Monday, October 30, 2006

Dear Apple, please don't screw up my iPhone!

So the iPhone is coming, it's a fact. These are exciting times indeed.

According to some analysts (the past few years' answer to rumor sites), there will be two iPhones, and one will be a smartphone.

Maybe. If so, here's my humble list of requests for a smartphone. This is something that hardly anyone gets right. Let's see if Apple does:

1. Give me a QWERTY
It's time to put the silly "look Ma, no keys" proof-of-concept-gone-horribly-wrong era behind us, and face it: Handwriting recognition just doesn't work. Or maybe it does, but even then, handwriting is much slower than typing, as mankind learned some 125 years ago.

2. Let me work with files
I don't want smartphone apps such as text editors to work with their own esoteric "databases" that need to be "synced" with my Mac. Nope, I want to work with standard files (such as RTF or TXT) that I can open, save, as grown-ups do. I want to move them back and forth between my Mac and my iPhone. I want to be able to locate, open and edit them on either. Sure, if iSync wants to help me copy my files back and forth, why not. But I want to be able to manage them myself as well.

3. No artificial quotas, please
I hope iPhone will ship with plenty of flash RAM. But whether it's 128MBytes or 2GBytes, I want to be put in charge of how I use it. If I want to store a million SMS messages and no sound files, I don't want some silly quota that caps the number of text messages at, say, two hundred.

4. Let me save my text messages
Speaking of SMS messages, here's a hint: they are text files. Computers can read and write text files. Why not connect the dots? I want to archive a lot of my text messages for posterity. They can convey important personal messages. They can contain important business information. They should be easily exported to my Mac. And I mean easily. Point, click, select all, copy, switch app, paste, repeat ain't easy.

5. Don't make me use the touch screen
This may be considered an extension to the first point. I just loathe it when I can't move around in a text field (including selecting text), respond to a dialog box, or bring up a menu without breaking out my darn stylus. I want to be fully functional single-handed as well, and it's actually possible. All it takes is a small joystick (or a set of direction keys), and a Menu key (or Alt, or Control, or Command... you get the idea). A touch screen is okay, but only as an addition.

6. I want a browser with multiple windows
Opera can do this on the Sony-Ericsson P910i. And it's a must. Period.

7. Multitask, and honestly, too
Some smartphones don't multitask at all. Others do, but lie about it, claiming that opening an app will close the previous one. Garbage. The app remains open, but you're not supposed to know about it. You're left wondering what's with the apparent memory leak and degrading performance. I want to know what tasks are running.

8. Nothing should take more than three keypresses
Menus are all the rage, and Apple adores the iPod's limited number of buttons. But still, going into a freakin' menu so that I can change playback volume is a bit of an annoyance. On a cellphone, I need to be able to start typing an SMS after two keystrokes. I need to be able to locate a contact and place a call in two seconds (e.g. by entering a search mode, and selecting the contact by typing an initial letter or two of some of its contact info). I know Steve Jobs has probably fired people over the number of any extra keys, but there should be just enough of them to let me access any function in a few seconds.

Here's my list for now... I'm sure I'll revisit it later when I'm back from holiday.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Today in history

October the twenty-third.

Five years ago today, Apple released a small, white gadget: an MP3 player that changed... a lot of things. It changed Apple, and, as many journalists will no doubt say, it changed the world. Here's why I will be reluctant to say that.

Fifty years ago today, students demonstrated in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, against the totalitarian communist dictatorship imposed upon the country by the Soviet Union. As the protests grew larger in scale, the Stalinist State Security Police fired several rounds into the crowd, leaving hundreds dead. Thus began the great Hungarian revolution of 1956.

While the nation fought fiercely with the communist militia and the occupant Soviet troops, a new government was formed, lead by Imre Nagy, with universally accepted legitimacy. A ceasefire was reached with the Soviets, and Hungary had high hopes of a brighter future: a welcome change after a few excruciating decades.

Hungary had drifted into WW2 on the losing side, it was occupied and ravaged by both the German and the Soviet armies, and despite free elections dismissing any forms of communism, by 1950, the Soviets had gradually turned Hungary into a Stalinist regime. There was poverty, no freedom of speech, and an unbelievably paranoiac system of secret service agents and party officials making sure that nobody would ever feel safe. From laborers to suspicious intellectuals to highest-ranking party officials, people were terrified to hear their doorbell ring at night, for it usually meant being escorted to a black limousine waiting outside, and never being seen again. Torture, executions and deportations were commonplace. At one point, a full ninth of the entire population was under some kind of criminal procedure.

This was coming to an end in that October fifty years ago, as Hungary's new government had set out to transform Hungary into an independent democracy with a multi-party system, and the whole world seemed to agree.

But it was not meant to be. By November, the Soviet Union had decided that it cannot let its important satellite state gain independence. While international attention shifted towards the Suez Crisis, new Soviet troops entered Hungary and brutally crushed the revolution, killing and wounding thousands. Hundreds of revolutionaries were executed, including the Prime Minister. Over ten thousand people were imprisoned, and two hundred thousand fled the country.

