March, 2013

Trance

A new Danny Boyle film is always something to be welcomed, and given that his last two ventures were the Olympics opening ceremony, and Frankenstein at the National Theatre, it’s been a while (although I did see Frankenstein at the cinema).
Trance is a chance for Boyle to really let go of the reigns. In interviews he’s said that it was a useful regulator compared with the wholesome celebratory opening ceremony he was doing at the same time.
I say “interviews”, because as well as seeing the film yesterday, I had a fairly full evening of Boyle. The screening was followed by a live on stage Q&A with Boyle which ran a fairly decent fifty minutes. And then I got home and watched a further thirty minute interview with Mark Kermode on The Culture Show. And this comes after last week’s interview with Kermode and Simon Mayo on their Five Live film programme.
So that’s a lot of Danny Boyle. And that’s before I get started on the Little White Lies and Sight & Sound features in print!
Of course, I don’t want to spoil the plot too much, so all I need say is that James McAvoy is a junior auctioneer who gets involved in the theft of a valuable Goya painting, working with some gangsters led by Vincent Cassel. But he gets beaten about his head and forgets where he’s put the painting, so he visits Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist, who he hopes will help him find the painting.
The film then works through a series of trances, and the story begins to unfold in a non-linear manner.
Boyle’s famous for opening his films with dynamism. Think of Renton running down Princes Street in Trainspotting, the kids of slums in Slumdog Millionaire, or Aaron Ralston rushing through the desert at the start of 127 Hours.
Here we get a representation of how a painting would have been stolen in the past, and then an elaborate robbery in the present day. The music is pounding – music being another important Boyle trope.
Boyle told us in the Q&A that he was almost conditioning his audience – putting them into a “trance” as he opened the film that way.
This is a highly stylised film. Two of three main film locations – the gangster’s and the hypnotherapist’s apartments are unbelievably stylish. But that’s very purposeful. And frankly, you don’t really stop to think about it too much. The film’s plot is being driven firmly forwards at all times.
Boyle said that he did a lot of research into hypnotism, and said that the facts within the film are true – that around 5-10% of the population are most susceptible to it. I must admit that I’m always a little skeptical about how it truly works – and whether it really does. I’ve seen stage hypnotists, and I always feel that those who take part are a fairly self-selecting type. That said, some are clearly more suggestive than others. Look at the success of cults in getting people indoctrinated.
The performances are great, with McAvoy being convincingly drawn into this world, and Dawson being an atypical character in films of this type. In other hands, the film would have gone a different way, but in the Q&A Boyle said that he didn’t want a Hitchcock-esque icy blonde as his hypnotherapist. And although he didn’t say it, I suspect he didn’t want a Sharon Stone/Basic Instinct blonde either.
We know that Cassel can be a gangster – and Boyle knows that too – but he has another side here as well. The supporting cast all great too. With a colourful crew of gangsters as well as smaller roles all believable.
Is the plot believable? No. Not really. It’s a fable of sorts. And I suppose that’s why, in the end, it’s not right up there with the very best of Boyle. But it’s still damned good.

Good Luck With Those Paywalls

That title sounds a bit insincere. But I really do mean it. Because, to work, they’re going to need some luck!
In the last twenty-four hours, both the Telegraph and The Sun have announced the raising of paywalls on their sites. This wasn’t unexpected.
The Telegraph had been experimenting with its overseas users for a while and claims to have converted quite a few people. They’re going for the metered model allowing readers up to 20 articles a month before they have to pay up to read on. The Telegraph really led the way in the early days of the web, but somehow never held onto that lead. The price is quite low, and I wish them good luck. I’m not sure it’ll work especially well as I don’t see Telegraph readers as being digital evangelists despite that early lead. But we’ll have to wait and see.
What I do know is that I’m not paying for digital only access for any paper that hasn’t got a proper Android tablet version of their app. The Telegraph’s offer will include access to the paper via its smartphone apps, but it’s tablet apps that are important for newspapers. And that means more than the iPad. If you think you can succeed digitally, but not serve the needs of Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 owners, then good luck to you. You’ll need it.
The Sun’s announcement wasn’t surprising. They spent a lot of money on digital rights to Premier League highlights as part of a News Internatioanl buy, and those rights begin in August. There’s no way they handed over millions of pounds just to give those rights away free.
On the other hand, I’m unconvinced that access to them is enough to get people to hand over cash. The goals appear on Match of the Day, Sky Sports, news programmes, and from next season, the iPlayer. The ESPN Goals app on mobile has been a nice freebie, but I’d never pay for it.
But The Sun faces a bigger problem. A lot of broadsheet papers complain that the existence of the BBC’s online offering means that they struggle. I’m afraid The Sun has a different problem – and it’s the Mail Online. It’s become, somehow, a world leading entertainment news portal, and as such has camped right on The Sun’s turf.
I really don’t know how The Sun is going to make a success of a subscription offering when the more popular site is free.

