Archivo de la etiqueta: Editorial

Editorial, el editor de texto definitivo para iPad

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Si escribes muchos textos con tu iPad, es posible que esta excelente reseña de Editorial en iPaderos sea de tu interés. Se trata del que es, posiblemente, mejor editor de textos para iPad con soporte para Markdown que ayer fue lanzado en la App Store.


Editorial es una de esas Apps con un nivel tan alto de detalle y cuidado en su interfaz y funcionalidades que deja bien claro que el iPad no es para nada una herramienta para consumir contenidos, sino también para crearlos.

Aplicación Editorial: Un completo y definitivo editor y creador de textos para iPad

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Ole Zorn, el desarrollador responsable de Pythonista, publicó ayer en la App Store su nueva aplicación para iPad. Se trata de Editorial, un completo editor con soporte para Markdown que ofrece, además, la posibilidad de utilizar flujos de trabajo.

A pesar de su completo listado de características, lo primero que destaca de Editorial es la funcionalidad básica de esta herramienta, es decir, el editor de textos. Como hemos comentado, se integra perfectamente con Markdown, permitiendo hacer uso de esta notación y mejorando con respecto a otras aplicaciones similares la forma de presentar el texto interpretado en pantalla. Por ejemplo, a medida que vamos escribiendo y utilizamos, por ejemplo, los asteriscos para destacar partes del documento o introducimos enlaces a URL, vemos el resultado directamente tal y como quedaría una vez publicado.

Por supuesto, además del teclado estándar, Editorial también dispone de una fila adicional de teclas para acceder a los símbolos más utilidad en Markdown. Algunas de estas teclas se expanden, mostrando símbolos adicionales, permitiendo seleccionar uno de ellos con un simple gesto táctil (arrastrando el dedo hacia arriba). Por cierto, si desplazamos un dedo por la línea de teclas moveremos el cursor por el texto. Si desplazamos dos dedos, podremos seleccionar dicho texto.

En esta misma línea de teclas adicionales también podemos acceder a la sección de snippets, desde donde añadir a nuestro texto secuencias de palabras que utilizamos habitualmente con solo introducir una abreviatura clave que la identifique. Se trata de una funcionalidad similar a la ofrecida por TextExpander (aplicación con la que también se integra, pudiendo usar los snippets que ya hayamos definido previamente en esta aplicación), aunque con un uso más sencillo e intuitivo. Por supuesto, también podremos utilizar variables y cuadros de diálogo para completar estos snippets.

El editor se puede configurar con dos aspectos diferentes: el habitual (letra negra sobre fondo blanco) o el oscuro (letra blanca sobre fondo gris). También podremos definir el espaciado entre líneas, la anchura del texto, el tipo de fuente, si queremos activar la corrección de texto, el navegador por defecto en el que queremos abrir los enlaces, etc. Por cierto, que la aplicación también incluye su propio navegador, una herramienta muy cómoda para evitar tener que abrir aplicaciones externas.

Editorial permite guardar nuestros documentos en local (es decir, en el iPad) o en nuestra cuenta de Dropbox. En ambos casos podremos crear carpetas, borrar los documentos o moverlos a una de estas carpetas. Además, la integración con Dropbox ofrece una función realmente interesante: la creación de versiones. De esta forma podemos ver todas las versiones que hemos creado de un mismo documento e incluso comparar dos de ellas, pudiendo ver las diferencias entre ambas y mover texto de una versión a otra. Sencillamente genial.

Pero donde sin duda Editorial demuestra todo su potencial es en la creación de flujos de trabajo. Unos flujos con una interfaz similar a la de Automator para OS X, aunque con integración con Python y JavaScript. Además, estos flujos se pueden compartir fácilmente con otros usuarios. Una funcionalidad que puede dar mucho juego.

En definitiva, Editorial es una herramienta realmente potente, cargada de funcionalidades y que, sin duda, puede ayudar a cambiar la forma en la que trabajamos con el iPad en el día a día. Y, además, es una herramienta con muchas posibilidades, puesto que el desarrollo de flujos permitirá añadir nuevas opciones a su uso habitual.

Editorial para iPad está disponible en la App Store (enlace iTunes) al precio de 4,49 €. Desde luego, vale cada céntimo que cuesta.


How To Disrupt Petty Inconveniences

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Depending on who you ask, Jack Dorsey started off the latest Disrupt on either a very controversial or a very non-controversial note. “We need revolution, not disruption,” he said, words that would be easy to characterize as platitudes if he were not working hard at uprooting a few global institutions. Even so, the sentiment did not entirely match the tone of the conference that was to follow.

Whether you want to call it a bubble or not, it’s not controversial to say that there are millions upon millions of dollars going to ideas, services, and sites that will be dead or irrelevant in a year or two. The metaphor of the Cambrian explosion has been employed, of course. Tellingly, the Wikipedia article for it reads “most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies.” What a marvelously apt description of the creatures I saw on display this week!

A great number of the startups (a word that is beginning to lose all meaning, by the way) that I saw were aimed at solving problems so trifling that the first objective of many pitches was to alert the audience that they exist. Is this healthy? Yes and no.

A mixed bag

Now, I don’t want to slander the conference or the many interesting and promising startups that were also there, of course (really, there were a lot; the graphic above is mostly for satirical purposes). And this isn’t one of those occasional posts suggesting everyone quit their job and go volunteer in the Peace Corps. But those single-cell organisms were not some rare exception. I’m not going to lie; I frequently overheard pitches and product descriptions that made me fear for the sanity of the industry. Yet when I tried to argue (in an earlier draft of this article, in fact) against the existence of these grotesques, my reasoning faltered.

