Sunday, July 30, 2006

Broadband as utility

Back online now after a week without broadband. After a year of reliable service, my PlusNet connection has been down twice over recent months, first time while they upgraded me to an 8Mb connection, second time for no apparent reason (although ADSLguide's Broadband Speed Test suspiciously now reports a 4Mb download speed...)

Still, things could be worse - a number of colleagues were signed up with E7, whose homepage now beseeches customers not to panic before informing them that "As of the 1st July, E7even UK Limited will no longer able to provide your Internet services." One colleague decided to take the opportunity to register for Talk Talk's free broadband offer. Alas, Carphone Warehouse massively underestimated demand and he's been told he's unlikely to be online before September while they work their way through the backlog.

All of which has got me thinking about the extent to which consumers increasingly think of broadband as a utility, like electricity or gas, which will be available 24/7/365 (not unreasonable really when it's billed as 'always on'). Unfortunately the fledgling broadband infrastructure doesn't appear to be able to match consumer expectations in either resilience or customer service.

When my connection when down the first time, I had to dig out an old laptop with a dial-up modem in order to log the fault via PlusNet's online form (heaven help you if you want to phone up and speak to an actual person). It then took a week for them to fix it. Did they offer me a discount on my monthly bill? Hell no.

Like many nascent industries, broadband providers have thus far been predominantly concentrating on price. I suspect that resilience and customer service will become increasingly important factors in consumer choice over which service provider to pick. Here's hoping...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Changing TV consumption habits

Whilst fiddling around with the settings on my home projector the other day I discovered a 'lamp hours' figure, which reflects the total number of hours the projector has been switched on (ostensibly to give you an idea of when you'll need to replace the lamp). Since almost all of my home viewing (Freeview, DVD and downloads) is via the projector, this lamp hours figures give a good indication of how much time I spend watching TV and films at home.

I bought the projector new on the 31st May 2005, which means the 341 lamp hours have been spread over 410 days, giving an average of 50 minutes viewing a day (or 5 hours 50 minutes a week). According to TV viewing measurement body BARB, UK adults consume an average of 24 hours of television a week - clearly someone else is compensating for my meager viewing habits...

More interesting would be how my 341 hours of viewing break down between live TV, downloaded TV, TV series on DVD and films on DVD. Unfortunately the projector doesn't split the lamp hours by input type, although if it did, I suspect it would breakdown something like this:

Live TV: 5%
Downloaded TV: 15%
TV series on DVD: 60%
Films on DVD: 20%

What's interesting to me is how radically different this breakdown would have looked only a few years ago (i.e. more live TV, some VCR recorded TV, less DVD, no downloaded TV) and how different it is likely to look in another few years (i.e. more downloaded TV, some PVR recorded TV, less DVD, less live TV).

Whilst live TV is unlikely to disappear from my viewing habits entirely, it is increasingly comprised of live sports coverage (the 5% figure would be even lower had we not just had the World Cup) as I turn to the web for news and time-shift everything else.

DVD, which I estimate comprises a whopping 80% of my current home viewing, seems destined for the technological scrap heap in the not too distant future (along with all other physical formats) as digital delivery becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

The biggest uncertainty is around how my viewing will ultimately divide up between PVR recorded TV and downloads. In the short-term, downloads will see the biggest increase as I don't currently own a PVR (spurning Sky+ on a point of principle and unconvinced that the current Freeview models warrant the expense - although I suspect the latter will change once the price point is right). The longer term is likely to be a mixed ecology as storage costs fall to the point where recording a whole week of TV on a PVR is affordable and P2P broadband distribution will enable me to quickly find and download any programmes I didn't record.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The upside of being laid low with some hideous stomach bug this week (if such a thing can be said to have an upside) has been having the time to read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, which arrived from Amazon yesterday. I was actually hoping to meet the man in person last week, as he came in to do a turn at work, but I ironically found myself in the long tail of invitees which couldn't be accommodated by the limitations of a bricks-and-mortar meeting room. Hopefully the next event will be virtual and they'll be able to fit me in ;-)

For the uninitiated, the whole Long Tail phenomenon kicked off almost two years ago with a Wired magazine article written by Anderson (who edits said publication) which posited that the potentially unlimited choice of online retailers such as Amazon and NetFlix was exposing a latent demand for niche content which bricks-and-mortar retailers were used to ignoring due to the economic imperatives of shelf-space. He suggested that there was a Long Tail of niche content which became economically viable in the online space, threatening the hegemony of the blockbuster. The idea struck a chord and quickly acquired a momentum of its own.

