The brands I care about are all yelling at me

June 30, 2012 | 12 comments

Update: If you enjoyed this article, you should vote for this SXSW 2013 panel. It should be a thought-provoking conversation.

Skype, a few weeks ago: “You should think of Conversation Ads as a way for Skype to generate fun interactivity between your circle of friends and family and the brands you care about. Ultimately, we believe this will help make Skype a more engaging and useful place to have your conversations each and every day.”

The brands I care about.

Brands that I care about.

Brands. Care. I. About.

I can’t make it make sense. Some thoughts:

  1. Advertisements are placed by the brand. Any advertisement I see isn’t there because it’s a brand I care about; it’s because I’m a consumer the brand cares about. The advertiser wants to reach me, not the other way around. To reverse the relationship and suggest that I’m clamoring to reach a set of brands is perverse.
  2. To the extent that I’m involved in the relationship at all, I’m interested in products, not brands. I use a computer for a living; I decided to switch to Mac because I worked out that the build quality would save me money and improve my productivity, not because I love Apple. I buy organic ketchup from Trader Joe because I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, and Trader Joe is convenient. If another company came out with a computer that lasted as long, or another ketchup that was made without corn syrup and was equally convenient to buy, I might switch. I’m loyal to values, not brands. The idea that I might stick to Apple or Trader Joe because of an emotional attachment to the brand itself is, again, perverse.
  3. I can see why advertising companies want us to care about brands. The meme has existed for a while now, and the relentless hammering will doubtless have the same propaganda effect that, say, advertising for fast food has over time. After a while your sense of reality shifts and you accept that of course this is food. Of course we should care about product lines. Of course we should define ourselves by what we buy and consume.
  4. It’s bullshit. As an industry, we should be aiming higher. Eyeball-based economics has led us to a situation where everything we create exists to shill ads. The promise of computing is to improve the human experience, and it’s hard to do that when your goal is to bring in as many users as possible so they can click on very special messages, algorithmically delivered just for them.

I believe this strongly: ethical companies charge for their services. Display advertising is a legacy economic model, and the brands that control it are gatekeepers. There are better business models out there, waiting to be found, that allow sites and communities to be sustainable on their own terms.

Screen real estate

June 16, 2012 | 2 comments

I’ve found that I work much better if I have two very large monitors – but because I travel a lot, I’m often constrained to my 15″ MacBook Pro screen. I’m not alone:

So here’s a crazy idea. We’re used to carrying around headphones to act as surrogate speakers for when we’re unable to sit in a room with properly-positioned full-sized units. Why not apply the same principle to monitors? It sounds very silly, but we have the technology to make it work.

Products like Google’s Project Glass show that augmented reality glasses are very much within our grasp. As well as creating exciting new interfaces that interact with us in more intimate ways, we could also use this technology to generate the screen real estate we need in virtual space. It’s not big or sexy, but there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t use augmented reality headsets to create, for example, two 30″ monitors in places where carrying physical monitors would be impractical. Sit at your laptop, mobile device or other workstation, put on the glasses, and get to work.

For many of us, this is a more compelling use case than some of the wilder applications that have been bandied around. And it has other benefits, too:

  • Privacy: there’s no need for your actual laptop screen when you’re using augmented reality to generate artificial screens. So nobody can look over your shoulder.
  • Simplicity: the glasses could, potentially, be tethered to the laptop via a cable. There’s no need to have a wireless, augmented reality laptop without the laptop – at least in version one.
  • Practicality: you’re no longer limited by the laws of physics or affordable engineering when designing displays. Minority Report style UIs become a more interesting possibility when you don’t actually have to manufacture the glass. Update: and as Steven Livingston points out, the desktop could extend in an unlimited way, over 360 degrees.
  • Productivity: the glasses immerse the user in their working environment. Remember in The Social Network how the developers were portrayed (inaccurately) as being “plugged in”? Sometimes that’s necessary. Add sound, and you’ve got an instant distraction-free environment.

I realize this is a slightly different kind of post to my usual. All I’m trying to say, really, is: hey, I’d buy a pair.


June 14, 2012 | 18 comments

Amazon has bid for .book and .author. Google has bid for .app and .love. Microsoft has bid for .docs and .live. American Express has bid for .open.

Opening the top-level domain system is a great idea. There are just 22 generic top-level domains right now – .com, .org, .net and so on. (There are 280 country-related TLDs, like .us and .uk.) Because digital real estate has been so limited, the price of valuable words has skyrocketed, and domain name squatting – where a name is registered purely to sell on at a higher price – is rife. If you’ve ever seen a web company with a silly, misspelled name, you’ve seen a company that’s decided not to give squatters any cash. (A company I was once part of paid a squatter over $10,000 for a .com domain, but they can go for much more.) Removing the limitation on TLDs theoretically removes the domain name availability crunch and would take the bottom out of the squatting market. Good.