The thing is that trying to establish the lunacy of location-based speed dating, or geofenced task lists, or voice-activated ticket purchases, or cloud-based lecture note marketplaces, is that there’s really nothing wrong with these ideas. No more, anyway, than with the millions of products and services that have fallen by the wayside over the last century — three-wheeled cars, BeOS, personal neck-cooling devices. Some disappear harmlessly, some are vindicated years later. At worst they are unnecessary, and at best they are ahead of their time.

And how will dating, or to-do lists, or buying tickets, or study groups, advance in this era of instant communication and dynamic networks, if not through the same things that have advanced everything from cave axes to particle physics: experimentation, mistakes, and the occasional total catastrophe? They won’t. Progress is like a jigsaw puzzle that extends forever, and occasionally something like the internet or iPhone drops a huge batch of new pieces on the table. The players start sorting, testing, and rearranging, and, like a real puzzle, a few false starts are to be expected.

So it’s not that small problems don’t need solving, or that the wrong problems are being solved. Then whence this instinctive disgust I felt, besides from my natural loathing of the conspicuously unnecessary?

Lazy architecture

Here’s the real problem: a lack of ambition.

I don’t mean pecuniary ambition. There was no shortage of that. You would think presenters were hosting an episode of Cosmos as they described the constellations of riches that are, they assured us, there for the taking. Billions and billions!

Nor is it that they think their product will have no effect. As usual, everything was a “revolutionary” new way to [fill in the blank]. (One company, very promising, actually, was in fact literally a revolutionary new way fill in the blank.)

No, it was their means that repelled me. The way so many were going about their job of fitting those puzzle pieces together. Instead of working diligently to assemble something truly worthwhile (a subjective judgment, to be sure, and I am calloused from long exposure, but let us be honest), they took two or three of the nearest pieces, or the latest ones to fall on the table, and mashed them into each other — making them “fit” the way a toddler might. Now, random recombination is a great way for evolution to occur over millions of years, but intelligent design it ain’t. It is depressing and distressing to see grown men and women approaching problems with such an unsophisticated and, frankly, opportunistic method.

I saw it in needless social integration, in feature bloat, in shoehorned API usage, and occasionally in a new phenomenon whereby the product itself seems to have been created in order to fit the constraints of the just-clever-enough portmanteau they chose for a name. Just because “location” kind of sounds like “Loc-Asian” doesn’t mean there should be a service that lets you find nearby Thai and Chinese food. Nor should you make “Fellaphone,” a service that solicits bids from local handymen for a designated task (I could make these up all day). And so on. These solutions to perceived needs are so rigidly constructed and precise that, like so many things on the web, their life is just a countdown to irrelevance.

It’s because I care so much about how technology and culture serve and affect one another that I find these chimaerical creations offensive. Of course I admire the craftsmanship they exhibit, but brickwork, no matter how neat, is only one aspect of the edifice. A poor idea may be handsomely executed, but criticism may still be directed at the architect.

I won’t belabor the point more. All I wanted to say was that there’s a specific disorder I saw on display, and hopefully we can treat it before it grows any worse. The experimentation must be done — but rationally, with tact and foresight. Not with the primitive zeal of an ape with a new bone.


Google+: The Charge Of The Like Brigade

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A recent post by a defecting Googler (at his new and previous home, Microsoft) suggests that a fundamental reordering of Google’s priorities has made it far less than the company it once was. A sudden comprehension of the danger posed by Facebook’s ever-expanding platform caused the company to enter a sort of berserker state, focusing solely on reinventing social while neglecting or amputating anything that didn’t fit into its new mission. Or so the tale goes.

There have been times recently when I’ve felt the need to deflect a few of the slings and arrows trained on Google. This time, however, they are well-deserved. Google’s big bet was based on bad instincts, jealousy, and hubris — not the curiosity, experimentation, and agility that have characterized them theretofore.

Could Google+ ever have been anything but a failure?

Just as a caveat: the problem with criticizing Google+ is that it’s a good product. It’s not for everybody, and there are problems with how it models social networks, but the only real problem it has is that there’s no one engaging with it. There are, of course, some people on it, but it’s hardly at a level that would make it what Google obviously intended it to be.

That said, Google should never have thought of it that way in the first place. The concept, as well-represented as it is in the product, was wrong to begin with. The whole project is a failure to understand their strengths and their competitors’ weaknesses.

Looking for clues in how Google’s products have improved or differentiated themselves previously (whether they flew or crashed) isn’t much help. You can’t dissect Google+ by proxy in Wave or Gmail. It’s better to look at their intentions.

It seems that Sun Tzu has much to offer Google respecting their approach to social. Nietzsche, too.

“Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.”

“Sharing is broken.” There’s a hell of a place to start. To make such a statement about a sector with so much diversity and velocity is a red flag to begin with. First, because it isn’t broken, it’s a work in progress. And second, even if it were broken, Google has never fixed anything before.

Google never said “What you’re doing is broken. Use our thing instead.” They always said “Did you know you we can do that too, for free?” Did they say Excel was broken when they let you make spreadsheets in Docs? Did they break down email to its bare bones and remake it for Gmail? Of course not. Google was about ubiquity, diversity, and a few memorable little quirks or improvements that set them out from the crowd.

To attempt to build something new, a la Apple, with the assurance that company likes to make (“This is the best way, which is why we made it the only way”) is not a Google strength. They just aren’t good at making new things. Never have been. Making existing things easier, faster, more accessible — sure. But inventing them? Not so much. So the idea that they were going to invent a new way to share should have rung alarm bells to begin with.

Sharing was never broken; Google merely found that they were losing a battle they had not even prepared for. Their declaration of war was a declaration of defeat.

“When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.”

