July 31, 2006

The Long Tail, now in book form
plus the Wall Street Journal bites back

I'd mentioned it before its release, but Chris Anderson's new book, the Long Tail, is out now. Its a good read - though perhaps a little long on hyperbole and projection, and a little short on connecting to business.

There's an somewhat not unfairly
critical article of Chris Anderson's book from Lee Gomes, of the Wall Street Journal. He contends that the long tail is, perhaps, a bit of an industry myth, much like "Internet Time" and other Bubble economy fun.

For example (from the
article):

  • In the category of online music, services like Ecast, Rhapsody, are finding that 12% to 22% of songs never get played, and another 19% (or so) only get one or two plays.
  • Bloglines., which has 1.2M “real” blogs (i.e. not machine generated) in its catalog finds that 10% of blogs are 88% of its subscriptions, while 35% have no subscriptions at all.
  • Most condemningly, for Amazon (the quintissential "long tail" company) 2.7% of purchases account for 75% of its revenue.
  • And we see even with search that 75% of user click-thrus resolve to just the top 100,000 domains (of about 50M or so).

Boy, that all sounds like the Pareto priniciple in action to me (AKA the 80/20 rule).

So what's up with that?

As
Lee Gomes points out, monetization, if anything, seems to be even MORE crystalized along the 80/20 rule axis; only a few companies are really deriving financial benefit as "pure" plays.

Nevertheless, creating engagement, I'll argue, requires serving fragmentation (even if its only percieved) - and ultimately,
the money follows that.

July 28, 2006

Beta fun and bye-bye "GUI"

Some interesting product peeks this week:
  • AOL released a beta of an integrated communications/media product, Streamliner.
  • Microsoft release a public beta of their new "Live" desktop mail client.
  • And Adobe released the latest public beta (now for Windows, too) of LightRoom (think iPhoto or Picasa on steroids for Professional Photographers - or at least, that's basically the pitch).

The particularly interesting thing to me (from a "tech trends" perspective) is how much each diverges from any real compliance with the underlying OS "look and feel". Increasingly, VMWare and DOS would seem to provide about the same value that Windows does to these apps... so is that (a) consumers embracing/demanding these differences, or (b) that companies feel more and more pressure to differentiate (or maybe some combo thereof).

Used to be that "consistency" was the
great boon of the GUI era - whoops.

Good news, bad news,
who knows?

July 20, 2006

Web ecosystems in Action

Pretty cool: "BUSINESSES OF ALL SIZES ARE SCORING WITH CHEAP AND RELIABLE WEB-SCALE STORAGE FROM AMAZON S3" (Capitalization NOT mine :))

This is
a beautiful thing for Amazon - you make (save) money making (saving) money for them.

Not everyone agrees with
the Long tail Web 2.0 philosophies I've been espousing- or at least the core tenets, but I'll point out that (IMHO as always) the social web, and incumbent media and content, only work when connected to a monetization ecosystem (advertising or other).

Unless your goal is just to be acquired - in which case the acquisee will (need to attempt to) complete that connection.

July 18, 2006

Virtual Machine Virtuosity

Updated: Per a comment suggestion, Nick Carr discusses an MS application remoting/virtualization tech acquisition.

Microsoft and VMWare are both now offering free virtualization software. Mostly, people look at this as a Corporate Information Technology topic - or maybe for developers/QA to help with configuration regression testing and the like - and that's not untrue.

But its a very narrow view.

I mentioned the relevance of a new emerging notion - virtualization as an application portability construct, in passing, on
another topic (scroll down about halfway).

This levels up to another trend - masking complexity through abstraction, and its an interesting one as
we look to the future. We've seen this debate before (many times), though perhaps the essence of it is, I think, best captured by the old RISC vs. CISC arguments.

The (grossly oversimplified) principle of RISC was: for computers, simple equals better. In theory, a smaller instruction set (reduced) means more opportunity for optimization (parallelization, etc), whereas complex instructions make it harder to scale cheaply at faster and faster clock speeds.

If we look at that debate writ slightly larger, we now have technologies like
out-of-order instruction scheduling and "application prefetching" built into Vista (to help insta-load increasingly larger applications). Essentially, masking and optimizing complexity through profile-driven optimization - itself another layer of complexity.

I find these OS virtualization technologies to be(philosophically) diametrically opposed to the whole
RIA/Applications-as-content model.

Using a Mac or Linux system (or cel phone for that matter), as a desktop replacement, is a lot more practical today than it was even 5 years ago because of increasing
application remoting paradigms.

