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OODA Loops, Redux

I realize I didn't properly close out my comments on Steve Schmidt's OODA strategy. I was trying to convey the idea that force can be multiplied by technology: Schmidt could effectively pivot from one front to another instantaneously. It's analogous to a boxer facing an opponent who can't hit him hard enough for a knockout, but who can land small blows at will in lots of different places.

The point I wanted to make, but didn't, was that the weaker fighter can only win in this way if he's not so weak that his blows do no harm. Whether that's true remains to be seen, and it hinges largely on whether Nate Silver's insight on the nature of the Minnesota "outlier" poll is accurate. 

In any case, it's still unclear that's what Schmidt is doing. Whether he's trying to employ that kind of rapidly-shifting media buy is something that will become clear in the next few days. For it to really work with only 4 weeks remaining, I think he'd have to be shifting his buys just every few days, not once a week.

Cyberspace as Woodstock Nation

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.--John Perry Barlow, 1996

In-thread at Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us | MetaFilter, at 12:17 PM

Yet another example of the happy horseshit approach to social activisim: Put an absurd stake in the ground and hope that it makes people come that much closer to what you want.

Of course, Barlow never got what he said he wanted, but there are enough new Web 2.0 toys floating around that let people do superficially cool collaborative things that Barlow's probably pretty assuaged, most of the time. Meanwhile a new post-industrial market has co-opted Barlow's Cyberspace (though, since they've been paying for it, maybe just plain "bought" is a better word), and governments like that of China have been doing a good-enough job of exercising sovereignty where it's cyber-citizens gather.

The Megalomaniacal Mac

When you start certain Apple applications (such as iTunes and Safari), they check to see if they have a shortcut in the Dock. If they don't, they automatically make one. If Microsoft did that, it would be regarded as incredibly rude; if Apple does it, it's "friendly."

Similarly, the Finder comes configured by default to favor Apple applications, like iLife, iTunes, and FinalCut, by virtue of the fact that it defaults to creating "libraries" of media types that are tailored to those applications.

In case the rationale isn't clear: iTunes makes Apple money. Wherever there is a way to "monetize" the uses to which a personal computer is put, Apple will take every opportunity to put themselves in the front of the queue. iPhoto has hooks to pay services; FinalCut is an expensive piece of software that Apple hopes to sell as an upgrade to home-videographers; and iTunes, of course, is making millions of dollars for Apple by linking Mac users directly to the Apple music store.

So why is it again that people see Microsoft as megalomaniacal, but don't see Apple that way?

Because They Can. (Cringely on Google)

'Cringely' offers an anecdote to illustrate Google's power over the soul of the market: He goes into the bank to deposit a check, gets in line behind a kid who insists on keeping ten feet of empty space in front of him.

... The queue was perhaps 20 feet long and right in the middle was this 10-foot gap. I was in no hurry, I thought. That gap was not going to cause me to get to the teller more than a second or so later than I might if the gap was closed. No problem.

Only it WAS a problem. As the minutes passed that gap started to drive me insane. Finally I asked the kid to move forward.

"It was making you crazy, right?" he asked, clearly enjoying the moment.

(Ah, yes, the joys of being a self-important little putz..but I editorialize....)

Google has something over $6B -- that's six billion dollars -- in cash on hand right now. That's cash -- not credit, not valuation, but real money that people have paid them. And everyone wants to know what they'll do with it.

The day when six billion could buy three Eisenhower-class aircraft carriers has long passed, but you can still make a pretty good splash with that much cash. So, as Cringely points out, all the gorillas in technology are sitting around waiting to see exactly what it is that they'll do. Which gives them an amazing amount of power -- as long as they don't actually do anything.

Putting things in perspective, Google has been really really super good at exactly one thing: Self-promotion. Sure, some of their technology is pretty good, but there's really no evidence that their algorithms are really any better than, say, Teoma's. What they do have is more power. There's a saying among marketing folks: "Go big or go home." Google went big, more or less from day ten or so. "Day ten" because they had to get the money to go big with, first. And that's where self-promotion came in.

I distinguish between "marketing" and "self-promotion" here because I think it's important. Google, at the root, has always rooted its mystique in the cult of personality that's coalesced around these mythical beasts "Sergey" and "Larry". That's suffered a little, no doubt, as a result of Eric Schmidt's incredible childishness in response to CNet feeding him a half teaspoon of his own company's medicine. Nevertheless, Google still builds its reputation in large part out of the sheepskins of its PhD-filthy workforce.

As Cringely points out (and as I've pointed out for years, myself), though, and much like Microsoft, Google's technical solutions are seldom really cutting edge, but because of their market dominance people more or less have to use them. What Google have done well is mobilize the good will of geeks; which is to say, what they've done well is to work the cult of personality for all its guerilla marketing mojo.

And now, all they have to do is twitch -- or even hint at twitching -- to make gorillas jump. Rumors abound: Google is buying up dark fiber, so they can run their own internet; Google is building a vast new data center, so large that it will need a major hydroelectric plant to power it; Google is producing their own desktop OS. Sometimes they're even true: Google is in the process of rolling out its own "desktop", a search/chat/email client that will allow them to entrench even more deeply and even more richly enhance their vast database of geographically-linked internet behaviors.

That database is the elephant in the room in any discussion about Google, though of course it's useless without the market-muscle to deploy (and grow) it. In military terms, Google's market mojo pairs up with its database like big satellite-guided bombs pair up with the geographical databases that tell you where the targets are. It's their market position that lets them get the database; the database is what's going to guarantee their market position for years to come.

Transforming Public Libraries

Two public library branch construction projects are underway in my town. One is being built in a new location; another building is replacing an existing branch. I drive by the latter project quite often and marvel at the progress as I look forward to the day the new structure will be open to the public. The main floor will house a youth collection, an A/V room and even a separate story room for children, in addition to staff rooms. The upper level will include the main collection, a current periodical room, and reference/reading and study rooms. The lower level will have a program room and lots of storage. And this branch is only between a five and ten minute drive from my home.

Today I picked up my latest issue of Utne and noticed an article discussing the state of libraries by Chris Dodge, â??Libraries for Sale.â? As I read on, my impression of â??for saleâ? began to feel like â??selling out.â?