The dark days of communism returned. A milder, less brutal form of dictatorship followed, as the powers tried to buy the support of the Hungarian nation by relatively elevated living standards and relative freedom: as opposed to many other countries in the Soviet bloc, Hungary's citizens were allowed to travel freely in a few hand-picked countries. The country earned the harrowing, cynical distinction of being nicknamed "the happiest barracks."

The 1956 Revolution was one of the first nails in the coffin of the Soviet Empire and the communist ideology. Yet those hoping for a quick resolution were bitterly disappointed: the communist dictatorship in Hungary lasted for another thirty-four years.

Thirty-four years.

When I was born, it had fifteen more years to go. The first fifteen years of my life were spent under a demeaning, soulless, grey, petty, humiliating dictatorship.

Hungary is now a democracy again, has been for sixteen years. But the traces of the communist rule are still all too strong.

For starters, a Hungarian gross average salary is about €700 (US$880). So, for example, buying a Mac has a different kind of impact on your budget when you're Hungarian.

But what fills me with even greater sadness is the way these old communists have reinvented themselves as "Socialists," became successful businessmen (instead of jailbirds) by selling out state property, and have bought their way back into power. As I'm writing this, they are taking a break from lying about the economy they ruined, and are actually shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and bystanders commemorating the fiftieth anniversary.

How apt. By the way, the clip above (courtesy of PestiSide) wasn't filmed fifty years ago. It was filmed today.

Oh, here's my initial reaction to the iPod. I wrote it five years ago tomorrow. An interesting read in hindsight.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Woz visits Microsoft

Interesting post and comments thread on Ars Technica on a recent Woz visit to Microsoft. Even the resident spelling Nazi is funny. Actually, the post refers to a post in another blog, that of Mac BU employee David Weiss.

Weiss' post is all about favorite quotes, and so is the Ars Technica one. So why don't I pay homage by also picking a favorite quote:

Woz was giving away his Basic schematics, then when Jobs found out, he said, "Let's sell it."
Doesn't it sum up very nicely what's the difference between the two Steves?


Steve Jobs to be fired?

This Fake Steve guy sure is funny.


Monday, October 16, 2006

YouTube lawsuits armed

The Register reports that the predictable has happened.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a group of the largest media companies are co-ordinating their negotiations with the copyright-busting site.
The Register adds something not unlike something I posted less than two weeks ago:
Now YouTube's dilemma looks like this. The only way Google can justify the $1.65bn acquisition is because YouTube currently has a lot of traffic. Large volumes, it argues, should eventually be monetised, somehow.

But YouTube only has a lot of traffic because of this copyright-breaching content, most of which it's carrying illegally. By contrast, the much vaunted market for "user generated content" will be a paltry $850m by 2010, Faultline reported here on Friday.
If you'll hear a loud Ssssssssssshhhhhhhh............! sound in the coming weeks, it might be that of air leaving a big, fat, ugly bubble.

UPDATE: Also courtesy of The Register, an analysis on how YouTube prepares its legal defense at least in one infringement case, based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. An interesting read.


Suffering through Mac OS Rumors, so you don't have to is sinking to new lows just about every time it emerges with new content, mostly bold-faced lies about its real updates, or rather lack thereof. This might be the only site that applies the concept of vaporware to Mac rumors, always promising some juicy bits "next weekend" or "in the evening" (and hardly ever delivering on these promises), and even posting broken links pointing to promising contents that just aren't there. The explanation ranges from the slightly ridiculous to the infuriatingly impertinent. Right now, they have this gem to offer:

The past week's articles, which didn't work correctly for some readers, are being re-formatted to the older site engine filetype and should be back online without the language-detection errors that were preventing some users from being able to read them this week. In the mean time, all new articles which follow below will use the older format and any links will work correctly. Thanks for your helpful feedback and patience -- once debugged, the new site engine will pave the way for a lot of long-requested upgrades and we think you'll find it well worth the wait.
Yeah, right. I mean, it must be really hard to publish some plain text on the Web. MacOSRumors has been struggling with its "site engine" problems for quite a few months now.

So, as a faithful reader, you're expected to go back there every five minutes to see if they've solved their problems, try to click on all their ads, and make sure not to block any pop-up windows, they are important! Maybe you are the one billionth visitor of some website, and man, that means you'll win a lot of money!

Anyway, today's update can be summarized as follows:
  1. Leopard might save memory contents to disk on Intel Macs when losing power while sleeping.
  2. Laptops will be updated soon. Duh. Link to previous post also included for some reason.
Don't bother reading the original. Read the parody instead. It might be juvenile, it might have an anticlimatic last post, but at least it won't have people taking it seriously. Um, wait...


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Should Apple blog?

Daniel Jalkut mentions a few worthy blogs on his own, including Microsoft's official Office for Mac Team blog, personal blogs by two of that team's members, Google's Mac Blog, and Apple's infamous Masked Blogger.

