Monthly Archives: July 2007

Defining ‘widget’

Widget: an American word, a potent metaphor from another era. Widgets are those nameless mechanical devices used in stories and undergraduate text books to stand for the output of equally nameless old-fashioned factories. In this definition, a widget is a complex item, made from multiple smaller parts, with an undefined function, itself part of a larger manufactured thing. A widget is not the final product, nor is it the raw material. It’s something in between.

The widget is the fundamental unit of industrial-era economics. It’s a symbol for the wonders of mass production. It’s a word that conjures up images of mighty factories, smokestacks and warehouses stacked to the horizon with identical manufactured items. ‘Widget’ stands for the epic physicality of industrial production, for flawless repetition and for uniformity of demand.

It stands also for the value added in manufacture: the work done to turn raw materials into parts and parts into a finished widget is capitalism’s primary process. The word is as old as mass production itself. It’s a sepia-toned word from the era of the Model-T and it comes in any colour you like so long as it’s black. Incidentally, modern industrial marketing – a set of disciplines evolved by men of the machine age, men who were the servants of mass production’s inventors Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan – was made to shift widgets.

And it’s a durable image. It’s jumped neatly into the vocabulary of the new economy where it’s become symbolic of different forces: the atomisation of business processes and applications. Not the repetitive logic of mass production but the exploded, distributed logic of the networked economy.

Widgets, in this new world, are still manufactured things (people still make them) but they’re not physical things any more: they’re proper post-industrial objects: nothing more than lines of text, slugs of code that call other slugs of code. They’re tiny pieces of software, mini-programs that you can velcro into your blog or onto your computer’s desktop.

They have limited, well-defined functions: like displaying photographs from your flickr account or fetching the latest forecast from Accuweather but there’s no real limit to the richness and usefulness of a widget: if it can be coded, it can be delivered in a widget.

Software, whose evolution to date has been all about, well, size, is exploding into a million tiny pieces. Application functionality is being subdivided and distributed around the network. It’s a kind of software devolution: functions will execute where they’re needed instead of where they happen to have been written.

Much of this is driven by the geek passion for efficiency and reuse, for driving wasteful duplication out of the system. In this they’re like those widgets from the industrial era: they’re about making the best use of resources, squeezing the maximum value from your assets. Out of this trend will grow an economy.

Ofcom entry ‘a bit boring’ says author

That Ofcom entry was a bit boring wasn’t it? Even by my standards. Two or three people have told me they actually fell asleep while reading it – one while driving a school bus at speed in heavy traffic. So I feel obliged to come back and provide a pithier summary. I think it’s like this:

Almost everyone in new media and broadcast wants a new public service commissioning vehicle called the PSP to start funneling license fee money into new interactive content.

There’s no good argument for the PSP because the conditions that produced the original public service media settlement no longer exist.

Ofcom is obliged to take into account the interests of all relevant stakeholders in producing recommendations. Consequently it’s going to be very hard for Ofcom to say ‘no’ to the PSP (although there’ll be some cheese-paring for sure).

So we’ll probably get one anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that’s probably a pretty good thing. But we should take a bit of time to decide why, in a post-scarcity, post-Reith, post-Internet world we should subsidise the creation of content and services in the absence of classical market failure.

Was that better?

2.0 apps that really blow the cobwebs away

Here’s a couple of remarkable businesses I’m really enjoying at the moment, one you’ll have heard of and one you probably won’t.

Tumblr.com

Tumblr is the mother and father of web 2.0 blogging sites: it’s so stripped down there’s hardly anything there. Can you tag entries? No. Can you run a busy sidebar? No. Can you accept comments? No way. But they’re on to something. I’m always asked to recommend blogging tools and I’ve always avoided it before because none of them is actually very friendly is it? Movable Type, Blogger, WordPress – they’re all turning into the blogging equivalent of Microsoft Office – sprawling multi-megabyte downloads with a feature count in the hundreds or thousands.

I feel totally comfortable telling people to sign up for Tumblr, though. School teachers, artist friends, small businesses, anyone who didn’t get their software engineering badge in the Scouts, really. It’s a work of art and I find I really can’t resent the absence of features, even ones I used to love (I use it with Russell over at Speechification, by the way).

gleamd.com

Gleamd is… well… what is it? I don’t really know, It’s been called ‘Digg for people’. It’s a kind of personality marketplace. You add a person you like and then other users vote for them. Interesting or attractive or otherwise valuable people rise to the top. There are charts. The thing is, the concept isn’t really the thing with Gleamd. What’s interesting is how it’s all coming together.

