Monthly Archives: November 2004

Software stories

Anyone who does product design or marketing should read this entertaining and inspiring account of the history of a Mac software product called Audion. Why? Because a) more and more products will be made and marketed like software (and because more and more products will actually be software), b) because the Panic team’s passion and sense of fun should be a model for any product team, c) because story telling should be more important in product marketing and d) because this kind of honesty and modesty is rare in business and should be encouraged…

Trying to keep up…

I’ll tell you something, either I’m getting old or podcasting (a concept so new that Google is still trying to correct me when I search for it) is going mainstream waaaaay too fast. Last week I spent a boozy evening (boozy enough to fall asleep on the train home again – Hello Harpenden!) in a smoke-filled room above one of those Soho clubs (no, not those Soho clubs) talking with a bunch of top media execs about, among other things, torrents, podcasting, Creative Commons and blogging – blimey. This is obviously going to be a really important area and I’m going to start meeting VCs who are ‘watching’ podcasting (just like they were ‘watching’ RSS last year and ‘watching’ blogging the year before that).

A flurry of links: iTunes Applescript guru Doug is now Podcasting (and why wouldn’t he?). Gigadial threatens to absorb the next six months of my life. At least I can pretend to be working while I’m listening (if you’re as old as me you’ll need this overview page). I think this clever thing allows you to publish torrents via your blog (and RSS, natch), which at least sounds useful. iPodder 1.1 is obviously worth a donation (I think I’ve finally found a reason to upgrade that Old Skool 5Gb iPod). I’ve just noticed that iPodder.org is run by Adam “Big Hair” Curry. Funny, cos Ivan was only asking about him the other day.

Meanwhile, Ben Hammersley, the man himself, a man for whom I’d like to buy a drink one of these days if he stood still for long enough – even if only to learn what it feels like to have an entry to yourself in Wikipedia – has come up with his own handy slug of server code which captures Real Streams, converts them to MP3s and then publishes them as an RSS feed (the rest is up to your local podcasting set-up). He also links to a tool for doing the local bit which sounds perfect – downloading now.

We’re here, we’re Royal, get used to it

Prince Charles among his subjects
If you’d been thinking, before all this media fuss about ambition and status and education, that maybe Prince Charles might make quite a modern monarch – someone a little less trapped by his origins and his status – then I guess you’ve probably had another think by now. Prince Charles is cut from the same cloth as his parents and theirs before him (and so on back to Canute or The Kaiser or whoever). Perhaps it’s unfair to expect otherwise. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

I’m no monarchist but I’m tolerant of the British monarchy within the context of what you have to acknowledge has been a very robust and successful constitutional democracy across the centuries. Maybe I’m just getting old but I fear the absolutist logic of republicanism: “look, it’s anachronistic! Abolish it!”. I think we’ve learnt that our freedom and our prosperity and our relative stability as well as the other less easily-defined benefits of being British (and the disadvantages, inequities and general weirdness) are all suspended in a pretty fragile web of institutions and habits of mind, some of which we need to preserve even if they look frankly ‘out-of-time’. That’s not a defense of the status quo – I’m in favour of real reform all over the funny old British polity – just a defense of complexity, contradiction (and the ad hoc) in its formation.

Having said all that, there’s really no way of interpreting the Prince’s memo as anything other than an off-guard defense of old-fashioned deference, unearned privilege and patronage. The Prince of Wales is a Royal after all and he ought to understand that his position at the top of the genetic pyramid is fragile too – contingent on the continued tolerance of the British people for his mediaeval rank and Victorian manner. The memo reveals a complacency about his God-given status and his automatic ascendancy that makes this loyal subject squirm. The ‘head of state’ remark is a total give-away – it might as well read: “I’m the only future Head of State in this office and don’t you forget it!”. Charles can hardly be oblivious to the world around him but it looks like he’s forgotten that, in 21st Century Britain, his power and privilege are guaranteed not by custom or ancient law or even loyalty but by public approval.

No. The BBC does not have a Nectar Card

No. I do not have a Nectar card
Fi Glover opened Sunday’s Broadcasting House on Radio 4 by saying, enigmatically, “No. We do not have a Nectar Card”. She offered no explanation and didn’t return to the topic so I took this as a piece of clever and sympathetic covert marketing for my anti-loyalty ‘No. I do not have a Nectar Card’ t-shirts which are quietly becoming a cult item for the Xmas period. Thanks Fi!

People are buying them not only to help UNHCR (all the profit – $6 – from every sale goes to UNHCR) but also to make a strident and yet subtle pro-privacy statement while doing their Xmas shopping in the growing cabal of participating Nectar stores. Also, the collapse of the dollar is making these babies cheaper by the day (since they’re priced in $US), so I’d rush and get yours now if I were you, before they do anything silly like revaluing the currency.

