Hit Me With Your Clue Stick

I’m probably somewhere around a month late joining this party, but just how stupid are media producers?

The latest riff is the record companies trying to break iTunes out of its 99 cents a song tack that Steve Jobs finds so pleasing. They want variable pricing, albums and they’ve even hinted that they want a share of iPod sales.

Are they fucking crazy?

Before iTunes, there was Napster, Gnutella, Limewire, Bearshare…

They all had fixed pricing, as well: FREE.

And if I recall correctly, the RIAA didn’t take too kindly to them.

So along comes this snot-nosed head of a computer company and proceeds to turn the world on to paying for digital music. Yes, paying for it. (By the way, this snot-nosed kid is also head of Pixar, so he has a little experience with content creation.)

How did Apple do it? A one-two punch:

  • Elegant…nah…sexy digital players (iPods)
  • A well-designed, easy to use site that makes parting with your money a pleasure (iTunes)

And let’s see, the cost to the record companies to supply tunes to iTunes is … virtually nothing. The music is already digital, just a feed of tunes, covers and so on. Hell of a lot less than shipping 80 lb. boxes of CDs to Best Buys around the country.

And let’s look at that last sentence: “…around the country.” iTunes is around the world. How many Creed CDs did you sell in the Balkans last year, Mr. Record Company Man? Probably got some iTunes sales, though, ja?

Here’s the rap from the Clue Stick: Digital distribution changes everything. Get over it. Adapt or die.

While I don’t know if ABCs decision to supply (a very limited number of ) TV shows to the new video iPod is a good or bad decision overall, but it’s the correct step to take. Give it a test.

I’m not defending Apple nor am I a fawning admirer of Steve Jobs – and I’m typing this with only Linux and Windows boxes surrounding me. I just think Apple has done a brilliant job of anticipating – in many ways, influencing – digital needs and coming up with compelling solutions.

Record companies – ditto the big movie studios – are going to have to suck it back and realize they can’t stick to their guns and pretend that it’s business as usual.

Why not?

Some case histories:

Classified Ads (traditional media)
The fuel that runs most newspapers. Craiglist and Monster – two companies from out of nowhere – are eating the newspapers’ lunch. (Monster’s gotten a little arrogant lately; they might have the “I’m on top” mentality – which means they could hit a rough patch soon).

Egghead Software (traditional retailer)
While a tech-savvy company – selling computer software – it was, in part, rendered almost useless due to digital tools. Downloadable freeware, download – or purchase – Norton Anti-Virus online and so on.

Yahoo Maps/Mapquest (AOL) (digital media)
First hit on Google Maps – on the day it launched, believe me – was the “Goodbye Yahoo Maps/Mapquest” moment. I was map-agnostic before that day; no longer. Google Maps rule. NOTE: The same thing could well happen to Google Maps, but Google keeps innovating, trying. Partly because they know only the paranoid survive…

There are other examples – such as Wikipedia, and blogs, which are giving main-stream media a run for its money (literally!).

Let’s say you’re sorta convinced that the media companies are sorta clueless. Your next question could well be: Well, if it’s digital, can’t people just forward it to everyone, like that e-mail of blonde jokes Tiffany just sent to me??

Ah, DRM (digital right management).

Excellent question.

Here’s the executive summary of what I think about DRM:

  • Any DRM can – and will be – broken. Realize this. Copying will happen. People xerox [note intentional use of trademark for verb] magazine articles and other print pieces that exceed fair-use today; ditto for digital tomorrow.
  • For most folks, even an imperfect DRM is all you need. Most people aren’t going to go the warez site to download the crack for the Tivo file of Desperate Housewives. Some will; most won’t.
  • Most people are willing to fork over a reasonable amount of cash to get digital content easily for the SINGLE following reasons: It’s easier and I can understand how to do it.

Taken all together, this means that digital distribution is viable, sustainable and will be accepted by the mass audience if presented properly.

Suing teens and grandmothers – as the RIAA has done – is not, in my mind, a proper presentation.

But what do I know?

I think this will be one of those entries where I look back and either pat myself on the back (Damn! Forward thinking!) or slap myself upside the head (Were you talking out your ass??).

One issue left unresolved here: Why should iTunes dictate to the record companies and so on?

Simple: In the digital world, it’s the (digital) distributor who runs things. Look at Google: Hell, people have sued (unsuccessfully, as far as I know) Google because changes to their search algorithm – an algorithm, not personal – have hurt their company’s because the new algorithm drops their rank etc.

So the power of digital distribution is already acknowledged, to a certain degree. It’s generally recognized that Pandora’s Box has been re-opened, though there is no real consensus on what is flying out of that box (and the media companies seem to just be saying “close the lid, dammit!”).

Fair use has not been properly addressed here, as well, but that’s fodder for another entry.

Moving Dave Inside

Dave – the name we give to the pictured plant – is a tropical plant, and can’t overwinter here in Zone 5(a-b?).

It’s getting cold out there nowadays, so we’re gradually bringing it inside. Right now in the sun room, next stop somewhere (where?) in the house.

Remarkable plant, really. Those blossoms on it are a foot long and – especially at night – you can smell the plant all the way up on the second floor. Let’s hope it overwinters well and we can put it out again.

It’s actually hard to get a good picture of this plant. I mean, those are amazing, pendulous blossoms, and so full. Just hard to capture.

Site Redesigns

This week saw redesigns of a couple of the web’s best-known and (in some ways) influential sites: Cnet’s news.com and salon.com.

