Design, Politics

What Washington Has Become

One of the myths propagated by the Right and by pseudo-moderate sympathizers like David Brooks is that Washington D.C. as home to legions of bureaucrats, an empire of regulators and do-nothings trampling on our freedoms. For example, this snippet from Brooks in the New York Times yesterday captures the mood:

But, alas, we are living in the great age of centralization. Some Democrats regard federal commissions with the same sort of awe and wonder that I feel while watching LeBron James and Alex Ovechkin.

That’s classic Brooks, with a Reagan-like constant anti-government drumbeat.  The problem is, it’s just so misleading.

For Washington has been taken over not by bureaucrats but by corporations.

I walked this morning to meet a friend for coffee at 1oth & New York Avenue, an area that was a devastated wasteland in the 1970s after the riots in 1968. There are now dozens of blocks covered with new, gleaming office buildings full of “Government Relations” departments from every major company in the US and beyond. It used to be the biggest outposts in town were for the unions (the big AFL-CIO building on 16th & I for example) and the lobbyists were constrained to a few blocks on K Street.

Drive out to Dulles Airport and the corridor is full of office buildings, mile after mile of them, from government contractors. Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, and on and on. None of this existed when I grew up in the Washington suburbs in the 1970s.

Listen to FoxNews or Sarah Palin or the TeaBaggers, and you’d think Washington and these gleaming office buildings are full of ACORN workers sucking off the government teet, sending all our tax revenues to the poor. But of course the truth is these buildings are now home to thousands of corporate outposts looking for the government to goose their profits. The government host taken over by parasites from the financial, insurance, oil & energy, and health care industries.

Hardly a bureaucrat or regulator to be found these days.

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The Transition to HTML5 Video

With the launch of the iPad, and Apple’s effective declaration of war against both Flash and it’s maker, Adobe, a lot of fanboys have been taking pot shots at Abobe and Flash (like a bunch of Steve Jobs mini-me’s!).

I’m no Flash (or Adobe) partisan, I just look at the facts. And the facts are that more video has been made available, and watched, online than ever before, almost all of it in Flash. Just look at the numbers. A lot of the video explosion has happened because of sharing — embedding of videos into our blogs, our Facebook pages, and through sites like the one we run at Vodpod.

In general, I would hope that most people think this has been a good thing. It’s fun to share a video through your blog or Facebook or Twitter or Vodpod; it’s fun to discover a new video through a friend’s Tumblr or Facebook page or Vodpod collection. If you do think it’s a good thing, take a moment to thank the Flash format — it made it all possible.

It’s clear, though, we’re at the beginning of the transition to an HTML5 world. In general, I think this will be a good thing. And in general, I think over time we’ll have as much video sharing through HTML5  as through Flash.

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But there will be some hurdles to cross first. And because of what we do at Vodpod, and the fact we talk to almost all of the major video players regularly, I thought it would be good to lay out some of the issues the industry is confronting:

1. Stream Security

The really cool thing in the HTML5 spec is that video is now a tag, just like an image. Awesome. But, you know you can right-click and save an image from a browser? You’ll be able to do that with video, too. Awesome, right? Well, not if you’re someone who doesn’t want your video to be saved and shared. Like Hulu. Or most major media companies. Or filmmakers.

Providing stream security is easier you’re hosting the video on your own site (a little javascript will do the trick). But harder if you want to make the video shareable. There will need to be some innovation in the coming months before people feel comfortable handing out embed codes for their videos in HTML5. And it may even take a few years before mainstream media companies get comfortable with this.

2. Advertising

A whole industry has been built around enabling in-stream advertising within Flash players. Few people love sitting through a 30-second commercial before that funny SNL clip; but that advertising is what has enabled so much video to be published online.

Will this happen in HTML5? Yes, but work still has to be done. Flash provides nifty player controls that make it a little easier to program in your in-stream advertising; support for that in HTML5 has to get built out. That will take some time.

3. Analytics

Another key thing enabled through the Flash player has been tracking and analytics. Video publishers want to understand how and where their videos are being watched. That’s understandable. Replicating this with HTML5 should be doable; it’ll just take some work. And that will take time, too.

