January 2010 Archives

So Fraser Spiers is getting a lot of attention and praise for a blog post entitled Future Shock (subsequently picked up by MacWorld), wherein he argues that what we are seeing "in the industry's reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock."

He argues that all the vehement "ravings" against the iPad from "apparently technologically sophisticated people" are the result of these technology shamans fearing the end of their superiority over "Normals", you know, "the rest of us", the non-techie people who represent, oh, 99% of the population on earth.

Here's Frasier:

For years we've all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the 'average person'. I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort.

Secretly, I suspect, we technologists quite liked the idea that Normals would be dependent on us for our technological shamanism. Those incantations that only we can perform to heal their computers, those oracular proclamations that we make over the future and the blessings we bestow on purchasing choices.

He explains that the iPad is aimed at helping normal people get real work done, and that the real work is "not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS" but rather,

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party.

Okay, point taken. But I think Fraser forgets one important thing, and I suspect at least part of the techie concern -- that I share -- about the iPad is, how do I ever become an advanced user of it? Put another way, how do I fully develop and exploit a symbolic mentality about the iPad that will help me be the most productive I can be? Or am i supposed to just reach a certain mediocre level of productivity -- somewhere slower than the speed of thought -- and that's it, with the iPad?

A Brief Review of the Three Mentalities.
When I first met Alan Kay back in 1987, he told me all about learning theorist Jerome Bruner and Bruner's three mentalities: enactive, iconic, and symbolic. The enactive refers to the kinesthetic, physical doing, where your body is involved with the activity. On a computer, Kay and company at Xerox PARC provided for enactive learning and representation by means of Engelbart's mouse which you physically manipulate in the real world, but at the same time, causes a "cursor" to move around in the digital "world" on the screen. Iconic means the visual, image-based representation of concepts and objects, which on the computer means icons, pictures, drawings, and illustrations. Symbolic, the most advanced representation, refers to a higher-level abstraction of concepts, objects, and actions, often represented on the computer by command-line sequences, menu systems, programming and script languages, and so on. Kay and company at PARC pushed to merge all three mentalities for the best, most successful interaction with a computer. The Macintosh has always reflected this.

Some Examples of Symbolic Representation We All Use.
Speirs seems to argue that only tech-savvy users care about advanced stuff like the symbolic level of interaction with a computer. Not so. For example: macros in spreadsheets. Rules in Mail, that tell the app where to store incoming messages based on what's in the subject or who it's from, etc. iTunes is a beautiful example of the mixture of enactive, iconic, and symbolic. Smart playlists are like the rules in Mail -- they let you create playlists based on some logical rules and SQL-like SELECT WHERE statements that make it possible to get even more out of your iTunes experience. There are countless more examples. All kinds of apps on our computers have advanced features that we may not use or even want to know about until we get more proficient with the app. But eventually we all become proficient with some apps -- even if they're games. And that is where support for symbolic-level thinking makes the app really worthwhile, or not.

The Rise of Mobile and Handheld Devices.
And then the iPhone came along. Gorgeous support for enactive engagement with the device, via the multi-touch interface. And world-class eye candy iconic engagement as well. Indeed, the whole iPhone experience is iconic and enactive… very little symbolic.

A sidenote: think about Twitter for a moment. What started as short blurbs and link posts by users quickly became conversation threads and snippets, and in order to keep track, the user community invented things like #hashtags and retweets (RTs). This shows how a community of users, who get more sophisticated with a system, evolve from the simple to the more abstract levels of mentality and representation. In twitter, as users got more comfortable with the system, the short-hands evolved quickly and now there is a whole symbolic language that enables people to be productive within the 140-character confines of that environment.

Right now I am typing this document in TextEdit on my Mac. I'm not on my iPhone trying to type this -- it'd take forever and nobody in their right mind would. And now we get back to the iPad. Would I be able to compose the article on the iPad? Should I? Is what I am doing "real work" that Fraser Speirs would approve of?

What Speirs Hasn't Taken Into Account.
What Fraser Speirs has not addressed in his essay is something that I suspect techies like me immediately noticed and were disappointed with upon learning about the iPad and its set of features and capabilities. Not a sense of "future shock" at all, but an intuitive sense that we find it difficult to see a pathway that lets us reach a symbolic level of interaction with the iPad. I don't necessarily mean a command-line interface (though a Terminal.app on the iPad would be nice), but being able to engage with the iPad at a more advanced level -- through higher order abstractions represented in words and symbols that the system understands and that enable the user to be highly productive.

My central complaint with the iPad is the very thing that makes it so attractive to Speirs' "Normals". Sure, it's going to be an incredibly fun tool for "teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside," etc. For doing stuff. Lots of stuff. In a fun, deeply enactive/iconic way.