Unfortunately, ICANN has both decided to allow anyone to apply for any TLD, and simultaneously to limit the market.

Let’s say that Amazon are successful in their bids for .book and .author. They will subsequently get absolute control over who can have a .book or a .author domain. So for example, if I want, it would be completely legitimate for them to only allow me to have it if I’m an Amazon self-published author selling through the Kindle store. Similarly, they could block non-Amazon books from having a .book address. The point isn’t that they will do this – how they’ll act remains to be seen – but that it’s possible. By failing to regulate usage, ICANN have left the door open for companies to have a monopoly on certain thematic addresses on the web.

In turn, it’s a closed, controlled process rather than a market. If Amazon wins .book, it will be because they put up the money, but it will also be because ICANN decided they should have it. There’s no indication that further generic TLDs will be introduced in the future, or that the process will be widened out. If I, as an individual, had put up the $185,000 necessary to bid for .open or .social (two real bids) or .source or .abuse (two TLDs left unbid for), would I have had an equal chance as the corporations? It’s impossible to say. However, nobody will be able to compete with these TLDs, because the process is now closed.

There’s 60 days to comment on the domain names, and then another seven months to raise objections to domain name allocations. I see no issue with company-specific domains like .microsoft or even .apple and .amazon (two more ambiguous names), but why should Amazon get to control books, or Google get to control love? This seems to contradict the spirit with which domains have been allocated in the past. I’d suggest we all make our opinions known.

Off the hooks: user-centered development in a mobile-first world

June 11, 2012 | 1 comment

The following post contains my notes for a talk I gave at Over the Air 2012 at Bletchley Park on June 2nd, 2012. They build on my notes for a previous talk, Building the user-centered web.

Desktop isn’t enough.

For the last few years, I’ve been working on latakoo, a service that lets you share video fast using any Internet connection. Video is, traditionally, a pain to upload, due to very large file sizes, combined with the limited upload bandwidth inherent to most commercial connections. We solve this by compressing the video first, using a very simple interface: just drag, drop, click, and your video is uploading, and shared in a private, enterprise environment. There’s no need for any substantial training or technical video knowledge. It just works.

We support a lot of different video formats, and the resulting file is often 1-4% of its original size, while remaining very high quality. A lot of TV stations use latakoo – the Science Channel used us to send footage of the SpaceX launch back to base – but we also have integrations with Facebook, YouTube, Box with more to come. latakoo’s a useful service, and a great team that I’m proud to be part of.

However, an app that runs on a desktop or laptop computer isn’t enough. Sure, the latakoo app works great in those environments. But a lot of people began asking us if we could make it work on mobile – including those TV stations. TV news stations are arming their reporters with iPhones and sending them out in the field instead of laptops.

Video compression is no problem for my i7 MacBook Pro – but can it work on my handset?

Of course it can.

latakoo iPhone appMobile devices are this century’s personal computer.

I have latakoo apps on my Samsung Galaxy S2 (in beta, coming soon), my iPod and my iPad. All of them are very comfortable compressing video – because all of them are relatively powerful mini computers.

My Samsung Galaxy S2 has a declared clock speed of 1.2GHz and has 1GB of RAM; the Galaxy S3 has four cores at 1.4GHz, and 2GB of RAM. It wasn’t so long ago that laptops were being sold with those specs, and it’s no accident that mobile growth is outstripping the rest of the computer industry:

Oh, and here’s one more quote:

“We do not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue from the use of [our] mobile products, and our ability to do so successfully is unproven.”

That’s from Facebook’s IPO filing. Over 50% of Facebook users access the service through a mobile app or site – yet, until the last couple of weeks, they had no way of obtaining revenue from these accesses. (Their promoted posts feature is transparently a way of obtaining revenue in a way that applies to mobile users.)

As we know from Building the user-centered web, the web has transformed from a series of context-free, stateless pages to interlinked applications that have social functionality at their core.

Curiously, despite this social focus, each application is its own atomic destination with its own URL, and is by default only aware of data created within it. That means we need to register for each application we want to use, fragmenting our accounts over potentially hundreds of products and company data centers, and that the documents, files and data we create within them can’t easily be shared with other applications. Currently, each web application is like a silo: they exist on their own, and if they interoperate at all, it’s through specific links between applications that have to be individually developed.

Mobile-first social apps exist, and are beautiful – but are being designed to this silo model. Path, Instagram, Viddy and Socialcam are four examples of gorgeous apps that are designed to trap usage in their own databases, and often spam users into joining. After all, the number of users in your database, and growth thereof, is the predominant measure of value in Silicon Valley. Instagram certainly wasn’t worth $1 billion to Facebook for their revenue.

SilosSilos stifle collaboration.

