Tuesday, June 21, 2005

So is this finally what they meant by New Media?

I was chucking out some old magazines the other day as I prepare to vacant Aotearoa and head off to England to seek fame and fortune and I came across an old Time magazine with the title page "The Strange New World of the Internet". This bought back all sorts of memories for me about the days when the internet was just starting to cause ripples. It really amazes me how far we have come in such a short period of time, less than fifteen years ago the internet was primarily a text based medium with fairly narrow bandwidth but even back before the web was the primary window into the internet, people were seeing the potential for it to revolutionise the media and the way people of the planet communicate. Probably not bad and somewhat obvious assumption, but we are really only now seeing the beginning of some of the things speculated on way back in the early days of the web.

Back in the early nineties I collected a whole bunch of magazine and news articles, like that Time magazine, just as the internet broke out of the cloistered arena of academic institutes and into the wider world. Back then there really weren't any generally available magazines (other than industry and academic papers) around with any sort of focus on the internet as such. There was the odd mag dedicated to BBS's and the odd article filling a few pages in the likes of Time magazine. So when something hit the headlines I usually grabbed and consumed it. Then along came Wired magazine.

Starting out before the web really existed in the public mind, Wired was a funky magazine full of edgy and hip techno articles heavily flavoured with a focus on the emerging internet, which was back then known and accessed via a collection of old school services such as irc, gopher, telnet, ftp, mail and Usenet. Wired had articles and information about all sorts of cool stuff that you could reach out and touch on the internet if you were lucky enough to access to a connection. I remember finding the Coke machine at some university (CMU and MIT) in the US that you could 'finger' to find out how many cans of Coke were available and if they were cold or not. Sounds silly now, but back then the idea of communicating with something as odd as a Coke machine was very cool indeed. Especially since the machine would respond in what seemed impossibly quick time to give you real up-to-the-second information about a piece of the world thousands of miles from you. Every month Wired published a new list of cool little 'sites' you could find like this, it was great fun! Add to these funky tidbits, articles by guys like Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly and Wired was defining and shaping the new internet culture, leading the way into the future of this great "New Media"

As the web became more pervasive, speculation about the delivery of new content via this New Media was becoming more and more common. We were told to expect to use electronic newspaper content more often than the paper stuff, personalised news portals would be the way to get your daily dose of information. Multimedia content would be streamed to you via the web, opening up choice far greater than what you could find on conventional media. You'd need an internet feed and news ticker on your desk at all times because you must be wired in! Services and tools like RealMedia, and PointCast (remember that! The 'push' buzz word) exploited these ideas to deliver some of the these promises. It was a start.

This was the vision being cast during the early emergence of the public internet, a grand vision of ultimate choice and opportunity. Then along came the .com bubble... Suddenly the internet was no longer a place where new media and forms of expression were the dominant pursuit, now the net was a shop front, an information super highway, a new way to make a buck or in fact a lot of bucks. The .com monsters came in and refocused the world on this false economy. Ridiculous amounts of money were tossed at any hair brained idea that promised some sort of internet based aspect. Stuff on the internet suddenly had to be worth something and it was calculated by the amount of money it could make through an IPO. Perfectly sane companies rebranded so that their new identity reflected some feeling of net savvyness even if there was none there. As a result all through the .com period meaning, direction and purpose was lost. Although many great innovations and amazing leaps forward were made by some of the .com's, the freshness and funkyness of the "New Media" stagnated slightly as the e-commerce juggernaugt rolled by.

But now, beyond 2000 the e-commerce craze has settled somewhat, the madness of the .com bubble has subsided and the idea of what is a sensible internet business has matured into some truly great and now iconic institutions like Amazon, eBay and in New Zealand, TradeMe to pick only the obvious examples. The successfully internet based businesses have discovered the way to make a long lasting success is to consolidate the niche markets exposed by the reach of the internet, exploit the low overheads in having an internet store front, offer a wider and different choice to your audience than the regular outlets and to head back towards the ideals of the early web.