What has made it possible to approach working almost "at the speed of thought" is a fast computer, fast software, fast remote servers and high bandwidth, and a rich mixture of enactive, iconic, and symbolic representation where users can, over time, evolve their skills to ever-higher levels of abstraction, so that they can become ever more productive.

I wanted the iPad to be the replacement for my MacBook Pro. I wanted Jobs to show, through his demonstration of the iPad last week, how this new device truly is revolutionary and the next step in computing. But for it to be that, there better be a good story about how one can be productive at the speed of thought with this new device. There better be a good story about how this new device's user interface reflects a lot of deep thinking and care about not only the enactive and iconic mentalities, but also the symbolic.

Now, I suspect the people inside Apple have indeed thought of these things. And I suspect that over time, we will see new product updates that reflect high-level abstractions in the user inteface that will appeal to people who hang out at the symbolic level, as it were. For example, what we have not seen yet in the iPad's operating system (as far as I know) is a set of customizable hand gestures, or a custom menu of commands and scripts a la AppleScript, that let you do things quickly with the iPad that otherwise would require a lot of navigation.

But none of that roadmap was laid out at Steve's announcement. All the flashy hype so far is about how you can play media, and look at pictures, and watch movies, and listen to music, and sure, type the occasional short document or memo, and maybe move numbers around in a simple spreadsheet, but, nothing that really addresses what happens when I become an expert at the iPad, how do I keep becoming more and more productive. Do you just reach a certain point and then hit a wall in terms of furthering your productivity? Is Apple saying if you really wanna be productive, you're going to obviously need to keep using your Mac?

Steve repeatedly talked about how the iPad is "the internet in your hands". Great. But what about the internet in my mind? How do I get more and more deep into engaging with people and things via the Internet without having to depend on my hands so much? How is the computer going to do more on my behalf, and in what language can I convey to the system how I want things done?

My Future Shock.
If I am experiencing a kind of "future shock", it's a fear that the future of computing may be limited more to enactive and iconic levels of interaction with systems, with less attention paid to the symbolic level where experts thrive.

I consider myself an expert of my iPhone -- I use it at least an hour if not two per day -- and I am continually frustrated by how I have to work at enactive and iconic levels when I could be doing more at the symbolic level. I don't know what the symbolic levels are yet for such devices. Does anyone? Who's doing research on such stuff?

What we need, industry-wide, not just from Apple, and I mean from the entire user community as well, is more thinking about what the future portends for the symbolic level of interaction with hand-held devices that lack a keyboard.

When Apple used to promote the Mac as the computer "for the rest of us" they were appealing to "Normals." But Apple smartly embraced and supported all three levels of representation and interaction in the user interface. All these years, this is the way it has been. And suddenly, the wave of hand-held tablet and mobile devices suggest that the future might not have decent support for the most advanced forms of representation and interaction.

What then?

I was a fan of electric car startup Aptera from the earliest days. It was the summer of 2008 when I first heard about the new car company and its radical three-wheeled prototype that looked like a fancy streamlined airplane without wings. When Aptera let people place $500 down-payments to order a car, I signed right up.

Email Activity
That was August 2008. Around that time they were promising to deliver their first production vehicle by the end of 2008. Things were looking bright.

At the end of September 2008 I got an "Aptera newsletter" email. "There's lots going on here at Aptera," the newsletter began, under a headline of "Getting Closer and Closer to Rollout." "We're getting ready for our big move to our new building," they continued. The newsletter spoke about how they'd hired 21 people between May and August 2008. Things were still looking bright.

There wasn't another "Aptera newsletter" email December 23, 2008. Remember, as of August they were saying that the first production vehicle would ship by end of 2008. Here we are at December 23, with a new email newsletter, and there's no mention of the car going into production. Not a good sign.

In January 2009 they sent an email entitled "Letter to Reservation Holders" saying they'd missed their end-of-2008 deadline, and worse, the first car wouldn't be going to a customer like planned. Worse yet, they were going to push volume production back to a new date, ten months off, of October 1, 2009. The email also offered a new "Lock-in Program" which would allow a someone who, like me, had already placed an order, to "voluntarily convert" my $500 deposit from a refundable state to a "firm, non-refundable" state. No thank you. I didn't sign up for the lock-in.

The next Aptera newsletter didn't get emailed until July 28, 2009. Sure, there was a blurb from the founder, and an interview with one of the execs, and a sneak-peek of the production car's interior, but as someone who put money down to buy one of the cars, what I wanted to know, first and foremost always, as soon as I got a newsletter, was WHEN? When will my car be ready? What is the latest? How is it coming along? Not a word on the subject.