In Praise Of… What?

In Praise Of
Here’s a curious thing.
The Guardian has a regular “In Praise Of…” column on its leader page where rather than just moaning about things, it’ll sometimes, well, praise something. It’s quite a refreshing change to read something positive in that part of the paper.
Last night, I saw the column above published online, and while I was going to mention it being a little odd, I just put it down to the fact that The Guardian has quite a sizeable US operation, and that’s what I must be reading.
So when I saw the column in print in the very much British print edition of the paper (see photo above), I was perplexed.
In praise of… satellite radio starts by referencing a music festival in Dawson City, Canada, and a weather report from Hobart, Tasmania. The online piece links directly to relevant websites.
At first I thought that whoever wrote this really did mean “satellite” radio. In the UK, we have a very limited view of satellite radio. It’s mostly national BBC and commercial stations with a few local services and a number of niche stations aimed at minorities of one type or another.
Sky Radio
In the US, subscription satellite radio is quite a decent success – in terms of subscriber numbers anyway. SiriusXM has a broad range of services, many of them exclusive to the satellite service, all available for a fee. Small Canadian and Australian stations are notable by their absence though.
So what on earth is this piece talking about?
Do they mean “internet” radio? I think they might.
I suspect that even if you’ve never listened to the radio via the internet, you probably have a vague notion that it comes down the same wire that your internet connection does. As opposed to coming from a large metal object orbiting at 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth.
The piece ends, “Sure, Radio 4 in the background provides a homely sustenance; but there’s an entire world out there to listen to.” And I wouldn’t disagree for a moment. But that’s not satellite radio.

Alex Cox on Kickstarter

I’m beginning to wonder if my new way of watching films is going to be via Kickstarter. I’ve now backed two films in the last two weeks. The first was the wildly successful Veronica Mars movie. That was always going to achieve its $2m goal, and indeed it hit its target within 24 hours. At time of writing, it’s getting close to double what it was looking for.
The other film, is perhaps more interesting, and the one that’s perhaps going to take a bit more work to achieve its goal.
Alex Cox is best known to people of my generation as the presenter of the much missed Moviedrome from a time when terrestrial television showed interesting films (Although I have many more film channels available to me today, I’m not sure the range is what it used to be). I regularly had blank VHS tapes on hand when it was being broadcast.
He’s also a director of such films as Repo Man, Walker and Sid and Nancy.
These days he’s to be found teaching at the University of Colorado, but for a while he’s been trying to make Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero. And now he’s going to do it, very cheaply, in black and white and on 35mm – a stock that’s going to disappear very soon.
What you need to know about Bill, The Galactic Hero is that it was written in direct response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Let’s just say that Harrison and Heinlein agreed to disagree.
Harrison died last year – and although I’ve read many of his Stainless Steel Rats books (indeed a reread a few last year following his death) – I’ve not yet read Bill, The Galactic Hero. I did buy the ebook last week though.
That hasn’t stopped me instantly backing Cox’s new film. He’s at about 20% of his target after two days. 28 days to raise $80,000 doesn’t seem impossible does it? In the meantime, here’s his new(ish) blog.

Google Keep – Here To Stay?