He's going somewhere with these. He says Microsoft is "kicking Apple’s butt in terms of public exposure." He thinks the Masked Blog is a proof of "Apple’s idiotic blog-stifling policies," and the Google blog is a "'cooler than Apple' corporate blogging entity."

I understand if Daniel would like to read blogs by Apple employees, either personal ones, or perhaps team blogs on the latest goings-on of some particular projects. Apple is very picky about the way it communicates with the public. Major announcements are invariably delivered by Steve Jobs at press events. Whatever else Apple wants to tell the world will be communicated in the form of press releases. It's very rare to find anything beyond the already-stated official position anywhere else, be it interviews or conferences or any other forums. Apple's spokespersons sometimes seem to have one task to perform only: to decline to comment on any given issue. Rumors, leaks and any unauthorized disclosures are frowned upon, or even taken to court.

So where would blogging fit in this picture?

I was excited when Safari/WebKit developer David Hyatt started to publish his "Surfing Safari" weblog (moved about eighteen times, currently accessible here), where he started discussing a lot of the issues concerning his work and web standards in general. Of course, he never gave away anything that he wasn't supposed to, and it was nice to get some insight into a very important part of the Mac experience: the default browser, one that Apple developed no less.

So where are all the other blogs? How about an iCal, an iLife, or iWork blog, or a general Mac OS X blog? And an iMac or Mac Pro blog? How about blogs for the iPod, AppleCare, .Mac, and so on?

Well... I really don't see what anyone could post in those blogs, really, apart from truly uninteresting stuff. Any mention of upcoming products or features would be a big no-no. Not just that: any information from which any hint of a future direction might be distilled would need to remain unblogged. And unlike Surfing Safari, where the authors discuss an open-source framework and other general web issues, these other hypothetical blogs would have no subject to blog on.

Apple is a very secretive company. A vast majority of its products are announced the day they ship, or a couple of months ahead at the very most. When Apple announces a product, it means that it's ready. Apple might have worked on it for over a year, gone back to the drawing board several times, considered then dropped several features, agonized over all the specifications and the pricing, and worked excruciatingly hard on the design and manufacturing process. But now it's ready. What we get to see is the end result.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Operating system upgrades are dealt with in a slightly different fashion, involving developers (and, in a limited way, also the public) six to nine months ahead. But with the hardware or paid software offerings, Apple usually announces when it ships. In fact, with the single exception of iTV, Apple never discusses any hardware products in its pipeline. And iTV had to be announced for Apple's movie download service to make a bit more sense.

Contrast that with Microsoft's constant blabbering about its upcoming products. Does it really help Zune that the whole world is discussing all of its features, bugs, color schemes, marketing blunders and limitations? Zune is still months away from going on sale, yet the world has basically already reached a consensus that it won't be an iPod killer.

Announcing something that you're still working on might signal that you're eliciting feedback or discussion. And Apple's lack of doing that suggests that the company is confident in its ability to design products, without constantly turning to the public and asking, "Is it going to be okay? Or shall I change something?"

Apple also tries to fend off copycat competitors by not pre-announcing its products. Just think about Leopard's still unannounced 'top secret' features.

Apple's secrecy has spawned a cottage industry of rumormongering. Apple and Mac rumor sites run stories not only based on purported leaks by Apple insiders, but also on Apple's patent filings and even job adverts. If an Apple employee were to write a blog discussing just about any facet of his or her work at Apple, those blog posts would be scrutinized by hundreds of people associated with a dozen of such websites, trying to gather even the tiniest bit of information suggesting an upcoming Apple release. For example, Apple developer Blake Seely's mere mention on his personal blog that he got transferred to the Aperture team caused considerable impact on the rumors community, fueling the on-going speculation on the future of Aperture.

If Apple allowed its employees to blog on company matters, it would also need to set up a censorship division pre-approving any and all blog posts. Not that employees would deliberately disclose classified information, but perhaps they might not always appreciate how a seemingly innocent little detail could open up a whole can of worms.

Unless Apple wants to stop spoon-feeding its official position on all relevant matters to the press, and wants to lose a lot of its control on what gets out from inside its walls, it couldn't easily just start sanctioning employee blogs.

But how relevant would these blogs be anyway? If they couldn't talk about future directions or even too much of the current or recent events, really, what purpose would they serve? They would perhaps put names or faces to products and teams... Well, except that Apple doesn't encourage that either. Apple stopped crediting its engineers by name in any of its products' About boxes, perhaps in order to thwart headhunters or competition in their attempts to get hold of its key people. And really, can you blame Apple when its key weapon against the Microsoft juggernaut is delivering innovation, which does require secrecy?

So I think Apple's authorized blogs could do nothing other than re-hash Apple's PR, and provide some decidedly uninteresting details. Posts could go on like this:

So I walked out of my office on the [CENSORED] floor, said hi to Karen* in next door's office, and talked to her briefly on how hard it was to implement the [CENSORED] functionality in [CENSORED]. She agreed, and we went on discussing a similar problem in [CENSORED] over lunch. The [CENSORED] was delicious, by the way.

