas, but also tangible business markets.) Stop thinking about software and data, and start thinking about empowering people who are striving to bypass the gatekeepers in their way and connect, directly, with each other. Stop trying to own peoples’ lives, experience, skills and information, and put them in full control to let them talk, share, create and do business with each other.

Photo of Tim Berners-Lee by Jim Grisanzio, released under a Creative Commons license.

Creating a British Silicon Valley

November 15, 2010 | Leave a comment

I wrote a piece on David Cameron’s proposed East London tech city for Imperica:

There is a simple difference between the business cultures in London and San Francisco. The former provides the infrastructure to create enterprise from technical innovations; the latter provides the infrastructure for technical innovators to create enterprise. An innovator in a British company is likely to be an employee, subject to a management structure consisting of MBAs, lawyers, bankers, marketing executives and the traditionally wealthy. In San Francisco, however, new companies are much more likely to be run by the engineers themselves.

You can read the whole article here. Imperica, by the way, is a great long-form web magazine by Paul Squires, one of my co-collaborators on Intersection: Publishing. It’s a great read, and worth checking out.

Hannah’s album, and why Bandcamp is awesome

November 7, 2010 | Leave a comment

Hannah, my sister, set up shop on Bandcamp this afternoon in order to sell her album, Pre-Apocalyptic Love Song. I set up hannahwerdmuller.com for her and put together a simple header graphic based on something she drew a while ago – and in the process, totally fell in love with Bandcamp. This is how a music service should be. Here are some reasons why:

It makes it easy for fans to share. I bought the album, of course. I also shared it with my friends on Facebook and Twitter from her page. And now I’m sharing it with you – literally – by embedding it here in my post:

It’s simple and cheap. Upload your music; choose a price; yield 15% to the service (or 10% once you reach $5000 in sales). The only downside is that you have to upload your music in a large, raw format, but this allows for the next major benefit:

Customers can download music in the format of their choice. MP3 is obviously the default option, but OGGs and FLACs are present and correct for the audio geeks, as well as AACs for the iTunes-bound. (And of course, they can preview the music as a stream for free.)

The analytics are great. It’s a couple of steps short of being Google Analytics for music, but the stats section updates in real-time and lets you know which songs people are listening to all the way through and which songs they’re skipping past. That’s honest, aggregated statistical feedback that no friend will ever give you.

And for extra geeky bonus points, the stats have a “defender” mode. I wasn’t sure what this meant, so clicked to find out:

Yep, that’s Defender, superimposed over Hannah’s album stats. (It’s day one, hence the massive peak.) That’s the kind of easter egg I love.

It’s easy to customize. Configuring DNS is never going to be the world’s simplest process, but Bandcamp’s instructions were just right. Of course, this is my bread and butter, so I know what I’m doing, but I feel confident that anybody could follow them and make the process work.

I can’t sing, play an instrument or write music, but if I could, I’d have signed up already. As it is, I’m content to keep checking Hannah’s stats and find new technological ways to bring her music to a wider audience. Bandcamp is the best way I’ve seen for independent artists to set up shop on the web.

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