Many conferences and blog posts informed the writing of the book and helped preempt my concern that it would simply rehash the original article. Instead, Anderson takes the initial premise and expands it out it a number of interesting directions, not only lateral (i.e. how the Long Tail can be applied to other industries) but also temporal (i.e. the historical evolution of the Long Tail). He also makes an interesting detour into the politics of choice, concluding that consumers do want more choice but they need greater help in navigating that increased choice. The only limitation is the relative scarcity of data, although Anderson makes good use of what figures he has acquired, producing some compelling charts to back up his thesis.

Cogently argued throughout, Anderson succeeds in getting the reader (well, this reader anyway) to think about how the Long Tail might apply to them; not only in their fields of professional expertise but also in their personal consumption habits and in the world around them. How interesting that my local Blockbuster has increased its selection of back-catalogue DVDs (shelved in plastic sleeves rather than bulky boxes) and introduced a three DVDs for seven nights offer...

Perhaps Anderson's biggest achievement with The Long Tail, is in creating such an readible, yet thorough, analysis of some potentially complex economic theory, striking that difficult balance between academic and accessible. Whilst the label on the back reads 'Business and Management', I would argue this book defies easy classification and agree with Rob Glaser's assessment that "anyone who cares about media - indeed, anyone who cares about society and where it's going - must read this book".

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2

Prompted by Jack Schofield's piece in last Thursday's TechnologyGuardian, I downloaded the Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 today (all 451MB of it) to see what all the fuss is about. Sure enough, it's a radical departure from previous iterations of the software, introducing a brand new interface and offering the user no 'classic mode' to fall back on, as they did with key elements of Windows XP.

The first thing that struck me was just how 'webby' the new interface is, from the tabbed menu system (which replaces the drop-downs) to the instant previews on format changes (it seems somehow fitting that, at a time when web apps are behaving increasingly like desktop apps, the daddy of all desktops apps should steal a few tricks from the Web 2.0 upstarts). It even has a 'home' tab, for heaven's sake.

The second thing that struck me was just how damn intuitive it all seems. After reading the Guardian article (headlined 'Don't get lost on your way to the Office') I was worried I'd be all at sea for at least the first few minutes, but I needn't have worried. The tabbed menu system (which graphically lays out all the relevant options, rather than hiding them away in labyrinthine drop-downs and task panes) is extremely user-friendly and a genuine instance of 'why didn't they think of that before?'.

Likewise, the live preview functionality, which shows you the effect any formatting changes will have on the actual content of the document (e.g. when you scroll down the list of available fonts, any highlighted text in the main document changes to the selected font).

There are other quick wins, such as a permanent on-screen word count in Word and the addition of one-click formatting options to the right-click context menu, which both mean less journeys to and from the ribbon along the top.

However far and away the biggest improvement is the historically very un-Microsoft design principle of only giving you options as and when you need them. For example, creating a pie-chart in Excel can now be done in three clicks where previously it took seven, thanks to the abolition of the Chart Wizard. In PowerPoint, the often opaque descriptions of Animation effects have been replaced with gallery icons, which more effectively convey the likely end-result.

My only slight reservation is the introduction of a new default filetype (which appends an x to the current range of Office extensions - e.g. .docx, .pptx, .xlsx). Whilst arguably essential to support the application's new functionality it will inevitably force the upgrade issue and result in a frustrating period of transition for many business users, whilst giving some home users the encouragement they need to move to Open Office or Google's growing suite of productivity tools.

Still, it's encouraging to see Microsoft thinking outside of the box on such a flagship product. It almost makes me wish I'd downloaded the Vista Beta. On second thoughts...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The limitations of genre

After a few years of denial, the broadcasting industry seems to have finally woken up to the irrevocable impact that the digital, on-demand world will have on traditional broadcast models. It has acknowledged that linear broadcast channels are destined to lose market share as the audience fragments in a world of potentially infinite choice. It has also accepted that it needs to respond to changing audience expectations about when, where and how they will be able to access content. However, it is in danger of lurching down another blind alley and its name is genre.

