Thursday, 29 March 2007

I've got something in my Eyejot

Or rather I hope to have something in there soon.

Eyejot is a really rather cool tool which allows for the straightforward transfer of video messages. Robert Scoble interviewed them the other day (the Editor's Choice of this show is pretty good, by the way - scan down this page), so I checked it out and it really is as simple as advertised.

Try it yourself. If you have a webcam and microphone working on your 'puter, try clicking on the reply button below and send me a message. It syndicates with iTunes too, which means I can watch my messages on my iPod on the way home.

Interestingly, it's built using the Adobe Flex product. You can tell because the website I manage my account on has that clunky feel to it, along with nasty out-of-the-box interface elements such as the waiting clock. But still the quality of the idea shines through IMHO.

I've set up an Eyejot page here, and the link is on the right if the fancy takes you in the future.

Now, if only someone would send me a message...

Thursday, 22 March 2007

The future of television? Part 2

Apple TV has started shipping and, as you'd expect, it's been followed by a glut of reviews (and "unboxing" photo galleries). The influential Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal has cast his vote, and he is very much in favour. But the kids on Slashdot aren't so sure. Many of them claim it doesn't do what they want, and they already have a modded XBOX or an XBOX 360 doing that for them.

But while there are plenty of products out there that stream windows content to a TV (such as the much-vaunted Media MVP), nothing out there quite does it for me as a Mac User. I download lots of DivX content from the web, and want to play it on the new HDTV I intend to buy this summer. I've talked about the pros and cons before. Does it meet my needs?

Theoretically, Apple TV will fit right into my new setup. My hope was that it could somehow be hacked to play DivX content, but this seems increasingly unlikely. I was under the mistaken impression that the product had Quicktime running under the hood, and if you can install a universal plugin (such as Perian) on Quicktime to run DivX files on a Mac, perhaps the same would be true of Apple TV. But alas this isn't the case.

Apple TV only supports a few codecs - H.264, MPEG-4 or Apple Store content. So, if I want to watch my DivX content on Apple TV, either I have to convert it, or download it in one of these formats in the first place. Converting formats takes time and usually results in a drop in quality. What will my compressed DivX files look like when converted and then spread across a big screen? I'm sure there'll be artifacts a go-go. And as for downloading content in these formats, there isn't much of it out there - yet. This could of course change if Apple TV is successful.

I imagine by controlling the codecs so steadily, Apple can also control the quality that the Apple TV spits out, as well as tempting people into content bought from the Apple store (obviously). But it really is a drag that the product seems to offer everything I'm looking for, except for one crucial component.

Fortunately the main benefit of being completely skint is that I can spend loads of time researching my options. Also this gives the hackers time to try and find an Apple TV solution (get to it, boys!). Incidentally, DivX themselves are working on a hardware solution. But in the meantime, if anyone is aware of a great option that meets my needs, please do let me know.

By the way, I can share the results of my home theatre research here. Some great sources for information include, as well as avforums. And this guy knows his stuff, he gives some very clear advice and guidance. After reading loads of reviews and doing heaps of research, I've decided to go with the Sony Bravia KDL-32S3000U, which hasn't come out in the UK yet but which was announced in Las Vegas in February. A set of receivers announced at the same time also look pretty tasty. I'm generally not a fan of Sony, but in this case they seem to have the best product.

Check back for my reviews when I eventually have cash to spend...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

OFCOM in announcement shocker!!!

So, it looks as though OFCOM are going to investigate the Virgin Media vs Sky debacle. Well, thanks a lot guys. If it takes you a month to announce that you're merely going to investigate the "Pay TV industry", how long will it be before your findings are made? And then acted upon? And then for the benefits to filter down to the consumer? I'm sure Murdoch is shaking in his boots.

I'm not holding my breath.

The battle for offline

I mentioned previously that Firefox 3.0 is going to have support for offline apps, and the likely impact this will have. Interesting to note, then, that Adobe have made a forage into this market too, by releasing a product called Apollo. Summary: From a customer's perspective, Apollo will seem like Flash works when offline.

The surprising thing is that the release of Apollo has caused more of a stir than the coming release of Firefox 3.0. The Adobe marketing machine is perhaps the most effective part of the busines! Adobe have a track record of over-promising on their products, and as this guy succinctly points out, Apollo will be on a closed platform, which will be a turn-off for those who are thinking of developing on this platform.