It’s been really interesting to read the response to Google’s new product launch this week – Google Keep, a multi-platform note taking application.
Most of the discussion seems to have been less about how good the product is, and more about whether it’s worth getting too reliant on it in case Google, down the line, decides to shutter the service.
The launch comes just days after Google did indeed announcer the closing of a service that many people – myself included – relied upon: Google Reader. And as I said at the time, it made me reconsider quite significantly, my reliance on free services.
In this instance, the competitor that Google has in its frame seems to be Evernote. At the moment, the service clearly isn’t up there with Evernote. Indeed it all feels a little flakey for a launch, not even properly integrated with Drive (although we’re told that’s coming). Evernote is truly multiplatform, and works with hardware and even paper products! There’s a strong eco-system, and there’s a paid for service. Evernote’s future depends on this core product.
But Google has practically infinite resources, if it wants to get into an area, and it could of course just go out and buy Evernote I’d assume.
Which brings me to another recent Google shuttering – Snapseed on desktop. Google bought Nik Software, essentially to acquire the mobile version of its Snapseed photography app. However Google has closed down the desktop version of the software, and now photographers are concerned about what will happen with other Nik software aimed at desktop machines – in particular products like Silver Efex Pro. It’s a bit specialist and therefore probably not a core Google product. Will they spin it off? Sell it? Or close it? Maybe they’ll actually develop it.
Nik Software is, one imagines, a profitable company. And Snapseed aside, its products cost money (too much in Europe, but that’s another moan for another day). And there are rivals to it. So we’re not in a Google Reader situation.
Paying for products and services doesn’t guarantee continuity of course. There’s nothing to stop companies go bust, or taking different directions. You don’t have to look far back to find companies that you’d think would be around forever, yet are no longer with us 2013.
But that’s probably something to consider with any cloud based service.
James Fallows at The Atlantic voices many of my concerns.

