Sunday, August 30, 2009

Augmented Reality

Earlier this month there was an explosion of posts and comments on the TechCrunch blog about Apple rejecting the Google Voice application for the iPhone. Michael Arrington wrote a post about how Apple reasons for the rejection were misleading and untrue that got over 400 responses. At the time I did not understand the reasons for the intensity of the comments and responses, particularly in a quiet news month like August. Last week I went to the SDForum Virtual Worlds SIG to hear a talk about Augmented Reality, and started to appreciate what is going on.

The Augmented Reality presentation was given by Kari Pulli and Radek Grzeszczuk, researchers at the Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto. What they mean by Augmented Reality is that you point the camera in your smart phone at something and the phone displays more information about what you are looking at. For example, you point the phone at a building and it tells you which building you are looking at with perhaps a link to a map or information about the building. Alternatively, you could point the phone at a book cover and the phone will identify the book and give you links to reviews and a web site where you can buy the book.

Someone in the audience asked the interesting question "Where do you get your data?" There are many different places to get data. For the demos, the book cover data had been scraped from But when it comes to data, the elephant in the room is Google, the company that promises to organize the worlds information. To organize the worlds information, they first have to collect it and then they have to have the computer systems and technology to organize it. Google has been busy doing that for many years now.

The history of mobile appears to be going like this. First came the cellular network companies. They proved themselves incapable of providing anything more than voice and data services, so they are doomed to continue providing nothing but these basic services. As time goes on these services become less differentiated and eventually mere commodities.

Next come the smart phones providers like Blackberry and Apple. They have opened up the cell phone business model to provide services that their users really want. But they still rely on others for data to run these services. When the data providers get a little too close to core functionality they back off their openness, as Apple has with the Google Voice application.

The final step is for the data providers to take over, as Google is doing with the Google Android cell phone operating system. This is a play to reduce the devices to mere commodities and put the interesting business where it really belongs, with software and data.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Media Convergence

The digital age has brought an extraordinary convergence of media that I have not seen remarked on anywhere. In the old world, each type of media was manufactured and delivered in its own different way. Movies were printed onto film and shown in movie theaters. Newspapers were printed on newspaper printing presses and delivered through a content delivery network that ends up with the product being thrown onto driveways in the early morning hours. Books were printed on book printing presses, bound and delivered through wholesalers to bookstores around the country. Records were printed in record presses, delivered to music wholesalers and then to record stores. Radio and TV were produced in studios, sometimes recorded and sent around the country to be broadcast on local transmitters.

That has all changed. In the new digital world, each media type has the same underlying form. Spoken words, music, written words, pictures, moving pictures are all buckets of digital bits. While we can still get each type of media in its old form we can also get them all delivered to our computer, cell phone or media player through the internet or the cellular phone network.

Even the devices we use to consume media are converged. Most of them can handle everything, so lets take an extreme example, the Amazon Kindle book reader. While the primary purpose of the Kindle is a book reader, it also has text to speech and handles audio files so that you can listen to music while reading. It will also display black and white pictures in the 3 common formats. So when you come to list the types of media that a Kindle can handle, it is quicker to say what it cannot do, that is color and moving pictures, than list all the things that it can do.

This change to digital media is just upon us, so it is going to take some time for all the consequences to shake out. At the moment, there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth from the newspaper industry. Newspapers rely on advertising which always does badly in a recession, but this time they also have to deal with the air being sucked out of their lungs by internet advertising and free listings. For some time, movie producers have been worried that they may be MP3ed like the music industry. More recently, book publishers have become aware that their business model is targeted and they are starting to behave like deer in the headlights as well.

These are just media industries and their travails are just the price of doing business in a time of technological change. The interesting question is how it will affect culture. If all types of media are fundamentally equivalent, will our preferences, being unfettered, change? One change is that there is a move towards shorter forms. For example, online journalism is certainly shorter and more punchy than the printed equivalent. This is just one example of one direction that change could go in. I am sure that there will be more consequential changes, so let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Too Cheap to Meter

Last month Malcolm Gladwell wrote a snarky review of Chris Anderson's book Free: The Future of a Radical Price for the New Yorker. You will remember that Anderson's last book The Long Tail produced a wide range of reactions and "Free" will be no different. I did not like the Gladwell review. He picks up on a lot of little things while missing the big picture. On the other hand the book is somewhat carelessly written so that it is easy to find little things to criticize.

An example is the discussion of the phrase "too cheap to meter". In the 1950's, Lewis Strauss, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, predicted that atomic energy would make electricity so cheap to produce that there would be no need for electricity meters. Unfortunately too many people see that phrase and take it to mean that electricity would be free, which is not what Strauss was claiming as I will explain.

The book "Free" has a chapter called "Too Cheap to Matter" that starts with Strauss's claim and goes on to Moore's Law and other laws of shrinking prices. Anderson seems to imply that electricity could be free, and in a long and rambling footnote still does not get to the point. Gladwell in his review of the book picks up on the implication and castigates Anderson for thinking that electricity could ever be free, using his own words against him.

To understand Strauss, you need to look at a utility bill, where you will see that the charges come in two parts, a fixed component for providing the service and a variable component which is your actual metered use of the utility. Strauss was claiming that for electricity there would be no need for the variable part, all that would be needed was a fixed part to cover the cost of fixed generator plant, transmission and billing. Sorry Gladwell and Anderson, Lewis Strauss was not trying to say that electricity would ever be so abundant that it would be free.

It is not unusual for utilities to be unmetered. Here are three examples of unmetered utilities from my personal experience. Firstly, I pay a fixed price for the broadband pipe of my internet service. Secondly, where I grew up, domestic water is plentiful enough that it is not metered, householders pay a fixed price for a 1/2 inch water main connection or somewhat more for a 3/4 inch water main connection. You could say that my garbage is too difficult to meter, so I just pay a fixed price for the weekly emptying of a 32 gallon garbage cart.

Apart from some writing that seems to imply more than is actually there, I found Chris Anderson's new book to be forward looking and full of familiar arguments. Well recommended. I will write more on the subject.