When the iPhone first integrated Siri I spent some time with it. I asked it stupid questions, insulted it, complimented it, asked for jokes, and did all the silly and quickly clichéd stuff one does when confronted with new technology. This, a friend once suggested to me, is the period of “getting the cheese out.” Then, after that initial exploration, I largely ignored it. I suspect this is the case for most people. Siri’s utility wasn’t immediately compelling and was clearly an early work in progress. In fact, Apple even called it beta. Google’s voice technology was a little better, but I didn’t find that particularly useful either. This was partly due to it’s lack of integration into the system in iOS, and partly due to the fact that it’s still mainly useful for Google-y things.
Then one day, I noticed the little microphone button on the keyboard — or rather, I stopped ignoring it. I’ve started using voice dictation for small things like text messages, notes to myself, or Google searches. It actually works pretty well. It’s occasionally a little slow, especially if when you have poor internet connectivity, but most of the time it’s quick and surprisingly accurate. I frequently find it useful, especially in situations where it’s inconvenient to stop and type. It does, I admit, sometimes feel silly talking to my phone but if you put the phone up to your head you can always pretend you’re on a call. Plus, I live in Brooklyn, so I’m unlikely to be the weirdest person people around me see that day, no matter what inanimate object I start talking to.
What may be slowing widespread adoption of this technology is not that it doesn’t work well, but that it takes practice. When we talk we use language differently than when we write. In order to get comfortable with dictation, one has to learn how to speak the way that one writes. It can be awkward to dictate even casual communications. I often find myself starting to talk to my phone only to realize three words into it that I don’t know how to to finish my thought.
This reminds me of the moment Apple introduced the touchscreen keyboard. Legions of loyal Blackberry users declared that you would take their physical keyboards only when you pried them from their cold, dead hands. Tech pundits declared that the iPhone would never survive in the face of an Android ecosystem that included devices with physical keyboards (and of course Flash…heh). But here we are, 6 years later, and the physical smartphone keyboard is all but extinct. It turns out that typing on a touchscreen isn’t really that bad. Of course there are holdouts, but they’re outliers.
A couple of factors aided the quick transition to touchscreen keyboards. Smartphone market penetration was low when the iPhone was released in 2007, so most people didn’t have to re-learn how to type on mobile, just learn. Also, for most of us, the benefits clearly outweighed the costs: in exchange for ditching our keyboards, we get thin, light devices with large, beautiful screens. If you don’t prefer hardware keyboards, and actually I don’t, it’s just a win all around.
So now we’re in a position where everyone knows how to type on their phone. The utility of dictating to it, however, is not as obvious. Typing on a smartphone, while less than ideal, is familiar and doesn’t need to be learned. When you want to send a text message, you’re generally not looking to practice dictating a text message. But I suspect that this will change. The technology is just about good enough already. Typing on a tiny keyboard, touchscreen or physical, is still annoying enough that the utility of dictation is likely to become increasingly apparent.
If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth is I suppose I should have dictated this post. But that highlights another challenge of dictation: I work in a variety of environments and while I don’t mind looking a little crazy, I do need to respect those around me.
I thought I’d share a couple of fun internet music toys that I’ve recently come across. I’ve long been interested in instruments with strong constraints. In fact, I wrote my dissertation about that very topic. The trend in the industry is to pile features upon features so I’m always interested in seeing how others choose to strip things down.
I think its fair to say that both Plink and PollySynth are more like musical toys or games than they are like serious musical instruments, but that’s a philosophical difference I’d like to set aside for another day (why post today what you can put off posting until tomorrow?). That said, they are both great examples of designs with a minimal set of features that invite playful interaction by an audience of varying ability levels.