In my eyes, the beauty of the Firefox solution is that it'll be lightweight. It'll have to be, otherwise people will drop Firefox altogether. It'll be so lightweight, in fact, that people won't even realise that they have it. For most people it will just be a free upgrade, and take-up will go through the roof - especially when Google and others start offering offline support for their popular services.

On the other hand, I think Apollo will be a niche product. Having to download the latest Flash plugin is already a barrier to adoption. Their main hope (at the risk of sticking my neck out!) is that someone comes up with a killer app that the kids just have to have.

And if you don't agree, ask yourself this; if you run online services for a blue chip company, would you want to invest time and money locking yourself into Adobe's closed product, or would you rather devote your resources to a free, lightweight solution which already has very decent market penetration across a very appealing demographic?

GigaOM has an interesting commentary on this subject, making the point that Microsoft aren't even in this battle. How times have changed...


Update: Mr Tiddlywiki himself, Jeremy Ruston, has pointed me in the direction of this - offline wiki editing. Interesting!


Update 26/4/07: Just wandering back over old blog postings and found this error, which I'd like to correct. Of course Microsoft are in this game, WPF is a very impressive product. It sits on the .NET 3.0 platform, so it'll only work on Vista or, if you specifically download .NET 3.0, it'll work on XP. But one could argue it is in this space. Mea Culpa.

Wouldn't have happened if Microsoft had marketed this product as well as Apollo though...I mean, really! WPF? No wonder it slipped under the radar! They've renamed WPF/E, why haven't they renamed WPF?

Friday, 16 March 2007

LCD Soundsystem: Live at the London Astoria

Following the release of their second album (speed review here), I was rather excited, nay, thrilled to find myself at the London Astoria last night seeing LCD Soundsystem in person.

They were brilliant. New-Yorker, Lead Singer, Producer and all-round talent jockey James Murphy belted out winning track after winning track. Highlights from the new album were Us and Them, Get Innocuous and North American Scum, but really every track was a winner.

There was one thing that puzzled me though. When they played Daft Punk is Playing at my House (arguably their best song), they played it at about 5-10 BPM faster than normal. This isn't the first time I've seen a band rush through one of my favorite songs. Why do this? Maybe they're bored hearing or playing that song over and over again, but it was the first time I've seen them live and I put down £20 my ticket. I want Daft Punk is Playing at my House at the normal speed, goddamnit!

Anyway, mini rant over. I enjoyed a decent chunk of the concert right at the front, dead centre, hands on the barrier. Oddly enough the venue was packed at the back, and there was loads of room for a boogie at the front. I got very sweaty indeed, especially to the great version of Yeah they hit us with.

All in all, a bloody great night.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Speed Review #5: Network (1976)

Stunning film, incredibly stylish. Sharp, witty dialogue. Faye Dunaway blew me away. Amazed I hadn't seen it before now. 9/10.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Dude, he invented the friggin' world wide web. Have you heard of it?

There is a concept floating around which is causing me some consternation. Having just got my head around Web 2.0 (or at least, accepted that the term actually has merit), I'm alarmed to find that people are already talking about Web 3.0. What to make of it?

What makes things worse is that one of my personal heroes, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web, or at least the principles on which it was born) is happy to use this term freely. He talks about "The Semantic Web", an evolution of Web 2.0 where everything on the web is defined in a way that makes it more valuable and extendable. But how does Web 3.0 actually manifest itself?

One of the first examples (and as Web 3.0 is still so new, these examples are somewhat self-prophetizing) is Freebase. You have to sign up for a beta invite and sit and wait, and I'm sitting and waiting. When I've checked it out, I'll write up my findings here. But the general idea is that the world at large will somehow tag all of the data out there, to make it more maliable, more valuable and more usable. But there is so much information out there, and its growing at such an alarming rate, how can we ever keep up? And computers already do this for us - Google have created an algorithm that powers their search engine. So what's the point?

It was with breathless excitement I attended a talk by Tim Berners-Lee this evening, namely the Lovelace Lecture at the BCS. Like a professor giving a lecture, he talked very, very quickly, hardly referred to his notes, looked straight at the audience and enthused about his subject. His thought process and mannerisms were incredibly quick and agitated, as well as most disorderly. His enthusiasm was endearing, and he had a sharp sense of humour, but it was pretty hard to keep up. My smart colleagues felt the same, which made me feel slightly less silly. But it was clear we were in the presence of greatness.

