Multitasking: Let the User Decide, Not the Computer Maker

One of the weirder memes I’ve seen in a while has emerged among some iPads fanatics. In this instance, at least a few folks are thrilled by one of the device’s major shortcomings.

Mark Hedlund, for example, is a super-smart guy. But I’m baffled by his post praising the iPad for its lack of multitasking capabilities — running more than one program at once so users can a) let automatic updates occur behind the scenes while they do stuff, such as read or work, in the foreground; and b) quickly switch back and forth, working on several tasks in a quasi-parallel mode.

I’m not the only one who thinks multitasking is an essential part of a modern computing device. In Apple’s case, the Pope Steve Jobs has decreed multitasking will be in the next version of the iPhone operating system, which is also the software heart of the iPad.

In any event, Marc writes that the iPad is in a different category from a personal computer. I agree on that, to a degree, but consider what that means to Marc:

I love how focused I am using an iPad, versus working on a laptop. New mail isn’t constantly arriving; tweets aren’t Growling into view; I don’t even have an RSS reader installed. Instead I’m just reading a book or just playing a game or maybe just working. This is a huge relief, an antidote to interruption. (I’m sure having more than just one app running, as promised in OS 4.0, will be a benefit in some ways, but for today I love not having it.)

That focus, plus the direct manipulation interface that loses mouse and keyboard in favor of pointing and tapping, makes the experience of using an app more intimate than on a laptop. I think now of personal computing and iPad computing as significantly different. It’s not just a different form factor, but a different kind of work that I do on the iPad. Put simply, it seems to produce a flow state much more easily for me, and once I’m in it, I fall out into distraction much less easily.

I confess, I don’t get it.

Although the Mac I’m using to write this posting has multitasking built into the operating system, it’s my decision whether to become distracted or not as I work. I choose, at the moment, not to be distracted by Twitter, email or the latest news from my favorite journalists and bloggers. I choose to be writing this post, and I’ll stop when I’m finished.

I can prevent email and Tweets from arriving (and often do) without crippling the computer. Here’s my system: I often shut down my email and Twitter software when I’m working on a blog post or book chapter or anything else demanding as much of my attention as I’m able to give. Works like a charm, and when I want to leave myself open to distraction again I start up the other software.

Again, I’m not oblivious to Marc’s basic point: He doesn’t see the iPad as a a computer as much as a device that he wants to use for only one thing at a time, given its size and features. When I get a tablet device, however, I’ll want the option even if I rarely use it.

Microchanneling: One Big Implication of Google TV


As expected, Google TV was announced at this morning’s I/O keynote (here’s the video site). There’s so much to think about in this initiative. One strikes me as especially intriguing: This is a big boost for micro-niche video.

Clearly, a ton of development has gone into the overall notion. Some of the platform pieces are quite clever, including basing it on Android, the open-source operating system that is now running dozens of phones and other small devices. And what Google brings to the ecosystem in other ways will be a powerful incentive for many other participants.

Google seems to be focusing mostly on the value it sees in combining Hollywood with Google. Semi-ugh. To the extent that Google gets in bed with the copyright cartel, it becomes a partner to an industry that wants to impede progress, not make it.

So when Eric Schmidt was joined on stage by Sony CEO Howard Stringer at I/O, and when “content providers” like the NBA showed off what they want to do with this new system, I mostly shuddered at the prospect of DRM-laden crapola invading my life in new, annoying and ultimately dangerous ways. (DRM stands for “digital rights management,” but really means “digital restrictions management.”)

What I prefer to focus on, however, is another of the ecosystem’s more intriguing (for me) possibilities: microchannels of content that will be simple to create and watch — and much easier than in the past to monetize.

Micro-niche video has been around for a long time now. I can remember back in the late 1990s when sites like the now-defunct Pseudo offered a variety of narrowly tailored programming, and how much I relished the idea of combining the then-new DVR with the Internet and my personal tastes.

What Google is doing now is putting together a jigsaw puzzle that, if I understand what’s happening, could be one of the breakthroughs we’ve been waiting for. Here are the key pieces:

First, this is a serious and useful linking of the Web and TV. Google is working to create a reasonably seamless experience where we can use both to their best effect, with integrated search and more. It’s not the first thing of its kind, but it does seem to stretch the genre.

