Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One more Twittery data point

The LA Times is clearly comfortable with Twitter, or at least its online version is.  A recent article on the Boeing 787 (aka Dreamliner) seems to consist mostly of tweets.  We see tweets from stranded travelers and tweets from not-stranded travelers commenting on their predicament.  Most significantly, I think, is that Boeing's official reaction is given in the form of tweets.

This seems to be more the exception than the rule, judging by a few other LA Times articles I clicked through to.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What do we mean "mobile device"?

It's pretty clear that mobile devices ... hang on a sec.  What's a mobile device?  According to Wikipedia, it's, um, a small electronic device you can carry around.  But not a laptop.  So a smart phone, a not-so-smart phone, a tablet computer, a camera, an MP3 player, a handheld video game, a pager ...

A few of those have been around a long time, at least by electronic standards.  Somehow, I don't think that most people have devices like this in mind when they speak of mobile devices.  For practical purposes, "mobile devices" means "smart phones, tablets and stuff like that".  More precisely, it's not just mobility that people care about.  It's mobile connectivity, the idea that your mobile device can connect to the world at large and interact with it in arbitrary ways.  The mobile web, that is.

So where was I?

It's pretty clear that mobile devices are playing a bigger and bigger role in people's lives these days.  Lots and lots and lots of people have cell phones, quite a few people have tablets, and more and more do every day(*).  It's also clear that people have adapted to having ready access to the web.  One sure way to know you're out in the boonies, whether for the good of getting away from it all or the ill of being cut off from it all, is not having any bars.

When I was a kid, not that long ago, I like to think, if you wanted to meet someone at a large public place, you would have to pre-arrange -- "Meet me on the west side of the station near the stairs for the subway line."  Now you can just call up your party and ask "Um, hey, where are you? ... oh, there I see you."  If you broke down at the side of the interstate, you'd have to wait for someone come by (unless you had a CB, and a lot of people did, though not necessarily for that particular reason).  Now you just call someone.  And, of course, all the behavioral changes brought on by the web, like pulling down news you're interested in instead of waiting for the evening paper or news broadcast, are possible whether or not you happen to be near home.

So if a mobile device is something mobile that can hook you up to the web, then what we have is a series of less-tethered-to-a-particular-place ways of connecting:
  • Ancient times:  If you could connect to a remote system at all, it was through work, or a university or other such institution.  Maybe you could dial in to that system from home, using a honking big dumb terminal.  One way or another you were essentially going over phone lines (even the backbone of the time was a bunch of T1 lines, if I understand correctly).
  • BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) and online services such as Compu$erve begin to appear and personal computers with modems become commercially available.  Now you can connect from home, generally to a world completely different from what you'd encounter at work, assuming your line of work even involved the internet.
  • Laptops become widespread.  Now you can connect from anywhere you can lug your laptop, assuming you can tie up a phone line.  By this time you can also plug your laptop in to people's local networks.  Cell phones exist, but using them to connect to the internet is cumbersome at best, and almost certainly very expensive.  Internet cafes pop up.
  • WiFi becomes widespread.  With municipalities airports, hotels and commercial chains putting up hotspots here and there, the concept of an "internet cafe" becomes somewhat moot.  Many people can connect from wherever they are much of the time.  Phones are becoming webbier, but in a limited way.
  • Present day: Smart phones become widespread.  Apps are developed so that you can interact with your favorite sites without squinting at a web site through a browser.  Phones have enough horsepower to provide a nice, snappy experience, at least where you have coverage.
If mobile connectivity is more important than whether a device will fit in your shirt pocket, and I think in this context it is, then mobility starts somewhere around the spread of laptops.  Certainly by the time WiFi is widespread and home "broadband" access is commercially available, the difference from the present day is more degree than kind (understanding that a big enough difference in degree is essentially a difference in kind).

That's not to say we're not entering a new phase.  We are.  A location-aware phone that is always on and always with you is significantly different from a laptop you have to plug in, power on, log in, etc.  From a technical point of view, designing for a small touch screen is significantly different from a laptop screen, much less a 30" monitor.  Nonetheless, the current phase is just the latest in a series of steps making it easier and easier to connect from anywhere.

(*) It's not always clear what "lots of people" or "widespread" should mean.  Widespread among affluent technophiles?  Lots of people in the developed world?  Widespread in a large portion of the world -- which may be ahead of parts of the developed world when it comes to mobile communication?  I'm bravely sidestepping such questions here, but I wanted to at least call them out.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Were you born mobile?

(Not to be confused with Goin' Mobile, wherein you can play the tape machine, make the toast and tea ...)

Qualcomm has received a lot of attention for its keynote at CES, and not necessarily the good kind.  Apparently, they were trying to invoke some inspirational vision of a new generation -- "Generation M", they called it -- untethered from antiquated wired connections, claiming the mobile web as their birthright.  And they, um, missed.

Verge has a typically scathing writeup (typical for coverage of this event, not necessarily for Verge), complete with Tweets from various Twitterati doing their best snark.  Overall reaction seems to run from "Hey, whizzy technology.  Kinda strange presentation, though" to "Oh ... my ... God ... what ... were ... they ... thinking?"