The long-and-short of it is that there is a lot of work to be done before HTML5 video is as easy to share as Flash video is today. There are a lot of press releases out there being bandied about, talking about how folks are ready for HTML5. But dig a little, and you’ll find there are lots of holes.

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One of the smartest things I’ve heard in a while about all this was at a SXSW panel on HTML5 video led by Christopher Blizzard, head of developer relations at Mozilla (UPDATE — I should have also linked to this excellent post from Blizzard on the thorny format issues still to be resolved). He fielded a flurry of questions about some of these practical issues I’ve noted above and said (I’ll paraphrase here, and Christopher can correct me if I’ve got the paraphrase wrong) “People should look at HTML5 video as something new, and we’re excited or the new things people will do with it. Don’t look at HTML5 video as a replacement for something that you’re already doing with video on the web.”

And indeed, Firefox walks this talk; it will support both HTML5 video and Flash. It lets developers and consumers and video publishers decide which formats fit their needs. Isn’t that the way it should be?

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That the transition from Flash to HTML5 will ultimately happen I have little doubt. The big players are moving now. It just won’t happen overnight. And it may be a long time before you see video sharing enabled by major media companies in anything other than the Flash format.

The folks for whom this transition is hardest are all those video publishers out on the long tail. Sites like TeacherTube, fora.tv and Pitchfork.tv.  Those are the folks caught in the crossfire of this Adobe-Apple war. Flash — and a whole set of businesses and industries built to support it — has made it easy and simple to get videos published online, with advertising support if needed, and made shareable. Time, energy and resources will have to be expended to replicate all that in HTML5.

Apple could have acted like Mozilla. They could have provided robust support for and encouragement to adopt and use HTML5, but also included some support in the browser at least for the Flash plugin. That would have allowed all of us — consumers, publishers, developers — a say in which format worked best and how and when to move to HTML5. It would have made browsing on the iPad a much richer experience in the shorter term, while still pushing the migration to HTML5 in the longer run. I guess time will tell if it was the right call. (And it’s worth noting that almost everyone else — including Google and Microsoft — has made or is making a very different call, one like Mozilla’s).

In the meantime, this line from Brian Lam’s excellent iPad review continues to resonate with me:

I check my surf and snow sites and most of them work fine. Once, I see a video from some no-name site of the big storm that hit Tahoe with 50 inches of snow last week while covering the iPad launch in NY. It doesn’t work…. I bet that video was really good. Every time this happens, I get a little upset, which eats away at my affection for the iPad. This happened 3 times today, and will happen many more times before mom and pop websites get rid of Flash.

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The Tablet: It’s the Future of Entertainment (Not Computing)

I’m a week in to using an iPad. And I find that my relationship with this new device is complicated.

Take last night. I got home from work, and said to myself: “I’m going to use nothing but my iPad for the next 24 hours. No laptop.” That lasted for about 15 minutes; I was trying to write a business e-mail, and got so frustrated I gave up and grabbed my laptop. A minute later I was browsing the web with the iPad, and wanted to share a link with a colleague; it took me literally 10 times longer to accomplish that simple action. As I wrote last weekend, I remain convinced the iPad is not a machine for doing things.

But an hour after that, I had a completely different experience. I had played around with the Netflix app, but not yet watched a movie on it. So I crawled into bed, launched Netflix, and watched a movie. What a revelation! It was awesome (my ergonomic issues watching video solved by getting a case which you can turn into a stand).

This is really what the iPad is good for; at its essence, it’s a lightweight, portable, digitally connected screen.  It’s a passive device, one that gets better with less interaction. It’s not a computing device. Watching movies. Casually flipping through photos (or a simple magazine like publication).  Light browsing of the web. The best applications are those like Netflix (NPR is also good) that require the minimal interaction to set up a mostly-passive experience. And games — it’s a good gaming device.

With that insight, my reaction was: “The iPad is the future of entertainment, not computing.” But then I thought about it a minute longer. And realized that the tablet is the future of entertainment, not the iPad.