Traditional media outlets as well have found that the net compliments their offerings and have seamlessly integrated internet based services with their own, and perhaps finally we are seeing the emergence of a truly new media.

With the spread of affordable broadband internet connections the possibility to get large doses of your news and entertainment from the net is a reality. Sites like AtomFilms are both an outlet for talented animators and filmmakers and a source of genuinely good entertainment you can't find anywhere else. Web based serials like The Scene attract a dedicated following waiting as eagerly for the next episode as viewers of the TV series LOST. News in multiple formats can be grabbed from most of the major providers for free or little cost, the likes of C-Span offer a comprehensive range of news programming over the web, all on demand. The BBC offers a huge amount of online content, including the most excellent BBC Radio 4 site that has an archive of it's superb radio programming available. In the States PBS hosts many of its excellent programs online also. The scope and depth of content you can find on the internet now is breath taking, from very stylish, high quality and arty content you can find at Pleix Films to the off the wall comedy of Weebl and Bob, there is literally, something for everyone, and I have not even scratched the surface! I am sure if I sat down every night and surfed the net for new and interesting multiple media format content from the likes of the sites detailed above I could last an entire year without watching or listening to the same thing twice.

As well as the whizzy sounds and movies, new (ish) internet based services like this one (Blogger.com) offer an easy to operate publishing platform for nutter's like me to rant or for genuinely moving and clever sites like PostSecret. You can now get all your answers from the massively successful collaboratively created online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Google who are not happy with just revolutionising the way we find all this good stuff on the net, are creating more and more rich web services like Google Maps and GMail that are really blurring the lines between what you do on applications hosted locally by the OS on your own machine and what you can do directly on the web... To steal a tagline from another early internet pioneer company, Sun Microsystems, "The network is the machine"

So are we finally seeing the New Media talked about in mags liked Wired in the early days? From the mire and pressure cooker of the .com boom some real new media gems have emerged, but the maturing and renaissance of the internet as a new media mechanism has really only just begun. I can only guess what the next fifteen years will bring, but maybe if you look at the wildest speculation of today you wouldn't be to stupid expect it to be a close to a reality in 2020.

Microsoft and the Fox of Fire

No its not the title of the next Harry Potter book, but everything you are about to read is complete fiction and is based solely on my ill informed opinion.

For its great design, user friendliness and innovation, the Firefox web browser is my browser of choice and in my opinion one of the best pieces of free software on the net today and it really has enabled me to "Rediscover the web!". Now before I go any further , let me nail my colours to the mast here... I am an Open Source advocate but not in the "I hate Microsoft as the evil opposite of Open Source" kind of way. I think this mind set is a bit of a waste of time... Take away the MS marketing FUD and all other evil empire notions, In corporate land, for whatever reason many Microsoft products and solutions are clearly the best fit. Windows XP is the best desktop OS, Office 2003 has no rival and Exchange 2003 is probably the best corporate email system. That said, there is no reason why Open Source Software can't a.) compete with MS product's (competition is good for MS and for OSS) and b.) be used in situations where it is the best fit. For example the Apache web should almost always be considered before Microsoft's IIS product, why? Because Apache is a much better product and is often a far better fit than IIS.

What I really don't understand is Microsoft's "Open Source is the root of all evil and must be stamped out" approach... And before the four hundred thousand MS employees out there cry foul saying "We don't really think that way at all!"... Humbug! I have witnessed many a Microsoft consultant run for the hills screaming for a cavalry charge at the slightest hint of a non-MS option being deployed and heaven forbid that product be Open Source! Even if it does run on Windows and it is a better fit for the organisation, MS people still seem to get the all clammy and hot under the collar when an Open Source app is installed anywhere within the reach of their bogoradar. Now I can fully understand a company not wanting competing products installed in place of one of their own, but when the product you are using is running on a windows platform and has no MS alternative and just happens to be an Open Source product why on earth should that bother them? I know, I know you are probably saying "It doesn't, does it?" well yes it does bother them, I have seen it happen! I guess some people see things very black and white. Personally, my attitude to this (politics aside) is horses for courses, if a Microsoft product fits then use it, if something else is better then use that.