The next newsletter arrived on November 23. Oddly, it as designated as "Vol 1, Issue 1". Not an encouraging sign for a customer who plunked down $500 for their car in August 2008, and who has been receiving newsletters since September 2008. Who's running the show, I was wondering. And sure enough: no answer to my question of WHEN. When will my car be ready? What happened to the much-promised October 1, 2009 date for official volume production to commence? No mention of it in this newsletter. Does Aptera think its customers are stupid? Or is Aptera stupid? Someone's stupid, and in this instance I don't think it's me.

Surprisingly, on December 31, 2009, Aptera sent out a new email newsletter. This one was Vol 1, Issue 2, and right up front, they explained "why we elected to restart the counter on the Newsletter." Apparently, "many of you had written us" asking about it. This time, the newsletter rattled on about how the car body is composite, how the DOE loan program is progressing, more detail about composites, and news about the X Prize. But no answer to my question of WHEN WILL MY CAR BE READY.

Blog Activity
Aptera's blog, called "The Daily Charge", started on March 2, 2009, was a hopeful sign: numerous blog posts on a variety of subjects all on the first day. Wow, if they keep this up, there could very well be hope! I love when a company is transparent and is telling their story and bringing their customers along in real-time. But then there was no news for three weeks -- the next blog post wasn't until March 23. Not good for a blog that calls itself "The Daily Charge". And then the next post was a week after that. And then there was silence until May 19.

And so it went during the course of 2009 -- what started out as an active blog, trickled down to an occasional new post, sometimes entire months skipped without an update.

Remember, in January 2009 they'd promised that October 1, 2009 was the date that the cars would actually go into volume production. That date quietly came and passed. Nothing mentioned on the blog.

The last Aptera blog post was October 27th. Since then: silence.

Twitter Activity
In February 2009, @aptera started posting on Twitter. Between then and October 12th, 2009, they posted 367 tweets. Since then, silence.

Meanwhile, In the News...
Eventually, news of what was really going on at Aptera started trickling out. In November 2009, WIRED News ran an article, "Aptera Founders Ousted in Boardroom Showdown.

It was a grim article for someone who'd plunked down $500 to buy one of these cars, expecting to take possession in 2009. At this point I was reminded far too painfully of the story told in the Francis Ford Coppola film "Tucker", about the revolutionary 1950s car that Detroit set out to destroy. I sent in a cancellation order on December 20th. It just wasn't worth it, and I told Aptera that I was no longer confident at all that the company was ever going to actually ship my car. They did respond and they did refund my money in full, so I have to credit them for that. It's a shame it came to this, however.

This weekend I have gotten two emails from Aptera -- both unexpected, and both basically the same thing: the latest newsletter. How's this for cheering up your languishing customer base, many of whom are I am sure still trying to get an answer, like I was, to the question of WHEN?: the first headline: "Aptera founder to lead from the boardroom while pursuing new ventures". Heh. I have to chuckle. Been there, done that. Translated, it means, company fires founder, founder manages to keep a board seat. The newsletter quotes the CEO praising the "vision" of the founder and how "we value" his "continued support." Right.

And then the next article is headlined, "David Oakley steps down". This is Aptera's VP of manufacturing. Heads are rolling.

Then a long article about Aptera's chassis. You know what? I don't care at this point about the chassis. What I cared about was when was I gonna get my car? And here you are, dicking around with your customers on the last weekend of January 2010, going on for dense paragraphs about the car's damn chassis ("if you didn't get it by now", the article ends, "we are really proud of our chassis") when the Aptera world seems to be crashing all around you.

So as we enter February, all one can say about Aptera is that Detroit bigwigs have swept in and taken over ("Tucker", anyone?), there is no date in sight for actual production, the blog is dead, the Twitter account is silent, and they love their damn chassis.

Aptera. How not to market a car.

Impressive resume from a bold, confident Leonardo da Vinci. Not to be outdone, someone whips up their own software-engineer rendition in the same style.

Some quotes from the software engineer one:

In times of low revenue I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in maintenance and the refactoring of code public and private; and in guiding data from one warehouse to another.

I know how, when a website is besieged, to shard data onto the cloud, and make endless variety of mirrors, and fault tolerant disks and RAIDs, and other machines pertaining to such concerns.

Again, I have kinds of functions; most convenient and easy to ftp; and with these I can spawn lots of data almost resembling a torrent; and with the download of these cause great terror to the competitor, to his great detriment and confusion.

Yesterday's iPad product announcement left me less than whelmed.

I do not see this device as being revolutionary. Apple approached this product very conservatively, deliberately omitting must-have features and new ways of thinking. Instead, it's a bigger iPod Touch, it expands the market for the App Store.

What did I hope for with the iPad?