Second, Google brings with it an advertising marketplace. I can’t overstate how important this is. Niche content will have an instant way to find not just an audience but the advertising to help support it. (Now I see how Google really plans to make YouTube pay for itself, and then some.) The more niche the topic, the more the ads can be considered useful content as opposed to irrelevant annoyances.

Third, niches are sociable experiences if we want them to be. We love to talk about what we really know, or care about, with others who feel the same way.

The possibilities are almost infinite. I’d tune in to the Alpine Skiing Channel or the Acoustic Folk Music from the 1960s Channel or Civil War Channel or My Hometown Neighborhood Channel if they existed. And I’d participate in a social media conversation inside of them.

What could go wrong? Lots of things. Not least of those is a victory by the telecommunications carriers in their fight against what folks call network neutrality, the idea that we users of the Internet should decide what we want to see and do, rather than having the carriers decide what bits of information we get, if we get them.

Even worse with the wireless piece: Building great stuff into an operating system doesn’t guarantee you can use it if the carriers decide to limit your bandwidth, or any number of other control-freakish stuff they may try (in fairness, sometimes, to keep the networks running for people who want to, um, make phone calls or send low-bandwidth text messages).

But let’s focus on the potential: TV may be about to get a lot more interesting…

Hacks/Hackers Uniting for iPad Journalism; But What About Apple Control?

I love the Hacks/Hackers Unite idea — getting journalists and programmers and designers together to identify good ideas and hack them together. And I was considering attending this weekend’s event in San Francisco until I saw the agenda:

bringing together journalists and media makers with hackers and designers to build the killer media app for the iPad and other tablet devices. This event will be both a coding development camp and a journalistic boot camp. Teams of hacks (content creators) and hackers (developers and designers) will cooperate to tell develop media applications for the iPad and tablets that help inform, enlighten and tell stories for the public good. You can also build tablet-based tools for journalists.”

I’d have attended except that organizers are ignoring a crucial reality: the violation of journalistic principles inherent in participating in a closed ecosystem that the vendor, not the journalists, will control. Apple, and Apple alone, gets to decide if the journalism apps the hackers create for the iPad — and the journalism they contain — are acceptable. And that’s unacceptable.

Some of the ideas people have posted for the weekend development — and they’re quite creative — must assume Apple’s approval of what they do, a risky assumption given the company’s capricious and opaque rulings about what can be on devices running the iPhone OS. Other ideas, relying on the still-unfinished HTML5, seem not to realize that developers the iPad browser forfeit some of the iPad’s key hardware value, e.g. output from various sensors, because Apple won’t allow browser applications full access to the device’s capabilities.

There’s a sop to “other tablet devices” in the event description. But that’s not very realistic given that Apple forbids development of iPhone OS apps using any tools but the ones it provides — for practical purposes, obliging people developing for the iPad and those other devices to do everything twice, using different tools and even languages. The effect, as Apple intends, is to persuade people to develop mobile apps only for Apple devices.

Here’s where I’m focusing my thinking about tablets and outside-the-box journalistic ideas:

Tomorrow morning I’ll be at the Google I/O conference. Rumors abound that Google may unveil a prototype of an Android tablet. It would be easy enough; essentially, it means putting the Android phone OS on a bigger screen, as Dell is planning to do sometime this year. Android is open-source; Google’s restrictions (or mobile carriers’) have relatively easy workarounds, and the main point is that Google doesn’t decide what apps can use what device features or which apps developers can sell.

I will be working on a tablet-based app or two in the coming months, including something I hope to sell or give away as part of the Mediactive project. But there’s no way I’ll let Apple decide if what I’m doing is allowed. This means I’ll focus my efforts on Android and any other tablet OS that doesn’t force me to ask permission.

On Saturday, I’ll head down to the Maker Faire in San Mateo. What’s that about? From the Maker Faire website FAQ:

Our mission at Maker Media, a division of O’Reilly Media and home to MAKE Magazine, Maker Faire and the host of other inspirational and instructional Maker Media brands, is to unite, inspire, inform, and entertain a growing community of highly imaginative and resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages. We call these people “Makers.” 