One concern is that, in the name of giving people what they want, the new libraries of the future will be closer in spirit to amusement complexes -- centers offering corporate-sponsored "edutainment" spectacles and tiered services to a paying clientele. In fact, some administrators have already embraced library partnerships with Starbucks, McDonald's, and other companies as "creative" ways to make up public funding shortfalls. This trend should surprise no one. Libraries are increasingly modeled on big business and directed not by librarians but by executives who are apt to have read more management books than literature.

My public library branch is next to a middle school, and there is a restaurant or two down the street. But the nearest Starbucks and McDonaldâ??s are a mile or two away. So, my expectations are that Iâ??ll enter the new building and actually find an abundance of real paper books and periodicals, not just electronic versions or references, and hopefully that these collections appeal to a wide variety of interests, not just representing the â??bland,â? standardized fare Chris Dodge writes about. I also hope that while enjoying the new ambience, our local librarians have â??cultural memoryâ? regarding librariesâ?? historical role and are not just â??technically savvy.â? Maybe my expectations are too high.

Yet, Chris Dodge shows some optimism, too, in spite of funding problems and/or a growing corporate presence:

Meanwhile, many individual librarians continue to serve as professional altruists, often despite in-house pressures to do otherwise. They read and recommend books, quietly resisting a culture that seems to value entertainment more than wisdom. As the public library system struggles to find its way, it may be the librarians who will help it survive without losing its rich heritage and stores of printed knowledge. The light by which they read -- and that they themselves provide -- may have dimmed, but it's not out. With support from library users, their love of knowledge will continue to burn for the generations who will inherit it.

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Pradaâ??s Thunder

I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek after me.

Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,
and you hearers, hear me.
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.

And so begins The Thunder, Perfect Mind, written sometime before 350 CE, a wisdom monologue replete with exhortations and identity riddles spoken by a female divine voice.

Some scholars have ascribed this work to a possible Gnostic genre. Kurt Rudolph in his book Gnosis refers to the conception of a twofold position of Sophia in Valentinian mythology:

Such an example is afforded by the Nag Hammadi document Thunder: the perfect Mind. Here in the form of a revelation address there is reference to the two sides of a female figure who has been sent by the power, that she may be sought and found. Behind her is evidently concealed Sophia, but also the soul, both in their two manners of existence: as perfect, divine and redeeming power, and as fallen phenomenon exposed to deficiency.

Friend Gerry has informed me that now, in 2005 CE, â??Thunder Perfect Mindâ? is having a comeback of sorts in a four-and-a half-minute filmed commercial for Pradaâ??s new perfume.

What a hoot. Wear this new fragrance and confuse your man? Then again, Iâ??ve heard that there is wisdom in maintaining a bit of feminine mystique. I havenâ??t tried taking my coat off and putting it back on inside out, as in the commercial. Well, this modern rendition seems spirited if not very spiritual.

Gerry commented --

Can't you just see the ads now:

"Thunder Perfect Mind--it's the alluring fragrance . . . and the repellant stench; it's the tantalizing charm of the seductress . . . and the noisome emanation of a rotting carcass . . . ."

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Podcasting Is Dead. Long Live Podcasting.

I'm mildly surprised that in the storm of mutual annoyance over podcasting, there hasn't been a clearer statement of where, how and why podcasting can succeed and fail. I suppose I shouldn't be, since clear-headed analysis doesn't generally sell trackbacks, but I think it's a really interesting phenomenon that will teach us a lot if we baseline and understand it correctly. And that can start with etymology.

As it is:

podcasting = [i]Pod + [broad/multi]casting = "multi-casting to people's iPods"

As it may be:

1: [private] podcasting = pod + [narrow/multi]casting = "narrowcasting to my pod"
2: [public] podcasting = [i]Pod + broadcasting = "broadcasting to people's media players"

Podcasting "as it is" currently understood is a short transitional phase. As a popular blogging modality, it won't last beyond 2005. Yet by 2006, something or things called "podcasting" will be extremely popular, and might even drive some interesting and powerful changes in the distribution of information.

Podcasting will very soon split into two distinct types of output: One that's highly personal, targeted at people you know and who hence know your voice (and hence don't require high production values), who are in tune with your interests (and hence don't require extensive meta-data to get your point). Personal podcasting will serve to cement bonds among groups of people who are not immediately and intimately connected. The second form, pro-podcasting, will be the kind of stuff David Berlind is talking about: Professionally or quasi-professionally produced output, primarily from media outlets but also from people for whom it's cost-effective to produce output that's essentially promotional.

The reasons are really simple and kind of rock solid, and they are simply that it's just not cost effective for either the 'caster to produce a high-quality podcast unless you've got facilities, skill and time at your command to do so; or for the listener to spend a lot of time listening to something that s/he could apprehend a lot faster and with more flexiblity by reading it. A podcast of sufficient quality that even interested strangers would want to listen to takes time to produce; furthermore, on-air reading is not something everyone can do well enough to make for a tolerable listening experience. Podcasts are also more or less invulnerable to full-text indexing (which makes it seem ironic to me that many of its proponents are also strong proponents of letting Google traffic arbitrate on the importance of a resource). It's arguable that software solutions will be found to these problems, and I think there's merit to those arguments. But that's not to say that people will then actually use those solutiong to blog as podcasts.

Typical "pro-podcasters" will range from Bill O'Reilly to Al Franken to Dave Barry. I wouldn't expect it to include people like Glenn Reynolds and Markos Moulitsas, because too much of their value comes from nimbleness and textual integration with the blogosphere. It may include people like Wonkette or Drudge, who could use their pro-podcasts to drive spiral traffic to their website, and vice-versa. Pro-podcasting will have a market-mover effect in terms of driving progress toward "radio TiVo" and pushing media players (and media players of all kinds, since it will rapidly start to include offline video content).

But it's the personal-podcasters who will have the most interesting effects. The obvious market is distributed groups of friends and families -- people will be able to send narrowly-targeted multicasts to groups of people with whom they share an emotional connection. But there are also tremendous potential business applications for personal-podcasting. Personal podcasting could be used to facilitate workgroup solidarity, send what amount to persistent offline voicemails, even facilitate something like non-real-time audio chat.

And I find it interesting that I haven't heard about these uses, yet. Perhaps it's that for the first-movers and strong evalngelists like Curry, Searls and Winer, there really isn't a separation between the business and personal pplications. Which would also be interesting, if true. But more on that another time.

