Wk4: Hanging on the VOIP – or why isn’t the telephone dead already?

"Do you know how much this call is costing me?"

Skype is 8 years old this year. Figures last year suggest that Skype has more registered users than even Facebook. So why do so many of us still make phone calls? Why hasn’t VOIP (Voice Over IP) services like Skype and Facetime taken over?

As we explore the answer, let’s step back for a second and look at a parallel technology – SMS. I still get heaps of SMS’s. And I send plenty too. Yet – pretty close to all those text messages are going to a phone with email technology. Why didn’t I save myself a few cents and send an email instead.

There are heaps of reasons.

1) Most people don’t have emails refreshing all the time. SMS’s actually ping people immediately.

2) Although most people do, I can’t be sure their phones take emails. And people use different emails.

3) And hey, sometimes I just don’t have their email.

4) I’m usually connected to a phone network, but not always a data network. This is also a black hole on the other side – what if they have bad data reception on the other end?

5) A smaller point, but many parts of the world doesn’t have the smart phone penetration and network services of a data network.

So plenty of reasons. Which is a shame because it makes so much sense. Why do we need two technologies to send simple text messages from my iPhone to yours? Why do I need a pipe called phone network and a pipe called data network?

Well, because data networks are kinda shit.

It still makes ultimate sense though. I think the SMS will die in the next five years – if not earlier. Because all those problems I laid out above could be fixed easily – and we’re not even waiting for technology to catch up.

I think it will have to be a short-message-direct-service that is not email for one. I think email and SMS type messages should not be mixed. They do different things. So we need to dump the phone number AND the email address. We need something new (Skype username? Twitter username? ICQ number? Who knows).

Then it just needs to run on a data network, not a phone network. And it is automatically set to “push”, not wait for people to login and download. It is a lot like instant messaging, or general chat programs – when you’re logged in!

When someone invents this app, they are going to make a billion dollars.

Which brings me back to Skype – the most famous VOIP service. Why hasn’t Skype killed the telephone?

Look at the pros. It costs nothing (above your net connection). It’s gotten to the point where the voice quality is pretty good, and certainly better than most mobile phones. You can do video chats if that’s your thing.

So what are the cons?

The big one is that no one is on Skype all the time. Or even most of the time. Skyping is an event for most people. You make appointments with people to Skype. And not everyone has Skype. 600 million users might sound impressive. But over 4.6 billion people have mobile phones!

All the reasons that SMS clings onto life apply in some way to it’s voice driven older brother.

But the tide is turning.

Most people I know hopped onto Skype to escape the cost of overseas and interstate phone charges. In 2009, Skype made up 12% of all international phone call minutes – a stat that has been trending up for years.

The dam is going to break, and VOIP services wont be seen as for overseas calling only. Apple’s Facetime is really pushing the personal, emotional value of their video-over IP service, not the price.

And maybe Skype’s reputation has been set, and some other upstart will take VOIP into our homes and every day life. But I think Skype works great – I hope they survive.

In 2003, I spoke to the CFO of the big company I was working for about VOIP. We also discussed Microsoft’s Netmeeting, and the bad quality of the audio. Nowadays, microphones and even cameras come with laptops. But those early uses of Netmeeting brought up another con for VOIP – one that is harder to define.

This one has more to do with human nature. And the wonderful David Foster Wallace summed it up nicely in his masterpiece Infinite Jest.

In that book, videophones took off initially, then people gave up on them, because they felt uncomfortable. This might seem like a trivial point, but I think it’s important. AND, I think it’s weirder without video.

People still feel weird barking conversations at a computer. For over 100 years, we have spoken into a handset. Using VOIP services is like speaking aloud.

I have a theory that for Skype to really catch on, they should build a handset (with two jacks, one for the mic, one for the headphone). If people could speak into a handset, they don’t care if it’s a computer or a phone that routes their call.

Which is also why mobile VOIP is the next big thing. Skype, Facetime and a number of other competitors are jumping onboard Android, iPhones et al. The ultimate handset.

Some of you may know, Skype actually has a mobile phone. The Skypephone didn’t catch on, for all the same reasons that Skype has not really caught on as a whole (and I’m not sure if it’s still in production).