Office and Windows (and their associated complexities) might be the most significant barriers to this, at an Enterprise level. Preserving complexity favors the incumbents - just ask Adobe (after all, if
this is true, then why this?)

As we saw with the RISC vs. CISC arguments - usually the incumbent beats the other guy by co-opting enough of the advantages.

July 17, 2006

Flash Player #9, Pt 3

Continued from Part 2.

"Content" is good because its (a)on-demand and (b)maintenance-free/seamless. But the Flash Player can update itself on-demand only through, and by the graces of, the browser's security model, and even then, only if you HAVEN'T RUN ANY FLASH CONTENT first.

That's right - if you saw Flash content that didn't require an update, even if you click through all the installation steps, and browser warnings, you (likely) STILL won't be able to look at new content that uses the new player unless you quit and restart your browser.

Manually.

In some cases, you have to
reboot the computer.

And its hard to argue "no, we didn't want to
bypass the browser security model" when you have a system tray installing updates out-of-band.

To wit:
Flash Player?
(Quote: "Can someone tell me what 'Macromedia Flash Player' is. I had a message andan icon that I have never seen before pop up in my system tray telling methere was an update for M.F.P. I wasn't aware that I even had M.F.P. ")
or:
I'm" fed up with Macromedia Flash Player

Ironically, all those Browser alerts to update become annoying quickly because of poor online advertising content - which prompts constantly to get a new Flash Player. And that ultimately drives users to upgrade, of course (so it works, but....)

I guess, what I'm getting to is:
(a) We never talked about Viewpoint Media Player "versions" because it was a meaningless concept. If you built content for the "latest" components, you could play that content, no ifs, ands, or buts.
(b) Content asynchronicity is an import aspect of the "Web-at-large"
(c) Code asyncroncity is a dicey, best-avoided problem - discreetly quantizable, at best

Hopefully with
Apollo (the new Flash runtime for the Desktop and beyond), Adobe will include some facilities for seamless and on-demand upgrading of the runtime itself.

Whew.

That was a long walk off a short pier - what was I talking about again?

July 12, 2006

Flash Player #9, Pt 2

Continued from Part 1.

I came across a post recently, which discusses the difference
Flash RIAs and DHTML/AJAX RIAs. That content philosophy (preloaders, timelines, player updates) continues to drive Adobe/Macromedia Flash to legitimately suffer in the face of the Browser paradigm, despite a superior graphics runtime, (now) better script execution engine, and more consistent, cross-platform platform.

What do I mean? Well, its a bit embedded in my points from Part 1: Asynchronicity and caching are the core of the
content-runtime/application-as-content business. So when I said (way back when) that the Viewpoint Media Player would be the "last version" - that's what I meant. Even the plug-in itself should consider itself no more than a cached, transient thing.

And, way back then, Macromedia (now Adobe), sort of missed the point, although the
VERY last part of the last comment (by Mike Davidson) comes close: The Viewpoint Media Player was not a "Player" anymore than the Flash Player is, from a consumer perspective, nor did it possess an "update system", in any traditional sense.

The
Viewpoint Media Player was (is?), fundamentally, a browser-plug-in installation system. It could download and install executable modules that extended its runtime environment (through a variety of security measures I can describe later if anyone's interested). There had been two previous versions of the plug-in (called Metastream at the time) that we had gone to GREAT lengths to get distributed, including distribution as a part of Windows98, and it sucked starting all over each time; we wanted content developers to be able to use new features immediately without disrupting the user experience - so version 3 was going to be the last.

Essentially, the core of the Viewpoint Media Player, called "Genie", is much closer to the Java/JAR-file paradigm, in that sense, than anything eelse. It could on-the-fly install modules for animation, decompression, rendering, video, basically, whatever.

And it could do so asynchronously.

If a content package lacked a Flash decoder (we had a private, reverse engineered Flash player we wrote), or a JPEG decompressor, or a Video codec, the rest of the content would play, animate, interact - whatever - until the executable module appeared (i.e. was downloaded and "installed"), and then that specific part of the content would get "handled", with nary a disruption.

In fact, I called it "Genie" because, if you had one wish, what would you wish for? In that vein, if you could install ONE thing on a user's machine, what would that thing do? (hint: Distribution is a bitch)

Yes, the Viewpoint Media Player could update itself, while it was running, in "realtime" at the request of its own currently executing content. Getting a new version (that is, updating) of a compenent was literally no different than installing a new component.

Macromedia, and others, took this to be an "update system", and with Flash Player 7 (I believe), started using a system tray to notify/download updates to the Flash Player.

