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The Digital Generation Gap in 3 sentences…

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about going to the cinema with my son and my parents. And it perfectly illustrates the digital divide between 3 generations of my family. And it can also be summed up in 3 sentences.

  • The day before we plan on going to see a film, my parents drove 20 minutes to the nearest cinema. And went inside to book tickets.
  • The hour before I planned on taking my son to see a film, I went online to check the local cinema times and available seats. And book and pay online via a credit or debit card.
  • My son expects to be able to get a seat for any film almost instantly just by announcing that’s what he wants to do.

It’s easy to mock my parents spending so much time on a relatively trivial task. Then again, they also had the time to incorporate a nice walk, scope out some local eateries, and have a spot of lunch.

My version is more efficient in terms of time. But less pleasaent. And also more susceptible to the risks of online payments. Plus I didn’t get a nice lunch or any fresh air.

Meanwhile my son currently relies on me to fulfill his demands when he’s staying with me. But given the rise of voice assistants (Siri, Alexa, etc), it won’t be long before his expectations may become normal. (And I should make it clear that he’s not ill-mannered, or doesn’t get there’s a finite supply of seats in a cinema – he’s just increasingly used to games, TV, music etc all being available on-demand in the modern era. So sometimes it takes reminding that spaces might be limited on an opening weekend).

The Digital Generation Gap in 3 sentences

The challenge for any business is to decide which age group they need to serve. Or how to cope with all three demands in the best possible way.

That may mean being able to provide in-person service, an amazing website and app, and also making everything as available on-demand via voice search.

Or it could be convincing me that it’s worth making the trip in person. And persuading my son that the experience is worth any waiting required…

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Fascinating 15 Minute Wired Documentary on Shenzhen

There’s an overwhelming amount of things recommended to read, hear and watch on a second-by-second basis these days. But I’d say it’s worth spending 15 minutes checking out this Wired Future Cities video on Shenzhen in China, described as ‘The Silicon Valley of Hardware’.

At the moment it seems that software and the internet has entered a period of gradual evolution, and all the predictions for revolutions will be in bio technology, hardware etc. As always, what will actually power any revolution is harder to predict, and probably won’t look much like anything we’ve got at the moment, but it does seem than Shenzhen might be where it will appear first.

It’s also interesting to compare the current Western trends for both Makers and artisan craftsmen who seem more attuned to reviving traditional small scale manufacturing methods. At the highest end of Western manufacture, there’s the ability to rapidly prototype and iterate, and there’s a similar potential for groups of companies at the smallest end if ecosystems like Shenzhen spring up (I know there are pockets of hardware/manufacturing technologies in various Western countries, but I wonder if they’ll reach the same scales and levels of accessibility, particularly with regards to cost and the rather loose concept of copyright and IP that exists in China).

Either way, it’s fascinating – I’ve always been fascinated with the manufacture of physical hardware, whether it’s related to combustion engines or silicon chips…

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Is Mobile Dead?

Since PC and Tablet sales slowed over the last few years, there have been a million articles written about the death of the desktop in particular.

So presumably the news that mobile handset growth is slowing to single figures must mean that we’re about to have a deluge of predictions that mobile is over?

It’s in a new report from IDC. They predict the total shipments 2015 will amount to a 9.8 percent increase compared to last year, or 1.43 billion units. According to the firm, growth has slowed in the Asia Pacific region, Latin America, and Western Europe. Apparently China is saturated, so the big places for growth now are in Africa and the Middle East – and Wired predicts that this is all good news for Apple as consumers will start to trade up for a more premium product (The subtext is that apparently only iOS and Android will be worth worrying about).

Mobile-is-dead

A quick Google search for ‘desktop is dead’ points to this article by Gizmodo back in 2009. At that point, the desktop was in a death spiral due to the rise of laptops. It also stated that PC Gaming was dead.

I should point out that 6 years later, Steam has 125 million active users, and has had as many as 12.5 million people playing concurrently. Xbox Live has around 48 million, PlayStation Network 110 million (65 million active monthly), and one of the most popular mobile/tablet games Clash of Clans had around 8.5 million daily players.

One day I dream that hardware makers and analysts will finally accept that there is no ‘one device to rule them all’. I know this, because in the last 24 hours I’ve used my laptop for work and streaming some television, used my tablet to check in on Instagram and Clash of Clans, and had a quick go on both by Xbox 360 and Xbox One. And browsed the latest prices for a new desktop PC purchase after Christmas (Primarily for work and video/photo editing, but potentially also for iRacing).