I wish I could unite the Hacks/Hackers folks with the Maker Faire people. Journalists definitely need to work with programmers. I suspect they need to work even more with the Makers of the world who dream way, way, way outside the boundaries that companies like Apple are creating. Ask permission? These folks laugh at the very notion.

UPDATE: See the comments, where an organizer of the Hacks/Hackers event response.

Live-blogging, Live-Tweeting or What?

I managed to puzzle some of my Twitter followers this weekend, especially yesterday, when I posted a slew of tweets from the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, a company in which I’m a shareholder. I also had a media pass, which gave me admission to a press conference held by the company’s two senior leaders, Warren Buffett and Charles Munger.

I’ll talk about Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett and Munger in a separate post on my personal blog. It seems appropriate here, however, to chat briefly about the pros and cons of live-blogging versus live-tweeting, etc.

My regular Twitter followers were definitely not expecting the fire hose from me; normally I post anywhere from zero to a dozen or so Tweets a day, usually in the 6-9 range. Suddenly my Twitter stream turned into a torrent, and it came as a surprise to some followers.

One follower and good friend shot me an email asking, basically, WTF I was doing. I explained and said it was an experiment, probably a one-off. He replied, in turn, that he was kind of enjoying it, but still…

I’m fairly sure it was a one-time affair, and here’s why:

Live-tweeting strikes me as the wrong tool for this kind of task. It’s an impressionistic medium, not a deep one, at least so far in its history. If I’m going to keep notes for you about an event I’m witnessing, I’d prefer that you be able to find them easily as I write them — but also to find them in one place when it’s over.

The plus side of live-tweeting stems not just from what one person writes, but very much as well from others’ contributions to a running group observation and commentary. Hashtags make this easy. (I posted the Berkshire material with the #brk2010 hashtag, which a number of other journalists were using.) Following a group’s blog posts is, due to the nature of that medium, more difficult.

Other tools for this task include the excellent CoverItLive, which I’ll try sometime soon at an event I find newsworthy enough. One advantage of CoverItLive is the ability of several people to simultaneously add to the stream. (Is there a good open-source tool or WordPress plug-in that does the same things or has significant portion of the same features?)

But I’m leaning toward making it simple, and just using a blog from now on. I’d rather keep stuff on my own site, thank you, than turn it over to another company and the ever-morphing terms of service we see from providers of all kinds.

One worry this weekend turned out not to be a big deal: annoying people sufficiently that they’d unfollow me. A few did, especially during the Sunday press conference. Yet more started following at the same time, and the day left me with a net gain.

Bottom line: Next time I do something like this, I’ll probably live-blog and point to it from Twitter.

Of course, I’m still thinking about all this, and reserve the right to change my mind. More than once…

Quickly Create Maps from Your Flickr Collection

iMapFlickr logoiMapFlickr offers a fast approach to mapmaking if you geocode your Flickr images. Just enter a Flickr ID, user URL or even the e-mail address you use for Flickr and iMapFlickr will generate a Google map tagged with photo locations. The tool allows you to choose from your photo sets and offers some convenient customization options for the embedding the map elsewhere. Map dimensions, picture sizes and tag icons can all be adjusted.

iMapFlickr mapiMapFlickr doesn’t show support for Flickr groups yet, but there is already potential here for journalistic collaborations. As long as photos are public, one can create maps from another user’s collection. So, one collaborator could upload pictures to her Flickr account and others could customize and embed the maps from that account without directly accessing it.

Take note that geotags have their own privacy levels on Flickr and the location data must be shared publicly for iMapFlickr to work. Check out this video if you’re unsure how to geotag Flickr photos. Also, maps may be tricky on WordPress due to iframes. Fixes are explained here.

The example shot is made from sockeyed‘s set of the Vancouver Bicycle Music Festival. and the Mobile Media Toolkit

MobileActive is a go to place for info on cell phone usage and tools. In 2009, MobileActive received a Knight News Challenge grant to build the Mobile Media Toolkit, a database of tools and how-to guides for those using mobile phones for social change.