Google is neither small nor weak. It is immense, established, technically proficient, and, to an extent, trusted. Within the confines of non-monopolistic actions, it holds search like a gun. By rewarding those sites and services that agreed with its planned trajectory for search, they cast a shadow on the others, too light to be called punishment but still keenly felt. They are a household word, so closely identified with their service that they have become a global euphemism for searching on the internet.

They are a company of momentum — some would say inertia, but inertia in tech is soon eroded by more energetic competitors. No, Google has momentum, and their force has grown large enough that, like two gunmen in the old west, the town wasn’t big enough for them and Facebook. The conflict was inevitable. Which is why it’s so strange that instead of choosing to be the mighty river, they opted to strike as the hawk.

What was Google+? A single product, made to compete with an entire ecosystem. A product, moreover, lacking the single most important ingredient: users. Now, unless you are sure that your product is far, far better than what’s out there, you are not the hawk. Steve Jobs knew he was the hawk in 2007, and he knew that what he was doing would break its prey. The look on his face while he describes the competition is one of sheer predatory glee.

Is Google+ the iPhone to Facebook’s Palm Pilot? Surely not. Who judged that it was? That person is incompetent.

“The great fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.”

Google was, against all reason, impatient to get into social. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a social network, of course. There are many kinds and many approaches, from niche to meta, from creative to filtrative. The Internet is a community of communities, and it is natural, even admirable, to want to create a new one. But Google decided that instead of creating a new one, a new space for itself, it would instead attempt to unseat the largest and most stable of them all. Hubris!

Facebook, of course, is not unassailable. It too will pass away. It is after all only the latest in a series of improvements on the general social network model. It has proven to be more flexible and resilient than its predecessors, but it isn’t immortal; even now there is a hum of discontent among users, low in frequency but just audible. Trust is an issue; ads are an issue; filtering is an issue. Will these issues destroy Facebook in the next year? Of course not. But as another saying goes, if you wait long enough by the river, you will see the bodies of your enemies float by.

Who can wait longer by the river? Facebook, a transitory model for connecting people that may or may not reflect the zeitgeist of social communication in five years? Or Google, which indexes and tracks the entire visible internet and whatever it can digitize from the analog world? I feel sure that, barring disaster, it would be Google on the shore watching Facebook go down the river.

Google always played a long game, but failed to in social. Why didn’t they bide their time, refining their ideas, pretending total disinterest? Making Facebook seem like the only game in town has many benefits. People distrust monopolies. If people feel they are choosing to be on Facebook, they will justify that choice. If the choice is made for them, they will find a reason to resent it. Google must know this, because they experience it every day.

So why did they jump the gun? The data! That beautiful, plentiful, personal data! Google is a datavore; its reason to exist is to organize all the world’s data, using ads to fund its habit. And on the table before them, a feast unprecedented in depth and variety! Imagine the amount of data produced by a single day of Facebook’s operations. But, like Tantalus, Google is prohibited from reaching and and taking it even though it’s right… there.

Why did Google launch a social network? The same reason a child snatches a cookie from the cookie jar. They simply couldn’t resist.

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the epitome of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the epitome of skill.”

Could Google ever have won? I think so. But not by blitz. By envelopment.

Google’s presence is felt all over the net. Remember that browser plug-in that sounded a siren whenever it detected Google in any way, shape, or form? People tolerate having Google everywhere because, for the most part, it’s a neutral presence, like streetlamps in a city. You’re logged into Google like you’re a resident of the city. You don’t think about it, and you don’t have to think about it.

The opportunity this gives Google is simply to be where you are, and have you know it and not mind. That’s huge. Facebook gets flak for being where you are, because Facebook is a place you go to, not a presence that surrounds you. Facebook is a personal place, something you log into, and you don’t want to have it following you around. On the other hand, you expect to turn around and find Google there, the way you expect your own shadow.

The natural thing to do given this advantage is, in fact, what Google did. They just did it too hard. They made a whole competing service, completely empty and more or less disconnected from everything, and threw it at the enemy.

It seems to me that they only needed one part of it: the +1 button.

Google’s ubiquity would let that button exist almost everywhere a user goes. No plug-in needed, no sign-up or tracking by the site. The URL or the resource itself (video, music, image) is already known to Google — you probably found it through Google anyway. All that’s missing is a button or key or extension that +1s it. The rest follows naturally. (Obviously this is part of what the extant +1 button does, but we are building it again from scratch.)

What happens when you +1 something in this simple system? Well, on Google’s side, it gets added to a pile of data: timestamped and correlated to your other activity and the activity around that site and similar sites, it would be a valuable unit of deliberate user input. And of course it makes one big number go up by one, whether the site or resource wants to show it or not — just like its PageRank stat or hit counter. A number we can all agree to use because it’s not for some community, some network, some service. It’s just for the Internet. Google already tracks visitors and sites and traffic, now they’ve just added one more thing to the pile. It’s a neutral party and it’s already present wherever you go.

And what about on the user side? Well, it could easily be tied to other actions, since once you +1 the thing, Google doesn’t really care what happens next. You could forget you ever did it. Or you could tie it to actions like posting or liking it on Facebook, or sending it to your Tumblr, or tweeting it. Whatever you want. It’s just a trigger you pull on a website — what happens after you pull the trigger doesn’t matter to Google, all they care about is that the trigger was pulled in the first place.

Oh, and don’t forget that everything you’ve +1′d will be saved to your Google profile – you can go and check it any time you want, by date, by site, whatever. Why, it could even have a little snippet or image for each one, or you could add a tag or caption; you could even do that right when you +1 it. And maybe if you +1 a video or piece of music, it’ll have that embedded for you just for your convenience. Like the other Google services, you’ll have a few templates and layouts you can use to make this little pile of data your own, like Gmail. Naturally it’ll be searchable. And if you just want to upload something, that’s cool too, it goes into cloud storage and is part of your collection like everything else.