Anyway, back to Firefox. The Firefox web browser is one of those products, like apache, that clashes with a Microsoft alternative and in many cases is a much better option. Obvious features like tabbed browsing, the very cool extension model and its smooth and clean design immediately appeal (security I think is a bogus reason for choosing between the two, more on that one later!). While Internet Explorer has been sitting at version 6 Firefox leaped frogged Microsoft in the browser stakes. So what are MS doing... Well of course they are developing IE 7 which has many of the neat features that Firefox has (tabbed browsing being the main one). Cool right? No Wrong! I believe they missed a huge opportunity here... Here is what should have happened: Note: This is where the real fiction bit kicks in!

Seeing the success and widespread adoption of the Firefox browser, MS should have dropped all further development for IE, lost their fear of Open Source, and made a massive contribution to the Firefox project by implementing stuff like ActiveX and extending the browser features so that it can interoperate with IIS and Windows like IE does. Imagine what a cat amongst the pigeons that would create! MS could leverage an already brilliant piece of software and if they played their cards right get the existing developers on side to continue contributing. In one fell swoop they could have won over a chunk of the OSS community signaling an end to the cold war and gaining a feature for Windows that other developers could embrace an extend.

Yeah okay I live in a faery land! If only it were that simple... But one of these days I bet MS will adopt a small but significant open source project as a way into the OSS world, whether it will endear them to the OSS community or not I don't really know, but I'd like to see it happen.

... And they all lived happily ever after.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Blips on the Horizon

I know what you are thinking... What the heck is a BlipVert? The trainspotters amongst us will automatically recognise it as episode 1 (if you don't count the pilot) of the very cool and cult classic television show "Max Headroom". This was an 80's show set in a run down future (20 minutes into the future even) that featured one of the first CGI characters ever to make it onto our TV screens.

Max was born during the wonderful period of computing history when home computers where just starting to become common place, public access BBS systems were popping up everywhere and a new brand of fiction called "cyberpunk" was born with the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer. The Internet existed, but only really as an academic network connecting universities and research institutions public access was limited. For the ordinary geek in the street BBS's were king. Authors like Gibson started to explore the idea of an online universe capturing the minds of sci-fi nuts and computer geeks alike.

During the years when home computers and modems where taking off, the world started to get a whole lot smaller, people from other countries could reach out and speak to folk on the other side of the planet with ease. Living in a country (New Zealand) that is a long way from anywhere, this opened up a whole new world for the likes of me. Public messaging networks like FidoNet linked up countries and people providing a way of communicating with folk you would never have been able to talk to before. Because these networks were run by amateurs and not for profit organisations using expensive public phone lines, bandwidth was precious, therefore the communication was always of a high standard.

Today some of the stuff Gibson and others wrote about in their fictional online universes has almost come true. Almost all of us link in to the internet in some way on a regular basis. Online gaming and chat communities have created whole universes and counter cultures on the internet. Now with the cost of communications dropping by the day so much so that the signal to noise ratio is sometimes leaning favour of the noise.

So when I decided to start writing stuff for publication on the web, I wanted to use a relevant but not to geeky title that reminded me of the days before the internet was ubiquitous and electronic communications were just starting to become viable for everyone. Something made Max Headroom pop into my head and I remembered the first episode about BlipVerts which (according to the plot synopsis) are:

"high-speed commercials condensed into a few seconds, that prevent channel-changing and embed themselves in viewers' minds"

Unfortunately, in the TV program, they started to make peoples heads explode, so Max and the crew went about stopping them.