Computers can be just about anything you want it to be. It’s amazing how long it’s taken us to adopt the computer as a phone. But the future is already here. Data networks are just around the corner from a big jump (into 4G speeds, and free wi-fi becoming more commonplace). And everyone’s getting a smartphone.

And it’s up to us, as a whole, to take advantage of it. If you’re not on there, why should I be? We all have to jump in – together.

And we can kill off the telephone for good.

Skype by Numbers – http://gigaom.com/2010/04/20/skype-q4-2009-number/

Utterly brilliant site by Jean Mercier focusing on the stats of Skype – http://skypenumerology.blogspot.com/

A nice summary of the bit in Infinite Jest about videophones. http://kottke.org/10/06/david-foster-wallace-on-iphone-4s-facetime

The Skypephone – http://shop.three.com.au/mobile-prepay-details/3-Skypephone-Prepaid-White

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Wk3: Adapt or Die – is USB the new AC/DC?

USB wall socket by SockItz

A small, not heavily reported, revolution happened last year. It’s one that’s bound to have bigger ramifications. The USB wall socket power-point arrived.

Charging and power will be the last battle for the Wire. Wireless internet, wireless keyboards and mice, wireless speakers – the wire has almost been killed off. Except in the area of actually charging and powering things.

The story of electricity and wall sockets is a long and twisted one. When electricity first came to Britain there was no standard. A power plug in London would differ to one in Manchester. That might seem funny and old-hat now, but we haven’t gone that far.

Adaptors are still big business. Most major regions in the world have their own system – and sometimes their own voltage. Even getting the shape of your plug right is not enough. There has been a small movement towards a global standard but the it hasn’t caught on.

Which brings me to one of the truisms of technology – if you stand divided, something new is going to come and bowl you over.

And the world of wall sockets and chargers does stand divided. I’m sure I’m like most people, and own dozens of chargers for all sorts of things. And for most of the time, it’s one charger for one device.

The charger that comes for most mobile phones charge at such a low rate that it’s useless for anything else. My external hard-drive and my portable iPod speakers take the same charge. Sadly the pin connector are different sizes. I wish the laptop charger I keep permanently plugged-in could plug straight into my iPod, but alas I have to have the laptop on.

Then of course, there are the devices I bought in other countries.

I understand the differences in voltage. I understand that design plays it’s role. But I also see that I have dozens of devices all designed to do the same thing – get power into a device – and no one has yet put them together.

Maybe USB is the thing that will bowl over this divided technology. I think we can see this happening in all sorts of places.

Take the Japanese mobile phone. In Japan, the GSM network does not exist, meaning most phones outside of Japan do not work in Japan. So – will Japan adopt GSM? Or will non-Japanese networks adopt the Japanese technology? It’s no to both. A bigger technology will come along and do the work of both. That technology was 3G.

(And as much as 4G is being worked on, surely Wi-Fi will kill it?)

It’s the same way with power plugs. I think USB is the answer for the immediate future. We are already heading down that road.

I have a bunch of adapters, and quite a few things to charge when I travel (a phone, a Blackberry, an iPod and a laptop usually). But thanks to the laptop, I only need one adapter. Everything else is charged through the USB ports on my computer.

Which is one step away from having a USB power board. Which is one step away from plugging the USB cable straight into the wall. Which is where the world is going.

Some of the nicer hotels in the world already offer a USB power plug. Companies like FastMac and Sockitz offer a home solution to replace or augment your existing wall sockets. Some new houses in Silicon Valley have a couple of USB wall sockets as standard.

The EU also passed a law last year, finally standardising mobile phone chargers, using the micro-USB technology (that is, micro-USB to plug into the phone, not the wall). No more needing a new phone charger for every phone you own. You can use your old micro-USB charger, and plug it into a computer. And it doesn’t have to be phones. It can be any micro-USB powered device (like some cameras).

At the very least, not every mobile phone in the EU has to come with a new charger every time. Which can only be good for the environment. The dumping of electronics is a big and dangerous business (see links below).

Another charging technology that is emerging is the charging mat. Basically a small, safe, mat that you can keep on your desk that charges your mobile devices. Most times your mobile devices needs a case that works with the mat. Without plugging anything in, you can place your cased device on the mat, and it will charge.