Disclaimer: I didn't watch the whole thing. I'm not sure I could.  I'm pretty sure I got the gist from the intro (up to Paul Jacob's "... or a CEO.") and excerpts of the rest.  I certainly haven't come across anything saying "Never mind the cheesy intro.  It gets better."  Even if it did, Qualcomm chose its lead-in to set the tone for all that followed.  For better or worse, the face of Qualcomm for some time to come will be thisthis or this (I mean the characters here.  I don't know anything about the actors, but I do know that if I were an unknown actor and someone offered me the keynote at a major consumer electronics show, I'd jump at it.  Just maybe not quite so quickly now.)

Qualcomm has been around for quite a while, even if not in the limelight.  Indeed, that was one of their points.  Nor are they completely incompetent at marketing in general.  I wouldn't expect this ad for their Snapdragon processor to win any Clio awards, but it's kinda fun and gets the point across.  That ad was, in fact, part of the keynote.  Sadly, it seems to have stood out for its non-cringeworthiness.  So why did it all go so badly awry?

Off the bat:
  • If there were any real geeks on the writing staff, they must have been acting under duress.  For that matter, if there were any actual social-networking popular-types on the writing staff, they must have gone out for lattes while that part was being put together.  Who talks like those three?  Put any of them in their supposed native element and they would be driven from the room by howls of "Who is this poseur?" or whatever.  It's like watching a 70s after-school special where the dad tries to "be cool" with the kid and the child actor is thinking "Get my agent on the phone!" Or like rapping public service announcements in the 80s and 90s.  Tornado92?  Really?
  • One does not simply declare a new generation.  "Generation X" was taken from a 1991 novel title that caught on, no doubt with a little help from the association with Billy Idol's old band (who took their name from an older use of the term).  "Generation Y" came out of an Ad Age editorial, and has sort of caught on, though no one really knows when it started or whether to call it that or something else.  "Baby Boom" was a demographic term used in various contexts since the 19th century that ... caught on.  And so forth.  Besides, the whole "Generation ___" thing has been done to death already.
  • If there really is a "Born Mobile" generation or "Generation M", it's going to be younger than the actors on stage.  Looking at US statistics for example, there were essentially no wireless-only households until around 2005.  Granted, the US is not cutting-edge when it comes to mobile adoption, but even in Scandinavia, home of Nokia and Ericsson, cell phone usage doesn't really start to take off until the turn of the millennium.  Smart phones, which is what Qualcomm is really talking about, are even more recent.
  • But at the same time, this is all old news.  The time to announce a new, "Born Mobile" generation is before everyone has a cell phone.  The penetration rate in South Korea has already passed 100%, or one cell phone per person.  Suburban malls in the US don't just have cell phone stores, they have specialized kiosks hawking teen-friendly cell phone accessories.  Have had for years.  We didn't have a generation "Born Mobile".  We've got a generation born sessile that has picked up mobile technology in a considerable hurry.  Except, it's not just one generation. You don't get to 100% penetration that way.  Three generations of my family have cell phones, and that's hardly unusual.

Not that a trade show opening event is supposed to be a technical symposium, but tell me something I don't know.  I know mobile technology is important.  I'm sure your processors are fast.

But there's something else, cultural, here.  The whole show hearkens back to a long-ago time when no one knew how to sell technology.

Time was, I seem to recall, that a furry geek from another planet could stand up in front of an audience of business people and stammer something like "Um, our new system has a 6502 processor running at 1MHz, 64K of RAM expandable to one megabyte, and a BASIC interpreter in ROM, so we think it's pretty cool," and the business people would scratch their heads, mutter "what's a RAM?" and somehow figure out what to buy.

Then the professionals came in.  There was, I believe, a brief period of feeling around in the dark, of figuring out whether to say "slash" or "backslash" or to mention that you need a browser to get to a web site, to take a couple of more recent, webbier examples, but this didn't last.  Professional marketers may not have known tech at first, but they do know what works and doesn't work in marketing and will adjust accordingly.

Somewhere in that early mix was a time when no one, not even the geeks, knew what to do with these "computer" things.  There was a grasping on the part of the geeks toward "real people" ... moms and neighbors, say, and a grasping on the part of the marketing folks toward, well, markets.  For some reason, one popular thing to say about a personal computer was that you would have one in your kitchen to help you organize your recipes.  I don't think anyone really believed that, but at least it was something to grab onto.  The intro to the Qualcomm presentation has something of that feel to it, which is odd coming from a company that had had enormous success selling wireless technology for decades.


Toward the end of the intro, the "entrepreneur" tells you about his billion-dollar idea -- because, you know, any college graduate can come up with a billion-dollar idea these days.  Of course, he's not really going to tell you what it is, but his cover story is "funny cat videos meets Gangnam style".  Because that's as up-to-date as you could possibly get, right?