In the tradition of all popular culture, I have usurped the meaning to mean something good... i.e. This little web log:

"high-speed Information condensed into a few bytes, that prevent surfing past and embed themselves in readers minds"
That's what I hope these pieces are, somewhat interesting, maybe useful chunks of information that capture the readers attention for a while... And without the exploding heads bit!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Fear and Loathing of the 'B' Word

Okay so I have resisted and derided this whole web logging phenomenon since it hit primetime. Hell now every ignoramus with half an opinion and an internet connection has a soapbox! I mean why on earth would anyone want to read about what Chris did at work today, or what flavour ice cream was served in the cafe at lunch? Which seemed to be the extent of some peoples efforts. But hang on a minute though... I am an ignoramus and I have half an opinion on lots of stuff! If you can't beat 'em... Join 'em!

Seriously though I have recently been most impressed with the level of discourse at many online logging sites. What web logging has done is put some form and structure around what would have otherwise been badly put together and improperly maintained personal websites that would scare potential audiences away. Now, with web logs, people can have their say and not worry about crappy web design or having to decide on some sort of structure to put their opinions in. Otherwise unsaid comment is now widely accessible and visible via the best public access broadcast system of the day: the internet. Technology web logs consolidate information about all manner of techy things, political pundits have been born and made it big online and the intelligent everyperson now has a place to say his or her piece to the wider audience. If he or she has something interesting to say then people will surely listen. It is quite amazing how little rubbish there really is... Okay so left handed macrame might not be your thing, but hell it doesn't mean your cack-handed uncle shouldn't try and consolidate his left handed audience using an online web log! The point is that even if you have a very narrow focus on your web log, if you can atract more than two or three like minded people then you have consolidated an audience that would have otherwise probably not existed. This is the true beauty of the net in this sense. Small niche's can come together across great geographical divides and share in a common interest. I cant think of another way an average Joe could reach so many pairs of eyes so easily.

I have one fundamental problem with all this stuff... The name, and this is the only time I will ever write it on this site, 'blog', 'blogging, 'blogger' etc etc ad nauseum. Its of course far to late now to change the anything now that it is ingrained in popular culture. But should I meet the genius
(It is probably well known who this person is, but for obvious reasons I have not tried to hard to find out!) that put web and log together and came up with the 'b' word (as it shall now be known), I would be sure to let forth a long chain of expletives clearly expressing my dissatisfaction with the stupid sounding contraction that, to me, mocks what has turned out to be an important communication mechanism... I am sure then that the discussion would probably turn to a debate on the factual and plot errors in the Star Wars movies, as I am sure to an almost certainty that this person is a complete and utter trainspotter... Note: I really like trainspotters. Honestly! They are the most fascinating and interesting people on the planet. (more on this later!)

There I said it! Maybe I am alone in feeling this way, but I truly loath the 'b' word as the description that has made it into our language and popular culture. So as a mark of (tongue in cheek) defiance the evil name shall never be uttered here!

In his online 'b' word
a former workmate and friend of mine Darryl Burling, now considers me to have ascended to true geekyness embarking on this effort. Maybe he is right... I have some geeky reasons for doing this at this stage and some not so geeky. Some of these reasons I will outline in later posts, but mainly I sussed out what it was I have always wanted in my own website:
  1. A place I could point lots of people to and say "there is my opinion on X"
  2. A place to share some of my thoughts and interests with lots of people and see if there are any like minded folk out there. (Please don't let me be alone!)
  3. I am about to embark on a personally life changing adventure (moving countries) and I wanted somewhere I could let people know about stuff that happens along the way from my perspective
  4. Somewhere to put Google Ads to gather click through revenue!
Then I woke up one day and realised that's what a web log does and I should stop trying to figure out how to write a decent website framework of my own leaving no time for actual content and exploit a pre-built logging site. I also keep making off the cuff verbal comments about all sorts of rubbish but since it is never put in writing no one could nail me on it... So here it is... Like it or loath it, welcome to Blipverts.