Now, this information is of course private by default, and although you contribute to total metrics, your individual +1s are anonymous outside of your account. But a few people will want to make them public. And why shouldn’t they? People like to share things, and this +1 thing is straightforward, user-friendly, and versatile. So they make it public. Now people can see what they’ve +1′d.

Once a few are public, why, of course people will want to see what other people are doing. And you don’t want to have to go to their profile all the time. So Google will let you add them as a connection, probably with rules like they can’t see things with certain tags, or what have you. How do you add them? You go to their profile and +1 it, of course. Now when they +1 things, it’ll show up in your stream, and they can tweet or post it on Facebook later if they want. And did you know, Google reminds you, that you can click on their little icon any time and instantly connect via chat, audio, or video, no plugin necessary? You can even drag a friend’s icon in to invite them. But hey, it’s not a “social network” — these are just things you can do using Google services. You can do all of them or none of them.

All this happens outside of Facebook and completely parallel. It takes place naturally, people can use it as much or as little as they like, and it’s only a destination if you make it one. It doesn’t replace Facebook, it augments it (and other services) with a more generalized mechanism for saving and recommending things on the web.

If Google had done this, if they had built a community around a mechanism instead of trying to meet Facebook head-on in battle, they might have succeeded. They might have built an Internet-wide community of individuals who want to track, save, and share what they do on the web. They’d also have a simple way of letting users connect to one another in a natural and very Internet way. And they’d have done it all without antagonizing anyone openly; it could plug right into other services, if they play nice, and Google looks like the user-focused facilitator it once was.

And coincidentally, all of a sudden there are a hundred million people using that +1 button, reading friends’ updates, chatting and sharing seamlessly, and starting to question what it is that Facebook has that Google doesn’t.

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.”

(This was originally the title of this post, but I decided to have a world-class pun instead.)

But Google didn’t do all that. Google+ was born and not molded, naked and altricial and all at once instead of incrementally and subtly and responsively, into a world that hadn’t asked for it, and didn’t really need it. What are the wages of Google’s tactless warfare?

Sun Tzu actually does say “To defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy.” But he meant it in terms of understanding. Google has actually become their own enemy, both in how they have thwarted their own development and how they have donned the tainted garb of monopoly. These clothes were made for Facebook to wear in social, but Google has convinced the world that they too are a good fit.

I’ll be less obtuse. What Google has done, remarkably, is to transfer all the worst qualities of Facebook to themselves while managing to retain almost none of the good ones. They were behind the scenes; now they are in people’s faces. They were a service; now they are a destination. They monitored the web; now they distort it. Whether or not these things are really true, they are now popular perceptions of Google. Facebook meanwhile has taken on a few of Google’s best characteristics as it has expanded across the web.

Google lost its status as a neutral party because of a number of choices that minimized the user and promoted themselves unilaterally. How many of these decisions were made deliberately, and how many innocently? It’s hard to say, but in the end the analysis is merely academic. The reality is that they are no longer trusted. The liberties they took with their best assets were questionable at best and infuriating at worst. And they have had the side effect of drawing attention to just how much power Google wields.

Two years ago, Google was a utility. Now it’s a monopoly being watched not only by the government but by every user, many of whom have been burned or frustrated by one of the many changes. Two years ago it was Facebook in that position, and people were excited about the prospect of a better, more independent social network. Now people are uploading videos to Facebook instead of YouTube. Think about that.

And worst of all, they can’t go back. They put too much wood behind the arrow. Maybe it’s more apt to say that instead of making a new arrow, they used the wood to make a new bow — and now all their old arrows, the ones that built them a globe-spanning empire, had to be refitted.

The changes are too big, the culture too different. They can’t try again; they can’t put it down the memory hole like they have with other, less monumental products. How can you call a do-over on two years of fundamental reordering of the entire company?

Is this Google’s swan song? Of course not. But it is almost certainly their biggest failure by a good distance. And it’s not a Flubber-like experimental miss like Orkut and Wave and the many Labs projects snuffed before their time. It corrupted Google’s primary mission, angered users, and eroded trust. Maybe the worst of it is that Google+ could have been so good. It could have been so Google. But a series of poor choices, misjudgments, and plain stubbornness resulted in the poor thing being sent alone and friendless into bloody battle with an entrenched and veteran opponent.

As the French General Bosquet remarked upon witnessing the charge of Cardigan’s light brigade: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le guerre: c’est de la folie.”


Paper Or Plastic?

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I have a confession to make: despite having reviewed a few e-readers, and having written dozens of articles about them, I’ve never really used one. I mean, I’ve used them enough to know a good one from a bad one, to understand the features, and to do a proper evaluation — but I’ve never made one part of my life, the way one makes a mobile phone or laptop part of one’s life. In that way I haven’t really used an e-reader. Until just recently.

As a book lover, I view e-readers as interlopers; as a practical person, I acknowledge them as inevitable. But in both cases, I have come to view them as a deeply unsatisfying reading experience. They fall short of paper in meaningful ways, and objecting to them should not be considered technophobic.

The future of e-books is bright, but as far as I’m concerned, right now we’re still in the dark age — though that isn’t to say the stone age.

The core experience of the new Kindle, Nook, and Kobo (pictured) is practically the same. Sure, there are aesthetic differences and the selection is different, but when you’re doing what the devices are intended to do — reading a book, page by page — they are nearly identical.

Now I expect the PR departments have already started composing a new email with their talking points about how their device is the best, but let’s be realistic. These guys are using almost exactly the same parts (the most important bit, the screen, is the same in all three) and if you took the logos off the devices, few people would be able to tell you which is which or express a strong preference.