The company’s founder, chief architect, designer and marketing director (you get the picture) is a design student from Savannah, Georgia called Matt McInerney. This guy is a phenomenon. If I could buy shares in him I would. I suspect he’s going to be a very important man. I can tell you all this not because Matt’s had great coverage in the business pages or because Gleamd is all over the investor grapevine but because I’ve been watching him put his business together from scratch on Twitter.

So I’ve got a really rather unusual and very detailed picture of the process – from his initial tentative queries about a business concept and then a name to his first excited posts about working code to his first beta invitations and his subsequent, breathless updates on user numbers (approaching a thousand, since you ask). Gleamd is going to be a big hit because its founder is building it fast using 2.0 tools in the full glare of the Twittersphere (Twitterverse?).

Gleamd is what you’d call a native
web 2.0 app (and Matt a native web 2.0 person, I guess): invented, designed, built, tested and (no doubt) funded using only the free tools available to a young man in his student accommodation, working in his spare time (when he’s not playing in his Open Source band). It’s a pure phenomenon of the post-crash, post-Microsoft, post-million-line-app, post-McKinsey, post-Worldcom, post-bullshit, post-marketing, post-bloated-monolithic, post-big-dumb-fuck era. It’s very exciting to watch. Follow Matt at twitter.com/mattmc.

Living in cyberspace

cyberspace, innit

I’m looking around me now, trying to mentally map Gibsonian cyberspace onto a chainstore coffee bar in Chesham. This is what it was always going to be like I suppose: a collision of the prosaic and the magical, local and global, actual and virtual. It’s funny that the application that seems to most closely model cyberspace for me, here and now in 2007, is one of the simplest and one that could have been built at pretty much any time in the twenty year history of the idea: Twitter.

Reinventing public service media

Influential people at media regulator Ofcom think that public service media is in danger. They think that in a few years if we do nothing there’ll be a huge hole in public service provision. People will start to miss out, some social groups will suffer more than others and public service goals will go unmet.

After three years of consultation and debate they’ve published a big report about the likely shape of the public service media in the future (they call it the ‘Public Service Publisher’ or PSP).

The report, which came out in January, is fascinating and well worth the download but it leaves big questions unanswered. Ofcom’s persuasive but essentially unsupported premise is that we need a new model for public service media because the old one is worn out.

The existing public service platform (essentially terrestrial broadcast TV) is shrinking and fragmenting while competitive pressure makes it harder and harder to justify giving over valuable airtime to minority-interest PS programming.

Common sense says that you can’t achieve expanding public service goals while your audience is shrinking. There’s no point at all in educating, entertaining and informing the vanishing rump of mainstream broadcast viewers into their twilight years.

The slow decay of the current public service set-up is self-evident but not a good enough reason on its own to build a shiny new network-era replacement. Neither is the fact that cool and/or socially important things are happening in interactive media.

The geeks and the new media lobbyists have got predictably over-excited. They imagine a groovy, distributed, networked, bottom-up companion for the BBC (and the other public service providers) that hoovers up £50M+ of Government and/or licence fee funding.

Their dream entity will use web 2.0 methods to build out a clever, accessible library of content and services on the internet model (and, while we’re at it, fund a new generation of independent production houses in the way C4 funded all those little telly shops twenty years ago). So far so persuasive.

Ofcom’s job is not to rubber stamp industry fantasies, though. The regulator must first decide there really is a hole in the ozone layer of public service provision, then decide what’s actually missing (let’s assume it’s not reality TV formats or cookery shows).

The whole of the existing public service framework belongs to the long, grey era before multi-channel TV, before the net, before mobile apps, social networking, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogging, WoW, Twitter – before Tony Blackburn for that matter. The media landscape is orders of magnitude broader and more accessible than it was when Lord Reith brought the tablets down from the mountain.

And it’s not just the ‘new media’ that are richer and more useful. Consult the magazine selection in a newsagent or the three-for-two table in a bookshop next time they let you out: there’s never been a better selection of printed media and it’s never been cheaper. Public service rules written when a working class family’s weekly exposure to print media was an evening paper on weekdays and the People’s Friend at the weekend can’t possibly apply today.

Across the board, media is better and more plentiful that it’s ever been. It’s also more participative, user-generated and bottom-up. The risk is that while Ofcom and license fee-protected media worry about charter renewal, license fee uprating and a new public service settlement, commercial, advertiser-funded media is busy building out the de facto public service infrastructure of the future – on the Internet.

The heresy that Ofcom must face up to, before it does anything else, is simple: what if we don’t need any more public service media?

Of course, building out a user-generated ‘BBC 2.0′ on the net – a haven for community capacity-building, local participation, democratic scrutiny of public institutions, investment in social capital and all the other entirely worthwhile preoccupations of the tech utopians – would hardly be a bad thing.