Trying to put structure around his comments would be futile, but the odd nugget did nestle in my cranium and I relate those here for you (apologies for the brain dump format):
  • Referring to doing the presentation in London, he said "As Simon and Garfunkel said in Central Park, "It's great to do it in your hometown!"."
  • Developing the web has been very exciting, especially seeing what people have done with it. Interesting to build big systems on top of very large systems.
  • Computers are now being extended to interact in the same way that people interact.
  • He made a nice comparison between number of web pages (exponential), the number of people in the world (ten to the ten) and our brain cells (depressingly constrained)
  • Looked at the trends on the web as an emergent phenomenon - you can analyze this, and identify issues, which you then apply your values against. This process gives you an idea, which is then tested on the web, people react, and the chain starts again. (Idea > Social + Tech > Micro > Complexity > Macro)
  • Explained how, back in the day, the web idea was actually very simple, they had stuff that needed sharing and linking and bookmarking. Plenty of experiments didn't work, this one did. His reaction: "that's pretty neat!"
  • The power of the hypertext link was that you could link it to anything. You didn't have to convert your existing content to html. You could link to any file. They did.
  • Initially, people used to get worried about following too many links. People felt they had to read *everything*!
  • Interestingly, he talked about the evolution of a note, which goes from a scribbled note, to one discussed with a colleague, to one discussed with a team, to one which is developed, to one which becomes live and receives feedback. The web supports all that.
  • Hooray to the people who inventered TCP/IP; very clean, very simple. They allowed us to invent the web and the things that will come tomorrow that haven't even been thought of since.
  • Case studies: google, wiki - all help answer the question: how can we all be smarter than just one person? Key goal of the WWW.
  • Semantic web is the next step. All the information on your computer can be categorised, tools are used to manage this data. How will data be shared and managed? The Semantic Web is just the web, but think of data instead of projects. Identify and use common terms.
  • On the Semantic Web, everything has a URI. This allows you to define what you're dealing with.
  • People are tempted to go off and find out what the customer wants, but often the most exciting and successful inventions are created by geeks trying to solve a problem all by themselves.
  • Big privacy issues arise when you try to use and categorise data about people, especially in the States.
  • Remember that there are plenty of things out there that can break things e.g. phishing, slashdotting, etc. - these will evolve as the web develops.
A couple of interesting questions came up in the Q&A. One guy asked whether he regretted imposing a royalty system, not for the money but to control people using it for evil means (specifically the Chinese!!). STBL did not regret it at all, he cited several examples where this model had failed and underlined the importance of people contributing to the project, knowing that they weren't sponsoring a corporate project. In any event, the internet and people treat censorship as a fault, and find a way around it. "I have great faith in humanity".

I've rattled on for long enough, but suffice to say that STBL has made a lasting impression on me. As was pointed out in the closing remarks, how often do you get to listen to someone who invented something that has changed the world? Even more rare to hear them talk about how it happened.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

The Future of Television?

So I've finally managed to get my sweaty little paws on a Joost beta test account (rare as gold dust), and have started playing around with it.

For those who don't know what Joost is, everyone will by the end of the year. It's online TV, bought to you by the guys who bought you Kazaa and Skype. These guys know how to optimise the use of bandwidth - and they're doing it well with Joost. They're using the same principles as BitTorrent to distribute content (footage which is downloaded is also uploaded back to the swarm, sharing the load). This method improves the quality of the footage. At the risk of cutting to the chase, it's like a high-picture-quality-YouTube.

And it's that high-quality picture aspect that is making a lot of waves. YouTube is fine for short entertainment clips, but most people wouldn't want to watch a full length TV show or film on a small segment of a small screen at such poor resolution.

So, how does Joost look? Background: I have a 2 meg connection (yeah, I know, I should upgrade) and was watching it on a Dell Latitude X1 (specs here). The content loaded quickly (about 5 seconds), and then was pretty decent quality. Without running strictly scientific tests, I'd say the quality was about half way between YouTube quality and your standard 350mb 45 minutes DivX file. Which is to sayLink I could see what was going on quite clearly (it defaults to full screen), but it was still not quite high enough quality that I'd want to watch a full TV show on there. Very impressive though, under the circumstances.

So far as available content is concerned, you're basically limited to some trial clips, including things like World's Strongest Man, a few Discovery Channel documentaries, some behind the scenes Red Hot Chilli Peppers footage, and such like. Full list of content available on the Joost Wikipedia page.

The user interface was very nice, I have to say. They've included some gorgeous, instantly iconic touches. The loading sequence is eyecatching - you can see it on this episode of The menus for accessing and controlling content are intuitive and attractive (screenshots here and here). They've made it simple to chat with friends about whatever you're watching (that will be HUGELY popular). And when you turn it off, it shrinks to a dot on the screen, in a homage to the old CRT TVs of yore. The designers have done a wonderful job.