It speaks to one of the great problems with USB, which is that fucking wire. I hate wires. I really do. The future of the charging mat is uncertain – so far the uptake has been slow as the devices seem too niche and expensive. But it’s the wireless thing that people love, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Also last year, student Min-Kyu Choi won the British Insurance design award for his folding plug. It’s pretty clever. It beat out lots of great ideas, because his idea was so simple, and so startling. It goes to show that the power plug can still be improved. And that in it’s current state it is a problem. And I’m glad clever people are still looking at it.

Obviously you can’t replace all the plugs in your home with USB ports today. But that day is coming. Technology keeps improving. Battery life will improve. Charging times will improve. Standards though, that needs committee.

But I’m sure we can all agree on this: We are sick of owning that many chargers. We are sick of playing around with adapters. We are sick of tripping on wires.

And if the USB port can’t get it’s act together, something else will come along and bowl that over too.

USB wall socket examples. Fastmac (http://www.padgadget.com/2011/01/19/fastmacs-clever-u-socket-usb-wall-outlet-now-shipping/) and Sockitz (http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2010/08/sockitz-gives-your-powerpoints-added-usb-charging-goodness/)

Story about the EU adopting a micro USB standard (http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/eu-adopts-microusb-cell-phone-charger-standard/)

Min-Kyu Choi’s folding plug (http://www.geek.com/articles/gadgets/folding-plug-wins-british-design-award-20100317/).

An example charging mat – the Powermat. (http://www.cnet.com.au/powermat-wireless-charger-339302172.htm)

Finally, an NPR story about the environmental impact of trashing electronic devices. I only touched on the subject, but it hits home that the less we create, the better it is for everyone. (http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132204954/after-dump-what-happens-to-electronic-waste)

Wk2: To Infinity and Beyond: Google Maps and the Infinite Canvas.

A rather finite canvas

Scott McCloud coined the term “the infinite canvas” in 2000, a hopeful vision of what the internet could become. I have waited ten years for it to come to life, and it’s only occurred to me that Google Maps has done just that. Maybe, just maybe, others will follow.

The infinite canvas is based on a basic idea – your computer screen is not a PAGE, it’s a WINDOW. Linking is a basic building block of the internet, but too often websites split an article over several ‘PAGES’, when it’s possible, even easier, to let an article run as long as you can possibly want.

It’s not just articles, of course. The net is a digital world. The infinite canvas can be anything. À la recherché du temps perdu can run completely uninterrupted. Andy Warhols 24 Hour Movie can be one file. There are no limits. Except the limits we create.

And it’s interesting how many limits we create for ourselves. For all the noise made by certain musicians about how their albums should be heard in order, they don’t supply their albums as one 40+ minute sound file. There is no reason they couldn’t – but right now, the online world is still replicating the CD.

Most interesting is print. The idea of flicking pages seems to go against what digital technology is about. Yet there’s not an eBook reader in the world that doesn’t tout it’s ‘page-turn’ functions. For me, it seems a bit like my iPad having an image of a vinyl album spinning, and I have to place the needle on record at the right point to play a song.

Magazines are the worst. The Branson owned iPad only magazine The Project is an awful hybrid of the worse of print and digital. It was far too easy to get lost in the magazine, as every page had it’s own links that lead to videos, pop-ups and other madness. Suddenly you found yourself three clicks down, on page 8, and no way to get to page 9. It was like Inception.

It’s as if the people behind The Project took a magazine and made anything that could be annoying into something very annoying. The cover flashes and buzzes – for no reason. Other than it looks cool. There are also full page ads in these new magazines. It has completely lost sight of getting a consumer to be wow-ed by the content – the articles, the photos etc.

(It will be very interesting to see if the second iPad only publication, Murdoch’s The Daily, is any better, or if they are still tied to the physical page)

It’s a 600 year old fascination with flicking pages that needs to be lost. But there are things standing in our way.

One of the reasons sites make you click through several pages for one article (something Rolling Stone Magazine online [link] loves) is because of their page view numbers. Those figures lead directly to their advertising rate-card. And money talks.

Also, we are not used to it. Long, long blocks of text seem scary. But we have been inventing ways of making text more readable for centuries. Type-setting. Margins. I personally use bold text mixed in with little breakers (“—“) to try and break up the eye.