Who wouldn't just love to read such a blog?

One comment on the Masked Blogger's site (which the Blogger themself embraces) blows the whole question of Apple employee blogs ridiculously out of proportion:
"Here’s a question for Apple’s PR: what happens when only anonymous employees can blog? Hint: your PR will be controlled by anonymous people!"
This is wishful thinking. Apple still controls its PR, and it will take some serious unauthorized blogging to defeat that.

I really don't think blogging could add too much to Apple's PR efforts. The only thing that Apple could easily achive on the blogs front would be renaming Apple's newsletters and public releases as "Apple Blog entries," but that wouldn't do much. So why bother?

If you think there are areas where Apple could be more communicative and still maintain its secrecy, please let me know. Perhaps developer resources could be a good candidate, though Apple probably has its reasons to enforce some secrecy there as well, since that's where most of the innovation starts.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Will Apple take on Excel, or settle for sexiest spreadsheet?

As PC Magazine reports, Apple is rumored to include a brand-new, full-blown spreadsheet application in the next release of its iWork suite. If the past is any indication, iWork's next version will be called iWork '07, and should be released next January.

According to PC Mag's article (written by Think Secret staff), the new component, codenamed Lasso, will try to compete with Excel without being too competitive, just like Pages fails to pose direct competition to Word.

That approach, which seemingly runs counter to Apple's recent Mac-PC advertising campaign, might stem from the company's respect for Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, whose continued commitment to bring Microsoft Office to the platform has helped make Macs more competitive in some environments.

Can't argue with that. Apple can't afford to lose Microsoft Office for the Mac, whatever a horrible beast that suite currently is on any platform. With Mac versions of Microsoft applications dropping like flies (Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player), Apple needs to be careful in posing competition to Microsoft's titles... At least, for now.

Perhaps one day, when Apple's top secret "Office Killer" inside iWork version (such a thing must exist, right?) is mature enough to be released and promoted as a capable replacement for Microsoft Office, Apple will launch an all-out attack against the Redmond productivity suite, even risking Microsoft's pulling out of the Mac market altogether. But until then, Apple needs to be really careful not to outdo Microsoft too much here. Must be a bitch of a feeling.

I for one wonder when we, Mac users (or actually the users of any computing platform) are getting a decent word processor that will, for example, get structured documents right.

Whenever I've attempted to use several levels of headlines in Microsoft Word, its unpredictable, counterintuitive, and sometimes downright buggy behavior has driven me nuts. I would usually quit trying and continue in Pages instead, even though Apple's word processor has, to my disappointment, turned out to be much more of a presentation tool than anything else, lacking some basic word processing functionality.

That, however, might change somewhat according to PC Mag. Even though Apple's walking on a thin line between complementing and competing with Microsoft Office, the upcoming Pages 3 is rumored to include a dedicated word processing mode:
The next upgrade to Apple's desktop publishing software, Pages 3, is set to receive a number of improvements poised to make the application behave more like a normal word processor. At present, Pages features a virtually identical interface for both standard document creation and more advanced publishing, but Version 3 will divide these two capabilities into separate Word Processing and Layout modes.
So Pages will move a bit closer to Word (or rather, let's hope it'll move closer to what Word should be), while Lasso will get Apple's foot in the doorway of spreadsheet aficionados. We can probably expect attractive presentation of data, as well as perhaps innovative and intuitive data entry solutions as Lasso's main selling points, while on the downside, the app's scope should be vastly limited in comparison to Excel (so that Microsoft feels warm and cozy and safe).

But in any case: iWork watch is on. It's unbelievable how much the world has fallen captive to the Microsoft Office suite. Shocking as it may sound, I think both Word and Excel are usability disasters, and the world would be a much better place if these apps did not have a monopoly. Most computer users in the world have resigned to the notion that a word processing document must be a Word document. Some less savvy computer users even wrap Word documents around images and ZIP files before e-mailing them, thinking that any document should be a Word document! Word is trying to be everything for everyone, and for a lot of people, it is everything. The poor devils. And while Word can do a lot, there's also a lot it does horribly badly, and frankly, just finding your way around that bloated beast can be a daunting experience.

It would be much nicer to have open document standards instead, and competing tools working with them. Hopefully, Microsoft's migration to open, XML-based document formats will help make that possible. And hopefully, one day we will see some real competition from Apple as well. Apple can do multimedia software and system software arguably better than anyone else. Office software should be somewhere inbetween, so Apple could excel there as well (no pun intended).

And by the way, I don't know how much of the user base realizes that the next version of Mac Office will do away with VB support. Microsoft Mac Business Unit development lead Erik Schwiebert explains very nicely how that decision was reached, and it ain't pretty. I'll give you the link to his blog, but be warned: the explanation will have you bang your head against a wall in frustration. Apparently VB support on the Mac was a lifesize model of the Eiffel tower built of matches, and it would all need to be dragged through the eye of a needle in order to be ported to Intel-based Macs. Microsoft says, "no can do." Not enough people. Yeah, right, you may actually read my comments on Erik's blog, so enough of that here.