I’ve also used my mobile to check in at various places, send texts and updates, and for navigation – and even caught a few minutes on a traditional television set.

Perhaps the best example of refusing this logic is Microsoft. First Windows 8, and then the Xbox One interface, which tried to be an entertainment hub but does a worse job of it that the Xbox 360 version.

I might occasionally watch TV on my Xbox One, but the primary reason I bought it was to play videogames, so that’s what it needs to do well. Just like I want a desktop capable of handling 40,000+ line spreadsheets and editing big video files, a laptop which can handle most tasks, and a tablet that can serve entertainment, lightweight games and possibly a presentation or two. I don’t need my mobile to do any of that at the expense of a decent camera, battery life and connectivity (including a decent GPS).

There are plenty of stats about how people now use their mobile more for a variety of tasks, but I’d be interested to know if that’s because they prefer it, or because they don’t have access to a better option. I’ll use my mobile to view TV or for eCommerce if I have to, but not if my tablet is nearby. And I’ll use my laptop if possible.

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Why Television and Radio Won’t Die

Last night I started watching The Wolverine. Before you judge, let me state that it happened to be on Amazon Prime, and I’ve read, re-read and indeed re-purchased the Wolverine Graphic Novel after mistakenly lending it to people over the years.

It was late and I was weak.

In fact it was late enough that about half of the way through the film I decided to take a break and get some sleep. So when I stopped working to grab some lunch today, it seemed like a good time to finish the film off. Except that I couldn’t.

The process went something like this:

  • Go to Amazon Prime Video and search for Wolverine, as the main pages only want to show me new films/TV shows.
  • Click to view.
  • Wait ages.
  • Get a Silverlight error message.
  • Try again.
  • Get the same Silverlight error message.
  • Sigh deeply, then go to Settings, and select the Flash player.
  • Go back to Amazon Prime Video and get a Silverlight error message. Return to settings, and back to the video and then it loads in Flash.
  • Watch approximately 2-3 minutes of the film with 60 second intervals for it to buffer.
  • Go back to Settings, revert to Silverlight and spend a minute or two reading the Troubleshooting Guide.
  • Download the Silverlight Diagnostic Tool as recommended and watch as it fails to find the problem.
  • Restart Router. Restart PC.
  • Realise that I’ve finished my lunch and gone way over the time I’d planned to spend.
  • Cry a little inside.
  • Decide to give it one last try just to see what happens. Silverlight etc doesn’t have a problem, but in the process I seem to be watching the film from the beginning again
  • Cry a little more inside.

And this is exactly why broadcast television and radio won’t die.

Television

In order of problems viewing:

  • Amazon Instant Video – 1-2 problems per month
  • Virgin Media Digital Box – 1 problem every few months
  • Broadcast TV and Radio – I can remember 1 problem when someone stole cabling supplying one of the transmitters in Peterborough a few years ago.

But it’s not as simple as blaming Amazon, Netflix, Hulu or Youtube for a poor video experience.

Or Silverlight, Flash or HTML5.

Or Virgin, Sky, BT or other ISPs.

Or someone else in the house using a different device for gaming, streaming or downloading Wikipedia en masse.

Or all the neighbours deciding this is the exact time they all want to stream something as well.

Because the problem with internet television and radio is that it could be any part of the chain that causes an issue, and generally it’s down to the individual to figure it out.

The rationale is easy to understand – no service can provide effective troubleshooting for every individual combination of internet, viewing device and browser. But even as someone who has picked up reasonable technical knowledge over the years, it’s a massive pain in the arse.

Is it the software, the browser, the PC,  the wifi, the router, or the ISP? The diagnostics told me it was Silverlight, my observations were that my connections seemed to be running slowly, and restarting an entirely different piece of hardware fixed everything, and Silverlight runs fine again.

*facepalm*

Meanwhile I can turn on a television or radio in a matter of seconds and enjoy whatever is available with simplicity and reliability. And if there’s a problem viewing, it’s either:

  • The TV is broken. Replace.
  • The transmitter is broken.
  • The end of the world has begun.

I love streaming films, TV and music on-demand, and accessing shows and artists I’d have never discovered and spent money on. But it’s hard to defend something which takes a working knowledge of IT to operate.

It’s why I worry about Net Neutrality, and the horrific idea that the EU could be moving towards accepting a two-tier internet. Access to a decent broadband speed is an infrastructure required by everyone – without it you limit the ability of individuals and startups in favour of the dominant players being able to mask the fact their services are inefficient.