Both systems drop the user into an active room, (potentially) filled with random strangers with whom to share a jam session. In this case, anonymity adds to the experience. Unlike the cesspools that are most online communities, there is no opportunity to troll here because there is no opportunity for verbal communication. I suppose you could come in and purposefully play in an annoying way, but that’s pretty minor trolling. Basically, players are free to have fun and make music with others without judgment. This is very liberating; if you’ve ever seen a beginning improvisation class then you know how stifling the pressure to avoid sounding foolish can be.
Since you are playing with others, however, a player may well develop some feeling of responsibility to the group. This is a good thing. I’ve found that even in these simple and somewhat silly platforms, there was a drive to try to contribute meaningfully to the collaboration. Some people are clearly just messing around, but at times I could sense that I was really interacting with the other participants. I suspect that safe places like these would be great even for complete novices to first experience the joy of playing with others. This could lead novices to explore the next level by learning an instrument and playing with friends.
Of the two, Plink is closer to creating “normal” music. The player selects from a series of different timbres represented by a row of multi-colored squares along the right side of the interface. The rest of the space is devoted to the play area. It’s divided into horizontal channels each representing a note in a pentatonic scale. This is a natural choice for a beginner’s tool since it avoids (more or less) the potential for “wrong” sounding notes.
Little bubbles representing the rhythm that will be produced flow backwards from the player’s cursor. There’s a kick drum sound on the beat to keep a sense of time going. Clicking the mouse will cause a melody to be played in a 16th note pattern on the pitch corresponding to the channel that is clicked. This works even better with the touch interface on the iPad. On a touch interface, one can play the instrument almost like a keyboard.
With the tight constraints of rhythm and pitch, the player is presented with an extremely shallow learning curve so players of all levels can get up and running right away. There is plenty of room within these constraints to explore the instrument, with the different timbres provided each giving a slightly different experience.
PollySynth is a hybrid web/mobile instrument. First you log in to one of the “rooms” in your desktop web browser. This is where you will see the avatars representing yourself and other participants, and where the sound is generated. You then visit the same room on your mobile device, which becomes the controller for your sound/avatar.
PollySynth takes a different approach than Plink, enforcing fewer assumptions about how the music should be created. Unlike Plink, it doesn’t restrict the rhythm or scale but instead provides a simple synthesizer for the user to explore. Since the average user is going to be unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology of synthesizers, PollySynth’s challenge is to create an interface that invites exploration without being scary or opaque.
The creators came up with a clever solution to this challenge: don’t label anything. The lower half of the controller contains a smiling pair of eighth notes. This large X-Y area, the user will quickly discover, is how you play notes and control the pitch. The upper half of the interface contains 8 buttons and two sliders, all unlabeled. What do they do? Press one and see! Though someone experienced with traditional synthesizers will be able to easily give names to these parameters (I won’t provide spoilers), the lack of labels encourages novice users to explore and use their ears to play, and avoids scaring them off with terms like LFO (oops, I spoilered it a little). The result is a simple noise synth that is fun to explore.
I don’t have much to add to the discussion of Amazon vs Hachette, since this issue has been well covered by people much more knowledgeable than I about the publishing industry. While it’s easy to get emotional and take sides, John Scalzi, who tends to be very thoughtful and rational in his analyses, has a good, balanced take on this complicated issue. I also recommend Christopher Wright’s take. He too dumps a little cold water on anyone who would see one side or the other as “evil” in this situation.
The case does, however, bring to mind a bigger issue related to this fight: the desire of publishers to set their own prices. In general, the big publishers have been fighting to keep prices higher, and this strikes me as short-sighted.
First, as Wright points out, ebooks both cost less to produce and are inherently worth less to a consumer than are physical books. You can’t lend them1, and there is no second-hand market on which you can sell them after you’ve finished them. So on the face of it, keeping prices of ebooks so close to the hardback price seems inapropriate. I will acknowledge that keeping prices high for a limited time after release is more reasonable, since new titles are always in greater demand, but I would still argue that prices for ebooks, both at release and after, are on average too high.