What could be more ironic than having Apple come up with a way to implement VB in iWork? If Steve Jobs reads this, I think he will do it just so he can annoy Bill Gates. Just remember where you read it first.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Google buys YouTube amidst mounting concern over geeky song-writing lawyers with musician friends

It's done. Maybe they didn't read this.


New 'Get a Mac' ad stars gossipy Gisele

Apple has added three new 'Get a Mac' ads to its repertoire. Perhaps the funniest of the three is the one featuring a true superstar, none other than... the gorgeous... wait for it... Gisele B√ľndchen!

Surprised? Yeah, sure... Yawn... Actually, we've been waiting for her 'Get a Mac' debut ever since late May, when MacRumors (among others) broke the story that beautiful Gisele had told the whole world about her upcoming Apple gig.

And for three months, it has been nagging me: did she make Steve Jobs as furious as he normally gets when that happens?

If you're old enough, you may remember how ATI had to suffer Steve's wrath for their premature specification* of some Macs that Apple was going to announce the next day. As Inside Mac Games wrote, "the unveiling of ATI's new graphic cards based on the Radeon chip was pulled from Steve Jobs' keynote, and from demo machines on the show floor," as a consequence.

Imagine how angry Steve could have been with Gisele when she announced her supposed surprise appearance in Apple's commercials three months early!

But then I think she might have gotten away with it. She certainly is prettier than ATI, for one. And apparently, she was in the ad. No pulling action was performed this time.

Whew. Steve is human, after all.

*The term "premature specification" was coined years later by Steve Jobs.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Advertorials on MacMinute?

Maybe it's due to the time I spent at a self-respecting news publisher, but somehow I just can't stand ads disguised as news. If I go to a reliable news source such as MacMinute, I do that because I trust its editors to decide for me what's news and what's not.

What's not news (like the release of an unimportant product) is very often something that some company would very much like to be news. So much so that they would pay a news source to make it so. And if a news source accepts such payments, there goes its credibility.

If you want to make the news, do something newsworthy. If you can't, buy an ad. And if you're a news publisher, please don't sell your headlines. Your readers will hate you for that. Just sell ads, and make sure they can't be confused with news.

In the news: Wirelessly Control iPod with the Belkin SportCommand! Now, as a general rule, if it tells me to do something, it ain't news. It tends to be something else.

It doesn't get much better when you click on it:

"The new iPod carrier features weather-resistant durability, and is perfect for outdoor activities, such as snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking, notes the company."
So now it's also perfect. Thanks for the heads-up, MacMinute. What next? This just in: Refinance your mortgage!

I'm going to give MacMinute the benefit of the doubt here. It may be just some oversight or laziness from the part of the editor of the day. MacMinute might have posted Belkin's press release verbatim just because they had no time or energy to reword it.

But still, it looks bad. Now I don't know why Belkin's product is mentioned on MacMinute: Did its editors find the product important enough to grant it a headline, or did Belkin pay for the exposure? Re-publishing press releases certainly makes one lean toward the latter explanation.


YouTube to be Googled any minute now, says NY Times

The New York Times now claims that Google's deal to acquire YouTube is imminent. Perhaps it will be signed and announced by the time I complete this post, huh?

Favorite quote:

But entrepreneur Mark Cuban was less enthusiastic. A merger would be “moronic,” he wrote on his blog, because of the threat of copyright lawsuits. “Dont think for a minute that there wont be lawyers writing songs, having their buddies perform them, and putting them on YouTube, jerry-rigging the number of views via any number of easy-to-do processes and then suing YouTube over it,” he wrote.
I swear I'm not making this up, folks.


YouTube gets new friends, humiliates new weblog

OK, so I had to post about how I didn't see YouTube's whole business model working out for them. I had to point out, just two days ago, how they were fighting an uphill battle against Copyright itself. And I even had to pen a sentence that pits Warner, one of YouTube's few copyright-owning friends, against Universal, a company full of scorn and indignation towards everyone's online video distribution hero.

And all this only so that YouTube can go out and embarass me today by getting archnemesis Universal to switch sides! The Register reports.

But here I go on painting myself further into the same corner by saying that YouTube's business model, while more interesting than before, still lacks an important bit: that of revenue. Now it's paying for bandwidth and content. Some of the free lunches it's handing out just got more expensive, though at least they're no longer stolen. Shave a few percentage points off the likelihood of the arrested scenario, and add them right to the bankrupt case.

Good luck to YouTube, anyway. Maybe I'll even start rooting for them, for real. There's a moving, naive element to their apparent, infectuous lack of common business sense. Ah, or maybe they are geniuses. We'll see.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Will Google deflate the YouTube bubble?