Salon’s redesign was – in my mind – way overdue. It was looking – in 2005 – like (the long-lost, yet still-lamented) Suck with sidebars.

The redesign appears (after only one visit), to be unremarkable. Much better looking, more above the fold, a change to a fluid from fixed layout. Vastly improved, but just HTML with better organization and some additional eye candy.

The news.com redesign is more interesting to me for the following reasons (and this is after about a dozen visits; it’s a site I hit numerous times a day):

  • First impression: I like it – I remember my first impression(s) of the last redesign of the site was “ick” (it was the old “change is bad!” reflex; I soon saw it was better….). But I like this one out of the box.
  • More Ajax Like – While I don’t think they’re actually using AJAX (except possibly in “The Big Picture”), they are using DHTML to get more above the fold and generate interest.
  • More graphics – Eye candy goes a long way. This has more, both pics and graphics. I’m on broadband, so I likee!
  • The Big Picture – A Flash widget (which may use AJAX [does appear to] ) which shows related stories and so on in a very non-traditional (mesh map) way. I’ve seen this before – Java applets doing much the same – but the first of this kind I’ve seen on any mainstream site. It’ll be interesting to see how this area gets refined (or dropped…)
  • More data – They’ve packed a lot into the page, including some personalization features.

Interestingly(?), news.com has – unlike Salon – stuck with a fixed-width layout (as before), but a really wide fixed width. I wonder if they’re doing any JS video-card probing to get resolution?

I dunno, but it’s always interesting to me when a site redesigns. Yes, an opportunity to poke fun at the sites and pretend that I’d never make such a gaffe, but…keeps you up on the Web design zeitgeist.

Trends I’m seeing:

  • Denser pages (more text vs. white space/graphics)
  • Wider (or more fluid) pages
  • Use of AJAX/DHTML/Flash to get more information (rotating, for example) in a given area

And one other very interesting trend I’m seeing: Less and less cookie-cutter design. While bad from Jakob Nielsen’s point of view, the sites I’ve seen redesigned somewhat non-traditionally (such as news.com) are NOT – to me – hard to figure out at all.

But I’m a power user, so that’s not a good use case, let’s say.

Nielsen (and I concur) says non-traditional design may have merit, but look at it this way: People are used to a certain handful of ways of navigating web sites. Even if your (non-traditional) layout is brilliant, people are not going to learn your method.

They are going to bail.

Which is why – for examples – amazon.com and Barnes and Noble are pretty much the same site, but for palette and navigation graphics (functionally roughly the same; just a different “skin”).

But the newish sites – news.com, gmail.com, for examples – have just worked. Because they are different but not too different.

But – to be fair – both of those examples are “for geeks” sites. You have to go back to the WWMMD? factor (What Would My Mom Do? factor).

While the barr keeps rising for the average web user, there will always be 49% of web users who are below average on the web-savvy meter.

Sobering, no?

But the changes I’m seeing are interesting and – for the most part – positive to me. While one could interpret the use of AJAX and DHTML (and – to a degree – Flash) as bad acid flashbacks to the blink tag, marquee, applets, and JS status rollers (when’s the last time you’ve seen one of those?), I’m less skeptical.

And – overall – I’m very skeptical and cynical.

So the web is lookin’ good…I think this internet stuff may just stick around…

A Golden Howl

Via billmon.org, a reminder that Allen Ginsberg’s epic Howl is 50 years young today. And I’m repeating the quotation Billmon lists on his entry:

Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “AWWW!”
— Jack Kerouac
On the Road, 1957

If you haven’t read either author, you’re missing two very important voices in Amercian literature.

How can you read the Kerouac quotation (above) and not be intrigued?

Or how can you deny the raw emotion and terrible beauty of the first few lines of Howl?:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…

A Day Out of the Office

Millennium Park, Chicago

Took a day off yesterday; we wanted to see the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. It was OK, but it was typical in the way all of the institute’s exhibitions have been since they discovered – with the Monet exhibit – that blockbusters sell tickets and trinkets.

The exhibit was nice – there were some nice additions of contemporaries’ work mixed in – but it was your typical cattle drive. Just these big masses of people – most with the goddam recording tour blaring, so they pretty much just run over you – moving like a stream from room to room. That’s not how you view art. That’s how you say “I saw the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition!”

After seeing TL, we did a little wandering around the museum, and THAT was how it should be: Big, bright rooms; some crowds but not crowded; the ability to just stand back and see the Renoirs, Van Goghs and so on. Wonderful.

There was a great photo exhibit downstairs that tied in with the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition – I believe it was called Paris: Photographs from a Time That Was.

As the name implies, old pics of Paris. Atget (of course), Kertez, Cartier-Bresson and others I wasn’t familiar with (which is unusual for me). Great stuff, and a nice tie in.

The highlight of the day off was the weather: Slight breeze, about 75 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Perfect-o!

Before and after the institute, we wandered through Millennium Park – first visit for both of us. Yeah, it was way over budget and way late opening, but it’s a nice space. The Bean – the huge Cloud Gate sculpture – has to be the most photographed object in Chicago now. Remarkable.

Had lunch at Heaven on Seven, and while it was the worst lunch we’ve ever had there, was still good. Get the gumbo!

Quick trip though my old neighborhood to rubberneck at some small stores and then hit the Coffee and Tea Exchange for a few pounds of killer caffine. Man that store smells great…

Still managed to finish up a stealth project for work, so it was a full day. Today, it’s back to the Same Old Same Old.

Still nice weather, however. About time. Now that it’s freakin’ October!