Meanwhile, only a handful of big commercial media owners are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet and argue for the removal of the BBC’s special status and an even smaller group of free market legislators support them.

The seventy-five year-old implicit contract that sustains the public’s tolerance of the most expensive subsidised media infrastructure in the world is still in force. There’s no public pressure for Gordon Brown to unravel the Beeb and its supporting culture at all so, let’s face it, the PSP is probably a done deal.

Still, you can’t run an expensive, vastly influential public institution on autopilot and there must be no indefinite lease on the public’s attention. If, as is quite possible, there’s no real need for a PSP, Ofcom’s unpleasant task is to say so.

Have we had a good week then?

Stuart Cosgrove, nations and regions guy at Channel 4, speaking at Ofcom

I went down to Ofcom yesterday to speak to a small ‘stakeholder conference’ about what they’re calling a ‘PSP’ (Public Service Publisher). I’ll write a proper entry about the PSP later but, in the meantime, there are some pics from the session here. I showed the pics to my wife and she said the whole thing looked a bit too much like a Weight Watchers meeting for her liking…

Discontinuous marketing

A still from one of the Where Are The Joneses YouTube videos

I went to visit David Bausola and Katie Streten from Imagination: they pulled faces and comprehensively failed to buy me lunch. I first visited Imagination nearly twenty years ago to interview the late, great Ron Herron, a lovely and fascinating man who left a lasting impression and sort of inspired me. I remember thinking: “He’s amazing. I wonder if I could do that – I mean make a living being generally creative and interesting?” No luck with that yet…

Anyway, Bausola and his people are up to something. They’ve decided that our historic resistance to media made by advertisers is dead. Boundaries are blurred, fences down, barriers breached. You know what I mean.

Of course, he’s probably right. The rules that prevent brands from creating their own programming are out-of-date. They belong to the time when you used to ask your Dad “what’s on the other side?” The other side. In those days, with the war not long over and rock n roll still a fairly recent arrival, the risk that the commercial half of the nation’s telly viewing could fall into the hands of a handful of corporations really animated legislators and regulators.

An instinctive, Reith-era distrust of nasty, cheap commercial media (anything that didn’t have Malcolm Muggeridge in it, really) didn’t help. Laws were framed limiting what advertisers could do in the broadcast media. Only lately have these laws been eased enough to allow manufacturers to wrap their brands around TV programming again. They still can’t make their own shows and pitch them alongside the other commercial production houses, though.

In Bausola’s world, of course, things are totally different. Media regulation simply doesn’t apply. Ofcom, Britain’s recently assembled media super-regulator (responsible for everything from radio masts to Tinky Winky’s sexuality and quiz show phone lines) has deliberately steered clear. The net is explicitly excluded from Ofcom’s remit. So, as a result, what we’re seeing online in Britain is a fascinating experiment in free market media governance. Media owners online are limited not by a menu of tailor-made rules like broadcasters but by two things: the market and the statute book.

So what Bausola and his client have done is something that would be quite impossible in the broadcast world: media that is visibly owned by a consumer brand – by Ford in fact. They’ve assembled a pot pourri (did I just say ‘pot pourri’?) of social media gadgets (a blog, a wiki, a video sharing web site, a photo sharing web site… none of which belongs to Ford) and animated the whole lot with some genuinely funny and offbeat content from Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow.

The result is something with the feel of a cheeky BBC 3 comedy delivered in the ironic, discontinuous manner we’re probably going to have to get used to online. The thing is, the final form of ‘online content’ is hardly fixed. Bausola’s version – a scrapbook of materials in various media, sharing narrative elements, characters and settings – may be it, of course. My guess, though, is that we’ll see a resurgence of the linear narrative. Stories are so important to human beings (in every culture, in every time) that we’re highly unlikely to set them aside all together.

We’re also likely to lose patience fairly quickly with choppy, stroboscopic forms that trash the ancient pleasures and rhythms of narrative. Where are the Joneses is a story, structured – like The Wind in The Willows or The Godfather or The Aenid – by the passage of time. In this it hardly varies a tradition as old as language. It remains to be seen whether its reliance on multiple parallel narrative axes, quite demanding jumps from medium to medium (and site to site) and an arbitrarily periodic structure, will win it millions of switched-on, hyper-linked viewers or just leave them wondering what’s going on.

Planklantis

The story: Russell and his friends from the Electro Plankton Quartet played for ten minutes on their Nintendo DSs at Interesting 2007. The music was recorded, of course. I twittered an amazing video from the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis and Garret Keogh twittered back that I ought to pair the music and the video. So I did. Result: masterpiece.