The New York Times has run a (pretty well-written and balanced) story on a rumored buyout of YouTube by Google (free subscription required). Apparently, Google is offering 1.6 billion dollars for the clever little company. Wow. 1.6 billion.

I keep reading that YouTube is worth billions of dollars. And I keep getting furious about this silly statement. I tend to think that YouTube is nothing but a huge, company-shaped warning sign: unless we watch out, the internet bubble can come back with a vengenace. With all the hype surrounding the so-called Web 2.0 phenomenon, to which YouTube is a brilliant poster boy, people seem to start forgetting (again) that a company needs a business model, or at least a potential source of revenue in order to survive. Well, duh.

So what's wrong with YouTube? It's very popular. Very, very, very, popular. I love it too. If I want to show some video to a lot of friends, I will upload it to YouTube, and send the link. No e-mailing of huge files, no searching for storage space, it's all there, and it's free. The user interface is simple and easy to use. There are tags to search by, and they work. The quality is acceptable, though barely. And while there are some nuisances, like the lack of a legitimate download option, I'm more than compensated for these by the availability of a huge selection of videos that my fellow YouTubers keep uploading at an incredible rate.

If there's something interesting on just about any TV channel that I missed, chances are that it'll be on YouTube within a week. Somebody tapes it and uploads it. I may be looking for an excerpt from an old movie, a video clip, some famous moment in television: it has a higher chance of being on YouTube than on any other place on the web.

So it must be worth billions, right? Right?!

Not so fast. Let me summarize why YouTube is so popular. It's an easy way to upload, store and search video content. It's free. You can find lots of excerpts from television, cinema and video/DVD content up there.

In other words:

  1. Its software is cleverly written.
  2. It gives away storage space and bandwidth for free.
  3. It gives you access to illegaly distributed copyrighted material.
Number one is not such a big deal. I mean, kudos to the YouTube team, they really did an excellent job, despite the many unemployed developers claiming on message boards that they could have done it too. The software really is clever. Its developers have paid a lot of attention to detail, reaching Google or even Apple-like heights.

But then that alone wouldn't have cut it. Imagine if 2 and 3 weren't there. Imagine a paid YouTube. It definitely wouldn't be the household name it is today. Maybe "Twenty thousand users and counting." And imagine a YouTube with a careful monitoring process in place that would never allow television clips or other copyrighted content to be published. Well, I'm sure a lot of people would be interested in watching home videos or podcasts and the occasional trailer or teaser uploaded by its copyright holder, but not nearly as interested as in watching real, professional content for free as opposed to getting it through their intended channels, for which you would pay either directly, or by watching commercials. So all three of the above factors are crucial for the success of YouTube, which, in a way, is a market leader in providing free lunches – or, to be even nastier about it, free lunches stolen from restaurants and given away to any random guy walking by.

Handing out free lunches will, no doubt, get you vastly popular. But another thing it will get you is bankrupt. Throw in arrested, too, if you also traffic in stolen goods in the process.

So eventually, YouTube will need to figure out how to get paid (as bandwidth is really expensive, and storage space doesn't grow on trees either), and also how to legalize its content. Make no mistake about it: the lawsuits are written, signed, and are sitting in drawers, waiting for the day when someone rich buys YouTube and can be sued into submission. There would be not much point in suing YouTube now, when it has no money of its own.

How do you fix these major problems? Legality is the bigger one of the two. You either get rid of copyrighted materials altogether, and start offering only videos that are in the public domain, or you start to sign deals and control the delivery of copyrighted content. Apparently, YouTube is attempting the latter. One deal has been signed with Warner Music, and as Fox News reports (and other new sources enthuse the hell out of the deal), Warner will upload all its video clips to YouTube, and also let users share Warner-owned content on the website. Warner will get to veto the use of any of its stuff on a case-by-case basis, though. I don't know, but the sheer magnitude of this undertaking seems scary to me. And here's an interesting quote:

To make the deal happen, YouTube developed a royalty-tracking system that will detect when homemade videos are using copyrighted material.

YouTube says the technology will enable Warner Music to review the video and decide whether it wants to approve or reject it.
While a technology that detects if a video uses material owned by Warner Music seems a bit dubious, let's concede that YouTube has scored a victory here, it got Warner on board. At least one less lawsuit to worry about. But what is Warner getting out of this deal? The agreement is being widely described as a "revenue-sharing" deal, with few details. The Chicago Tribune seems to know that "Warner Music in return gets a portion of advertising revenue."

Advertising revenue seems to be YouTube's only hope for profitability, and somehow I don't believe that the large bandwidth costs of serving a 10-megabyte page can be offset by whatever clickthrough-rate any advertisement may generate on YouTube without angering and alienating visitors. People go there to watch a movie or ten, using up tens of megabytes of YouTube's bandwidth, and I really have to wonder if there would ever be a sufficient number of advertisers willing to pay at high enough rates to support this

And in order to keep Warner on board, YouTube now needs to share even this hard-earned revenue with the music giant. Warner's bottom line from the deal needs to be attractive enough to even justify the costs of uploading its catalog to YouTube, constantly monitor the uploaded contents, and offset any revenue lost from the free availability of their copyrighted materials.