Advertising Week Europe – Guardian Breakfast

The inaugural Advertising Week Europe conference kicked off in London this week, and the very first session was The Guardian Founders Opening Breakfast with The Guardian’s Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger. Listening to live jazz music at Ronnie Scott’s at 8am was a different experience.
As I sat down with a cup of tea and a croissant, a BBC News alert text reported that Labour’s Harriet Harmen was saying that a press deal had been struck between the main political parties. So a big day for the press perhaps?
Rusbridger referenced this news in his introduction and mentioned that regulation of the press was perhaps a strange concept for Americans in the room. In any case, with a Royal Charter “you should all feel privileged to be in this room.”
The panel, to talk about leading-edge technology in a digital world, consisted of Gurbaksh Chahal of Radiumone, Rene Rechtman of Goviral and AOL Networks, and JB Rudelle of Critereo.
Rene talked about the importance of peer to peer connections made in social media for buying products while JB said social is one area of importance, but combined with others, it becomes powerful.
Rene said that his business is driven by data with social data at its heart. They’re able to know things that others can’t about their users. He said people want to be part of the sharing society on line and that if you can utilise that data you can be in a strong place.
JB said that they don’t think about data as a special category. They think about intent. The ultimate goal for advertisers is performance. If there’s no shopping intent, then there’s no advertiser interested in this user.
He said that if someone looks a specific product page on a website, then theres strong intent. If you’re looking at, say, the news on the war Iraq, there’s nothing really there.
Rusbridger wanted to know about privacy issues and whether consumers are happy with the current boundaries.
Gurbaksh said that everyone talks about it, and sometimes it gets over-embellished. They don’t care about your name, but your actions. “Who” you are doesn’t matter. It’s the intent that you have. He doesn’t believe that there are any privacy issues. He said people are sharing more than they probably should on social networks.
Remy said it’s just the beginning. Look at Apple. People making in-app purchases without realising; kids spending thousands without parents agreement. There are going to be lots of issues, privacy only being one. The market will regulate itself in the end.
JB said that the legal aspect is simple. It’s pragmatic and that the UK is leading the way.
In business, we have to think about how to sustain a long term business. If we don’t treat our customers well then it causes long term damage. Be one step ahead of the law in having good practice.
Asked about what’s worked really well in peer to peer Remy gave examples of Red Bull and Nike’s Fuel Band. The latter almost says that they don’t need to advertise any more. It wasn’t real, but it was a provocation. You have a different set of opportunities to talk to your clients in a pragmatic way. Starbucks is another example with their app. It allows the conversation to continue. Volvo Trucks was another client who uses social media well.
Gurbaksh talked about the Super Bowl and Hyundai. He said that they found people who mentioned relevant hashtags on Twitter and then presented them with the two minute version of their Superbowl ad rather than the thirty second one that aired on TV.
JB talked about the uniqueness of their ads to users. The same user doesn’t see the same ad twice and you might see very different copy.
Rusbridger wants to know about mobile.
Gurbaksh said that he shouldn’t be worried. With 1.2bn Android and iOS activations now, there’s a real marketplace to target. However, everyone hates the current mobile experience. The thing that will be cool about mobile will be the things you can’t do on the web. E.g. Utilising geolocation data. He said that we should think of the rich data that exists – the footprint you can’t get online.
Rene said that he agrees that mobile formats aren’t right yet and haven’t been figured out. Think of it as a pipe. He said that research shows that the tablet is taking over many of the previous laptops roles. And mobile is used for entertaining consumers and browsing short form video, news, and social media networks.
JB said that they’re incredibly excited but there are a lot of moving pieces. He thought that we’re in the equivalent of the late nineties. But we’re more experienced today. So we can ramp up and monetise the mobile space much quickly.
Japan is a market that is very advanced in mobile, with the US and Europe still “coming”. It’ll move quickly in the next 18 months he predicts.
Gurbaksh said that Facebook now says the average user spends 6.5 hours a month on the web but 8.5 hours on mobile. That’s why they’re going to be mobile first company.
Someone asked about the Mozilla third party cookie plans that are proposed, and that he thought were concerning. Although the panel all thought that they had a solution. Gurbaksh thought that it wouldn’t become an issue while JB said that it’s not a legal issue. He noted that the average politician had no idea of the difference between first and third party cookies.
In response to another question, Rene saw no limits to the kind of clients that can use social media. Anything can be made sexy – including a washing machine (I note that Samsung had quite a decent viral video for their washing machines recently).
Gurbaksh said that there was a rush to do some things like setting up a Facebook page. But what does that mean? You can make any brand sexy but you need to put the effort in.
On regulation JB said that you have to get the user on board. It’s only a small piece of the story. Britain has done regulation well whereas the Netherlands has taken a more draconian approach.
Gurbaksh gives a Neiman Marcus example using URL shorteners tracking sharing of URLs to purchase, with a really high return rate of purchases.
In a world where there’s unlimited content, says Rene, then the value comes from high end and curated content. Otherwise the value is close to zero.
Rusbridger noted that if it was only about curation then The Guardian would have no advantage over something like the Huffington Post. But they have a newsroom of people creating their own reporting.
Asked about too much value being given to the last click in a purchase chain, Gurbaksh says some brands will think that way, but he says in the US thinking about just that is becoming a thing of the past.
Rene says that the last click model is definitely disappearing. But he says that it’s across devices and the attribution model (An aside: quite how that relates to non-internet marketing, I’m not clear).
JB has a different view. His company has its own mathematical model which includes display and gives their clients an ROI.
The panel largely agrees that agencies will still be important in Europe. Although there are opportunities to work direct with clients. It’s going to collaborative.
Rusbridger asked the last question himself and told us that he was heading to the airport to visit India where he’d be interviewing Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt. He wanted questions from the panel. But they all tended to be in awe of what he was doing, so nothing too journalistically demanding came of it!
A fun opening session to a week of events across the capital.