Collaborative spaces in social web applications are like documents: they’re one of the currencies of the social web. Just as I need to be able to use my word processor of choice to edit a document, I need to be able to use my social tool of choice to collaborate with others – and if I want to share a collaborative document with someone, I should be able to do so regardless of the social service they happen to use. Where I choose to host my identity should not dictate the kinds of content I can create. Not to mention that some companies simply can’t use existing social platforms, for ethical and/or legal reasons. The UK’s Data Protection Act, for example, precludes the use of Facebook in schools.

Right now, we have to register with each application we want to use. What if we required each application we used to register with us, in digital identities under our own control? What if, using these identities, anyone could connect to anyone else, and anyone could store their data anywhere as long as the storage provider followed the same broad standards?

The web would become truly social.

Your ability to collaborate is not subject to a single company’s success: social functionality and application infrastructure are inherent in the network itself. The possibilities for collaboration are not subject to technology beyond common open standards, which can evolve. A wider range of application possibilities is ensured, because web applications gain the ability to interoperate in a general way. Finally, privacy and user control are established by allowing a person to determine which application has access to which data.

Furthermore, when you remove the silo, private or short-term collaborative spaces become possible:

  • Transience: there’s no need for the community to exist for longer than it has to.
  • Simplicity: there’s no effort involved. Once you’re done with a community, you simply close the communication.
  • Privacy: it’s very hard to share activity with the wrong people.
  • Decentralization: the community is physically hosted between all the involved parties, removing single points of failure.

This user-centered future is being built.

One of the next big hopes is Web Intents. Here, the user performs a generic action in an application, like “share”, perhaps by pressing a button. The user can then choose from all the services he or she prefers, that support this particular action in this context. The list is built automatically from the user’s preferences – a set of applications which are, indeed, registering with the user’s central identity.

Colour coordinated appsThis user-centered future has been built – on mobile.

Web intents are, of course, an adaptation of Android’s intents model. (Albeit in a simplified form.) And, in fact, we already do all kinds of identity-like things with our mobile devices.

  • We can pay with mobile.
  • We can authenticate with mobile (as many of us do with online banking).
  • We organize our contacts, our calendars, our messages, our photos and our videos on mobile. We speak to our loved ones on mobile. We read and watch and play on mobile. We write the identifying address of our mobile devices on our business cards, and have done for years.
  • Mobile knows your context: where you are, and who you’re with, where you’ve been, and where you plan to go. It’s far smarter, and far more social.
  • Mobile is already a decentralized social application platform, with a wide range of communications methods, from SMS through Bluetooth and NFC. We can use all of these methods, depending on the context, to send social information.

Smartphones already let us share in a decentralized way, but only specific, agreed data types like SMS, MMS and email. So, how can we expand on this to send arbitrary social data?

Sending social data on mobile devices

It turns out that the Activity Streams standard allows us to handle social data in a generic way, that can carry specialized data for niche application types. For example, a task in a distributed enterprise system might be an extention of note, one of the base ActivityStreams object types.

ActivityStreams is an extension of Atom, so it could contain the content itself – although this might not be feasible on mobile. We could send mobile notifications with ActivityStreams-like payloads (up to around 1400 characters on iOS, or around 1024 bytes on Android). If an application handles a particular object type, great! Otherwise, perhaps this is a great opportunity for the platform provider to gently point to their app store to make some suggestions.

This could be a solution for direct notifications, but still need to read updates from a central list.

Abstracting from individual mobile devices

I carry two phones: one for the US, one for the UK. I also carry an iPod for when I have to use an iOS app, which has its own set of profile data, although fewer communications options. And indeed, because of contracts and other factors, people upgrade their phones every 18 months to two years, possibly changing their numbers. Handsets get stolen, and some people have entire bags of SIM cards that they use on their travels as appropriate. And finally, backups are important.

An abstraction service – like a social version of Google Voice – may help here, gathering messages in a feed and sending notifications to handsets, or allowing handsets to retrieve as a batch.

Once you’ve done this, the obvious question is: could this model work on the desktop or in a pure-web model? Sure, but by thinking mobile-first, we get to build on work that’s already been done on these platforms. Mobile platforms lose a lot of the legacy baggage inherent in both desktop operating systems and the web, and they’ve been designed from the ground up to support distributed communications in an intelligent way. This doesn’t diminish the importance of the web as a cross-platform home for both applications and data, but it provides new opportunities for linking people data and building next-generation social applications.

Everybody benefits.

Platform owners get to build more engagement – and therefore value – into the platform itself.

Application owners get new ways to spread their software – through organic social proof.

Users get freedom from the silos that stifle their possibilities for collaboration and creativity.

Some questions:

  • A lot of people are still on Symbian and other legacy mobile operating systems (notably all those Indian users). How can we reach them?
  • How could we prevent spam and ensure data privacy on such a platform?
  • Which would be the best platform to start on? I think Android technically has the most support for this model, but Windows Phone may have the most organizational support.
  • In an era where platform value is so closely tied to trapped engagement, would anyone fund this?
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