The Not-So-Hidden Truth About The iPod Shuffle

I'm not sure what's radical about the iPod Shuffle. OK, I'm lying, I know what's "radical" about it, and that's nothing: It has exactly two things that haven't appeared in previous flash-based players, and lacks a lot of things that have. Even in those two things, it breaks no new ground, since they're both attributes of the leading high-capcity product: It comes from Apple, and it integrates with iTunes. ("The Future Is Random"?!)

Those two little non-revolutionary things (Being Apple and Being [Of] iTunes) are pretty important. And the impact of the Shuffle doesn't lie within whether it's actually new or not, or even whether it's actually any good. The impact lies in how it serves to expand the iPod halo.

The random shuffle feature is nothing new -- I can do that on my iRiver. Neither is the integrated USB A-plug (I own a Virgin player, currently on permanent loan to a friend, that has a better-designed implementation of that). Recharging off the USB bus? It's been done. And though I don't troll the flash-player market, I'd be surprised to find it hadn't already all been done in the same player.

Even the "radical" step of "eliminat[ing] the user interface altogether" [sic] has been done before: There have been plenty of flash-based players that eschewed a song title display. Though usually, players that do that are actually cheaper than their competitors, instead of more expensive. But I digress.

As for what it lacks: An FM tuner, and a display. FM tuners have become big differentiators in the flash-player market in recent years; it happened because the circuitry to make them suddenly became really cheap, and not as such because of demand -- a matter of capacity converging with sub-rasa desire, as it were. But I digress, again: Apple apparently doesn't think that matters, and I think I know why. They're planning to horn in on the ground floor with Satellite Radio integration into the Digital Media Center. (Mark this, that's their real next target. The micro-workstation market will expand under its own steam for a while; the next strategic play is getting XM Radio into the iPod Halo.) How they accomplish this is yet to be determined; as iTunes grows, they're increasingly integrated into the DRM fold, and it's a mistake to think that "Rip, Mix, Burn" was any more than a marketing strategy.

I can virtually guarantee that I will never own an iPod Shuffle. But it's important. And by all the accouts I've read so far, it was done contrary to Jobs's better judgement. But again, I digress....

[sic]: Memo to David Pogue at the NYT: Buttons are a user interface.

Apple Proves Me Wrong (about a few things, at least)

The "headless iMac" is the "Mac Mini." (Close-follower branding from Apple? Or synergy from their cooperative projects with BMW -- er, I mean, Cooper? But I digress, as usual...) Of course, they'll sell millions of the buggers. That's what they do: Create cute things that people want to buy, regardless of what it is or really does. But I swear, I'm different: I swear, I actually care what it does.

But is it an earth shattering device? Even without wireless, as it is, it could be, but in and of itself -- no. Everyone I know who's ever thought of getting a Mac wants one -- hell, I want one -- and yet, I don't think it will take over the low-end market the way it could if the price point were, say, $100 lower, or the base RAM were 256KB bigger.

But in another way, it will be revolutionary. Consider the size of the thing: It will now no longer be acceptable for PCs to be as big as they have traditionally been. Ultra-small variations on the ATX form factor, which are common now only among hobbyists and "gear fetishists", will become standard PC form factors, and will at the same time cease to command a premium price. They will drive devices the same size as (or smaller than) a Mac Mini, and aren't inherently much more expensive to manufacture than the larger boards; since Intel and AMD chips clock higher, they'll be faster; and they'll become radically cheaper as demand soars from people who've seen the Mac Mini, but still can't afford the extrapolated $800-$1000 price tag for a really capable, obsolescence-resistent MiniMac.

It's interesting to see where the rumors went wrong. The "iHome" branding turned out to be a red herring; it would be interesting to find out where it came from, because it so effectively skewed the speculative field in the days just before the presentation that it seems as though no one even tried to get spy shots of a Mac Mini. It's a lot smaller than the hoaxed pictures. The hoaxter dubbed it 'iHome', and various rumour millers reported with confidence that it would be "branded" as an iMac; neither turned out to be true. It was said to include WiFi in its base configuration; WiFi ("Airport Extreme") is an add-on, as is Bluetooth. Performance numbers were more or less right, though the rumors missed the fact that there'd be two base processor speeds. And to illustrate just how far off the original rumor was, the "headless iMac" was said to "share the 1.5" [1U, or "one rack unit"] height of the latest Apple G5 server; it's actually 2" tall. A picky detail, but it demonstrates how completely off-mark we all were.

It's tempting to speculate (as I'm sure someone has) that Apple planted rumors to throw people off the scent. But I don't think they need to. For what other PC brand would people bother to create physical hoax models? Whatever the explanation, the community of Mac users has a hardened core of Macintosh and Apple fetishists. In fact, I think they don't really try, for the most part, to get real rumors; they just make stuff up, because it's more satisfying than the truth. Anyway, true wisdom, to the Mac zealot, is received wisdom: It issues forth every January from the Dark Steve, from a well-lit stage at the MacWorld keynote address...

Convergence through Desire, Redux

How can I remark on digital convergence without remarking on the forthcoming "headless iMac"?

More to the point, what the hell does a "headless Mac" have to do with digital convergence?

I'll explain. Gizmodo facilitated leaking a bunch of really convincing (to me) product unpacking shots of a device called "iHome", which has a buttload of ports on the back and a CD-ROM slot on the front. Alas, there's lots of smoke and steam on the Apple rumor forums to the effect that these must be fake, because the box is just so ugly. Apple's legendary industrial design staff surely couldn't have produced something so "fugly". (Um...right. Something about this presentation really offends Mac-heads, as is clear from the Engadget comments, but I'm not sure what.) But consider that any box unveiled now is most likely not a production version, and might well be camoflaged the way Detroit camoflages their long-range test models.