Killing Google Reader

I suppose that we’ve all known that it was coming. But Google is finally killing off Google Reader completely. Their reasoning, buried away in a brief note about “Spring Cleaning” (i.e. things they’ve started and decided to finish with) is that usage had fallen. Not visiting the Google Blog on a daily basis, on the off chance they’ve posted something new, I saw this news in Google Reader itself. Of course!
While I appreciate that the broader population never entirely understood how RSS feeds and readers worked, that’s not really good enough. I’d hazard that other reasons for Reader’s declining use include the fact that Google did its level best to hide it, burying from a position of prominence in its navigation bar, to a drop down, and removing a lot of the social features from it that made it easy to see what others were sharing. This was around the time that Google was trying to build Google+, so the sharing was replaced with Google+ sharing, which might seem to be the same but was entirely different.
I suppose the biggest reason that people fell away from Reader was because Google fell out of love with it itself. If you don’t continue to develop a product, then it’s clear that you’re not interested. Added to that, there was never an obvious revenue model for Google attached to it. The ads you saw were served by the sites you subscribed to, not Google.
Ironically, Google Reader developed the vast market share having come along and killed the previous bigboy on the block – Bloglines. Well at least it seemed to me that this was the most popular reader around. But once Google trained its guns on the lawn, everyone else fell away to a large extent.
And that of course means that as everyone looks around now for a replacement, nobody really had the scale to keep developing.
Just to put in perspective how much I’m going to miss Google Reader, I’d estimate that it’s my third most used Google product after search and Gmail.
I permanently have a tab open in my browser and it’s become an essential part of both my work and my personal interests.
And I suspect that lots of journalists and quite influential people who want to stay ahead of the curve online, are also Google Reader users. So while the numbers might not be enormous, I suspect their influence is greater than perhaps Google realises.
This move is also going to cause problems for lots of third party developers who’ve put their own wrappers around Google Reader – often in an attempt just to make it look prettier. Press on Android springs to mind immediately.
And I wonder if certain sites didn’t see a disproportionate amount of traffic generated from their RSS feeds? It’s probably a drop in the ocean on somewhere like the BBC News site or The Guardian. But I suspect that technical or interest specific sites have a different story.
One thing that comes up from time to time is that social networks like Twitter are the way we share feeds. But they are incredibly inefficient. Twitter is a stream. If you happen to be looking at the right time and see the right link from the right person pass by, then you may find something worthwhile to click through to. But you have to hope you’re following the right people. That’s a lot harder than just subscribing to a site that you know provides you with things you’re interested in.
That’s not to say that Twitter links aren’t useful. They can be. But they tend to work better in reaction to live events like breaking news stories, or the utterly trivial.
And while apps like Flipboard and Google’s own Currents can theoretically replace some of what Reader offered, they can only deal with a handful of sites realistically. That’s not much use if you want to stay on top of lots of things.
Assuming Google doesn’t do a 180 degree turn – and I suspect they won’t as they’ve clearly fallen out of love – then where does that leave us?
There are other RSS feed readers out there, but I don’t know which are the good ones. I imagine sites like Lifehacker (a site I go to solely via RSS) are already compiling a list. And of course this could be an opportunity for someone. Well it would be if they didn’t only have three months from a standing start to develop an all round product.
Let’s be clear though. I would happily pay for a fast RSS reader that’s available on the web, and via a mobile client like Press. An annual subscription. From my own pocket. And that’s a rare thing in this world where we expect everything to be free.
And let that be a lesson to all of us who find free services we’re using essential…

RAJAR – Predicting the Future

Here’s a copy of the presentation I gave to the Radio Academy’s London Branch earlier today. It was part of an evening called All About RAJARs which saw RAJAR‘s Lyndsey Ferrigan, Hallett Arendt‘s John Shorter and myself talking a bit about RAJAR. Matt Deegan was our host.

[Update] The Radio Academy has uploaded the event’s audio, so you can attempt to listen to me and follow along with the slides. The whole evening is worth a listen, and I start at about 44 minutes into this audio.
My piece was about trying to determine what RAJAR is able to tell us now, and try to extrapolate what might happen in the future. I limited myself to only using RAJAR, and not trying to foist any “maybes” on top of it.
Themes include:
– listening being maintained, but not growing while the population is
– the decline of listening amongst 15-24s
– and the fact that they don’t seem to “get the radio habit” as they get older
– but listening amongst 55+ years olds is on the increase
– Radio 2’s growth
– strong performances from some digital services
– music radio on AM being in disarray
– speech radio on AM holding firm
– digital listening being driven by DAB
– but signs that the internet is giving it a significant boost
– the number of stations being listened to is growing
– early signs that perhaps breakfast isn’t as important as it once was (although still being very important)
– the importance of heavy listeners
A lot to cover in 42 slides.
42 being the answer to the life, the universe and everything.
And today would have been Douglas Adam’s 61st birthday.
[Later] And just to reiterate, since there was a bit of noise about it on Twitter. I really do think anyone who’s trying to predict when digital listening reaches 50% really is a bit foolish. It’ll happen earlier than I “predict” here. This addendum based on what people on Twitter were saying!
[Later still] James Cridland has written up his Twitter based notes of the whole evening.