Not so long ago, genre was a word rarely heard outside of academic circles. Now it seems to be popping up all over the place. Apple must accept a fair amount of the credit for this shift, bringing the concept of genre to the masses via the iTunes application. Of course, record shops have been sorting music by genre for decades but I suspect the majority of consumers didn't engage with the term in the way that they are now encouraged to.

Genre has shifted from being a way for experts to categorise for research and retail purposes, to a way for Joe Public to organise and access all manner of things. It is difficult to underestimate the power of naming in creating this kind of cultural phenomena (witness the incredible rise of the word podcast, which far outstrips the uptake of the actual technology).

In the broadcasting sphere, the launch of the BBC Radio Player in June 2002 made a significant contribution to the rise of the concept of genre, affording it parity with the radio stations as a means of navigating on demand radio content. For the first time, BBC radio content was defined equally by its genre as its original broadcast channel, so lovers of Jazz music could find the BBC's rich and diverse Jazz output all in one place - a real boon to lovers of a particular genre of music (or speech).

Four years on from the launch of the BBC Radio Player and genre is becoming increasingly ubiquitous as a means of navigating content that would once have been defined solely by its broadcast channel. For example, the recently launched proffers genre as its primary means of navigation.

So what's the problem, I hear you ask? The problem is that some parts of the broadcast industry are seeing genre as the solution to the challenges of the digital world - a convenient, one-stop replacement for the channel brands that they are told are likely to struggle in a multi-channel, on-demand environment - rather than as just one navigational aid amongst a bewildering array of tools, many of which haven't even been conceived of yet.

Yes, genre is likely to play an important role in future navigation but it is looking like an increasingly blunt tool in comparison with some of the more sophisticated navigational technologies emerging from the latest generation of web apps (e.g. How many music lovers conceive of their musical tastes primarily in terms of genre? I know that I don't. Artists and tracks (and the recommendations they facilitate) are a more meaningful currency in my discovery of new music.

My plea to the broadcasting industry is that they try to embrace the diversity of future navigational models and avoid the temptation to try and impose a top-down taxonomy of navigation, as monolithic as the now deposed hegemony of channel brands.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Oono MiniDAB

Look again at the above photo. The device on the right isn't an iPod, it's an Oono MiniDAB, which went on sale in the UK today. Yes, its an MP3 player, available in a choice of white or black, which apes the iPod both in styling and form factor, but the MiniDAB has a little something extra to offer and the clue's in the name; DAB - the digital radio technology which promises listeners more choice, better reception, easy tuning and accompanying text and data services and is flying off the shelves as a result (over 3 million DAB sets have now been sold in the UK).

First things first, this isn't an iPod killer. But then again, what is? The iPod does what is does with such finesse that its difficult to see it being improved on by anyone other than Apple. That said, there's a lot the iPod doesn't try to do and one of those things is radio. Yes, there's the add-on FM radio remote, but it offers a clumsy analogue interface which feels incongruous with the rest of the iPod experience. Surely a digital music device deserves a digital radio?

Enter the MiniDAB, the first product from Oono, which aims to bring "quality audio products to areas of the market where none existed before". Of course the MiniDAB isn't the first combined DAB/MP3 device - PURE got there some time ago with the PocketDAB 2000 - but it is the most pocketable.

The Oono is not only shorter and slimmer than the iPod it also weighs 41 grams less. The trade-off is depth (an extra 8mm) and inferior build quality, although I understand both of these will be addressed in future iterations of the MiniDAB. It also trumps the iPod in terms of battery life, promising 22 hours of MP3 playback versus the iPod's 14 hours (although DAB playback drops the Oono's battery life to a less impressive 8 hours).

Other selling points of the Oono include an FM radio, a built-in speaker and the ability to record direct from the radio into MP3 format. All in all, it's a nice piece of kit which, despite appearances, offers something distinct in the crowded digital audio player marketplace. My only reservation is the asking price - I can't help feeling that £179.99 for a device with just 128MB of built-in memory might prove a little steep...

Apple iPod (30GB)
Dimensions: 104 x 61 x 11 mm
Weight: 136g
Claimed battery life: 14 hours
Memory: 30GB
Price: £219

Oono MiniDAB
Dimensions: 99.2 x 56.2 x 19 mm
Weight: 95g
Claimed battery life: 22 hours
Memory: 128MB (Expandable to 2GB via SD expansion slot)
Price: £179.99