So will it be a hit? Undoubtably. It offers pretty much everything YouTube offers, but much better, and the chatting feature will be a huge hit. Once the quality improves (which may be governed by the average upload speed of the participating audience, though clearly I'm not sure), then I can see myself using this.

It's all good.

All of a Twitter

I had a look at the Twitter website a couple of months ago, and didn't really think it was that special, but so many people have commented on it in the meantime I decided it was worth checking out again.

The basic principle is that you write up your brief and current thoughts for other people to read - but these are limited to 140 characters per entry. Your comments can be viewed by the world, on the Twitter home page (like a global stream of conciousness), or just shared with friends and followers.

To give them their due, the creators of Twitter have come up with something new and original. It sits in a new space somewhere between email, blogging and instant messaging. I'm still not sure that it'll be a lasting success, for a few reasons. The comment size limits you to spurious, off the cuff comments, which by their nature tend to be quite vacuous. It also depends on you establishing a mini-network of friends and followers before you start to see comments that you might actually be interested in. It also relies on one finding the time to actually enter your comments - hardly worthwhile until you've created your network (as no-one will read them). The main question on my mind is: how will I interact with Twitter? I don't want to clog up my RSS reader, and I guess I'll just see stuff when I return to the site to post new comments. Will that be enough to get me hooked?

There is already plenty of engaging, intelligent content on the web, and its mostly more than 140 characters long. Having said that, my speed blogging has conclusively proved, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that amazing, stimulating, intelligent posts can be written in less than 140 characters. Wink.

All that said, it was eerily satisfying writing up the first comments. And a few of my friends have replied in the meantime, and I've replied to them...the start of a snowball?

So anyway, here's my Twitter page. Feel free to come and join. I've invited some friends to join in, at least the ones who won't mock me for this. And I've started following Robert Scoble's twitter page. Lets see where this takes us.

Some points of interest: Presidential Candidate John Edwards is on Twitter - he posts to it directly from his mobile phone. Or at least one of his team does. And there is genuine concern that Twitter won't be able to handle the increased traffic at particular conferences or in the event of, say, an Earthquake in San Francisco. Like it or loath it, people are interested in it.

Also, this being all about the cross-polination of content, I've added a twitter widget to the right hand side of this blog.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

What would Jack Bauer do?

So it looks like I may have picked the right side after all. I saw the attached adverts on a billboard near my house (click to big for small print), just four days after the deadline for an agreement between Sky and Virgin Media passed. It takes ages for adverts like this to be prepared, agreed internally, and for the space to be bought. At the very least, a decision must've been made by Sky some time ago to capitalise on the possibility (or certainty?) that the negotiations with Virgin Media would be unsuccessful.

I really hope this backfires on Sky. I doubt whether they would have anticipated the high profile consumer backlash this has stirred up. OFCOM and the Office of Fair Trading are getting involved. I'm equally sure that these ads won't help them if the National Consumer Council makes an official complaint about this debacle (as seems likely). Not sure what a "super-complaint" is, but I'm sure it's much worse than a normal complaint...

Here's the Lost advert too. Also right by my house. Do you think they're aimed at me?

C'mon, let's stick it to the man. Boycott Sky*. Who's with me?

*unless they come up with a really really good deal for HD content. I'm only human!

Thursday, 1 March 2007

You heard it here first...or maybe second

Come on Digg! Do try to keep up!

Best. Spam. Ever.

I received some wonderful spam yesterday. It's basically a variation on the Microsoft / AOL sweepstake email, telling me I'd won a stack of cash (which is nice). I'll add the full text as a comment to this post, but here for your delight and delectation are the highlights:

  • "Microsoft and AOL are now the largest Internet companies and in an effort to make sure that Internet Explorer remains the most widely used program, Microsoft and AO L ar! e running an e-mail data test"
  • (The draw has) "won you £1,000,000,00. (five hundred thousand Great British Pounds)"
  • "You have therefore won the entire winning sum of £5,000,000,00 (Five Hundred thousand Great British Pounds)"
  • "These Draws are commemorative and as such special."
  • "your £1,000,000,00 (One million Great British Pounds) cheque would be released to you"
  • "Our special thanks and gratitude to Bill Gates and his associates"
  • "Sincerely, Mrs Travolta Spikes"

Speed Review #3: Some Loud Thunder

Latest offering from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is....alright. Some nice tracks, but some are rather self indulgent. 6/10.