It’s why I worry about curbing the BBC as a free-to-air service which is able to share information, education and news to anyone regardless of their devices or ISP.

And it’s why a part of me worries every time Spotify unveils new features, or Amazon tries to deliver a new technological innovation. Because it means that there are less people working in the boring ‘Just make it work’ department.

Years ago, I would have happily predicted the imminent demise of print and broadcast media in favour of digital services. All this time later, and I’m still waiting for something approaching reliability to make it conceivable.

On the plus side, the original comics are still awesome. And still work perfectly 33 years after they were first released.

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No Wonder Spotify Needs More Data…

So Spotify has been experiencing a backlash after updating the terms and conditions of their service to access more user data. As always, the outcry will be short-lived unless the small percentage of paying users like myself actually stop a meaningful number of subscriptions.

But it’s made me look again at the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist that is automatically generated for me and it’s no wonder Spotify needs more data.

  • 30 songs.
  • And 11 or 12 of them I can immediately spot are artists I already have in playlists.
  • 2 or 3 are songs I already have in playlists.
  • And from the rest, another 3 or 4 are songs I wouldn’t put in a playlist in you paid me.

So the success rate in actually finding me something I want to discover is less than 1 in 3. And this is the entertainment data revolution.

You could find a similar success rate by randomly throwing charity shop CDs into a plastic bag and taking them home…

Instead of trying to collate more data, it’d be easier if Spotify just integrated a decent personal recommendation service, like the now-closing ThisIsMyJam. And not keep rolling out a more and more bloated desktop client which has a new version to download almost daily at this point…

On the plus side, the Fresh Finds playlist is still pretty interesting, and there’s the un-algorithmically bollocksed list of New Releases.

Meanwhile Amazon works on the theory that if I’ve watched one police drama via Instant Video, that’s likely to be all I ever want to watch in the future, and Youtube can only recommend a random selection of Vice Media documentaries and the last two American standup comedians I watched. Watching 20 minutes of Amy Schumer apparently means I need to see six interviews with her from American TV shows.

Basically all the data, privacy and information we’re freely giving to large companies results in recommendations as helpful as throwing a dart across the room at an open TV guide.

Meanwhile I finally got around to buying a CD of a live tour I went to see about 7 or so years ago…

VarsityDrag

I’ll look forward to seeing it start appearing in recommendations across all my usual music and entertainment services in about 6 months time….

 

 

 

 

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Internet services I have loved and lost…

After thinking about the closure of ThisIsMyJam, I started to think about what services I truly miss after 15 years+ online. And it’s a surprisingly short list.

 

Homestead: It turns out Homestead is actually still in operation. But having used it as a free website builder back when it launched in 1998, I could have sworn that it closed down existing sites at some point fairly early on. It’s certainly changed hands a few time, whilst the design examples don’t seem to reflect modern websites. It introduced me to concepts like blogging and creating websites without learning about HTML and databases, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the most valuable way to do things. Certainly my early projects like a listing and review service for pubs might have been more viable had they evolved into something like FancyAPint, rather than an early WYSWIG rival to GeoCities. And it means I have no archive of those early days, compared to my blogging on Blogger, which was then imported to WordPress and the archives of this and my main business site.

 

The Loaded Magazine Chat Room: At the end of the last century I went to live in America to study for a year. And discovered relatively fast university internet. As a result, I suddenly became a far heavier web user than when a 56k dial-up connection was my only link to the world (and was again when I returned to the UK).

But while cool internet veterans refer to their time on Usenet, Listserv and ICQ, I somehow ended up hanging out in the chat room of the Loaded Magazine website. It was a link back home, and a place to hang out and talk about all sorts of things. I had some friends and made some great new buddies in America, but when I needed to vent, and I couldn’t think about the cost of phoning the UK, it was perfect.

I can’t remember exactly when it closed, as my time there slowed down a bit when I relied on an AOL dialup account at home. But it introduced me to the concept of online communities, which informed my work at places like MCN, where managing the chat rooms and forums were an early task. And a couple of years ago, I spotted a familiar username on a videogame forum, which turned out to be one of the Loaded friends from 10+ years earlier.

 

Internet_Services_We_Lost

Possibly a little too melodramatic, but still…

Google Reader: Now we can finally jump to this century. Plenty of time and services had been and gone – but although losing them was an inconvenience, it wasn’t something that stuck with me.

Not so Google Reader.

I was never sure that RSS would catch on with a general audience. But it was invaluable to most of the people I wanted to connect with online. For work and learning, it was a great way to keep up when most people were actively focused on blogging as their prime way of sharing. And the social features were incredibly important to that.