I don’t say this to denigrate the devices. This generation of e-readers is the most user-friendly and practical by far. But aside from the change to a touchscreen, e-readers have barely advanced from the day they were first introduced. So when I say I prefer paper, that’s not sentimentality. Paper really is just better.

No, I’m not putting you on or trying to play the devil’s advocate. But I’m willing to make a few concessions first. Obviously e-readers are better in a few ways: the wireless in the Kindle which allows you to get books almost wherever you are, for instance. And you can certainly keep more books on one device than you can keep in your carry-on. But that’s pretty much where the benefits end, isn’t it?

Text can be pixelated or low-contrast

The screens aren’t actually that good. You can admit it, it’s okay. Even the newest ones. They’re rather grey, and the text doesn’t really look that good, does it? They’re a bit small, too. Don’t you feel it’s a bit limiting? You can’t replace a newspaper with this thing, and images look pretty bad. That blinking thing when it refreshes itself is annoying, finding a particular chapter or passage can be a pain, and lending or borrowing books isn’t as straightforward as it could be.

Am I just being an entitled consumer? A bit, yes. But there’s a good reason for my (mild and proportionate) frustration. The makers of e-readers have made a conscious choice over the last two years or so: provide the same product at a lower price, not a better product at the same price. It’s not that I have a problem with this. I wrote two years ago ( that this was the end game for the current players. That’s only an issue if, like me, the initial devices held no interest. For many, the race to the bottom was a good thing, making the basic e-reading experience possible for an extremely low price (and getting lower year by year). This is already having serious effects on the publishing and education ecosystems.

But what you see is also the inevitable result of companies relying on a dwindling pool of OEMs capable of manufacturing parts in the millions. The leading devices all use the same third-generation E-Ink display; few people would notice differences between the way they handle text, or care either way. As I mentioned, there are differences in the interface outside of books, and in how you search and buy, that sort of thing, but the purpose of these devices is to display e-books, and they all do it without appreciable differences.

Now, when their products are the same, companies compete on bullshit. We saw this in the 90s when every Compaq, HP, Dell, and Gateway PC was using the same pieces, and we see it today with TV makers who all have the same fundamental features and have to invent new numbers to increment at every CES. Markets at this stage are ripe to be broken into, as Apple is fond of doing. This point is when it often steps into the picture. I don’t mean to imply Apple will enter the e-reader wars (in fact, the iPad is their entry in a way), but someone is going to have to change the game. Selling a commodity, which is what e-readers have become, is a dangerous business in tech, because commodities tend to devalue rather quickly.

What needs to happen? A superior product, that’s all. E-readers can’t remain dumb, paperback-sized, text display gadgets forever. If they’re going to replace books, and paper, they need to learn a few more tricks.

Browsing your “library” is slow and lacks discoverability; organization isn’t organic

It’ll take some time; no one wants to obsolete their own product, and these readers are setting up what is potentially a very profitable ecosystem. But at the same time, if they don’t do it, someone else might. Leave your lunch out too long and someone might just eat it for you. So you better believe that the big guys are planning real replacements for the e-reader of today, and are on the lookout for any sign that they might get beaten to the punch.

What will the new features be? Well, for example, Bridgestone has produced a screen that appears to beat E-Ink at every level. And half the electronic companies out there are hard at work on flexible OLED or bistable displays. Sony is testing the waters with a foldable tablet, and Readius has been flogging their flexible device for a while now. E Ink, conscious that they’ll have to make serious advances in order to keep their position as head bistable display honcho, is making screens that can be crumpled or attached to cloth. Color e-paper is shipping right now, though it’s not particularly good. Don’t expect the e-readers of tomorrow to be the same static window on text that they are today.

The screen quality, too, is going to have to improve. In both resolution and contrast, e-readers need to approach print on paper, or they will forever be understood as being a sub-par option, grey and indistinct. More comfortable to read on than LCDs, sure, but for how long? The advantage of the reflective display will eventually be outweighed by other factors if they don’t start moving.

And we’ll want to write on them, too. The Noteslate device, unfortunately totally fictional (but apparently now in the works), awakened a sleeping giant of gadget envy on the net. Who wouldn’t want one of those things? Yet none of the major e-reading devices are even attempting it.

Annotating and highlighting content is clumsy and slow

What else? Social and collaborative features, no doubt, like those just beginning to be promoted; more portability and ruggedness; features to enable reading by the blind, like quality real-time text-to-speech and tactile displays; richer formatting and rendering; self-illuminating screens or text; adjustable page tint; to say all, anything you can imagine might improve the reading experience, and probably a few things you haven’t imagined yet.

These fantasy devices don’t have to beat paper at everything — after all, they’ll never beat it on battery life — it’s just a little disappointing in how few ways they better their venerable competitor. And note that the e-reader should be considered distinct from the tablet (which, though more versatile, shares many shortcomings) as a device aimed specifically at consuming and storing text, and mostly black and white text at that. I suspect that factor will remain important for years to come.

Now, it’s not as if e-reader makers have been standing still all this time. Their devices are lighter, brighter, and faster, and making the screens touchable was a good move. But the problem is that after all these improvements, e-readers’ advantages over books still aren’t very significant. If you read one or two books at a time, and not big ones, the advantage is almost nil. E-readers should be way better than books! The possibility is there; the technology is there; the demand is there. There are dozens of things we would like to be able to do with our literature, our journals, our newspapers, that are inconvenient or impossible with existing form factors (paper, tablet, PC, or other). E-readers have a world to expand into, yet they are exploring it at a snail’s pace.