My experience with Netflix on the iPad will be available on a wide range of Android and Windows-powered tablets later this year. If I mainly want to browse the web, or watch movies, do I really need a $500 iPad, or will a $200-300 Android tablet do just fine? Is the AppStore really going to be full of one-of-a-kind applications I won’t be able to get on the Android? No.

This is where the decision to kill Abode and boot Flash is really likely to hurt Apple. With an Android tablet, I’ll be able not only to use Netflix, I’ll be able to watch all of the video out there on the Web.

Say I stumble upon a great SNL clip on the Huffington Post or a funny Daily Show clip on Talking Points Memo.  With the iPad, I’ll see a big blank space where the video is supposed to be (because, trust me, Hulu and Viacom won’t be supporting HTML5 embeds anytime soon). Maybe I’ll be curious enough to see if there is a Hulu app; install it (assuming Hulu builds such an app); launch it; search for that SNL video; and, finally, watch it. But really — look at the hurdles you’ll have to go through. Think about how you discover content — through blogs (Tumblr, WordPress, Posterous), links on Twitter to those blog posts, things embedded on sites you like and visit frequently, stuff in your Facebook feed or even on Vodpod.

Think about that experience on the Android tablet. I’ll come across the embedded Flash clip on the Huffington Post and guess what — it’ll play back just fine. Full screen, even. The video quality will be just as good.  This will happen on Android phones, too.

As a consumer, this is just better. And if the video is available in HTML5, that’s great too — the Android will handle that every bit as well as the iPad. The world will move to HTML5 video over the next 2-3 years; but it will take that long. The fact that that universe of programming will work just fine on an Android tablet, and won’t on an iPad, creates an interesting dynamic.

I’m convinced now that the tablet form factor will be increasingly important for the entertainment world. But I’m now much less convinced Apple will dominate that world, despite their head start.

UPDATE: I’m looking back at this post some 20 months later, and most of it holds up. But the big things I got wrong were (a) my view that the lack of Flash support would cripple the iPad and (b) that Android would seize on that missing thing and deliver a better tablet. Whoops! Jobs and crew were totally right to boot Flash, and my ranting about that was, in retrospect, well, stupid.

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The Grand Strategy Rathole

Like so many entrepreneurs, I pretty much worship Steve Jobs. As a 40-something entrepreneur in a world of startups run by kids who can’t even grow facial hair, he’s the holy patron saint of the Second Chance and the still-getting-it-on-when-you’re-over-50-CEO.

And most important of all — the Grand God of Great Product Design.

But I gotta say, I just hate what Apple has been doing these past few months.

The genius, the real absolute genius, of the digital age the past 10 years, has been the “small pieces, loosely joined” nature of it. People got out from under the Microsoft and AOL soviet stores of the 1990s and cobbled together cool services that we all (mostly) love and take for granted now (YouTube, flickr, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and on and on). Most of these services are built on a hodge-podge of open source software, with a thousand lightweight things like Flash thrown in.

Apple (mostly) participated in and benefited from this. Just to give one example: the embrace of MP3 in the iPod. Apple could have taken the purist route and only allowed AAC. They could have made a zillion arguments why it was the right thing to do, and could have bashed MP3 as a bloated, lossy, aged format.

But they didn’t because they were a different company then. A more desperate company. A lot of us had music on our PCs (the Mac hadn’t yet been revived) in the MP3 format. Apple didn’t and couldn’t control the format, but they needed to embrace it for the iPod to win. It made the iPod a better product — no, an awesome product — and made all of us a lot happier.

Starting with the iPod Apple got on a streak of awesomeness, with a great MacBook line powered by OSX, then the iPhone.  With all three of those products, one got the sense that crafting a great user experience was (mostly) paramount. The AT&T lock-in on the iPhone being the most glaringly awful counter-point.

It feels like that has changed over the past months, as Apple has put it’s rediscovered brawn and power on full display. It feels like their focus is changing, from “create a great product” to “dominate the world with Grand Strategy.”