Gangnam Style long ago passed from quaint goofy-looking video from across the ocean to cultural phenomenon to "please, please, don't play that again" on its way, I'm sure, to weapon of choice for drunk and clueless wedding guests, but there's actually something to it.  I've always found that culture shock is much worse coming back to one's own country, and here is Psy, returning to his native land and creating what, on closer examination, is a sly but sharp satire of a lifestyle.  A lifestyle of young, hip, heavily debt-ridden twentysomethings whose lives are much, much less than meets the eye.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Processed meat product update

Following my announcement that I had turned off anonymous comments in response to an uptick in obnoxiously irrelevant comments, I saw another rash of such comments, more noxious than usual.  Normally I get a sprinkling of unwanted comments spread across recent posts, and not many, but this was several times the usual volume, and all concentrated on that particular post.

I'm curious whether this was just because the problem commenters had temporarily gained the upper hand against Blogger's filters and were focusing on the most recent post, or because that post used a popular four-letter word for unwanted messages in its title.  Which is why I'm specifically not using that word in this post or its title -- or its labels, at least for now.  If this post (or the most recent at the time) collects bothersome comments, then it's probably the former case.  If they continue to stick to the old post, it would be the latter.

Fitting Twitter into the bigger picture

I've just re-read the nineteen previous posts labelled Twitter on this blog and I think I've sufficiently hammered on two main points:
  • There's no more reason to believe a "Twitter and new media will supplant traditional news media" narrative than in so many other "Everything is Different Now" cases that have come along.
  • Twitter is not particularly self-correcting and there's no clear way to sort fact from fantasy beyond good old-fashioned skepticism -- or referring back to other sources.
So once we dismiss the usual strawmen, where does that leave us?  What is the real relationship between Twitter and traditional media (which themselves have adapted significantly to the web)?  The easy answer is "it's complicated", which seems true as far as it goes but really doesn't say much.  So how about a few random data points?

Item: Tweeting is now a standard part of the celebrity publicity machine.  In turn, gossip magazines and sites routinely report on celebrity's tweets.  It would be interesting to know to what extent celebrities and their publicists are tweeting directly to fans and to what extent they're tweeting to magazine/web site editors.

Item: In the recent scandal leading to the resignation of George Entwistle the head of the BBC, one of the more devastating points of John Humphrys' interview of the soon-to-be-outgoing head was Entwistle's admission that he was unaware of a highly relevant tweet about an upcoming BBC Newsnight documentary (that, and his also having been unaware of the documentary itself).  Humphrys goes on to assert that even if Entwistle hadn't been personally following Twitter, someone on his staff should have been.

With further prompting from Humphrys, Entwistle then goes on to admit he also missed the front-page story in the Guardian denouncing the Newsnight piece, leaving one to wonder what, if anything, Entwistle was aware of.  Nonetheless the presumption, coming from a well-respected traditional journalist in a rather high-stakes context, was that Twitter was something that the head of the BBC, and journalists in general, should pay serious attention to.  (Lest this post present too one-sided a view of Entwistle, here's a transcript of the interview -- the Torygraph uses a less annoying format than the Grauniad article I complained about.)

Item:  Swirling in the same cloud of scandal, was the shockingly prolific criminal behavior of a recently deceased well-known television personality.  The resulting public outrage included, as one would expect by now, a major Twitter storm.
Item: Twitter continues to be an important means of smuggling information out of repressive states.  I'm glad to say that Google's Speak2Tweet service has played a role in helping bypass state internet crackdowns, most recently in Syria (I have nothing personally to do with providing this service, and I don't know anything about it that you don't, but I'm happy to be associated with it indirectly as a Googler).  On the other hand, a fair bit of mis- and dis- information makes its way into the unfiltered feed.  Considering the stakes, it seems wise to be more cautious than usual in judging the reliability of tweets, to say nothing of acting on them.

Item: A recent Twitter spat between an American economist and the president of Estonia is being made into an opera.  The opera will premiere in Tallinn, to be performed by an Estonian mezzo-soprano, so one can imagine that the Estonian side might come off rather better.

For the most part, Twitter seems more like a parallel channel to the traditional media, rather than something likely to supplant them.  In all but one case, Twitter looks like one more tool in the box.  Publicists have always promoted their clients by any means available, the public has always complained by whatever means is at hand, dissidents have always found ways to get their story out, and pop-culture oriented artists have always grabbed on to whatever was floating by.  To the extent that it's harder for regimes to prevent suppressed information from leaking out, credit should go mostly to the internet and web as a whole, acknowledging that Twitter has been particularly effective.

The second item is more intriguing.  In this case, Twitter looks more like something new intruding in the traditional media game.  Imagine radio journalists in the mid twentieth century realizing that they needed to pay attention to this wild and wooly new "television" thing, and print journalists some time before that realizing that there really was something to these new "radio" devices or, for that matter, the current interplay between traditional outlets and blogs.

The key here is not the technology, but who's involved and how.  In the first item, Twitter is effectively acting as a new medium in the traditional publicity structure.  Likewise, in the last three items, the people, or the artists, are making use of Twitter as they would any other medium.  In the second item, the whole point is that Entwistle should have been treating Twitter as another medium for gathering information (or perhaps he did, by ignoring it).  The implication, really, is that treating Twitter as another medium among many is the normal thing to do, and by not doing so, Entwistle showed himself to be woefully out of touch.