  • A higher-resolution screen. 9.7" diagonal form factor is fine, but 1024-by-768 is unacceptable in the year 2010. That is XGA resolution, for crying out loud. In 2010? I wanted 1920x1080 resolution: full HD. And I expected the screen to extend all the way to the edge of the device. Instead the device has a huge "bezel" frame around the display that makes it look old-fashioned (remember the first-generation CinemaDisplays?).
  • Two cameras, one on the front, for video chats, and one on the back to take pictures. The lack of cameras is a real problem.
  • A built-in telephone that takes the capabilities of the iPhone even further.
  • I wanted a complete, utter replacement for laptops. I wanted a device that took the best of the MacBook Pro and the iPhone 3GS, and merged them in a new product. If it had cost $999 (even $1299) and it had the best of the MacBookPro and the iPhone 3GS, I would be buying one in a jiffy.
  • I wanted full MacOS X, not iPhone OS. I want a Terminal.app. I want to install my own software. I want my own computer, not subscribe to Apple's idea of a computer (full of DRM, walled gardens, etc).
  • I want a computer that offers a revolutionary new way to think about personal computing. I want a computer that puts "personal" first -- that isn't just a collection of applications, but is all about the people I know and follow and stay in touch with. It is time for what I call the PeoplePad (or PeepPad for short):
  • The PeepPad would be a new type of default interface for a personal computing device. Rather than a boring gallery of application icons -- it's a focus on your peeps. Friends, family members, colleagues, co-workers, favorite performers, favorite authors, artists, politicians, reporters, bloggers, tech gurus, thought leaders, but also all of the news sources, companies, favorite websites, etc. that you follow. It's your social computer. A real revolution from Apple would be that it embraces social computing and stops trying to be simply a media player. Apple had the perfect opportunity to take the world to the next level -- to get the social graph where it belongs, on your own personal computer . The PeepPad would eliminate the need for visiting social network websites -- it would be the next-generation of social networking, letting you quickly keep an eye on everything you're interested in, organized and presented in multiple contexts depending on your preference at the moment. It would be your interface for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. In time, those networks would go away (face it, they are all doomed in the long run -- I give 'em 3-4 more years in their current form, max) or they morph to be cloud storage for your social graph but you interact with, update, and monitor your social graph through a device/app like PeepPad.
  • When you fire it up, or whenever you press the HOME button, you don't get a page of APPLICATIONS -- so very 2007 --- you would see an interface like the one above, with YOUR PEEPS! Something that monitors ALL of your social networks, RSS feeds, email, instant messaging, SMS texting, people you follow on Twitter, etc. And it shows you what is hot right now -- who's talking, who's trying to reach you by phone, who's left a voicemail for you, who among people you follow has posted something that lots of people are sharing/linking to, who has posted something new since the last time you looked. You could organize the icons any way you want, any size you want, filter any way you want.
  • A revolutionary personal computing device announced in January 2010 should have smart agent tools working on your behalf to monitor the important stuff -- your computer would know you and know what you consider important, what is not so important. The iPad is a dumb computer, it is the same as a Mac SE from twenty five years ago, just with a spiffier interface and a faster processor. But it is still dumb, and doesn't know squat about you, your social network, what information you need, what kinds of things you want to buy, what you would like to give away or sell. In 2010! Where is this truly personal computer?
  • I don't want to have to read books like I read physical books. Once again Apple has fallen into the trap of providing a photorealistic simulation of some real object, in this case a "page-turner" in iBooks, but is that the only way to read a book? In 2010? It is so old fashioned to simply copy the physical characteristics of books and replicate them online. What are the new ways to view books? The iPad doesn't offer any, it seems. Books are information. I want tools that help me find good information. There may be a new book that has one page out of 400 that has information highly relevant to me. I don't want to have to buy the whole book. I don't want to have to fire up a silly "book simulator" app just to read that one page. I want the information and I want it now, and in whatever format I prefer.

I'm sure I'll be adding to this list, but that's it for now.

I don't know about you, but when I use Safari on my iPhone, and I have regularly since buying the phone in the summer of 2007, I have noticed that the amount of "false clicks" or "unwanted behavior" on the part of the browser has not improved -- it has stayed pretty much steady since 2007.

In other words, for many web sites, I find that my intended action of touching the screen to scroll up or down to read more of a news article, say, gets misinterpreted by Safari as me wanting to "click" on a link. So right in the middle of scrolling -- while my finger is still trying to drag the page up or down -- the browser, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that because I happened to unfortunately touch the screen exactly where there happened to be a hyperlink, I surely wished to "click" on that link and jump to that link's page.

But no! Many, many times this is NOT what I wanted to do, and I find that I have to wait for the browser to access the other page, then I have to press the 'Back' icon, wait some more, and return to the previous page. When not connected with WiFi this can be a very time-consuming experience. Put another way: a very negative experience.

How many others experience this? Surely it's not just me.