I think I’ve waited long enough…

I’m really thrilled to be able to say that I’ve been enjoying Azeem and Shen’s new venture a lot (resisting the temptation to illustrate this entry with a wedding photo). Mink Media has entered into the Thin Media business with a rush and their first two titles are excellent and part of what looks like a really well-rounded commercial package. The Honourable Fiend (Westminster politics) is my favourite but I reckon Wanda Lust (travel) will grow on me too, once it finds its tone of voice (which is harder with PR-heavy travel material to work with, I reckon).

I’m enjoying Hon Fiend enough to urge the guys to switch comments on – I keep reaching for my quill pen – although I think I’ll understand if they don’t. Even this humble blog is now ploughing through 300-400 comment-spams per day and sorting out the real comments from the crap is getting more tiresome by the day. I think everyone acknowledges that blog media is still at best an each-way bet for the big time but ventures like this one are going to really help to nudge the form into the business mainstream. Good luck guys!

Book Review: brand fanaticism

The Cult of Mac, front cover, Leander Kahney, No Starch Press
Understanding Mac users used to be quite easy. For a few years at the beginning (maybe 1984–1989) Macs were undeniably cool and undeniably better than anything else you could buy. I encountered my first Mac in 1984 or 1985. Apple had made a gift of first-generation Macs to my college (the Polytechnic of Central London). I’d never met a computer before. I’m at least five years too old to have encountered one at school so I missed my inoculation of BBC, Spectrum, Atari and the rest. I’d never played a computer game (or even an arcade game). I knew nothing about programming or microprocessors or PCs or anything, really. As a result I was outside the geek/jock or geek/creative opposition. It never occurred to me that getting interested in computers might be in any way problematic, that people might reclassify me or demote me as a result.

I sort of figured this out, though, when I nearly failed my degree because I used a computer and not a camera to produce my degree show (although my attachment to the Crown & Sceptre in Great Titchfield Street might have had something to do with this. I blame Paul, anyway). So I figured out these strange new machines (I unpacked and set up quite a lot of them, even had a key to the computer room for a while) and began using them to make work for my degree course (which was a BA in photography). I finally conned my Dad into buying me one in 1985 – it had 512Kb of RAM and a 400Kb (single-sided) floppy disk drive (no hard disk, obviously) – it cost more than my latest Powerbook – about a year’s student grant, at the time. A fortnight later I blew about three months wages from my evening job at Marks & Spencer on a second floppy drive because I was getting a repetitive strain injury from swapping disks (they never mentioned that in the swanky West End Apple Centre where I bought it).

My Mac was a sort of khaki-beige and exotic and unutterably magnetic – I couldn’t stay away from it. It ran the excellent early MS Word, MacPaint, MacDraw, (later PageMaker, SuperPaint and the quite amazing HyperCard) and another lovely Word Processor called Nisus, which, weirdly, survives and has become my primary WP again). The Mac’s early ‘bong’ start-up sound is a perfectly preserved memory and the thought of it rushes me back to my cosy, top floor bedroom in Camberwell (and staying up late with the World Service and big mugs of tea and rounds of toast fetched from downstairs at hourly intervals). In my final year dissertation (1988) I quoted Derrida and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and used the Sun Microsystems copy line ‘The Network is the Computer‘ as a title. I cited Byte magazine more often than any other publication. No one (and I mean no one) understood what I was on about (including me, to be quite honest). I sort of had a vague idea that there was some connection between computers, images and language. Of course, I totally failed to prove this connection and I think my dismal 2.2 was a pretty good measure of the thought involved.

When I left college in 1988, Apple’s first golden age was already coming to an end. Jobs was on his way out, making way for a long dismal decade of increasingly cheesy beige boxes; a sad, botched licensing effort (anyone remember the appalling Gil Amelio?) and the slow demise of the eccentric and over-priced Newton (didn’t stop me buying four of them, though). The remarkable thing about Apple is that the firm’s fanatical following survived the middle period at all. The irony of the period is that the brand wasn’t sustained by the band of radical early adopters who were in at the beginning but by the people they’d become – the ‘can’t-change-won’t-change’ fuddy duddies with hair growing out of their ears (people like me). We bought Macs because we knew no better and were terrified of the alternatives. Anyway, somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.

In fact, when you’re trying to place Apple on the spectrum of brands it’s much easier to put it with the kookier fashion and lifestyle brands than with the other PC manufacturers: it’s Manolo Blahnik, FCUK, Diesel, fancy mountain bikes and hi-tech watches. This is why it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony. It’ll probably take a Virgin or a Calvin Klein to slow Apple’s progress in this weird collision of Moore’s law and downtown style. In the meantime, I think I can recommend The Cult of Mac, a fat, nicely-designed coffee table book covering in one- and two-page features pretty much every weird corner of the Mac universe – from the subculture of fantasy Mac designs to the hordes of people proudly bearing Apple tattoos on their arses. I say I think I can recommend the book because, belonging as I do to the hairy-eared old-timers, I may not be in the book’s true target audience. I feel a bit self-conscious in the presence of the teens and geeks and goths and video artists who seem to be the brand’s biggest fans these days. Maybe I should get a Dell.