Be that as it may, and leaving aside the authenticity of the photos, the name would tell us volumes about how Apple sees the market-positioning of this device, and I belive they do not see it the way that 'Bob Cringely' sees it:

.... The price for that box is supposed to be $499, which would give customers a box with processor, disk, memory, and OS into which you plug your current display, keyboard, and mouse. Given that this sounds a lot like AMD's new Personal Internet Communicator, which will sell for $185, there is probably plenty of profit left for Apple in a $499 price. But what if they priced it at $399 or even $349? Now make it $249, where I calculate they'd be losing $100 per unit. At $100 per unit, how many little Macs could they sell if Jobs is willing to spend $1 billion? TEN MILLION and Apple suddenly becomes the world's number one PC company. Think of it as a non-mobile iPod with computing capability. Think of the music sales it could spawn. Think of the iPod sales it would hurt (zero, because of the lack of mobility). Think of the more expensive Mac sales it would hurt (zero, because a Mac loyalist would only be interested in using this box as an EXTRA computer they would otherwise not have bought). Think of the extra application sales it would generate and especially the OS upgrade sales, which alone could pay back that $100. Think of the impact it would have on Windows sales (minus 10 million units). And if it doesn't work, Steve will still have $5 billion in cash with no measurable negative impact on the company. I think he'll do it.

I see it different[ly].

Nobody's talking yet about what the iHome actually does have. Rumors abound, and they mostly assume it's basically an iBook without a display. I don't buy it.

The very name of the device indicates to me that iHome is not intended to be used as a general purpose computer in any really sophisticated way. It's intended as a media hub, and any other functions it fulfills are incidental, and what's more, Apple won't be enthusiastic about helping it fulfill those other uses: It will most likely be a mediocre platform for applications work. It will be somewhat more than a set-top box, only because it would cost more to dumb it down. (If I'm proven wrong, I'll certainly be taking a look at iHomes for my own use, but I don't think I'm wrong here. We'll see in a few days.)

I think it will be somehow substantially crippled, and I think I know how: It will have limited display capability, ouputting by S-Video and composite only (and the latter through an extra-cost converter from S-Video); and it will not have expandable RAM. Both decisions will be defended on the basis of price, but they'll really have been taken to prevent cannibalizing iBook, iMac and eMac sales. By the way, I essentially agree with Cringely's analysis of the market impact of a fully-capable and cheap iHome, but I think he's applying a much too rational (and charitable) thought process to Apple's senior management.

I think Jobs doesn't know what to do with iTunes. It's a juggernaut he doesn't know how to stop; it's prompting people at his company to actually think about ideas that could shake up the personal computing marketplace, like, say, a genuinely cheap computer with a powerful OS and operating environment. Baseline Macs are built with remarkably inexpensive electronic components: Many still use relatively slow and old versions of the PowerPC chip (the "G4" generation), which by virtue of their vintage are dirt cheap; the "G5" models mostly use relatively slow versions of that chip, and below the most expensive levels, they all use graphics subsystems that are last year's news on PCs. Macs are cheap, cheap, cheap to build. And yet, they're hideously expensive on a bang:buck basis.

If Jobs wanted to really go big, he could have done it years ago. Opportunities like the one that Cringely describes are always there for Apple, all the time. And they never take them. Why? The only answer that's compelling to me is that Steve Jobs does not want Apple to be successful, because that would mean that Apple was no longer about him. Sure, the cult of personality would flourish for a while, but I think he understands that part of his bizarre public loveability is the fact that his exposure is limited. He'll never be as much of a self-charicature as Steve Ballmer or Larry Ellison, but the tarnish would settle pretty quickly and Apple would quickly become beset by the woes of any company that moves beyond a customer base comprised primarily of true believers.

So Cringely's right, I think, about the opportunity, and he's right about what iHome is, but I think he's wrong about what Apple will do with it. And though I predict that Jobs will be accused of not taking these steps out of greed, I think his motivation will be darker: Ego. Though I suppose the Dark Steve's flavor of ego could be cast as a kind of greed....

Convergence Through Desire

I'm sitting here in Spot Coffee looking out over the scene. I'm blogging from a coffee shop: I'm officially ... something. Not a geek, anymore, because convergence activities like logging on to the net though a coffee shop's hotspot are now officially mainstream and mundane, at least if you believe that TV reflects reality.

Which is my point, as I remind myself not to bury my lede: Convergences that actually lead somewhere tend to come not from planning toward goals, but from the accidental confluence of opportunity with desire. As a case in point, consider the Archos PMA 400.

This whole coffee-house laptop thing... how did I miss out? It was a matter of not having converged the right equipment. I've puttered at doing this for a long time -- my friend Pete's laundromat even has a hotspot -- but have tended to feel a little sour-grapish over the whole deal, since my equipment has made it a challenge: My laptop has a tiny keyboard (I've gotten used to that) and a small, dim screen; if I brightened the screen to make it readable, the battery life was relatively poor. Battery life already suffered because with only 128MB of memory, the laptop was constantly thrashing the hard drive to swap in and out of RAM. And I always seemed to have problems connecting to the WiFi hotspots.

Well, thanks to eBay I now have a bigger, stronger battery and another 128MB of RAM (both a third of less of last years's price), with updated software for my WiFi card, and I'm blogging from a coffee shop. I've leapt squarely and soundly into 1999. Or something like that.

Which brings me, roundabout, to my point. This was really a convergence issue. It was always an high-status behavior, hooking up to the net from open hot spots, but like most high-status activities, not many people really did it. Which is, of course, what's made it a high-status behavior, at a certain level.

Well, now the barriers to entry are much lower: Most open networks don't charge for connections (at least not at the moment), which we can chalk up to the proliferation of cheap bandwidth. (That will change, but we've got tons of dark fiber out there still going unused.) Good quality portable computing hardware is cheaper and lighter, and the social acceptability of hauling out a laptop has increased; now it seems relatively benign next to loud mobile-phone conversations. Networked communication from a hotspot has become easy and cheap enough that lots of people can do it, bit it still hasn't outgrown its chic-factor. (And it will be slow to do so, by the way, due to latent education factors -- but that's another story for another time.)

This is the crux of it, I think: Convergence will only happen below a certain fairly low price-point, and will be driven by desire, not by need. Blogging got big when it broke $10/month (or thereabouts), and nobody really needs to blog; WiFi got big when it got free and you didn't have to buy a card for your laptop. And of course, nobody really needs to network from a coffee shop.

Convergence devices like wireless handhelds will break through, too, and soon. It will happen when you can buy the device at little (or no) additional cost over what you would have spent anyway: It happen when you can get a thing that you wanted for some completely other purpose, and have it bring along wireless connectivity or email or word-processing as a bonus.