MobileActive Mobile DataPart of this toolkit is a directory of mobile phone statistics that functions as something like a CIA factbook for mobile. Selecting a country, one can see mobile costs, saturation amongst the population and regional providers. For example, I can see that around 41% of Chinese citizens use mobile phones and they pay about 1 US cent on average for an SMS (as of 2007-2008). This is helpful data as one decides how to develop applications for different regions of the world.

As well, MobileActive offers a database of mobile phone applications, case studies and how-to guides. These range in purpose from citizen media to advocacy and are extremely fresh with most additions occurring in 2009-2010.

Finally, MobileActive’s sense of purpose emerges in its news about global uses of mobile. Recent articles tell stories about a 20-village news network in rural India and anonymous cell phone videos from Iran. Katrin Verclas, MobileActive’s co-founder, expresses the heart behind the project in this video:

Make What You’re Reading More Readable

Readability is a worthwhile browser application if you want to focus you’re attention on a site’s text and winnow out the advertising and widget chaff. It’s pretty straightforward. Add the bookmarklet here to your browser’s bookmarks and click it when you want signal without the noise. The application will pull the text from the page and display it in a typographically-friendly format. Here’s an example of the most recent Mediactive post:

Mediactive through Readability

I’m interested to hear who finds this helpful and who doesn’t. So, send feedback. My only qualm at this point is long form articles without imagery can cause me to start to glaze over a bit. I think the Internet has ruined me for traditional books and lengthy text without immediate distraction nearby.

Digital Media Lessons from the Game Developers Conference

Last week I attended the Game Developers Conference and kept my eyes open for topics related to media literacy. Thoughts on media consumption and creation show up in the multitude of lectures, panels, bootcamps and roundtables dedicated to the study and creation of games. Here are some things I gleaned:

Serious Games Summit
Redistricting GameSeveral interesting things came up at the Serious Games Summit, which is the session track for examining games used for purposes other than entertainment (not that entertainment isn’t a worthy goal itself). Here are the highlights:

  • Soren Johnson contrasted game theme with mechanic in a talk titled “Theme is not meaning.” This is an important breakdown when it comes to games literacy as game mechanics tend to deliver the real meaning in a game. Johnson’s thesis was that a game’s window dressing was just that unless the mechanic matched. The Redistricting Game was offered of a solid example of matching theme with mechanic as the player is tasked with literally drawing new voting district lines to win needed votes. The discussion goes much deeper and Chris Dahlen writes more about the talk here.
  • Borut Pfeifer has been working on a game about crowds in the Iranian Election. Named The Unconcerned, the game pulls the player through the streets of the Iranian election by putting her in the shoes of parents looking for their daughter. Pfeifer’s talk covered prototyping and the many iterations along the way to figuring out what played well. The biggest takeaway here concerns creation. Traditionally, creating media involved getting one’s ducks in a neat row before creation began. However, games and other digital media find success in testing and getting feedback on many rough drafts along the way. I’m going to hunt down some links for the best practices for iterative design for the Mediactive Tools section.
  • While the talk strayed more into digital entrepreneurship, Jelena Godjevac presented a case study of Blossom, a game that places the player in the role of a small business owner. Blossom came out of Micro Enterprise Acceleration Institute (MEA-I) as a game-based way of furthering local micro-business. They’re looking for new ideas for games that teach entrepreneurship and are teaming up with HP in a design contest. I’d love to see submissions related to digital media entrepreneurs, like starting a local news site or training citizen journalists.

Game Writers’ Roundtable
Several worthwhile tips came out of a roundtable of both professional and amateur game writers. Here are the ones that apply well to digital media creation.

  • Show don’t tell – In an interactive environment, show a story before using words. Figure out what you can say with other forms of media. This applies to even something like blogs. Can you set your stage with a good photo or video? Does a link or a podcast say it better than you can?
  • If you can’t tweet it, you shouldn’t write it – This came up in the context of dialogue and text in midst of play. The same could be applied to captions, explanations of mashups and even one’s YouTube video descriptions. There are excellent uses for long form, but if your creation is multimedia, don’t burden it with text. Err on the side of brevity.

Social games were a hot topic at the GDC this year, both for the massive jump in people playing these games and for their lucrative nature. I sat in on a session with Mark Skaggs of Farmville where he explained the game’s development process. Farmville itself has been a bit of a phenomenon and a rather controversial one.