I would say for every 5 minutes I use Safari on my iPhone, I get burned by Safari and experience this "false click" syndrome about 3-4 times. Over the course of the day, perhaps a dozen or two dozen times. Over the course of a month, perhaps 500 times. Since I've owned the iPhone, perhaps 15000 times.

It all seems so preventable, which is the part that bugs me. Seems to me, the operating system should be modified such that there are multiple types of touch: if there is a touch followed by a dragging motion, the program should take that into account and do the right thing. For example, in a browser, if it receives a touch request and it notices that the touch is on or very near a hyperlink, then duh, activate that link. BUT, if it receives a touch request and that is followed by a DRAG up or down, then even if the touch landed on a hyperlink, treat the touch as a scroll request by the user, NOT a link request. Oh, if only Apple would make this change.

I truly hope that the new Tablet computer will behave better when it comes to the touch interface for Safari or other apps.

It amazes me that Apple has not addressed a huge productivity / user experience problem that should be readily fixable.

At the Computer History Museum this morning, playing around with a PLATO V terminal that's being restored and donated by Aaron Woolfson. Everyone was amazed to watch it work -- this is a piece of hardware that's 33 years old, fully restored to original specifications, running over Internet to cyber1.org. Very cool.

More details in a week or two on the upcoming, new PLATO HIstory blog. For now, this sneak peek:

The plan is to have this and several other fully-restored and functional PLATO terminals up and running at the PLATO@50 Conference, June 2-3, 2010, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the PLATO system, at the Computer History Museum. Hope you can attend!

I did a video shoot of Alan Kay for the upcoming 50th Anniversary of PLATO Conference yesterday, and after I got done shooting the video, Alan told me a little anecdote. I'd asked him what he thought of the rumored tablet coming out from Apple supposedly next week. It made him recall the time that he'd been invited to attend the January 9th, 2007 MacWorld keynote by Steve Jobs where Steve announced the iPhone for the first time to the public. After the event, Alan recalled Steve walking up to him to show him the new iPhone in person. He asked Alan, "So, did we build something worth criticizing?" Alan recalls telling him sure, but if you could just make the screen 5" by 8", you would take over the world. Steve's eyes apparently lit up.

Perhaps Apple takes over the world next week?

For months now I've been receiving these strange envelopes in the mail. They're from Google, and promote the AdWords service -- "Start attracting new customers. For free. Grow your business with Google AdWords". Attached is a business-card-sized coupon with a "unique code" on it that's worth $100 word of AdWords advertising.

Okay, but the problem is, Google's data-mining to determine the recipient and mailing address is utterly, completely, wrong. So wrong, as to make me wonder if this is really Google conducting this promotional campaign, and not some outsourced firm that Google paid but didn't sufficiently oversee.

Some facts:

1) I run a website called "PLATO People".

2) One of the pages on this site lists hundreds of people I have been in contact with over many years to do research for the book.

3) On another page of the site, I provide contact information.

It appears that Google is slurping up random names from the "people" page, and then merging them with the address it found on the "contact" page, and then sending out bulk junk mail to the resulting "person" at my location. Did someone think that maybe this is a business website, and the people names are employees or management of the company, and golly gee, if we just slurp up some names, and then slurp up the address on the "contact" page, why, we will have a wildly successful ad campaign on our hands? Oops.

Here's an example below:

"SKINNER B.F."? He's on the list (I interviewed him in 1987). "DOMINIC SKAPERDAS"? Yep, interviewed him too. The "La Jolla, CA" address and PO Box? All right out of the "contact" page.

B-but, why? How? It's so obviously wrong. How many millions of people are receiving these broken junk mails? Want to bet it's some vast number, and Google is throwing away a huge amount of money?

I've probably received a dozen or two of these envelopes, with random names gleaned from my "people" page, sent to my address. It is the weirdest thing Google's done yet. Kinda wish they'd stop. I'm not in the market for AdWords.

It seems to me that the homepage for Google's Nexus One site is lacking in usefulness big-time. Compare the Nexus One homepage to Apple's main iPhone page:

I went to Google's page expecting to be able to quickly understand what all the fuss is about -- without having to watch a video, view it in 3D mode, look at a gallery, or anything equally time-consuming (this is the age of 140 characters and short attention spans, remember?). I'm not in the market for the Google phone, but I was curious about it, and for argument's sake let's say I were interested: shouldn't the homepage address my immediate questions? You know, like:

1. What are its features?
2. Does it have apps? (And an app store?)
3. How about tech specs?
4. Why should I buy?
5. How do I buy?

Google fails to answer 3 out of 5 of those fundamental questions. Apple answers all of them and more. Google's page suggests they do not yet know how to sell their phone, or don't care to sell to anyone but pre-sold geeks, whereas Apple are the world masters at selling to everyone, geek and mere mortal.

Does Google's phone have an app store? Who knows? It ain't mentioned on the home page, so I guess not!