Why whine about this? Think back on the last ten years. How many tablets and MIDs do you spy with your little Internet eye? Dozens, most of them failures or niche products. Because, really, they simply weren’t good enough. E-readers have caught on to some extent, more so than the early tablets and MIDs certainly, but I would suggest that this is because of a pent-up demand for a device like this and not because of any particular fitness on its part. At the moment, they’re still quite crude, really — and we only tolerate their crudeness because right now convenience is valued over utility.

No one would blame you for not buying a Palm Pilot or Newton or early MID back in the day, because although they did have a purpose, they were, even at the time, clearly not mature products. E-readers aren’t mature either; don’t be fooled by the homogeneity of today’s options. They’re like that because of the decision they made, to drop prices instead of change the product. Just because they look alike and act alike doesn’t mean they are mature, the way PCs became mature in the late 90s.

These early devices ape semi-convincingly the experience of reading a book. Is that the end game? No. Should you expect something better? Yes. Should that stop you from buying one right now? Maybe.

For me, buying the most advanced e-reader today involves too many compromises in quality. The ways in which I read and interact with my books are simply incompatible with e-readers as they exist today. So I don’t buy, though in five years their successors will have me reaching for my wallet. It’s like seeing Microsoft showing off a tablet in the early 2000s. Did I want a tablet? Sure, ever since I first saw one — probably in Star Trek. But I didn’t try to buy that one, because it’s okay to say that something isn’t good enough for you. That’s the prerogative of the consumer. I don’t want a Kindle – I want what the Kindle will become, just as I wanted what the Treo and Newton would become. There’s no shame, and maybe even a little dignity, in waiting.

I love books. I love reading. And I love technology. But I can’t bring myself to even like today’s e-readers, except as promising indicators of things to come. For now, between paper and plastic, there’s no contest.


We’ll Handle Google And Apple, Mr. President; You Worry About SOPA, PCFIPA, ACTA, And Big Media

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Mr. President, I’m glad your administration has taken the time to craft what looks like a fairly forward-thinking and potentially globally influential policy towards consumer privacy on the internet. No doubt it will have to be snipped here and built up there and the fast pace of the technology world may make some of its provisions quaint after a few years, but overall it seems strong, and fair to both companies and their consumers.

But if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Mr. President, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Google, Apple, Comcast, tracking cookies, deep packet inspection — this is something we can handle with minimal assistance. Tech is a young, fast-moving field, and tends to regulate itself, perhaps because the Internet is the collective medium of billions, and tyrants don’t live long here. And to be honest, laws passed by the U.S. are considered more rough guidelines, to be transgressed at will by individuals or multinationals.

Where we do need your help, sir, is where we, the young, free Internet, have little presence and receive no consideration. The threat of bills like SOPA, PIPA, PCFIPA, and their equivalents elsewhere is real, but they are conceived and considered in that sea of ignorance and corruption that is, I am sorry to say, your current place of residence. We need your help in Washington.

I doubt you’re unaware of this, actually. Your administration has been friendly to technology and has embraced where it could have restricted and regulated. And you did, in fact, state your opposition to SOPA — though it must be said that this opposition appeared after months of criticism from practically every independent tech group in the world; our own statement of opposition, itself quite late, appeared in November. How much of the abandonment of that bill was due to real acknowledgement of the unprecedented Internet-based activism shown on January 18th, and how much was due to your administration’s opposition, announced simultaneously and rendering it politically expedient to jump ship, we will never know. But what we do know is that we could have used your support long before then.

And the result of all that effort is that SOPA is substantially back on the table, perhaps worse than ever, tied to a fail-proof bill ostensibly about combating child pornography. I don’t need to tell you how reprehensible this tactic is, or what these desperate means say about the legitimacy of the measures to be enacted.

The power of the Internet, Mr. President, which is to say the people’s power, is that of exposing something to the light — making something known. Sometimes this process amplifies something trivial, and sometimes it changes the world. But all we can do is put it out there, and in the case of legislation like this, that’s not nearly enough.

Your power, on the other hand, is to sign or veto laws in order to advance the public good. It is also to be a voice representing that public. That means expressing to a Congress full of clueless old men and awash with lobbyist money that the U.S. should be a bastion of liberty and transparency, not a test market for shoddy laws ghost-written by dinosauric industries. SOPA was nearly passed despite the vocal protests of millions upon millions and the expert testimony of the people who literally created the Internet, among others.

What you can do for us — and when I say us, Mr. President, I mean for the entire population of the free Internet, internationally, as the U.S. is a trendsetter in this way — is establish a standard for freedom on the Internet that is fundamental enough and rigorous enough to compel both private companies and public servants to acknowledge it. I realize you’re in no position to dictate policy, but it is very important for the White House to at least signal that it has the best interests of the citizens of the Internet in mind. We have no assurance right now that that is truly the case.

The requirement of companies to respect the privacy of their users becomes hollow and cynical when the same government establishing these “rights” is actively working to undermine them. The left hand giveth, and the right hand taketh away. This is not a healthy representative government in action.

You may be aware that it is an election year, Mr. President, and I humbly suggest that the safety and privacy of this country’s citizens on the Internet (and indeed that of billions worldwide who value it for a variety of reasons, from recreation to revolution) must be an issue on which you personally, and by extension the United States, take a principled stand. This may be difficult. But you have the mixed fortune of standing over  one of the many fulcrums of history, and while this critical and global issue won’t be settled in the next year, or maybe even the next decade, we rely on you to at least take a few steps in the right direction.


The Revolution May Or May Not Be Branded

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The Occupy movement, or rallying cry, or whatever you want to call it, is by its nature decentralized. By refusing to come together under one banner other than the word “Occupy,” they’ve both diluted their message and allowed it to spread more quickly. You don’t need an Occupy license to occupy a bank’s lobby in Kansas City, but at the same time there’s a natural question of whether one occupation is related to another.