And Warner is just one company. If YouTube wants to stay afloat, similar deals would need to be signed with just about every single copyright holder in the world. And make no mistake about it: some videos on YouTube are the exact replication of subscription-only content from paid websites whose owners would never agree to getting their lunches eaten by everyone's favorite takeover target.

YouTube wants to change the way companies view copyright itself. And not every copyright holder is as happy about it as Warner. Universal, for instance, thinks YouTube and MySpace are "copyright infringers and owe [Universal] tens of millions of dollars." And something tells me there may be more Universals than Warners out there.

In summary, I think YouTube will have a hard time ever turning a profit, and an even harder time dealing with angry copyright holders breathing down its neck. Unless it can be the David that slays the Goliath of copyright, it will soon need to reinvent itself as a much smaller, more modest, more limited shop that no longer allows the nearly-unlimited distribution of illegal content. As a consequence, its viewership will also dwindle. Basically, I expect YouTube 2.0 to be the next Napster, going from a massively popular cult phenomenon to a small, struggling, boring business.

But wait, isn't Google buying it for $1.6 billion? So I'm all wrong, right? YouTube is worth billions! Right?

Absolutely not, unless you're Google. If there's one company that could integrate YouTube 2.0, a smaller, less popular, less blatantly copyright-breaking version of this website into its services and overall business model, then it's Google. Google Video is not as sexy or popular as YouTube, and it would make a lot of sense for Google to replace it with a better-established, more popular brand. Google is one company in the constant process of developing, exploring and acquiring new, exciting technologies, and building them into their vast portfolio, somehow making sure that they eventually start contributing to Google's bottom line.

Google today offers a free and totally phenomenal e-mail solution with non-intrusive ads, an unrealistically generous helping of storage space, and a webmail user interface so well-designed that it drives users away from desktop mail clients. Google also lets you publish your blog, and it goes by a separate brand name (OK, full disclosure: of course Mac Thought Crime is hosted by Google's Blogger, so I'm sure I should be totally biased), though it's tied in with Google's other services very nicely. Now, another solution to complement Google's myriad offerings could be the ability to easily publish and share your videos online, embed them into your blog, search them via Google, and integrate it into the AdSense network. Note that most of these features are already available, in one way or another, in YouTube. The integration could go very smoothly.

It would be up to Google to decide what to do with copyrighted content. If it would all be weeded out (save for the Warner stuff, of course), then of course, YouTube would lose a lot of its appeal. But as part of the whole Google widget, it may win back a lot of that. The chances of survival for a YouTube that strongly enforces copyright would be much higher under the Google umbrella than anywhere else, in my opinion.

And if the original strategy of reinventing copyright itself is to be pursued, then wouldn't Google, with all of its resources and experience and goodwill, be much better suited to spearhead such a revolution than an independent little just-out-of-the-garage outfit?

It shouldn't be inferred from Google's interest in YouTube that anyone else would or should ever extend a similar offer. And that's why I think YouTube should ask but one question: "Where do I sign?"

But wait, how can I still call YouTube a bubble if companies like Google offer billions for it? Doesn't Google's offer validate YouTube as a viable business entity? It depends. It may seem that the real plan for YouTube has been, right from the start, to build and hype a popular service and position it as a takeover target, then get bought out at the right moment. The founders would laugh all the way to the bank, and the buyer would inherit a whole world of trouble, including a huge helping of copyright infringement lawsuits, and maybe also devising a plan on eventually somehow turning a profit.

This is, of course, a rather cynical theory. However, to me, honestly, this seems to be the only viable one. And this, too, requires a lot of luck: YouTube needs a very brave, very gullible buyer... Or Google. (By the way, doesn't YouTube even look like Google? Maybe it was intended, right from the start, to be bought out by the search engine giant? OK, too far.)
The following NY Times quote, however, contradicts this notion.

If YouTube agrees to a deal, it would be a sudden change of heart. Chad Hurley, a founder of the company, has said that he prefers to stay independent. “We’re not even thinking about being acquired or going public,” he said in a meeting with New York Times editors and reporters last month.
Not that corporate comments, especially forward-looking statements, are always 100% truthful, but if this statement was made in earnest, then, well, good luck, Copyright Slayer! You'll need it.

The bubble could inflate some more, and while they currently adopt a wait-and-see approach, some more impatient and trigger-happy corporate lawyers could just simply burst it one day by firing off some of those nasty lawsuits.

If YouTube tries to go it alone, I fear that in two years' time, its name will tend to be preceded by the word "remember" in most editorials, as well as blog and forum posts.

"Remember YouTube? The company I used to hype the hell out of when they were the shit? Now that they're gone, let me poke some fun at their expense to keep up with current trend."