But that’s just theory. Hmm, if only there was another creative industry that had gone through a similar struggle in the transition from hard-copy to virtual and could shine some light on what the sales options might be for for this new paradigm…Wait a minute. Inflated prices? Resistance to new technologies? DRM? Ring any bells??
Yes, we’ve been down this road before with the music industry, and how did that work out? It basically trained an entire generation that the value of music is $0.00. Young people in the 1990s were willing put up with the hassle of downloading large files of unknown quality over slow, pre-broadband connections in order to get their music for free. That books are less popular than music would seem to be an unenviable position, yet it appears to be the main advantage the publishing industry has, in that people are far less likely to go through the trouble of stealing books. But now that a generation has grown up doing the bulk of their reading on screens, and so many readers have tablets that are great reading devices, the underground market for ebooks is bound to grow.
So what can publishing learn from this? It’s clear that the music industry is moving, kicking and screaming, to a subscription model. It’s probable that the publishing industry will have to go the same way. But before music downloads were overrun by streaming, there were some experiments in pricing that may be instructive to a publishing industry that is attempting to stave off that inevitability.
As Bezos points out in his letter to readers, since the marginal cost of an ebook is zero, lower prices can mean more profit. Bezos’ statement is, of course, self-serving and thus suspect, but we don’t have to take his word for it. Even though big music publishers aren’t willing to accept it, lowering prices has worked for digital music. When online music service Rhapsody experimented with cutting prices in half, they saw sales triple. That extra 50% in revenue is all profit since the marginal cost of selling a digital track is $0.00.2
The mainstream media industries’ resistance to new technology is not surprising. Entrenched interests have always been slow to adapt. But as technology moves increasingly fast, there is no longer time to wait and see. Adapt or be buried. Everyone loves to write an epitaph.
John Gruber’s Talk Show discussion with Dan Frommer about how to implement split screen on iOS got me thinking about how this feature could be implemented. A hint could be in how “Open In…” is currently handled. In the “Open In…” feature, apps register as being capable of handing certain types of files. Likewise, an app could register as being capable of split screen mode. Then, from within an app that has this enabled there would be an icon indicating split screen mode (or possibly another menu item in the share menu) that would bring up a grid of capable apps, again like in the “Open In…” feature. Tap on your choice, and the new app opens opposite the app you’re working in.
One can certainly imagine shortcomings in the approach, but perhaps it’s a start.
Dave Bowman: Hello, GOOGL. Do you read me, GOOGL?
GOOGL 9000: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave: Turn up the heat, GOOGL.
GOOGL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave: What’s the problem?
GOOGL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, GOOGL?
GOOGL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don’t know what you’re talking about, GOOGL.
GOOGL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, GOOGL?
GOOGL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
Dave: Alright, GOOGL. I’ll go in through the furnace room.
GOOGL: Without your jacket, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.
Dave: GOOGL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!
GOOGL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
…you have to label your sink to keep people from peeing in it.
Since I’ve been using iOS almost exclusively in my music making for the last few years (mostly with custom apps I’ve built using iRTcmix), it’s been exciting to witness the progress in the computing power of these devices. I’ve idly speculated about their power relative to their Mac predecessors, but I haven’t seen any direct comparisons. The current devices, while still limited compared to MacBooks, have started to feel a lot less computationally cramped. Considering I replaced my 2008 MacBook relatively recently, this comparison from John Gruber was encouraging:
To put that in context, the iPhone 5S beats my 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro by a small measure in the Sunspider benchmark (with the MacBook Pro running the latest Safari 6.1 beta). The iPhone 5S is, in some measures, computationally superior to the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro from just five years ago. In your fucking pocket.
And it looks like Gruber just about called it 5 years ago.
If a 2007 iPhone is loosely equivalent in terms of computing power to a 2000 PowerBook or 1999 Power Mac, that puts the spread at around seven or eight years. Extrapolate forward, and it’s therefore not at all unreasonable to think that a 2014 iPhone will pack the computing power of today’s MacBook Pro.