Political considerations aside, the point is that Occupy might benefit from a recognizable face. On this front, some faction of the movement has decided to do a little branding, but in keeping with the democratic, bottom-up nature of the organization (or rather disorganization), they’ve opted to run a contest and let the “official” logo be selected by popular vote. It’s a great application of web technology to an interesting problem, and will probably prove to be a memorable case study in an increasingly common phenomenon: the necessity of branding an emergent movement or pattern on the internet.

It’s something that has already been faced by, for example, Anonymous. Like Occupy, Anonymous is necessarily decentralized and in a way leaderless — but there are obviously leaders and centers, like @anonops and a few other “official” sources. But then there’s the Guy Fawkes mask and the empty suit, both certainly symbols of Anonymous by common consent, though whether they emerged naturally or were simply in the right place at the right time (and whether there’s any difference between those two) isn’t clear.

Or think about the SOPA/PIPA protests. While everyone seemed to figure out a good way to express the concept of censorship on their site or avatar, the lack of a single unifying phrase, graphic, or general “brand” (loosely speaking) was conspicuous, considering the extraordinary cross-cultural and cross-community agreement on the issue.

Which brings us to Occupy. The logos being submitted are the usual mix of free fonts, corporate-looking nonsense, and the occasional good idea. For the record, I like the one at top left, and these:

But I’m suspicious of the whole concept. The problem to me is not Occupy-specific. It’s simply that emergent phenomena don’t respond well to efforts to define them. The reason no single visual metaphor appeared for SOPA was because there was no naturally propagating icon around which people could gather. There was no burning monk, no Kent State photograph, no graphic or sketch or person that naturally expressed and associated itself with the movement. The closest thing was the censor bar or redacted text, which was sort of good enough but didn’t adequately encompass the ideas behind the opposition.

With Occupy as well, I think that efforts to create an identity for it will fail, because identity only emerges from collective action. It happens naturally or it doesn’t happen at all. I think this will be demonstrated more frequently over the next few years as activism, social change, and more everyday things as well become memetic and emergent. A logo will be picked for @occupy and for use on “official” communiques, whatever that might mean to them. But what Occupy and Anonymous and STOP SOPA and all the rest need isn’t a logo, it’s a symbol. Those aren’t quite as easy to come by.


Dirty Money

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The New York Times has published a long article on Foxconn which, while it doesn’t provide much in the way of new information, does act as a sobering reminder of just how companies like Apple can make so very much money. When our own John Biggs visited Foxconn, he focused on the company itself, its scale, its intentions. When I wrote about Apple’s suppliers failing to meet environmental standards, it was more about the laxity of regulators within China. Today’s NYT piece depicts Apple as prime mover and potential catalyst of change — but its actions and information from insiders suggest that it is simply unwilling.

There is a certain genius to negotiating down the price of every screw and wire, and never paying a yuan more than is absolutely necessary. As in design and build quality, other companies aspire to Apple’s accomplishment in this area.

Something the article only fleetingly acknowledges is that Foxconn is used by most of the major electronics brands in the world. Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, and the rest all contract with Foxconn to manufacture, assemble, or finish their products. The threatened mass suicide the other week was, in fact, at an Xbox production facility. The author suggests that HP and Nike “push” their suppliers, presumably in a good way, but Apple does not.

The comparison is made without much in the way of evidence. But it doesn’t appear that Apple is being unfairly targeted: people from within Apple confirm the company’s attitude towards suppliers, and acknowledge that they rarely back up their threats with action. This is for the reason that has been making the rounds over the last week: the suppliers they have are the best in the world, and they are barely able to keep up with Apple’s demands.

There’s a sort of power inversion going on there. Here is Foxconn, which celebrates whenever a client like Apple comes by to make a big order. And here is Apple, which dictates the terms and is, to some extent, the money in the relationship. But which one of these two could fare better if the other backed out? Foxconn would have to spend a few billion reconfiguring its factories to pump out Galaxy Tabs and Kindle Fires. Apple, which has come to rely on Foxconn’s guarantee of millions of products being manufactured at will, and to specs that may change by the hour, would be adrift.

So it has never been a surprise to me when I hear that Apple, and others, only do so much to change the situation in factories and factory towns in China. The simple fact of it is they’re not the ones at the reins. Foxconn and China have our all-important tech companies by the scruff of the neck, and bear the big bad audits by Apple (more likely by people representing people representing Apple) like they’d bear a kitten swiping at their face. It’s a high stakes game, and Foxconn and its like hold all the cards.

Well, not all the cards. As I wrote once, the reason Apple does the things it does is to please us, the consumers. We demand a new iPhone every year that must be better and cheaper. We insist that a thousand dollars is too much for a state of the art computer. We want bigger TVs and external hard drives and slim cameras. And we, almost without exception, fail to care when our demand for more iPads drives Apple to double its orders, driving Foxconn to push more overtime, driving poorly-maintained ventilation systems to their maximum, driving a spark to ignite an aluminum-dust explosion. It’s not our problem, it’s Apple’s or it’s Foxconn’s or it’s China’s. Very reassuring.

One dreamer quoted in the NYT article says: “If they committed to building a conflict-free iPhone, it would transform technology.” Yes, and at the same time, it would transform Apple into a bankrupt company. A conflict free iPhone would cost far, far more and would in all likelihood not be as well-built. Apple knows this. The system we and they have in place works, unfortunately, at least for everyone but the workers coated in N-hexane. And at a twelve to a hundred thousand dollars a pop, they aren’t worth rocking the boat for, especially when you’ve got record profits coming in.

Just don’t forget that we’re in that boat too. Unlike many other companies whose profits come largely from ads, enterprise products, or components, the vast majority of what Apple makes comes straight out of a consumer’s pockets, more or less willingly. More than any other mega-corporation you and I deal with on a daily basis, we are fully in control of our contributions to this company. We’re part of this. Some would say the biggest part.