Several of the people I valued most on Google Reader were people I wouldn’t have necessarily been friends with on Facebook. Twitter launched a year later, Facebook hadn’t added the ‘Follow’ option, and I didn’t really want to stay in touch socially with all the people I connected with on Google Reader. I just wanted to be able to learn what they were reading and cared about enough to share. And that was perfect.

Alternatives have grown, such as Feedly, but the rise of social networks and drop in blogging and RSS for many people means that it hasn’t caught on in quite the same way. And the social side of RSS readers seems to have lost critical mass forever.

 

ThisIsMyJam: See the link above, but slower paced sharing and the focus on music means it’ll occupy a similar place to Reader in allowing me to see what songs were most important to people who I may never want to connect with elsewhere.

 

I’d be really interested to know what services you miss? And what services you’re currently worried might disappear? I’m currently wondering about the future of social bookmarking, especially Diigo and Delicious, for example.

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Sadface as ThisIsMyJam closes

I can totally understand why projects close. People encounter changes in their lives, the internet and mobile are constantly evolving, and the ideas, services and APIs something relies on may not be something that’s actually sustainable.

I remember when microblogging was all the rage, and when the likes of Rejaw and Pownce shut down. Or when videogames I played closed their online services. Or when Google inevitably closed another experiment in social and collaboration – Reader, Wave, Orkut, etc. This blog has been going longer than some of those services lasted – and my real introduction to the internet and the world wide web started around the same time as Google. So it’s rare that a service closing really affects me. The last time I was sad about something closing was when Google Reader ceased operations – despite some of the alternatives that have since launched, it felt like both the use of RSS and the social side of the service weren’t going to make a comeback, and it’s proved right.

So I was a bit surprised at how sad I felt to see an announcement last night that ThisIsMyJam is closing.

BadgerGravlingJams-ThisIsMyJam

It’s being done in the right way. The creators have explained the reasons for the decision, the content is being archived rather than taken offline, and the challenges around APIs and streaming music are fairly well known.

And yet I’m still sad, and I wanted to explore why…

  • Slow sharing is great. As much as I enjoy using Spotify, the desktop client gets more and more bloated with every new feature, which hurts on a crappy connection. And the social side is just way too overwhelming to follow more than a handful of people. ThisIsMyJam allowed me to actually connect with a decent number of people over the course of a Sunday night listening session and get to know their tastes over time.
  • It was great for discovering new music. Having really got to know people by their tastes, it wasn’t surprising that when they listed something I hadn’t heard, I generally enjoyed it. By contrast, I generally end up using ‘Related Artists’ on Spotify or their new Discover/Fresh playlists, which seems to be much more hit and miss, and far more time consuming.
  • It encouraged far more considered sharing. Generally I posted 1 track per week when reminded, or sometimes less. But it meant I carefully considered what song really mattered to me at that time, compared to the endless cycle of updates on every other social network.
  • It’s an effective memory collection – Last.fm and scrobbling collects almost everything I listen to, which is a huge mess of data occasionally corrupted by sharing listening with family and friends. While it’s nice to know I listen to a lot of Pearl Jam, it’s more memorable to see when I picked a specific track and the reasoning behind it. Since 2011, a lot has changed, and it’s interesting to see how my music choices reflected that.
  • Sharing to other services was also easy. I don’t want to bore everyone by streaming every song I play to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr etc, but I enjoyed sharing one song a week and seeing what reactions it got.
  • In some ways it feels less personal than similar services. For instance, a site called Tastebuds also allows music sharing, but it started as more of a music-based dating and social network. I don’t have to like someone to like their taste in music.

 

I can honestly say I’m going to miss ThisIsMyJam, and the music I discovered. I’ll particularly miss those people who I followed solely on TIMJ, as we were purely musical friends. And I’m not sure there’s anything to fill the gap – Last.fm is undergoing a redesign, and Spotify, Apple Music, Rdio, Pandora etc all seem hell bent on blending algorithms, human curation and bloating the experience with as much extraneous stuff as possible.

Farewell, ThisIsMyJam. You were great while you lasted…

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Robots under threat from child bullies

Despite the legitimate fears of the combination of artificial intelligence, algorithms and robotics potentially bringing us closer to the Technological Singularity, robots will face some substantial risks themselves. Particularly from a breed of young and curious potential John Connors. Turns out Edward Furlong might have been a bit older than the real risk to our robotic overlords – children.