I was especially curious about Nexus One's syncing capability. I hear, via word of mouth, that it is awesome, automatic, and seamless -- way better than iPhone's clunky old-skool manual syncing. I wanted to know about it right away from the home page of, you know, the official site. But guess what? I could not find any mention of syncing (or any other features), and I could not find a "Features" link, so I took a chance and clicked on "Technical Specifications", which sent me here:

What can I do here? Good grief, there isn't even any navigation! Fundamental design failure. I mean, what is the NUMBER ONE BEHAVIOR the company wants out of people when they land on this page? BUY THE PHONE, right? Where is the affordance to BUY? How do I navigate back to the home page? How do I find out the features & benefits? How do I learn more about why I should buy this phone? Incredibly, Google does not let me do anything on this page. It might as well be a PDF or a printed product sales sheet.

One might say, Google is practicing "ship early and often", and the page is "good enough". Well, it doesn't pass my "Boris" test (as in Gudonov, or, "Good Enough"). Or as Cory Doctorow recently put it so eloquently, "close enough for rock and roll." Such major omissions on Google's part are, in my opinion, pretty inexcusable. With a few minutes of improvements, I bet Google would see an instant increase in buy orders.

Based on the current design of the Nexus One site, Google seems to be only interested in selling to technical customers, geeks, who are already ready to buy and need little to no information about the phone.. Hence, the loudest, most obvious call-to-action on the homepage is the blue "Get your phone" button (no mention of "buy", notice). But if you are one of the 6.9 billion other people in the world, those who are not super geniuses, and maybe you need some REASONS to buy before you proceed, you are not given a lot of helpful information.

Contrast this with Apple, who are keenly aware that customers have many, many choices from many, many vendors, and furthermore Apple is keenly aware that customers are keenly aware of this. So Apple's iPhone site gives you all kinds of eye candy and lots of clear information and calls-to-action to find out more so that you will quickly a) be informed and b) be ready to buy. I have to conclude from Google's design that they either overlooked this "other market" or are not interested in it at this time.

Google, I suggest you rev the Nexus One site pronto. Study Apple's site, identify the TOP THREE behaviors / actions you want out of users on each page of your site, and provide clear, obvious affordances (links, buttons, whatever) that the user sees right away, so the user can do something rather than leave unsatisfied. Like I did.

Major changing of the guard today as @robglaser, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of RealNetworks, announced his stepping down from the chief executive role.

I joined ProgressiveNetworks (Real's earlier name before it went IPO) in 1997, and had an opportunity to work on some really cool projects like RealPlayer 5.0, and to work with some wonderful, bright people many of whom have gone onto interesting careers including now-US Senator Maria Cantwell, SecondLife founder Philip Rosedale, HelpHive co-founder Karim Meghji, and many others.

What I find interesting in the memorandum Rob sent today to Real's employees and to his Facebook friends is the repeated use of the word "consumers" and the lack of the word "customers". From his memo (emphasis mine):

. . . deep appreciation for the billions (yes, billions!) of consumers that use or have used our products, the hundreds of millions of consumers that use our products every year, and the tens of millions of consumers that use our products and services every month. I am also grateful for the trust placed in us by our fantastic carrier and other distribution partners. Very few companies get to have the global reach and impact that we do.

And then later in his memo he identifies the new interim CEO as Robert Kimball, whose own companywide memo doesn't mention consumers at all, but does mention customers. From his memo (also available at the PaidContent.org link provided above):

The Board has asked me to assume Rob’s executive responsibilities and has appointed me President and acting CEO. The Board of Directors will consider candidates for the permanent CEO role in the coming months. The senior executive team is galvanized and committed to making RealNetworks a company where customers love our products, employees are excited about being here, and we create value for our shareholders. We want RealNetworks to be a more focused, faster growing and profitable company. We are going to simplify the way we do business, empower employees to do their jobs, and hold people accountable for their results. I look forward to working with all of you to transform RealNetworks as part of this next chapter.

Now, some, including Rob, may say I'm being a nitpicker and that this is a silly distinction. But for me personally it isn't, and it actually brings back into fresh recollection the core reason why I quit RealNetworks relatively shortly after I joined the company. What I found at Real was an emphasis on eyeballs. Everything was eyeballs this, eyeballs that. How many eyeballs have seen the RealPlayer, how many eyeballs are gonna see this or that ad, and so on. Everything was about nameless consumers and eyeballs -- I never heard the word "customer". There was never a vibe in the company about winning the hearts and minds of customers. The kind of thing you know that companies like Apple live for today.