Incidentally, the enterprising No Starch Press also published last year’s Apple Confidential which entertained me for weeks with Mac trivia of the highest order.

Gun crazy

The BBC's 'The Daily Politics' studio
Yesterday I was on the telly. I was invited (why? No idea) onto BBC2′s The Daily Politics to talk about the non-scandal of guns on eBay. It’s a non-scandal not because gun crime isn’t on the rise or because you can’t get practically anything lethal somewhere on the net but because poor old eBay (for whom I hold no brief but you’ll probably kick yourself if you don’t check out this really cheap job lot of Apple printers) is getting it in the neck – again – for apparently enabling hordes of scumbags and miscreants to deal in death under the noses of the law and in defiance of every norm.

As usual, the truth lies elsewhere. eBay, as its nearly eight million UK members know very well, is actually a big, open and thoroughly friendly place, in which illegal activity is frankly difficult. Guns and replicas make up a vanishingly tiny proportion of the 3.4 Million rare beanie babies, Mark 1 Ford Capris and battered paperback editions of Under Milk Wood listed every day (I couldn’t find a single gun – unless you count this). If I wanted to buy a gun, in fact, the very last place I’d look would be such a transparent and easily-policed place as eBay.

I don’t want to be flippant about this: I could hardly be flippant on the telly anyway, since my fellow guest was there because her son had been shot in the face by another kid a few years ago (I wish they’d warned me about that), but we really must keep the risk of kids obtaining guns on eBay (and other sites) in proportion. It’s important because the burgeoning eBay economy is already a significant creator of jobs and wealth here and elsewhere. We mustn’t put up new barriers to participation.

It’s difficult for legislators and journalists to resist the ‘something must be done’ reflex but imposing new administrative burdens on web site owners in an attempt to control the sale of guns would be the equivalent of closing all the level crossings in the country in response to the weekend’s dreadful train accident: an entirely inappropriate knee-jerk reaction.

Big Idea TV advertising

Michael Silver, Portrait of John Cage. Platinum-Palladium print on chewing gum wrapper
I love the way these advertisers have moved their brands by claiming ownership of human values only tangentially linked to their products. Nothing cheesy or aggressive about either, though – just clever, provocative marketing. I wonder if either one of them can show a boost to sales as a result. I hope so.

Unilever’s Persil has taken ownership of the very human idea of mess and repositioned it as positive, happy, creative and educative. The product is translated from a boring, functional, day-to-day need-to-have to a fun, involved and supportive helper in building creative kids. Brilliant. They deserve an extra 10 points of market share just for the idea that making a mess could be productive and not just an exhausting domestic nightmare.

Chewing gum ads are usually really horrible – grim Euro-puddings, made to run in multiple, unconnected markets and communicating nothing in particular (why, though?). Anyway, the latest ‘Get Closer’ TV ads for Wrigley’s (those hi-tech, wafer-thin breath-freshening thingies that dissolve on your tongue, I think) still look like they were made to run all over the place but they’re cleverer than usual. They claim for the product the idea of intimacy – of getting physically close to other human beings. An unarguably powerful, emotional idea. The risk, I suppose, of Big Idea advertising like this, is that the benefit produced accrues not to Wrigley’s but to the category and any sales boost is spread evenly across all the breath products (also, they use that brilliant, super-feel-good Hanson record).

And, speaking of tangential links, get this: the picture is a gorgeous Platinum-Palladium print of John Cage on a chewing gum wrapper. What can I say?

Peel and Day – more really good radio

John Peel
You really can’t overstate the richness and usefulness of the BBC’s radio output. Not possible – honestly. A couple of brilliant examples: Peter Day does great business radio (against the odds, you might argue, in an environment like the BBC where business usually gets a pretty poor write-up) and has done for years. Here’s an outstanding show from his In Business series about the decades-long battle between AMD‘s Jerry Sanders and Intel‘s Robert Noyce. I haven’t heard an account of this fundamentally important dispute anywhere else. Understated and clever and historically valuable.

Even better – I sort of knew that the only really definitive Peel tribute would come from Andy Kershaw but it took me a while to find out that it went out in his Radio 3 slot. This is really lovely radio. The Radio 1 tributes were well-meaning but all together too chirpy. This one is emotional and personal and sad… great music too.

The Kershaw Peel tribute seems to have been overwritten already so here’s an MP3 (I’ve taken the MP3 down because it was becoming a bit too popular! People have been Googling it from every corner of the planet. If you’re desperate, drop me a line).