The robot had to be programmed to evade smaller humans and head towards those over 4 feet 6 inches. Lets hope the tiny robot tormentors don’t discover stilts.

But there’s some interesting and possibly disturbing research in a paper “Why Do Children Abuse Robots?” (PDF).

some children frequently obstructed the robot’s path regardless of the robot’s utterance requesting for the children to stop the obstruction, covered up the robot’s eyes with their hands, and beat the robot’s head … we found that the majority of [the children] did not regard the robot as just a machine, but a human-like entity.

Aside from the recognition from my own childhood that kids can often be evil little beings seemingly for the sake of it, and that the same cruelty has been inflicted on insects, animals and other kids, it does have implications for the future. If nothing else, at least the next generation will be well-prepared for careers on Youtube in gadget teardowns and destruction.

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Capturing audio won’t help personal lives

I’ve just been reading about a new wearable called Kapture which is a wearable wristband which will save a 60 second audio clip from within a 5-foot radius on your wrist.

It’s similar to existing smartphone apps but being implemented in a wristband means it’s easier to use and doesn’t flatten your phone battery. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago and will begin shipping soon.

But I couldn’t help remembering a passage from one of my favourite books, Makers by Cory Doctorow

One of the main characters, Perry, talks about the fact his mum would often change her mind, so he recorded her on a mini tape recorder. Rather than solving the issue

“…she said it didn’t matter what she’d said that morning, she was my mother and I had chores to do and no how was I going anywhere now that I’d started sneaking around the house with a hidden recorder. She took it away and threw it in the trash. And to top it off, she called me ‘J.Edgar’ for a month”

It’s part of a conversation about using RFID tags to remind people about their chores and why it’s not a great idea for a harmonious household.

And having had plenty of disagreements with family members over whether someone said a particular phrase, or how they said it etc, I can testify that the facts don’t matter as much as the perceptions people already have…

Obviously there are useful applications for recorders – business meetings, conferences etc. But I wonder whether it’ll be perceived in the same way as Google Glass if the end result is made public – obviously the big difference is you can record people in secret and they will never know unless you share it somewhere.

Headphones

Incidentally, the pricing on Amazon has long been a subject of debate and discussion when it throws up unusual prices for specific books. And it happened when I was researching the link above: Weird Amazon Pricing for Makers

If you go to the Kindle Edition, the other formats range from 1p for a hardback. But in the search listings, the paperback comes in at £25.25 and the Hardcover is £54.73! And both routes lead to a hardback page with the same October 2009 publication date. Signed and first edition copies are currently less than £20…

The other alternative is to go direct to Cory Doctorow’s site and enjoy the fact his work is usually licensed under Creative Commons. Fortunately, having downloaded a free copy of Makers originally, I bought a few hardcover copies for people as presents, so I just need to retrieve them and apparently cash in!

 

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End of the Silk Road

Ross Ulbricht, also know as the Dread Pirate Roberts via his dark web marketplace Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison today.

It’s hard to feel particularly sympathetic about someone who paid for the murder of six people, even if most of ‘murders’ were never actually perpetrated (1 was faked by law enforcement, 5 appeared to be a scam targeting Ulbricht).

But it gets more intriguing that Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents allegedly stole millions of dollars from Silk Road, and may have also engaged in blackmail.

It’s also notable that the maximum sentence, harsher than even the prosecution were requesting, was explicitly done to send a message to anyone else contemplating running a ‘Dark Web’ site.

Much of the Silk Road case appeared to focus on the role Silk Road played in the sale and distribution of a huge variety of drugs, and whether it made the drug trade safer for buyers or resulted in more widespread drug use and fatalities.

But essentially Silk Road isn’t purely about drugs, or any other specific product. It’s about the fact that it was possible to set up a relatively hard to track and anonymous Dark Web marketplace which took years for law enforcement to finally catch out. And numerous similar sites have since appeared, including Silk Road 2, Evolution and Agora.

If it wasn’t for the decision to pay to murder up to 6 people, it would be easy to draw parallels with the deterrent punishments handed out to hackers. Although he’s probably the antithesis of the civic awareness and activism undertaken by Aaron Swartz, a disproportionate sentence was threatened in that case, leading to Swartz suicide.

The creation of a Dark Web marketplace, even with the motive of accruing a fortune in Bitcoin, is not an immoral decision, but paying for multiple people to be killed certainly is. And it’s that point which makes it hard to have sympathy of Ulbricht, or see popular support for an appeal against a sentence which keeps him locked up for life.