Another is computing power. Loading a 7 volume, 1.5 million word Proust collection is still going to dampen your computer’s resources. But computing power is not slowing down any time soon. The same goes for internet connection speeds – another obstacle that will be defeated in time.

I still argue that the problem is our cultural memory. I look at digital booklets for albums and I see multi page pdfs that replicate a booklet. When I could have one big graphic that looks like the back of an album cover. I wont have to flick through and get lost.

We forget that pages were a compromise, not an advantage.

Which brings me to Google Maps. It is the purest form of the infinite canvas.

Think about it! It didn’t try to recreate a street directory with pages. It doesn’t ask you click on the left to go left. Or to flick an imaginary page. You simply SCROLL. You use your screen like a WINDOW (or magnifying glass), and you naturally scroll up to go up, down to go down.

As anyone with a smartphone can tell you, maps are super cool on mobile. They are so easy to use, no pages involved. And everyone I know uses them with ease.

And maybe Mobile is a key. It’s annoying to drift through 6 pages to read one Rolling Stone article on a mobile. The advertising model needs to be recreated anyway.

More importantly, with both computers and mobiles providing different experiences of the same site, hopefully content will become more powerful than form. And we can finally exterminate every bit of Flash on the internet.

Google Maps is an infinite canvas. Utilising and embracing the limitless, barrierless landscape online, they have created the best mapping experience humanity has ever, ever had.

Now it’s time for everyone else to embrace that limitless-ness. Imagine books, music, movies without our own artificial breaks. Less clicking around, more scrolling around. It is my hope for the web going forward. Literally – a world without end.

Scott McCloud is a pioneering technology thinker and a comic book writer and artist. His website is: – http://scottmccloud.com/

Rolling Stone Magazine – a style of web formatting that needs to die off: http://www.rollingstone.com/

The truly awful The Project, but really needs to be seen on an iPad – http://www.projectmag.com/

If you need a link to Google Maps, the  you probably never came across this article in the first place.

Wk1: Internet Killed The Video Star: The future of Film Clips

OK Go in their "This Too Shall Pass" clip

The humble Film Clip has been left in the cold when people talk about the larger digital revolution. It’s music that has been the conversation for years, and film and TV are up next. But where does the Film Clip future lie?

In the DVD boom of the late 90s, many bands put out collections of their Film Clips. I own dozens of them – for many reasons.

– I wanted easy access to some of my favourite clips
– It was a way to see clips I’ve never seen before
– I want my favourite clips on DVD quality
– I just wanted to own everything my favourite bands did anyway.

But that was the late 90s, and the value of those Film Clip collection DVDs are plummeting. In the brave new digital world, do we really need them at all? Do I even need to keep the old ones I have?

The question of access is the first to become a non-issue, thanks to YouTube. But it’s not just YouTube – all video sites are using music clips as easy content to fill their servers.

Look at the otherside, the DVD. Does anyone really watch Film Clip collections from start to finish? If not, then after you’ve dug out the DVD, put it in the player and waited for it to load, you still have to navigate through a menu.

Having YouTube really puts the myth of access to rest. One click away, no menus, no waiting. My computer is also simply on more than my DVD player.

It comes back to cloud computing too. I don’t think these clips are going away. Even if YouTube falls, there are others. Film clips are not going away any time soon.

I also don’t see any record label putting up a paywall any time soon. They want their film clips seen.

Interesting the trajectory of how labels see the value of film clips. Damian Kulash Jr, of OK Go, nailed it in his New York Times piece from last year (link). In 2006, the viral hit of Here It Goes Again was a success for EMI. It was free advertising. In many ways, Film Clips have always been ads for a song or an album. Bands can’t play on every TV show, so they sent their videos on the road for them.

This led logically to MTV. MTV (back when it played clips) was essentially a series of ads for a series of bands. MTV didn’t pay for the clips – and made a bazillion dollars from them. So it’s interesting to hear CEO of Warner, Edgar Bronfman Jr, say that MTV made millions off the backs of the labels, and doesn’t want this repeated with YouTube. The danger – as he sees it (and others as well) – is creating another monster industry and missing out on any of the benefits.