That's just my two cents, of course. Add it to Google's offer. Hmmmmm, $1,600,000,000.02.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On Lightroom and clueless CEOs

This happened to me years ago. I was fed up with the gross incompetence and immorality of one of the top managers at the company I was working for. I was a middle manager, and had a pretty bitter conversation about the state of affairs with one of my peers, the head of a much bigger, more prestigeous department.

After listening to my complaints for a while, he interrupted me somewhat impatiently. "You need to forget one idea," he said. "It's a fallacy that your manager needs to know more than you do."

In our European culture, he explained, we accept someone as our manager either if he's older than us, or he's more competent than us in what we do. And that's wrong. He suggested I get more used to American-style management, where all a leader is required to do is, well, lead (hire, groom, maintain, etc.) a bunch of great, competent people. He should not try to outsmart everyone in their fields instead.

This sounded great in theory. But here's how the story ended. This fellow manager of mine left the company after some major clashes with the ever-so-incompetent top manager. He went on to become a whole different kind of manager at a whole different kind of company. And while he had been universally loved and admired as a boss at his previous workplace, he was regarded by many as a kind of an asshole at the new company.

Here's why. At the first job, he had gradually risen to the position of management. He never supervised anyone whose job he couldn't have done himself. In fact, he trained and groomed a lot of great workers, including his successor.

As a boss, he was kind and understanding. That was in large part due to his personality, but then again, he was able to be understanding because he was able to understand.

Been there, done that: he knew pretty well when someone would bullshit him about any specific facet of the job. He was able to use his knowledge of what a task constituted when assigning jobs, setting deadlines, or negotiating compensation. He was as good as anyone at anyone's field: a characteristic that he apparently didn't think he needed for his job. He just happened to have it, and ran with it.

So what happened at his new company, where many ended up fearing and even loathing him as a ruthless dictator with unrealistic demands – a shocking departure from his previous reputation as a genuine good guy and great manager?

Simple: he had to manage people whose jobs he had never done. This is one big step to make for any leader climbing up the leadership ladder. Suddenly, you lose your immediate grasp of what and how everyone is doing. Suddenly, you can no longer tell easily a good job from a bad job, legitimate complaints from bullshit excuses, being concerned from being anal, and so on.

What do you do about it? I don't pretend to know the answer. But you need to make up your mind about how you would like to be clued in on the missing bits of information. Do you want to learn, or remain ignorant? Do you want to get involved and micromanage, or take back seat and rely on the expertise of others? Do you want to trust your people, or do you want to keep auditing them? You need to be consistent, especially in relation to your people: you can't go back and forth between extolling someone's competence and dedication one minute, and frowning on him utterly convinced that he's a fraudulent, back-stabbing weasel the next. And a surprisingly large number of senior managers get that wrong. I'm sure you've seen quite a lot of them.

So at the end of the day, you need to decide whether to become knowledgeable or to stay ignorant. Many agree that it's no problem to be ignorant, as long as you display the right kind of ignorance. And I'm in no position to judge one way or the other. I've seen fairly ignorant managers who were much better than some others with vast knowledge of their field and everyone else's. So knowledge is just one of the factors.

But how important a factor is it?

While it's probably impossible to know all about every operation being performed at a large organization, I might tend to side with those who believe that the more you know, the better you're equipped to make judgment calls or decisions.

And finally: can you really run a company if you're no expert at the core competence of the business you're running?

For example: can a sales guy run a software company?

With the obvious example being Microsoft and Steve Ballmer, you might also want to take a glimpse at Adobe, as John Gruber did, at its sales guy CEO, and the company's dubious (to put it mildly) marketing decision to shoehorn their innovative Lightroom app into their Photoshop "product line".


Monday, October 02, 2006

A blog, of all the things in the world...!

Years and years in the making (by which I mean "periodically wondering how cool it would be to do it"), Mac Thought Crime finally emerges as a weblog.

This came after some internal struggle. Me? Doing a blog? No way. But then a lot of things have happened since the first-ever time Mac Thought Crime was mentioned (and yes, that link does point back to the Web's Middle Ages) as a project to be launched, erm, soon. First, blogs were born as such. Then, another few years later (and still no sign of Mac Thought Crime save for a few first and mostly second-level domains containing little other than yet more "coming soon" pages), blogs started to become a legit source of information (as the link from 2002 proves, pointing to the ever-so-legit Wired Magazine).

After all, the main focus of my... blog... (OK, I'm now comfortable saying that) will be opinion pieces on all things Mac (and sometimes beyond), and what better way is there out there than a blog to post stuff like that?

So here I come now, trading in a bunch of unannounced features that will be, erm, coming soon, for the ability to start publishing stuff immediately. I might have frowned upon blogs as somewhat inferior, perhaps superficial creatures of the Web, but that is definitely no more. There are some insanely great blogs that can and will serve as a tremendous source of inspiration for yours truly (first and foremost, the inimitable, oft-updated and always spot-on Daring Fireball). So blogging is serious business, folks (OK, maybe not always).

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen... I give you... Mac Thought Crime.