Most interesting for Mediactive’s purposes are the rapid creation and development of Farmville. According to Skaggs, the initial team was composed of less than ten people and was developed in five weeks. From the point of release, the game acquired about 1,000,000 new users per week, an above-expectations rate. This critical mass gave the team lots of data, which informed the design going forward. Skaggs explained “fun” as something hard to measure, while behavior could be tracked by clicks. When strawberries received a large number of clicks, the team created “Super Berries” and the resulting popularity nearly crashed the server. This is just one example, but every game action and click was evaluated for new direction in content.

I see a couple lessons here that apply to digital media:

  1. Release quickly and design based on data and user feedback.
  2. Data-driven design requires greater discussion when it comes to news. Lots of clicks can tell you if a story is popular, but a click can’t tell you if the reader was informed. As well, a click may tell a creator if people enjoy content, but not the impact of that content. For example, a reader may spend more clicks in a day on what celebrities are wearing, but one click given to a long form political story may have the greatest impact on a future vote.

Beyond what I’ve covered here. I ran into some interesting tools for media creation, which I’ll be testing and posting to the Tools page. Games and interactive environments are ripe for experimentation when it comes to new media and I’m excited to see what emerges over time.

Teach News Literacy with NewsTrust

NewsTrust gives its community tools to evaluate news stories. Users can add news articles they find, rating them by journalistic standards such as fairness, sourcing and depth. This format readily lends itself to teaching news literacy and evaluation. Recognizing this, NewsTrust offers a nice set of teacher guides.

The guides, aimed at high school and college-level students, are broken down between news and opinion. The teacher guide is broken down into a 45-minute lesson plan, while the student guide offers an example story and questions that zero in on qualities like facts and fairness. Additional activities are offered as well.

If you like the guides and want to go more in depth, NewsTrust offers an additional page of external educational resources geared toward news literacy.

Audio Editing on a Budget or Away from Home

You never know when you’ll need to chop audio or upload it on the fly. For example, a laptop theft last month had me jumping from loaner machines to public PCs until I secured a suitable replacement. Web-based and low-profile apps prove their worth in such situations and I want to list a few of my favorite finds here.

Audacity is the old steady when you don’t have GarageBand and you need a free audio editor. It has the backing of an enthusiastic open-source community, which keeps it regularly updated. It’s also popular with the public radio crowd as its simplicity is great for editing interviews (as opposed to remixing music). However, you must download and install it as well as download the LAME codec for the ability to export to mp3 format. This is a simple process, but a significant barrier if your current machine doesn’t offer you install privileges.

That’s where Myna comes in. Part of the Aviary suite, Myna is a fully web-based audio editing tool. The features are robust and include nice editing touches like fades, control points and effects. Aviary as whole offers a community for sharing creations publicly and connecting with friends on the site. This video gives an excellent overview:

Indaba Music also offers an online audio editor, but the site’s strength is its fixation on community. The vision is to enable musicians to collaborate on music from afar. In this Colbert interview, Indaba’s co-founder shares an example of producing music with a friend and then bringing in vocals from a singer in Nigeria. The same scenario could easily be applied to journalism.

Indaba allows the user to create a Session and invite other users. Session members can then upload audio tracks to that session (adding audio via phone call is another interesting feature). When the user opens the web-based audio editor, all the tracks from that session are automatically added to the track list. Session members then see file and editing updates on their dashboard or they can subscribe to session updates via RSS. This has a lot of potential for journalists working remotely on a radio or podcasting project. Of note, is the 100mb limit for free accounts. This may not go far when dealing with long interviews. An upgrade to a 500mb account is $50/year, while unlimited storage is $250/year. Another note, the editor is java-based and in Chrome and on Mac, one must open the session file manually in Java.

Finally, I want to offer mp3cut as the ultra-simple tool for crude audio chopping in a hurry. It’s advertised as a platform for cutting clips from songs for ringtones, but could easily be used to reduce the file size of large interview when one only has one clip to worry about and only wants a small part of that clip.

If you have other free and easily-accessed audio tools, please share them in the comments.