So by 2010, a series of unsteady agreements were made with YouTube. Videos had ads, miniscule amounts of money exchanged hands and some videos were blocked altogether. The result was blocking the next big OK Go video – This Too Shall Pass. Free advertising for the band had turned into another way to make money.

It seems to be sliding back. I think it’s become quite clear that Film Clips are not a big money earner. iTunes have never been able to get any traction in selling them outright. Some money is passing hands from advertising revenue. And the number of people watching film clips on YouTube has taken on the most importance, yet again.

I think we can count on this trend continuing. Labels and bands never made money off Film Clips directly before. They are not going to be a cash cow now.

There’s also very few film clips I can’t see. Yes, there was a time when on-demand did not exist. And even my favourite bands, there were one or two obscure videos I never saw. Or I had a fuzzy VHS, taped off the telly. Then there are bands that never made it big in Australia (The Jayhawks and Sloan come to mind).

Now everything is up for grabs. Hundreds of thousands of Film Clips (and of course, even more live clips). We can safely assume having a DVD only clip is madness.

There’s not even an argument for having all of one band’s clips in one place. They are in one place – your computer screen. There are many DVDs in stores right now that can show you things you can’t see online. Film Clip Collections are not one of them.

People don’t watch film clips on TV anymore. Not first, and sometimes not ever. It’s an era of YouTube, and watching videos on little frames on our computer screens. NPR’s Neda Ulaby compared watching the ‘Thriller’ clip on a small screen to trying to take in Spartacus on an iPhone. Even the film clips themselves are changing.

It is yet another reason to not watch film clips on the home entertainment system. Single Ladies. The great OK Go videos. They are made for the medium of the internet. It’s also the first place people go to. Videos premiere on websites – and are passed virally.

It brings in a question of DVD fidelity. Do we care? For years, a small but vocal group decried digital music for it’s lack of sound quality. Millions of people chose to ignore this and love music anyway. Then music started being made for digital (see Soulja Boy).

And so, if film clips are being made for the internet – who cares about DVDs?

The final point is the biggest one – ownership. People are still skeptical of cloud computing – and I am too. But I am willing to forsake Film Clip collections for the internet version. Here’s why:

Cloud computing as scary security concerns. From fear that servers-might-crash-and-I-lose-my-stuff to I-don’t-want-a-company-to-know-that-much-about-me. I think both those things fail for Film Clips. I don’t care if YouTube can track the clips I watch. And I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding clips on the internet ever, even if YouTube crashes.

And those old DVDs are awful. They may have seemed nice at the time, but they usually offer no extra features. Even attachment to artwork is out the window. Most of them were just rehashes of existing artwork. Blur’s was just a reshaped version of their Best Of, and I have that artwork on a nice big vinyl record.

I think the ultimate test is this – if I didn’t own that Blur DVD already, and someone offered to give it to me for free, I’d probably say no.

The Film Clip collection is dead, I think that’s certain. But it’s death may be a sign of bigger things to come. As bandwidth and storage space increases, where does it lead for the Film and TV industry? That’s the next big war, and maybe the first battle has already been fought and won.

Damian Kulash Jr Op-Ed piece in New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/opinion/20kulash.html

Edgar Bronfman Jr discussing the “MTV of the internet” – http://paidcontent.org/article/419-goldman-sachs-communacopia-edgar-bronfman-ceo-warner-music-group

NPR article about the changing art of the film clip, Neda Ulaby – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99880324

2011: A Year of Digital Writing

Happy New Year everyone!

After 30 for 30, I’ve been trying to think of a new writing project. I’ve decided to spend a year writing columns about Digital Culture. Technology is changing our world so fast, but what does it mean for our lives culturally? From Blu-Ray to MySpace, new social media to piracy laws, iPads to broadband and more, I’ve decided to write about it.

It also seems to be the conversation I’ve been naturally having with friends. What does the future hold?

Having been a tech head for many years, and having over ten years experience in digital media, I think it’s time for me to put some of my thoughts and ideas on digital paper. And it wont just be about music either. I will cover film, books, comics, laws, trends and the internet itself.

I am going to avoid what I hate about blogs – knee jerk reaction pieces, bad research and ramblings without a point. With every column, I will try and discuss and subject, and try to make insights into the topic.

Hope you can join me on this conversation.