Looking back, one could say Real was a very web 1.0 organization at the time -- most web companies were, of course! But at Real the notion was broadcasting and the masses out there were, as the TV industry calls 'em, "viewers" and the radio industry calls 'em "listeners". The broadcast industry never called 'em customers. Sure, Real cared about their users, but I never felt that the millions of people who visited the Real.com site or who used Real's products were considered as customers. I just never heard that word. And it rubbed me the wrong way. I had come from a different world, from years running a startup company of my own where it was a joy and a thrill each time a new customer signed up or made a purchase, and it was possible in those days to even pay house-calls to local customers as a way to not only get to know them but more importantly learn what they liked, disliked, needed, and didn't need in terms of the company and its products and services. With RealNetworks, in my rather short tenure there, I didn't get that vibe. Things were too rushed, too large a scale, and the emphasis was simply on how many millions of eyeballs were seeing Real's (or Real's advertisers') pixels on the screen at any given moment. So I left. They weren't happy, and years later I got a serious stink-eye stare from Maria Cantwell when I saw her at a PC Forum event (Maria headed up the division I worked in at the company), but I had to move on.

And so, all these years later, seeing Rob (who I respect very much and think is a brilliant guy, and I look forward to seeing what he's going to do next) still talking "consumers" and not "customers" carries a modicum of significance for me.

And based on a modicum of change in messaging from the new guy, Rob Kimball, I would say I am encouraged for RealNetworks' future prospects because of his use of that single word: "customer". Time to load up on RNWK? Could be!

David Denby's recent review of AVATAR in The New Yorker use the term zahelu to describe what is achieved when "the Na’vi plug their braids into similar neural cords that hang from the heads of crested, horselike animals and giant birds."

For quite a while in December, Denby's spelling was the only form of the word to appear in Google. From there, the word propagated to message boards, blogs, news articles, other reviews.

I was surprised that nobody had claimed the domain name ZAHELU.COM. And then on January 1st, 2010, someone did. And presto, there is a new site, an AVATAR fan blog or something, called "Zahelu: Make the Bond".

Well, well, well. Today, Fox released a free PDF of James Cameron's AVATAR script. You can download it here.

Of course, I went and downloaded it right away. And the first thing I searched for was "zahelu" and guess what -- no mention of it. So I searched for "horse" hoping that I might find the scene where Neytiri explains how one takes the neural tentacles at the end of their long braids and connects them with the six-legged horse creatures' tenatacles, to achieve . . . shahaylu!

From the script itself (p. 54-55):

Did a quick WHOIS on SHAHAYLU.COM. Not taken. (That was ten minutes ago. It's taken now.)

But according to this LearnNavi.org fan site (geez, it doesn't take long, does it), the spelling is tsahaylu. As of January 5, 2010, TSAHAYLU.COM is taken. Gotta act fast these days!

So which one is right? Pandorapedia is useless; doesn't mention any of the three. Shall we let Google decide? As of this writing, Google's search result counts for the three terms are:

zahelu: 456
shahaylu: 4
tsahaylu: 3960

I still say Cameron's script has it right. SHAHAYLU is how he wrote it. But who's going to argue with Google?

Where STOP signs mean "roll right through", dogs-must-be-leashed-at-all-times signs mean "let 'em run free", double-yellow lines mean "pass at any time", 25-mph speed limits mean "50 minimum", and "No Christmas Trees Here" means "by all means, dump your tree here."

One nice thing about the first week of January: Bruce Sterling (@bruces) is back at it for his annual rant about the the State of the World public interview in The WELL's inkwell conference.

First question put to him was from Cory Doctorow who asks him to help him plan for the future now that he has a kid. Bruce fires back with a hilarious, biting, and brilliant reply that is simply a must-read.

Bruce may be full of it some of the time, but he's less full of it than most, and for that I value his insights like I would value gold.

Highly recommended reading. That, and see the movie COLLAPSE and you should be all set for the 2010's.

Amazon's Purchase Circles feature has been gone for a while. In December I went and tried to check it out but got this page:

"It will return," Amazon says, "new and improved, before the end of the year. Please check back soon."

Well, the end of the year has come and passed. (You know, honestly, I wonder if this page has been up for years and "the year" in question is not 2010 but 2007... 2008... 2009? It has been a long while since I went to check out Amazon Purchase Circles.)

I wonder if the company even knows about this page anymore.

Latest issue of BusinessWeek arrived and it's a doozy. Not.

Anyone else noticed? Was it just the end-of-year blues, all the usual companies pull out or run out of budget or . . . dealing with golf superstar scandals (Accenture)?

It's the leanest issue I believe I've ever seen. 68 slim pages, with very few ads. So few that one can turn page after page after page after page of articles without seeing an ad.

I wasn't even able to spend the normal five minutes pulling out all the two-sided ad pages and "special advertising sections" on why I ought to set up offices in [insert random country name here].

Did Bloomberg fire the sales team when they bought the magazine, or what?

I just saw a certain movie the other night.

