Episode One Hundred and Twenty Three: A Continued Error; Nadella; Hypermedia

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m at a cafe up the road from our house after having run an innumerable run of errands today. There’s something that I’m struggling with after having had good friends come and visit over the weekend which is the thought that today’s A-list cities have peaked. Of course, I’m allowed to say this, not living in an A-list city anymore, but the sense that I have amongst my rat-catcher network is that London and San Francisco and New York whilst still great attractors of opportunity and mixers and producers and not even melting pots but agitators are somehow *tired* and hard work for anyone over thirty five and wants a family, and isn’t in, say, the top two percent.

Until moving to America, I hadn’t realised how geographically oriented this place is. Media, go work in New York. Entertainment, go work in LA. Tech, go work in the Bay Area. Certain industries are just concentrated in a way that isn’t really possible in a place like England (not now that certain industries were gutted by a certain prime minister), and the industries that the UK *does* have now, benefit from being in close quarters with each other in the way that London is pretty much the UK’s “only” city.

In other words: our cities aren’t fit for purpose anymore. What would make them so?

1.0 A Continued Error

So the thing about screens is not the physical dimensions but the effective visual area. Turns out (citation needed!) that people tend to hold screens at roughly the right distance to maintain the same effective area. So you’ll hold your phone closer, but sit back further from that 55in plasma screen, or sit a certain distance from your laptop. Makes sense, I suppose. There’s all this talk – I saw a conversation on Twitter about Microsoft’s Xbox strategy now that they’ve formally stated they won’t be dumping the unit – about whether a living room strategy is still the right one to be pursuing, or if instead Microsoft would be more on-point if they were pursuing Microsoft on Every Screen Everywhere, and a more cloud-based thing, rather than doggedly sticking to the Biggest Screen In The House through an Expensive Piece Of Hardware.

What I’m getting at here is the the primacy of the screen and its seductiveness. It’s easy to show video on a screen. It’s easy, now, to put a full-colour screen in a thing – everything from a watch to a thermostat, and we haven’t even gotten to the holy grail of printable OLED flexible, powered sheets with built-in computing yet. Watch everyone go apeshit for that, if it ever appears.

It feels like we’re immature about screens (in as much as we’re immature about any technology that we play with, I suppose). And perhaps that’s part of it, that most of the time, we’re not doing considered placing of technology into contexts, but instead a sort of capitalistic throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks model. For every Apple coming out with a (more or less) considered product “when it’s ready” – for certain values of ready that include a nigh-unusable shift key in iOS 7 – there’s every other OEM doing the equivalent of a cambrian explosion at the risk of being left behind. And then you get a bit of a sifting, a bit of a Great Filter of technologies and combinations of technologies and then before you know it everyone’s embroiled in look-and-feel lawsuits.

So this continued error is the persistence of calling things “television” or “video” when the bleeding edge (or not so bleeding edge) is more of an information-wants-to-be-free, and by free, it means “displayable on any device”. Forget software expanding until it can read and send email, now software expands until it’s got an mp4 codec in it or it can at least play Tetris. From this point of view, information wanting to be free is more about the bits wanting to be able to move from device to device than it is monetary value. It means I want to listen to music from wherever.

This type of category error “we make television” as opposed to looking at it from the user’s point of view and “we make video” comes across in a bunch of ways. There’s that reference of Netflix as a “website” when actually it’s about 10 years too early to be considered a “broadcaster” and because the shape of its infrastructure is different. But the job-to-be-done, when reduced down, is pretty much the same thing as a broadcaster.

At W+K Portland, there was a group called W+K Entertainment – there probably still is – that was effectively a separate production company. I think the idea was that it would create its own content, and one of its first experiments was a radio station. But it turns out that a radio station – like, a “proper” radio station, with playlists and music you discover, isn’t necessarily what the internet is good for, and the business model isn’t really there in the same way. You could do the same thing with a blog. You flip it around and you ask: well, what could the people in this building do if they had 10% time or whatever trendy management technique existed, and you ask: what could we make *without* resorting to the traditional production model. Because you’re kind of having your ass kicked by teenagers with passion, talent and time who’re able to take the time to build up an audience.

I guess this is the unbundling that everyone’s talking about. The more expensive(ish) multi-purpose device that does everything that all your other stuff used to do. That reduces TV to an app. Hey broadcasters, you’re just an app! And, for those wanting to reach an audience, it turns out there are so many more (not easier, not necessarily better) ways to reach and build audiences, too.

Of course, none of this matters if you stay the course and don’t listen to the established players. Netflix can quite happily continue doing what it’s doing whilst everyone else digs their heels in.

2.0 Nadella

So smarter people than me like Jean-Louis Gassée have picked apart[1] Satya Nadella’s latest Full-Bleed Photograph Vertically Scrolling Mobile Friendly Internal Email Stroke Corporate Vision Stroke Manifesto[2] – the opposite of a burning platform, if you will – and, by the way, bad URL!

For me, the part that’s jarring is the non-specific “we will obsess over our customers”, which you’d kind of expect a company like Microsoft to do. This falls into Gassée’s “can I disagree with it” taste test, in which case you ask yourself: well, why wouldn’t we obsess over our customers? Shall we instead just gently consider them, but then just get on with shipping product that doesn’t fit their needs?

And secondly, part of Microsoft’s problem has always been figuring out who their customers actually are. Are they enterprise, in which case they’re not end-users. Are they living room gamers, in which case they’re not the entertainment software publishers. Are they carriers and OEMs, in which case they’re not end-users. Or are they, in 2014, also themselves? Microsoft is already competing with its partners through its strategy of both licensing-out its platform and creating its own products in Surface and the Nokia acquisition.

[1] Microsoft’s New CEO Needs An Editor

[2] Satya Nadella’s email to employees: Bold ambition and our core

3.0 Hypermedia

Russel Davies wrote a good post pointing to a book on hypermedia[1] where he points out that it *looks* and feels like how the future should look, but that there’s no internet in it whatsoever. He asks whether the web just blindsided people, which strikes me as pretty plausible – the book was written in 1992, and 1990’s Hyperland[2] also completely misses networks. The preoccupation with hypermedia (and in the same way, we see it with Neal Stephenson’s hypercard stack) precluded interlinked-links, instead thinking of media objects as some sort of giant binary blobs with incredibly complicated *internal* structure, but not reaching out. Instead, islands of unconnected complexity, forever alone.

So I revise my position. The thing about the web is the networked link. Things that don’t respect or build upon the networked link don’t capitalise upon what makes the web unique. For thine is the network, the link and the protocol, forever and forever, 200 OK.

[1] not understanding hypermedia

[2] Episode 23: Hyperland

[3] Episode 64: Snow Crashing (6)

OK, more notes please. They’re really easy to write. And they’re much more interesting to read and to reply to than the relative insanity of going through a car-buying process (Subaru Outback, if you’re interested.)