My thoughts turned to this train a few days ago when Gizmodo posted a note from CES about the new "convergence device" from Archos, their "Personal Media Assistant [PMA] 400" -- a Linux-based variation on their AV400 "pocket video recorder". It's a toy calculated to make geeks salivate, hitting almost all of the key requirements for a high-end PDA (color screen, built-in 802.11g wireless, color, browsing and email capability) along with one thing that no conventional PDA has, yet: a 30GB hard drive.

And the best part, from Archos's perspective, is that most of this capability would be there whether they wanted to make this thing into a PDA or not. Because it's not primarily a PDA. It's primarily a multimedia time-shifting device, a la TiVO, but without many of TiVO's restrictions. It includes WiFi because WiFi would make it easier to integrate into 802.11g-based home multimedia networks, not because it would make it a killer toy for the coffee shops set. And yet, that's what it will be.

There have been lots of chances for convergence, and they've mostly appeared to founder on the cost of mass storage or on battery life. Well, mass storage is now absurdly cheap; and low-power components have met improved batteries halfway to more or less solve the power problem. And battery life shouldn't have been an inhibitor to convergence for the most likely candidates, the game platforms. Any NES or PS2 or GameCube has much more computing power than most PCs, at a much lower cost. Why not hook them up to hard drives and keyboards and have a computer? Why, indeed; it's a mystery. So, here we have a device (a multimedia time-shifter) that's basically a general purpose computer; and contrary to the usual trend, its makers decide to go the distance and make it, of all things, a general purpose computer. Why should this be different from the miss-starts from Sony or Nintendo?

Perhaps because this one is personal; perhaps because this one is "adult." Games are still socially marked as "juvenile", even though the majority of players are adult. But music, TV, movies: Those are adult past-times.

There have been lots of attempts to make a "computer for the masses." They've ranged from the geeks-only Sinclair 100, back in the dawn of the personal computing era, to more recent efforts driven by Microsoft and others. Perhaps the most radical attempt was the Simputer, which re-thought not only the user interfaces but the form factors and the assumptions about use.

The first commercial Simputers are nice, elegant device; but they're still too expensive, and don't come near addressing their designed audience. They're toys for well-off Indian technophiles, not the village computer they were designed to be. The PMA400 is in many ways much like a Simputer with a hard-drive and with much less noble goals. This device isn't intended to bring computing to the masses; it's intended to bring this week's "Survivor" or "ER" or "Six Feet Under" to the departure lounge. It didn't come from any high and noble goals. Instead, it came from a desire to be entertained.

And yet, the PMA400 has everything, literally everything, that's needed in a basic -- and even a bit more than basic -- personal computer. It's networked; it's based on an open platform with standard and open APIs, so there's already a lot of software that will run on it; it's got (LOTS of) mass storage; it can take keyboard (and presumably mouse) input; it can accept removable mass storage. It can probably even be hooked up to a printer via USB.

I don't have any illusion that Archos will make a huge success out of this; that's just not in their corporate DNA. But this device can be the model for the true "people's PC" that IBM, Microsoft, and others have been jousting at for years. The question is whether a company as clever as, say, HP or Creative Labs or Nintendo can be clever enough to see the opportunity and seize it. Don't look to Apple or Sony or Microsoft for this device by the way: They have a vested interest in keeping the personal computing devices big, relatively costly, and relatively non-convergent.

The Importance of Blogging Earnestly

The Business Blogging Boot Camp (@ Windsor Media) provides a more bottom-line perspective on the growth of blogging, driven by Fortune's 1/10/2005 feature story on technology trends; their observations came to me as part of an email thread related to the BBC story I mentioned last night. They stress the importance of blogging for business, and furthermore the importance of blogging earnestly. They cite the Kryptonite affair and moves toward blog-monitoring by Bacon's Information -- the latter characterized as tentative, "inane", 'Not Getting It.' (I'm usually leery when a huge quant-marketing shop is characterized as Not Getting It. Often it's true, yes; but as far as I can see they often understand a lot more than they bother to explain to us proles. But I digress.)

There are two things I feel compelled to point out before going further: First, blogs are qualitatively analogous to specialist newsletters, which are nothing new to savvy marketers. As with specialty newsletters, the influence of a blog hinges on a subtle balance between the publisher's access to information, their (perceived) personal integrity, and the volume (direct or indirect) of their readership. What's new is the speed of blogging. I'm leery of pointing out emergent qualities, but it's hard to argue that a ten-day cycle time doesn't indicate that (a lack of) quantity may indeed, in this case, have a quality all its own.

The second thing I feel compelled to point out -- and this is both much more and much less important than it sounds -- is that the Kryptonite business not only didn't start on blogs, but didn't get its first traction there. It started on the cycling boards, and that's where it was hashed out, refined, debugged, and researched, and where the first instructional videos were posted, before it was ever reported on a blogospherically-integrated weblog. Some of these bicycling boards are almost as old as the web, and most have many members who trace their net-cred back to Usenet days. My point being that anyone focusing only on blogs as such is setting themselves up for obsolescence. Blogs as they are, are almost certainly not blogs as they will be.

Anyway, Windsor Media's take is largely blogospheric orthodoxy. And in practical terms, it's probably right: The important thing for businesses to do right now is to make it part of some people's jobs to go out, and read and post like humans. But there's a second thing that not only needs to happen, but will happen, and what's more will be enabled by the first: Smart businesses will take steps to understand how the blogosphere works, and how it can be gamed, and then they will go forth and game it. And it will work. The knowledge required will come from a few main sources: From big outfits like Bacon and free-range old-school marketing pundits (who will keep it to themselves and share out bits of wisdom to key clients); and from less old-school marketing pundits like Darren Barefoot and BL Ochman, and from product evangelism folks at big companies (who as a group will tend to share it on their blogs, undercutting Bacon et al's old-school attempts to make money off consulting). And, perhaps most important of all, it will come from research in social network analysis. More on that another time.

Blogging will be gamed by corporate and business interests, make no mistake about that. Because it can be, and is being, gamed. It happens every day. And, contrary to the blogospheric orthodoxy, the broader the cross-section of people who get involved in blogging, the easier it gets to game the system without looking like a weasel. And if the golden rule of capitalist systems is that money wants to make more money (and I'm pretty sure it's something like that), and if blogging has an impact on the growth and flow of money, then money will drive blogging, and blogging will get gamed.