Tell me, does any of this sound familiar?

Big, greedy corporation is operating a mining operation right in the middle of aboriginal territory. They're mining for a very valuable mineral. The aborigines are not happy because the particular area where the mining people are working as the movie begins is encroaching on an area very sacred to the aborigines. The main character, works for the company, and is tasked with going out to reason with the aborigines and try to get them to move away from the mining site. He's unsuccessful. But the more he interacts with the aborigines, the more he sympathizes with them, to the point where the mining company asks him, whose side is he on? After the helicopters come, he goes native.

I happen to be on a Werner Herzog spree at the moment, renting every movie he's made since day one. He is one of the greatest and most unusual filmmakers around and I love his DVD's, not only for the films, but for his commentary.

The Herzog movie that arrived in the Netflix envelope was a 1984 film called Where the Green Ants Dream. (Rent it from Netflix.)

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was stunned. Not because the movie is that superb, it's not that, but it is a very good and different film with some thoughtful ideas. No, the reason I was stunned because it kept reminding me of Avatar!

So check this out.

The movie opens way, way, out in the outback, in Coober Pedy, Australia, in a huge area that is being mined for uranium (as opposed to "unobtainium"). In real life, this really is a mine, where over many years they've drilled for opals.

But in the movie, it's uranium.

The action takes place almost entirely out here in this bleak, very hot environment.

One day they're just about to do some detonations, and the geologist, played by Bruce Spence (who happens to be 6 foot 7 inches tall), drives out to find out why some aborigines are standing near where the detonations are about to go off.

These are the two aborigine leaders. They pretty much always have their spears with them.

They try reasoning with the aborigines but get nowhere. One of the curmudgeonly company men (the guy in orange jump suit here) is not pleased at all with with the aborigines and what he views as their crazy beliefs and culture. (If you've seen Avatar, you know who this sounds like.)

At one point he climbs on his bulldozer and heads straight for the aborigines who are staging, one could say, a sit-in. The bulldozer almost covers them with a mountain of dirt, but at the last moment --

-- the geologist comes storming after the bulldozer demanding that he stop immediately.

The geologist and the bulldozer operator exchange words. Note the geologist is symbolically beginning his transformation - he's holding his "spear". (And note how frickin' tall he is!)

The geologist tries to show respect and listen to them and reason with them, but he doesn't get anywhere.

And so the company takes them to court ion Melbourne. (Once again, note how tall the geologist is.) The aborigines lose.

While in Melbourne they get stuck in an elevator twice.

But they take a liking to a particular green airplane at the Melbourne airport. The company agrees to give them the plane. So it's flown out to Coober Pedy.

At one point one of the chiefs climbs the plane and goes out on a wing with his spear.

Another shot showing how TALL the main character is.

Two of the aborigines take off in the plane and disappear.

The helicopters arrive to go find them, but they don't.

Frustrated, the geologist seems to give up, seems to turn his back on Australian civilisation, and goes walkabout.

At the end he walks off into the horizon and points unknown.

So I wonder. Did James Cameron, who would have been working on the first Terminator film when this film came out, ever see this? Yes, it's been pointed out all over the place how much Avatar pulls from other stories, including Aliens, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and The Last Samurai. Well, here is another film to ponder. And I sure would love to know if Cameron has seen it.

Like I said in previous post -- I'm disabling comments for now; to reply to a post here, reply via Twitter.

UPDATE - 2010-01-09: I've added a comments capability, driven by the IntenseDebate software. It's still a little glitchy style-wise, but hopefully it functions.

Ok, so it was a little longer than expected. Nine months or so. Well, I was busy writing a book (still writing it).

Since my er, last post (from 17 March 2009!), describing the server crash, I've replaced the server, installed Movable Type 5.0rc3 (which they very carefully warn you not to use in a production environment) and have been mucking around in it for ages. MovableType is a workflow nightmare. One would think that after all these years they'd get the user experience right, but no. I spend more time clicking this or that, waiting for this or that, trying to find this or that, than actually editing code.

Not sure if comments work yet. Because of that, assume comments do not work yet. Until further notice, if you want to comment on a blog post here, reply via Twitter. I'm debating whether or not to use MT's built-in comments or use disqus.

Anyways, this new blog is up, sort of, and now running on still-very-beta software. MT 5.0's official release was delayed, and I didn't want to wait. I'll upgrade (cautiously) soon, but I wanted to go live now as I've things to say.

Oh yeah: in the sidebar on the right, you'll see two sections at the bottom, called "Recent Archives" and "Old Archives". The former is for the new blog, the latter is for the old blog. Some day I hope to be able to import the old blog into the new blog, but for now, that project is KAPUT.

So, there's tons more coming over time, including tweaks to the layout, UI, navigation, content, etc. Eventually I'll get it right.



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The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear
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