Nothing illustrates this better than Apple’s announcement yesterday about the change in their SDK, and the coverage of that move.  Just look at John Gruber’s defense of Apple’s move on Daring Fireball if you want a taste. The conversation has moved from “Oh. My. God. What an incredible product” to “Well, of course they’re F^$*ng Adobe, here are all the reasons why this is so smart.”

If Apple wanted to make a truly great product, they would have embraced Adobe. Not because Adobe is awesome, but because they’re a part of the fabric of the digital age, a part of the web.  There are tens of thousands of sites out there that found Flash a simple, reliable way to distribute their videos. And hundreds of services (ad serving, statistical tracking, security) that got baked in over time to allow this to flourish.

Apple just changed that, by fiat. Not because it makes their product so much better, but because it fits their new Grand Strategy. Big sites like YouTube, Hulu, blip or even our site Vodpod will make the transition to HTML5 support rapidly. But making that transition is a real pain (if you dare leave a comment telling me how trivial HTML5 is, or that people “should just make an app” I’ll come track you down and punch you in the nose for being a moron) and will be much tougher for  thousands of smaller sites — TeacherTube for fora.tv, for example. Those sites, and their viewers, lose out with Apple’s new strategy.

Brian Lam, in a really terrific review of the iPad, captures this dynamic so well here:

I check my surf and snow sites and most of them work fine. Once, I see a video from some no-name site of the big storm that hit Tahoe with 50 inches of snow last week while covering the iPad launch in NY. It doesn’t work. I am too stoned and cozy in my fuzzy blanket to get up and walk to the office. I bet that video was really good. Every time this happens, I get a little upset, which eats away at my affection for the iPad. This happened 3 times today, and will happen many more times before mom and pop websites get rid of Flash.

It didn’t have to be like that. But sometimes, companies just get too big for their own good, get too caught up playing Grand Strategy, and forget they got there by just making freakin’ great products. Tragic.

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Pattern Recognition

It’s one of the joys of getting older.

All this talk of stands and external keyboards for the iPad reminds me of this. I remember folks coming to meetings circa 1999, at the height of the bubble, with their Palm V and an external keyboard.

They always looked kind of silly.

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Where the iPad is Revolutionary

As I just wrote in my last post, I don’t really think the iPad is a revolutionary device itself.

But I do get why people think it provides a glimpse of the future. In this way, it’s a little like the iPod, which basically showed the way to the iPhone (except the iPod was so new and so fresh and so powerful, it qualified as a truly revolutionary device in it’s own right).

As I’ve used the iPad the last day, it’s got me dreaming of the device that I think Apple will most surely build that will revolutionize computing: an extremely lightweight, thin MacBook that supports touch and runs OSX.

Microsoft tried to do something like this with their first tablets but they ran, well, Windows. And were the opposite of elegant.

I’d love a device that combines my Macbook and my iPad. Where I can toggle between a touch-driven app and regular, keyboard laptop functionality. With their new A4 chip and Jony Ive and Steve Job’s vision, Apple can and surely will make this device. Can’t wait. When they do, that will be the revolutionary device, and the iPad will have paved the way.

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As Revolutionary as the DeLorean

The iPad has been in our house for twenty-four hours now, and I’ll start with the obvious and not-very-original praise — it’s a beautifully engineered device.

But with that out of the way, let’s dive in and get to the heart of the matter — the iPad will be about as revolutionary to the computing business as the Delorean was to the car industry. Meaning, not all all.

Dave Winer was perhaps a tad too harsh yesterday calling the iPad a toy, but I think the essence of his argument is about right.

Here are the key things I’ve noticed in playing with the device the last day and trying out twenty to thirty different apps:

  • My kids (14 and 11) love it. Why do they love it? For one reason only — the games.
  • Touch gestures are awesome for browsing photos, and some specifically designed apps (Time magazine and the Guardian had the best photo-oriented apps)
  • That said, there is no way I’m ever going to pay $4.99 a week for a magazine on this device (and I am your target market); Kevin Anderson has a great post on this
  • It is definitely not a production device; every time I wanted to do something, I reached for my laptop (typing this post on my laptop now — the keyboard on the iPad is not a serious tool)
  • I found the ergonomics of the device more awkward than I expected; I’m surprised so few people have written about this. There is a reason you see people propping their legs up tent-like to support the device in all those ads.
  • It’s a horrible daylight device — hard to hold it in a position to avoid screen glare
  • It’s far less useful for video than I would have imagined; not because of lack of Flash, but because of the ergonomics. You really want a fixed screen position to watch video. And you often want to multi-task. Laptops are perfect, really, for video
  • I used the iBook app, and again I found the weight and heft of the device less friendly for book reading than a Kindle
  • Touch gestures are elegant and lovely and efficient for some applications, they’re awful for others. In many ways, touch is much more important and critical on the iPhone than the iPad.

In short, I think this is an awesome game device, and a very, very good browsing device for photos and specifically-built content applications. But it is most definitely not a computer. If I had to make a Sophie’s choice decision, choosing between my MacBook and the iPad, it would not be a close call at all. Whereas, if I had to choose between my iPhone and my MacBook, that would be a very, very hard decision.

To claim this device is as important and revolutionary as the iPhone is just delusional. And anyone who thinks it is a potential replacement for a real computer smoked too much Steve Jobs PR crack. In my life, using computers intensively the past twenty years and building applications and services designed for them, there have been four truly huge developments:

  • The web browser and Internet
  • The lightweight laptop with built-in wifi — this revolutionized mobile computing, and was a huge leap forward (very under-hyped at the time, giant in retrospect)
  • The iPod — the ability to take 1000 songs and put them in your pocket, what an incredible thrill, and introduced the world of digital mobile devices
  • The iPhone — the first truly great mobile phone & computing device, and the single best and most revolutionary communication device made in my lifetime

The iPad isn’t anywhere near as important as any of these things, elegant as it is. It’s essentially a nice to have device, not a must have.

And in many ways, I find it a big step backwards. It’s an incredibly infantilizing device. On my MacBook (favorite computer ever) I love being able to write a blog post and listen to music and toggle over to my Twitter feed and my e-mail while sitting on my couch. My computer makes me feel faster, more productive, more engaged. It helps me to do more things.

Whereas my iPad reduces me to poking my finger at the screen, one application at a time. I found myself getting bored, and reaching for my MacBook.

So why all the praise? It’s interesting, when you start to break it down. So much of it comes from people who want you, reader, to go back to being a consumer. If you make your living as a writer or a maker of content, say, the thought of having someone drinking in your words in an elegantly designed app without the distraction of a Facebook alert or e-mail or music or web-browsing or other multi-tasking madness is unbelievably seductive. It provides them the illusion that we can go back to the world pre-web, where content creators were few and ruled the Earth. I think a lot of folks hope Steve Jobs have given them back that world with the iPad, a world where they’re in control again.

Diverging opinions on the iPad are reflective of a larger cultural war happening within the technology and media businesses. As I wrote from SXSW last month, there are a lot of folks in the media business who have never really liked the web. Including some folks, ironically, who now make their living on the Web.

If you’re an entrepreneur, the iPad poses a huge dilemma. Anyone who makes games should be focused on this device straight away. But if you’re not in the game-making business, it’s not as clear. There will be hundreds of millions of people with smart-phones or super-phones the next two years. And hundreds of millions with a laptop or computer connected to broadband.  Maybe 20-30M at most in two years with an iPad?

But, fortunately for Apple, you can hedge your bets by thinking of the iPad as part of the iPhone family of devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad). Taken together, that’s a huge addressable market. And a force to be reckoned with (bacause ot it, Flash for video will be largely gone from the Web within the next 12 months).

So, back to my new iPad. It’s sitting over on the bookshelf re-charging while I type this on my MacBook. I might grab it later to play with. Or I might not. It’s kind of like that.

AN UPDATE: I should note for the record that when the iPad was announced earlier in the year, I thought not including support for Flash was a big mistake. I was totally wrong about that. YouTube and and a few other services already work brilliantly on the device, and I think by year’s end we’ll see most mainstream video sites gravitate towards support for HTML5 standards as a result. That’ll be a good thing.

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