But they still kind of missed the core idea - and you can still see the "philosophy delta" to HTML and the browser at work in Flash Player 9. Check out their "UI controls catalog" sample
here. Note all the "loading...." screens for each component?

I'll finish in Part 3...

July 11, 2006

Fair Use or not Fair Use?

A recent court ruling outlaws the practice of reselling and/or renting "clean" versions of movies.

I'm sort of ambivalent about the whole "fair use" vs. copyright debate, generally. On the one hand, we all stand on the shoulders of giants,
not mice. And even more, once I buy something, shouldn't I have some rights of consumption? (And how many times can I really be expected to buy Star Wars?)

On the other hand, creators deserve to prosper and profit from the expression of their form, be it art, craft or otherwise.

The particular case in question, though, seems pretty clear: you can't take people's work, change it, and resell it. That's seems to clearly cross ethical and legal boundaries.

It get much murkier when you're not talking about reselling, but modifying your OWN copy of some asset, or even overlaying (in realtime) the edit-streams necessary to "clean" up a movie, as
Clearplay does. That seems legit, again both ethically and legally - its fair use.

I guess I'd feel better if, at heart, this was actually a debate about creators and the nurturing of arts and sciences, and less so about the
corporate dollar squeeze.

July 10, 2006

Flash Player #9, Pt 1
(To the tune of "Love Potion #9")

Updated: Part 2 is now available.

A little while ago Adobe (nee Macromedia) released the new public version of the Flash Player 9. There's REALLY some nice under the cover improvements there - nothing as visible dramatic as filter effects, the new font engine, bitmap caching and other Flash Player 8 features - but probably stuff that's MORE important to developers.

Two big ones: dramatically improved Flash virtual Machine (JIT even), which
I discussed a bit already, as well as some nice language improvements, including E4X support.

Of course, it'll be a short while longer before the
tool to go with it is released, and a little while after that before developers can really take advantage of it - check out the penetration curves.

A few years ago, when I was at
Viewpoint (yes, yes, toolbars, etc. - read the comments here before you flame me :)), making our multimedia engine "version-less" was one of my prime design goals. A variety of content and distribution deals lead to some not-so-bad penetration, but I remember the well-intentioned folks at Macromedia (at the time) being quite put out by our claims - oddly so.

Witness:
Viewpoint Bozos
(Of course, they weren't the only ones:
Liar, Liar Pants of Fire )

Now, I actually think the Flash Player is pretty amazingly cool, and that with it, Adobe, has a decent chance to
rule the world. But I think there was some confusion about what was (fundamentally) different in our approaches (Viewpoint v. Flash).

I'll explain the deal, and also express some key things I think Adobe is still really, really not getting in part 2 (as always, IMHO :P).

July 5, 2006

Language Wars:
Thou are Holier than thee

I mentioned in one of my JavaScript posts that future iterations of that language would be picking up noteworthy features from other languages, like generators and iterators.

This, of course, further confirms that programming languages (and their underlying concepts) are, by and large, separated mainly by different holy books, priestly rites, and
religious practices - and they all promise essentially the same thing; except they're not the same.

I recently came across an amusing article on the topic:
the Semicolon Wars. Its (reasonably) accessible to the uninitiated, but with enough meat to make it fun for the ponytail-and-sandals set (you know who you are :P).

Enjoy.

July 3, 2006

Review: Superman Returns

I saw Superman Returns over the weekend: It was just OK.

Maybe I'm getting
cranky in my old age, but I thought the story, well, a bit boring and hugely anti-climatic. Where was the gravitas? This is SUPERMAN! Defeating nameless gunmen and giant slabs of rock seems so... unsatisfying, though the plane rescue scene generated some fun energy.

I don't think its just me - I saw it with my nephew, who is 16, and he was bleary eyed, bewildered and as bored leaving the theater. I mean, I saw
the Break-up and, despite the tepid reviews, enjoyed it - it was a fun date movie. But then again, I didn't expect as much, because it wasn't hyped as the second coming (of Superman).

Oh, and by the way, Brandon Routh is not Christopher Reeve, and you know what? That's OK.

I read a number of reviews that compared the two, with Brandon suffering in comparison, but I disagree. He was good, playing Superman and Clark with a personable naivete that didn't seem dumb, but aware - consciously believing the best in everyone because he wants to expect the best. I found all the performances good, though I thought James Mardsen was among the best - you really wanted his character to do well; no small thing considering he was squarely the fly in the "Lois Lane and Superman" romance ointment.

The movie will do well - its fine, as far as it goes, and there were some some nice, um, extensions to the Superman mythology that should make the sequel more interesting.