Noted: The Mongoliad, “a sort of serialized story” for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Android written by Neal Stephenson and others. Not yet available; you can bet I’ll keep an eye on it.
Quick observation. I was tinkering with video sites, trying to figure out how best to pipe videos from my iPhone over to robinsloan.com, and was struck, again, by the surprise of YouTube.
Usually, we expect quantity to compete with quality. You know, like: YouTube’s all about volume; Vimeo’s all about quality. That’s the breakdown that we expect. Cheap and mass-produced vs. high-end and artisanal.
Except that YouTube is the quality leader, too. They’ll host your HD videos for free and play ‘em back as many times as you want, embedded or otherwise. They’re now bumping things up to 1080p. They encode videos in a flash. And it’s precisely because YouTube is so gigantic—because Google is so gigantic—that they’re able to do all this. Quantity is a prerequisite for quality.
Now, I’m just talking about technical quality, of course, and Vimeo has done a great job cultivating quality of a different sort. It’s full of music, art and wonderful stuff like this. Really, the “features” that Vimeo offers are social and psychological, not technical. That’s the right move, because they can’t keep up with YouTube on video quality. No one can.
Anyway, this isn’t a huge insight—just another example of the weird physics of digital media.
Finally, FYI, here’s a tip for video uploads from the iPhone 3GS: Don’t send the video directly from the Camera app. It compresses it severely, and there’s no way to tell it not to. Instead, copy the video from the Camera app, then open Mail, create a new message (to your YouTube upload-via-email address) and paste the video in. Voila. No compression. Of course, the video takes commensurately longer to upload, but it’s well worth it. The same trick works for photos.
I think this iPhone-powered storybook is really clever. But maybe someone with a small child can tell me: Would a kid actually dig it?
(Or maybe: forget the kids. What’s the all-ages version? I like the idea of telling stories not just on screens but with objects [including big, rich, tactile books]. Could you construct some sort of apparatus that extended the iPhone’s capabilities? I’m thinking out loud here: maybe it’s a set of little electromechanical shadow puppets, controlled via a Bluetooth link to the phone. You download new stories via the App Store. Each has a soundtrack that plays through the phone, and the phone controls the servos that make the puppets dance and shake. You provide your own flickering light source. And your own cave wall.)
As I was skimming the list of new MacArthur fellows, one name popped out: Maneesh Agrawala. Strange trails of clicks, via Google and graphics coding forums, have led me several times to Agrawala’s UC Berkeley home page. Sometimes (usually?) the MacArthur picks make you go “huh?”—this one shouldn’t.
His work seems (and this is my description, here) built on two things: One, the realization that pixels are plastic, and that there’s not such a huge gap between 2D and 3D after all. Two, the understanding that we need much better ways to help people understand what they see on computer screens. (And he’s found a way to meaningfully explore both data visualization and user interfaces in the context of number two. Nice.)
I’d love to see more people who make software, in any context, on the MacArthur list in the future. To the degree that software accounts for more and more of our experience of the world, and to the degree hardware is getting to be more like software, this is exactly the spot where giving a super-brain the freedom to just jam for five years could, well, change everything.
I’m pretty sure this is the first Agrawala project I ever came across: I think it’s still the most impressive.
And finally, check it out: He’s even worked on ebooks!
What about iTunes? Doesn’t that show people will pay for content? Well, not really. iTunes is more of a tollbooth than a store. Apple controls the default path onto the iPod. They offer a convenient list of songs, and whenever you choose one they ding your credit card for a small amount, just below the threshold of attention. Basically, iTunes makes money by taxing people, not selling them stuff. You can only do that if you own the channel, and even then you don’t make much from it, because a toll has to be ignorable to work. Once a toll becomes painful, people start to find ways around it, and that’s pretty easy with digital content.
I think this is a cheat—aren’t all stores just tollbooths, then? You never buy goods at cost. There’s a markup, a tax, associated with the aggregation, the curation, the experience. This is as true for a grocery store as it is for iTunes and the App Store. And you can see Graham’s anti-iTunes argument sort of fuzz out as the paragraph proceeds: It starts very specific, then breaks down into a restatement of that old information-wants-to-be-free digital determinism.
But that’s not the point I want to make. Rather, it’s that almost all of this discussion—not just Graham’s, but the broader conversation it’s part of—tends to operate from one of two extreme points of view: either that of the consumer (who wants convenience and economy) or that of the company (which wants big profits, or at least a business model). I find myself wanting—sort of desperately wanting—to hear from a different group: the creators.
And, this is as much of a surprise to me as anybody else, but finding myself more and more in that position—the position of somebody who wants to make content, and make money from that content—I see the Kindle Store and the App Store and I say: thank you.
Now listen, I understand all of the problems. I just got into another round of the iPhone: Is It Evil? conversation last night. (Our conclusion, same as always: yes, a little bit.) But if it’s not yet what we want it to be, at least it moves us in the right direction. In iTunes and the App Store, an individual creator can make something and offer it to the world for a small sum, and people will actually take her up on it. I wish that wasn’t so revolutionary… but it is!
But at the same time, I don’t want to give up on selling stuff quite yet. I don’t think the central lesson of the App Store is that people will suffer a tax if it’s small enough. Rather, I think it’s that people are happy to pay for things if it’s easy enough. And that’s especially true when those things aren’t the products of Super Amalgamated Content LLC, but rather of Indie Content Haus, or better yet, of your friend Matt.
If that’s true, then Paul Graham’s argument about iTunes leads us in the wrong direction. Digital determinism says it’s a tax, a toll booth, a tortured construct that denies the essential nature of digital content. Pragmatism says—without denying that there’s room for improvement—that it’s a joy, a gift, an opportunity engine.
Now, a question you could ask is this: Why isn’t iTunes proper—the music and video part—more like the App Store? The former is open to indies, but still dominated by big corporate media. The latter is open to big corporations, but dominated (so far) by indies. What’s different? How might you splice some of the App Store’s indie vigor into iTunes proper?
I think one strategy—which doesn’t really answer my question above—is to start thinking hard about how to blur the lines between software and content, and get some “content experience apps” (I promise never to type that again) into the App Store. (Paul Graham ends up saying something similar.) For whatever reason, as a market, it’s working for creators. So maybe it’s simply where creators—of many kinds—ought to go.