Now I'm getting into blogging heterodoxy. The conventional wisdom on the blogging ethos is very cluetrain, and in fact, the Kryptonite affair does indeed show a real "cluetrain" cause-effect loop. I missed it at the time because I just didn't tune in to the story, but the folks at Fortune and Windsor Media are right about that: The ten-day problem-to-product recall cycle at Kryptonite was characterized by all the corporate communications failures criticized in the Cluetrain Manifesto. It just took a lot longer for this first clear case to emerge than either they or, frankly, I thought it would.

The orthodox position is that the more people get involved in blogging, the harder it gets to game the system. It's a variation on the open-source golden rule of debugging ("Given enough eyes, all bugs are trivial"): "Given enough eyes, all misinformation will be found." But open-source debugging works (when it works, which it often doesn't, but that's another story) because the "eyes on the code" belong to people who know how to spot a problem, and have the capability to affect it more or less directly. In blogging, the "eyes on the information" are often people with little or no real expertise. Much of what they spout is nonsense.

And yet, it's effective.

The blogosphere shifts like a body of water: Fast, and irresistibly. Part of the reason that happens is that the blogging community is comprised largely of small communities with large enough membership to make an impact, and what's more, those communities overlap: PoliBloggers are tight with techbloggers who are tight with lifestyle bloggers who are tight with polibloggers.... So when the loop has looped a few times, we find that a relatively small group of people can pretty reliably and rapidly shift the character of the blogosphere. But as the blogosphere becomes larger, it grows more statistically homogeneous, and small communities of movers will not have the same kind of predictable results anymore. Then it will seem less like water, and more like mud.

But I digress, again. I started this to talk about gaming the blogosphere, and that this will happen, I do not doubt for an instant. There's a lot of money riding on this, after all. Some people will figure out how to game the blogosphere -- to game the cluetrain. It will be a painful process with lots of false starts, but we are well beyond the beginning of the process. It started long before the Kryptonite affair; if I had to pick a point in time, I'd pick the consolidation of successful blogs like Wonkette, Gizmodo and ... under the Gawker Media banner. Gawker sells lots of ads, gets lots and lots of daily eyeballs, and their more overtly commercial blogs (like Gizmodo and Jalopnik) have pull with the product managers by virtue of the fact that they can say things like:

What consumers wantâ??an out-of-box way to share and transmit files between different storage media and computers (and users)â??is exactly what manufacturers don't want to give them, but they'll tease us a little. So, if you're really rich, DigitalDeck Entertainment Network is busting out an in-home network PC to gear to DVD sharing system that costs $4000 - $5000. It probably consists of a bunch of cables and a universal remote that your geeked-out younger brother could hack together himself.

And so, we've come back around again to the specialist newsletter: I take Gizmodo seriously (and I confess, I do read it more or less every day) because I see things like this that indicate to me that they bother to think a bit about what they're reviewing. They have credibility for me because they speak not merely in a human voice, but in one that says credible things. And they have the benefit of comprehensiveness because somebody (namely, Gawker Media) is paying them to do nothing but that.

And by the way, at some point does it stop being "blogging" and start being journalism? Open question, IMO.

Sometime In 2004, Blogs Became Commercial

It's just that relatively few people have realized it, yet. As I so often say: When there's big money involved, the alternate modalities will be co-opted. (Or crushed.) Even more than information wants to be free, money wants to make more money. We're now sitting in that fragile cusp (oh, hell, we may be past it) where the "winners" of the next gold-rush will be decided. It's not a huge gold rush -- not yet -- but in its own way, it will be just as hokum-driven as the dotcom boom.

I know this because I bothered to do some simple math with numbers in a news story about American blogging habits. From Britain, of all places. A friend pointed me to the BBC's obligatory popular rundown on what a blog is and why their readers should care, combined with a little bit of exoticism regarding us cousins. The article relies heavily on a report from Pew Internet and American Life Project; it's thin on details, but the do provide us with a helpful bullet list in their sidebar:

  • Blog readership has shot up by 58% in 2004
  • Eight million have created a blog
  • 27% of online Americans have read a blog
  • 5% use RSS aggregators to get news and other information
  • 12% of online Americans have posted comments on blogs
  • Only 38% of online Americans have heard about blogs

By implication (according to the sidebar), of Americans who've heard of blogs (38% of online Americans), 71% have read read them (27% of online Americans -- 27/38=.71); and a bit less than half of those have gone on to post comments (12% of online Americans -- 12/27=.44). (Less interesting, but more impressive: about 30% of people who've heard of blogs have posted comments...) Interesting. If taken at face value (which wouldn't be a good idea), that means almost half of people who've read blogs have posted comments to them. Before we even start to think about commercial applications, that may well represent a radical increase in the population of people participating in online forums.

But here's the real meat: When they saw those numbers in the sidebar, direct marketing people in the reading audience (who eat, sleep and breathe much more complex math than that) were drooling on their keyboards. Consider that a direct mail campaign is regarded as doing very, very well at 5% response. These are not numbers to swing elections as a constituency; but they are well into "thought-leader" territory. These blog readers are high-throughput nodes. They're the folks who spread Jib-Jab movies and forwarded the Kick Osama Butt song. At least, that's how the consultants will spin it.

Also quite interesting: Almost a fifth of people who've "read a blog" (5% of online Americans) use RSS readers to aggregate blog content. RSS readers by their definition identify regular readers, so something in excess of about 20% of blog-readers are regular blog-readers. And the stream of drool intensifies.

You have to actually do some math to sort all that out, mind; I think they're probably better at it over there, but I wonder if they weren't actively hiding those numbers by not crunching the numbers. (In America, I'd just go for ignorance -- I don't have much faith that our reporters have the math skills to calculate a proportion.)

I can honestly say that I never thought blogging was a fad. But I will go out on a limb (not that I have to go very far) and say that "podcasting" was dead before it started. Or, at least, the meaning of the term will change. "Podcasting" will come to be the audio equivalent of "TiVO", as we start to see those forthcoming gizmos that let folks TiVO-ize satellite-radio broadcasts. They'll start as special attachments for iPods. (Perhaps even as an iPod itself -- though I don't think Apple will go that far. It would hurt iTunes sales.) Then they'll spread to other music players ("there are music players besides the iPod?!"). Podcasting as we currently know it will die a quick and inglorious death, mourned only by the people who hoped to have their name forever attached to the term.