Wearable Technology

Last week I spent fifteen minutes in a queue in Piccadilly Station. There’s a chap in a booth there who’s the best person in London, in my view, to get watches fixed or their batteries replaced. He does everything. He’s been there for years. I was having a Casio Pro Trek watch’s battery replaced. It lasted about three years, which is a pretty good return for a watch that measures the temperature and air pressure as well as all the usual things. But powering watches isn’t simple.
A great Monday Note on what an Apple iWatch might do.
The merits of an as yet unannounced product must remain moot. But I do think that wearable technology is a major part of the future. It’ll just take a few iterations until we get somewhere good.
As Pebble’s Kickstarter backers await their arrivals, I’ve just dug out a Sony Ericsson “LiveWire” which I bought a year or more ago for around a tenner. It didn’t cost that when it was released of course. It was closer to £100. But it did some of the things we’re now seeing in connected watches. It paired with an Android phone and could display texts, emails, calls, and even some app specific widgets (for example, a Barclays cycle hire widget).
But I never used it. It was £10 of frippery on my part. It looked ugly, and the touchscreen (yes it had one) was unintuitive and awful.
But I look at thinks like Nike+, Fitbit, Google Glasses, and the new connected watches, and think it’s clear we’re heading this way. Our phones do spend time in
And we’ll pay a lot of money for watches. As Gassée notes in his article, watch funcationality is minimal. We’re mostly buying style. Even if that style is early-nineties chic with a Casio F-91W. So if an iWatch or one of its competitors costs £300, that won’t necessarily harm sales.
But there are some gains and convenience, beyond looking like Dick Tracy.
However, returning to my three year battery in my last watch, power is the major issue with these pieces of technology. If I forget to charge my phone, it’s extremely frustrating. And I also have to charge my tablet, my laptop, my camera, and my pocket DAB radio. I really don’t to have to remember to charge my watch…
[LATER] And then Google puts out this video!

The Essay – The Sound and the Fury

I really enjoyed The Essay this week on Radio 3. Writer Andrew Martin suffers from phonophobia – a condition that makes extraneous noise particularly annoying.
Cheekily called The Sound and the Fury (coming just a couple of weeks after BBC Four’s excellent and completely unrelated series on twentieth century music completed), the five essays detailed how Martin first came to succumb to the condition, when he moved into a flat in Brixton near a pair of chained up dogs that barked continuously, and went into some of the sound pollution in our society. From planes going over, to unnecessary announcements and muzak, the world can obviously sometimes be a painful place for him.
I’m not sure exactly when Radio 3 upped their game with The Essay’s podcast, but you can now get every episode as a download. I’m sure that sometime in the past it just used to be a selection which was kind of annoying for a series like this. Anyway, the series seems to be on demand permanently, so I’d recommend checking it out.
One episode dealt with “muzak” which in Martin’s case means any pop music played anywhere. At times he comes across as something of a curmudgeon – real life Ed Reardon. But I grant him that there are places where you’d prefer not to hear music. However you lose marks for quoting Daily Mail articles when trying to prove your point. I’d suggest that you could prove just about anything you like with Daily Mail articles!
Perhaps the funniest episode is the one about station and train announcements. The earnest requests not to “roller-blade” in King’s Cross are pointless. I’m also fed up hearing about fullsize bicycles – although that, perhaps, is more useful for passengers. I do speak as a cyclist though!
I’ve always hated “Station Stops” which does sound like tautology. And the requests at the beginning of a journey to read the safety information, like that at the end to make sure we’ve left nothing are pointless. Not least because vast numbers of people get on the train after the first stop and leave the train before the last stop. It’s as though only those of us who start our journeys with the train at terminus should be allowed to survive having taken on board the safety information, and that none of us should care if people getting off mid-journey should forget their belongings.
Ironically, in the podcast version at least, the final essay finishes with a minute or more of silence, followed by a very high-pitched tone. I couldn’t work out whether that was something a producer had inadvertently left in when editing the podcast version, or an attempt by Martin to explain what phonophobia was like for non-sufferers. I rather suspect the former.
I’m not sure if Martin would have been happy that I listened to the whole series whilst out and about through my phone’s headphones. Indeed I was actually in King’s Cross when listening to him talk about the station’s superfluous tannoy announcements. What I do know is that he wouldn’t like my workplace with constant background music.