Is This Activism?

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Hundreds of websites (TechCrunch included) have gone dark or visibly changed their appearance as a protest against the Stop Online Privacy Act and its Senate doppelganger, the PROTECT IP Act. It’s a powerful statement and many are saying that it is already producing effects: Senators are changing positions, awareness is rising, and the opposition is becoming a dinner-table topic.

But is this activism?

I’m not asking whether it’s a good thing (it certainly is) or whether it is effective in guiding policy (it certainly might be), but whether it is right to call it activism.

It’s not just a question of semantics; the distinction is material. Activism is like-minded individuals working to support or oppose a cause. What we are seeing today, in large companies and organizations acting together to sway an outcome, might better be termed collective bargaining.

It just seems a bit strange that after months of outrage by individuals, what seems to cause notice is action by larger units: Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and the like. Although we as individuals may have contributed to their decisions, ultimately the choice was theirs. And while we are all thankful to these organizations for doing what they feel is appropriate to signal their disapproval, it’s significant that we individuals are largely without means of effectively banding together online.

I wrote before that “people, not things, are the tools of revolution.” I know this to be true. But things, and means, are also important. Do we have the means to affect our country’s policies and decisions via the internet?

One thing that this whole SOPA thing (and COICA before it, and others before that, and surely more to come) shows is the complete disconnect between the informed, online community and the legislative and governing bodies. The incredible increase in our capability to propagate and discuss issues and events has not been matched by a corresponding receptive capability on the part of our representatives and officials. This must change.

The state of feedback between the governed and the governors is deplorable. Very little of the innovation driving internet companies is being applied to this problem, and as we have seen, it is a very serious problem.

There is much to be said about the whole Washington ecosystem of lobbyists, career politicians, favors, vendettas, and all that. What is relevant to us right now, however, is not the vagaries of a representative democracy, but creating a reliable, official, and secure means for citizens to make their opinions felt by those in office. We may discuss and blog and comment and promote all we want and our senators might be none the wiser. We need something other than votes and campaign contributions that will make these people hear what their constituents are saying. The internet has very little that can be called activism.

We can consider today, with its blackouts and wide visibility, a success. But it doesn’t seem to me that we can call it activism when so much of it has to do with powers outside our own making choices that just happen to coincide with ours. The internet is a powerful tool for communication and advocacy, but right now it is divorced from the decision-making process. The best we have is things like White House petitions and automatic email systems for contacting your senators. The level of engagement is wholly inadequate. As citizens we should expect more, and as evangelists of technology we should be making the tools to take the next step.

[Hat tip to this article at GigaOm, which set me thinking)


Las confesiones de Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs cuando presentó el iPad

El autor de la biografía de Steve Jobs asegura que el cofundador de Apple rechazó una operación clave en su lucha contra el cáncer.

Steve Jobs, quien murió a los 56 años, le comisionó su biografía al escritor Walter Isaacson para que sus hijos lo conocieran mejor.

Pese a que la biografía saldrá a la venta la próxima semana, agencias de noticias y medios de comunicación en Estados Unidos aseguran que han tenido acceso a extractos del libro.

Además, Isaacson dio una entrevista al programa “60 minutos” de la cadena de televisión estadounidense CBS. Fragmentos del programa, que será transmitido el domingo, fueron difundidos por el canal.

Jobs le dijo al autor del libro, según el periódico The New York Times, que vio las similitudes entre Android e iOS (el sistema operativo que Apple desarrolló para el iPhone) como “un robo“.

Luego de conocerse la noticia de su muerte el 5 de octubre, la casa editorial Simon & Schuster adelantó el lanzamiento de su biografía para el 24 de octubre. El libro, que en principio iba a salir a la venta el 21 de noviembre, se titula simplemente “Steve Jobs“.


Tributo de Apple para Steve Jobs

De acuerdo con Isaacason, Jobs rechazó someterse a una operación para tratar el cáncer de páncreas que padecía, decisión de la cual después se arrepintió.

Intentó tratarlo con una dieta. Acudió a terapias espirituales. Intentó varias formas de hacerlo mediante macrobióticos para no ser operado“, señaló el autor según reseñó la agencia de noticias Reuters.

Yo creo que él sentía que si uno ignora una cosa, si uno no quiere que algo exista, uno puede tener pensamiento mágico“, señaló el biógrafo.

Lea más noticias acerca de Steve Jobs »

“Pronto todo el mundo le estaba diciendo: ‘deja de intentar combatirlo con todas estas raíces y vegetales, simplemente opérate'”, dijo el escritor. “Pero lo hizo nueve meses después”.

El biógrafo señaló que los médicos le habían dicho a Jobs que la enfermedad que padecía “pertenecía al 5% de los cánceres de páncreas que pueden ser curados“.

Pero Steve no fue operado de inmediato” y el cáncer se extendió, dijo.

Cuando se le preguntó al autor por qué Jobs había rechazado la intervención quirúrgica dijo: “Yo le pregunté y me respondió que no quería que su cuerpo fuera abierto. No quería ser violado de esa forma“.


Desde que fue diagnosticado con cáncer de páncreas, en 2004, su salud fue un tópico regular en la prensa.

“Se le conocía por ser una persona bastante reservada. Se rehusó a responder los rumores que desencadenó su presentación en la World Wide Developers Conference, en 2008, cuando se le vio bastante demacrado”, señaló Maggie Shiels, corresponsal de la BBC en Silicon Valley.

Pero los tuvo que enfrentar. En enero de 2009, dijo en un memorando que sufría de un “desequilibrio hormonal“.

El resto es historia…

BBC Mundo