Blogging has previously never really been at an equivalent risk. The technical barriers to entry are low: A decent secondary education and enough disposable income to afford $10/mo or less in hosting fees. They face very little competition. (Well, except for newspaper columnists. What are those? Well, um, they're these folks who'd regularly get their "blogs" printed in newspapers. See, these newspapers, they're printed on really big paper, so everything is in columns, and a columnist would get one column out of six on the page... ... Newspapers. They print them, on paper, and sell them to people so they can carry them around and read them.... How do they know how many to print? They don't. A lot get wasted. Yes, I know that's a waste...)

Carrie Bradshaw, Culture-Jammer

"And if I don't ever get married or have a baby, what -- I get bupkes? Think about it: If you are single, after graduation, there isn't one occasion where people celebrate you. I am talking about the single gal. I mean, Hallmark doesn't make a 'Congratulations, you didn't marry the wrong guy' card." -- 'Carrie Bradshaw', Sex and the City

"I started to get notes the next week that said that single women were starting to register, at stores, for their birthdays. And I thought, 'That's great, because we put something out there.'" -- Jenny Bicks on Morning Edition [listen]

Yeh. Right. You put something out there, alright: Another quasi-official reason to spend, and spend in a store-register-validated, label-appropriate manner. Sex and the City is really all about social activism and culture-jamming, after all.

As far as I'm concerned, the time is well-overdue to re-examine the idea that human existence is solely for procreation -- if there's one thing that Humans consistently do that other animals don't, it's make their own rules about what their existence is for -- but relating that to Carrie Bradshaw's sense of loss over her $400 shoes really, truly advances that particular cause not one whit, and it's insultingly disingenuous for the script's author to argue otherwise.

Jammed by the Culture Jam

Man, the psychic landscape in those distant Red States is looking a little weirder every day.

"Yeah folks, our simple, cornpone sincerity is so heartfelt and transparent that we have to arrange a glass-roots [sic]crypto-military PR campaign to get some market traction."

-- Bruce Sterling

What you will hear in the song, The Bumper Of My SUV, is the absolute truth. No exaggerations, no poetic license, and truly how it made me feel. I had no intention of ever playing this song for anyone.
-- Chely Wright

It's old and big news by now, but Chely Wright wrote a song [clip] that's apparently a big indy hit, about the time a Woman In A Mini-Van gave her the finger because of the Marine Corps bumper sticker.

I'll be blunt: I have to wonder if it actually happened.

I'm willing to believe that Chely Wright believes it happened as she tells it, but I can't say I do. After all, her accounts of the incident have gotten more dramatic as she goes along, to the point where as of mid-December, many months after first telling a shorter version of the story as a stage-rap, the Woman In The Mini-Van is now honking and weaving and damn near foaming at the mouth. My Search-Fu hasn't uncovered an instance of this enhanced version of the story prior to 12/13; the CNN, Reuters, all the instances I've found so far source back to a Billboard profile that I can't track down directly, and the Tennesseean, in it's account of Ms. Wright's recent woes, goes with the earlier, less-rabid version of the Woman In The Mini-Van.

So I'm left wondering if it really happened, quite apart from the allegations of astroturfing that have clouded the tune's success.

But let's say that every word of the later version of her story is true. This song is still the most insidious kind of jingoism, in that it more or less amounts to saying "once the shooting starts, you don't get to protest unless you're part of it." Or your family is part of it. Or you're willing to lie about your family being part of it. The song itself can be read as innocuous. Certainly there's lip service paid to balance ("I don't have all the answers I need", "But that doesn't mean that I want war / I'm not Republican or Democrat"). But it's interspersed with none-too-subtle coding of Ms. Minivan as a Liberal Elitist ("So I hope that lady in her mini-van / Turns on her radio and hears this from me / As she picks up her kids from their private school...").

"Does that lady know what I stand for / Or the things that I believe?" Well, if we believe this story: Yes. Yes she did. Perhaps by accident, but even if so, it sounds like she got Chely Wright, right.

Songwriters, poets, novelists, artists have always imputed technically unwarranted importance to small things. It's part of the troubador's art to embellish and to generalize to a larger context. But the best of them admit it; or, better yet, admit that they're not sure it means what they think it does. And even when they let passion grip them, they don't insult us by pretending to be fair. Bruce Cockburn doesn't pretend to be balanced when wishes for an RPG. Pete Seeger has painted "This weapon kills fascism" around the edge of his banjo-skins for decades. Ani DiFranco has never minced words. Chely Wright should follow good examples and come out and say, or at least figure out, what the hell she means.

Not to say that balance and passion can't go together. But precious few are W. B. Yeats. Or Carl Sandburg. (Thanks, Peggy.)

Escalation As An Ethos

Here's an unforseen legacy of the last election: Advertising is getting more blatantly confrontational, and it's doing it very suddenly. it's a massive escalation; it feels like a war. It isn't one -- mutual assured destruction as a brand-marketing strategy just really has no legs, and especially when it becomes a norm.

Two cases in point:

Case 1, Original: "AOL Loves You! Really!"

A receptionist (thin, 30-something, with curly brown hair and a long, slightly bony face) looks up from her desk to find a line of people, dressed in a wide variety of street clothes, snaking out the door of her lobby. "We're customers," he explains; "we've got some suggestions we'd like to give you."

Cut to the receptionist going into her boss's (young, business-casual in an open-necked striped dress shirt, olive complexion and close-trimmed hair): "There are some customers here to see you," she says.

"How many?"

They look together out the expansive windows of his office to behold a sea of people washing across the hills and dales of an exurban office park that just happens to look remarkably like the AOL complex in Dulles, Virginia. "I think we're gonna need a few more chairs," the boss quips hollowly.

[in Windows Media format from Slate.com | ad in QuickTime from United Online Creative Services | ad in Windows Media from United Online Creative Services]

Case 1, Counterattack: "Yeah, Bite Me, AOL."

A receptionist (thin, 30-something, with curly brown hair and a long, slightly bony face) looks up from her desk to find a line of people, dressed in a wide variety of street clothes, snaking out the door of her lobby. "We're customers," he explains; "we've come to tell you that we're leaving and going with somebody else. We're tired of all the spam, and we found someone who'll give us unlimited access for one low monthly rate."
Cut to the receptionist going into her boss's (young, business-casual in an open-necked striped dress shirt, olive complexion and close-trimmed hair): "There are some customers here to see you," she says.

"What do they want?"

"They say they're leaving. They say they're going to NetZero."

They look together out the expansive windows of his office to behold a sea of people washing across the hills and dales of an exurban office park that just happens to look remarkably like the AOL complex in Dulles, Virginia. Cue tight shot of some holding up signs marked with slogans like "Buh-Bye AOL!" and "I'm switching to NetZero."

NetZero has been good enough to put both their spots and AOL's online for your viewing pleasure. (Thanks to AdRants.com for pointing that out.) The resemblance is uncanny. It's striking enough that the NetZero ad bothers to cast near doubles of the original actors; but then it clothes them similarly, strives forcefully to make the environment match so closely that my memory can't flag any differences -- and indeed, the photo-styroyboards at the NetZero creative site illustrate the attention to detail -- and then they recreate the office park so carefully. I've been to that complex; I know what it looks like. And those ad creatives, and probably a few of the marketing folks at NetZero, have all been there, too.

The second example plays off of Miller's football-themed "penalty" spots:

Case 2, Original: "Un-Beermanlike Conduct", etc.

This is really a series of ads, of which I can recall about three or four. In these ads, customers are quietly engaging in some beer-drinking-related activities, when a penalty flag comes out of nowhere and a man in a football referee's uniform enters the scene to replace some unsatisfactory Budweiser sub-brand with a Miller Lite.

Notably, I can't be sure that the word "Budweiser" or "Bud" ever occurs in any of these commercials, and I can't be sure that the Budweiser bottles and logos are accurately represented. Proper brandsmanship, that. But a little gutless, by comparison with....

Case 2, Counterattack: "The Beer Bandits"

In the counter-ad (which I've learned is apparently also part of a series), a group of 20-something, quasi-professional looking types are enjoying Bud Lights at a swank-looking barbecue. The referees enter the scene, blow their whistles, and immediately start replacing bottles of "fresh Bud Light" (held close to the camera to show the new "branding" with clear label on brown glass) with Miller Lite.

The BBQ patrons aren't pleased; some of them start shouting, so the Refs have to flee -- gleefully dragging "confiscated" cases of Bud Light along with them...

"[W]hat they did was phenominally stupid," says "Press Marketing's" PressBlog. "(There's another agency that will never make us rich by buying out Press Marketing.) If you're watching the ads, you can't help being reminded of the Miller Lite ads. If you aren't paying attention, you might think you are watching one of the Miller Lite ads. So the Bud Light ads are really amplifying the value of their competitors efforts." Certainly the same argument could and probably would be made about the NetZero-AOL tradeoff.

Maybe so; certainly that's what I'd expect the common, received wisdom to be in the industry. But maybe not. Americans love a good smackdown, and what counts better as a smackdown than throwing your opponent's own excrement right back in their faces? It wins the bully demo and the close-bully demo, and it wins the hipster brigade. It wins "Man Show" viewers, for sure; the faux Miller Lite refs are getting away with something, and you know how dearly we love to get away with shit.

And there are few people more negative about their former brand than an ex-AOL customer and anti-Miller drinkers. I've know quite a few of each -- hell, I am one of each. "Anti-Millerism" was damn near a religion when I was in school in the early '80s. Drinking Miller High Life was a good way to elicit quiet contempt from your classmates. Why, everyone knew that stuff was laced with formaldehyde....

NetZero's counter-attack targets more rational concerns, keying off marginal AOL customers' chief complaints: Excessive spam, and high cost. As I poke around researching the matter, I learn that I'm not the only one who thinks AOL's original ad was a tad too unintentionally ironic:

[The AOL commercial is] misguided. The ad shows a mob of AOL customers massing in front of the corporate offices, demanding to be heard. There are so many problems with this. 1) Why would I sign up for a service when its users are so intensely dissatisfied that they're storming corporate headquarters to beg for improvements? Wouldn't I prefer a service whose users have no pressing complaints and are sitting contentedly at home, perhaps whiling away the hours with a few pleasant games of online Boggle? 2) That shot of the endless mass of AOLers reminds me that this is a gargantuan corporation and as such is pretty damn unlikely to deliver the highly responsive, highly personal service these ads are promising. Make me feel like I'm your only customer. Don't make me feel like I'm standing in line with 23 million other unhappy schlubs.

Finally, 3) This ad was actually shot on location at the AOL corporate campus in Virginia. [yup, I thought so...] Which reminds meâ??avid business-page reader that I amâ??that these headquarters will soon suffer a rash of layoffs. AOL is about to fire 700 employees.

This is because AOL is screwed. Its subscriber base is slowly but steadily shrinking, as even ill-informed AOLers realize that there are cheaper, better ways to access the Internet. (NetZero costs half as much for dial-up, and broadband providers offer far more bandwidth.)...

[Seth Stevenson on Slate.com; listen to the article as commentary on NPR]

People who dismiss these ads too quickly, I submit, are also out of touch with their own sense memory. I saw the two ads I mention here about 45 minutes apart, on the same channel, during the same show (CBS's CSI:NY). (I'd be extremely surprised to learn they weren't the same agency, even the same production team.) And I distinctly remember thinking, about 5 seconds in, each time, "There's something wrong, here." There were subtle differences: In the Budweiser commercial, my alarm bells went off as soon as I heard the phrase "fresh Bud Light": "freshness" is a Budweiser brand differentiator, and one they've worked hard to promote. If I assume that branding means anything (and I do at least assume that some people, with deep checkbooks, assume that it does), then I can assume that the "freshness" meme -- at least, in a beer context -- has been implanted in at least part of the television-viewing populace.

Put another way: Maybe Budweiser has confidence in their brand. And maybe NetZero are cocky upstarts with a marketable product and no publicly-known bad karma.

Since these campaigns almost certainly came from the same creative team, I wouldn't call this a trend. But it's interesting that it arises just right now, following our most mean-spirited election since 1932, and in an era where party functionaries seem to be taking steps to usurp government power at every opportunity: They are exercising total ideological war. That's the geist of our zeit.

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