Recently in Technology Category
For the last few months, I've found myself carrying a full-size laptop around less than I did in the past, and instead using my Nexus 7 more and more. In many respects it's excellent, and I would (and have) happily recommend it to anyone who's looking for a 7 inch tablet. Indeed I'm convinced that this smaller form-factor is much the better size.
The Nexus 7 lets you read email, feeds, browse the web, read Kindle books, watch video and listen to music very easily.
But what it - and indeed any touchscreen device - is woefully bad at is any type of productivity. "Content creation" to use the parlance. I prefer "writing."
You're not going to type even a medium sized email on your tablet - unless you're a little mad. Nevermind longer blog posts, essays, work documents or whatever. My Nexus 7 is fine for assisting alongside a presentation, but not for creating that presentation in the first place.
While I do have an Asus 30A which is a fantastic device and something of a pre-cursor to today's ultrabooks, it's not machine you're going to take absolutely everywhere if you want to travel light.
So I decided I'd give a Chromebook a go. The most recent machines are remarkably cheap, and of particular interest to me, they're super-fast booting up. From completely off to useable is less than 10 seconds. But frankly, for most usage you just shut the lid, and the device sparks into life instantly.
There are a few Chromebooks out now, and more promised soon. I plumped for the Samsung Chromebook WiFi (as opposed to the more expensive Samsung Chromebook 550).
I considered whether it was worth paying extra for a 3G model, but in the end decided that as this was something of an experiment, spending extra cash on 3G was a bit unnecessary. This was a good choice for reasons I'll come onto.
There is a cheaper Acer Chromebook which has a hard drive, but I didn't go for that model because it has a longer boot up time. And while it has more space onboard, the Samsung model has a longer battery life too. Plus, for extra space there are both USB and SD card slots for offline videos or music.
It's hard to entirely divorce the Chromebook operating system, and Google's software products from the actual device itself. But I'll do what I can.
The Exynos 5 Dual Processor isn't going to win any awards for speed, but frankly, that doesn't really matter. As long as it copes with websites, video playback, and lets you use applications like Drive, then you're fine with it.
The screen is a different question. While the resolution is absolutely fine - 1366 x 768 on an 11.6" screen - it's not going to win any awards for brightness. It's decidedly average, which is to say, worse than average. Little to no money has been spent on it. It's fit for purpose, but nothing more. And it certainly doesn't compare with the vividness of something like the Nexus 7 screen.
This was particularly noticeable in the Google "store" bit of Currys/PC World where I bought my device. Sitting next to it was the a demonstration model of the Google Pixel. The screen on that is gorgeous, with an incredible pixel density as well. The build quality looks amazing. But it's £1,049 for essentially the same functionality as a device I bought for £224.
More concerning is the build quality. To be frank, it's not great. While the device is very thin, and the designer has clearly "seen" an Apple MacBook Air, the budget was never going to extend to a brushed aluminium case. Instead, we get a rather poor quality silver case.
It's really not very good though.
Just one ten minute walk the Chromebook in my bag without a neoprene case meant marks that couldn't be removed on the top. I ordered a personalised skin from DecalGirl to cover the marks up - and generally personalise my computer more. If you're the sort of person who covers their laptop lids with stickers anyway, then this probably isn't important.
I'd note that DecalGirl aside, I didn't find anyone else with Chromebook specifications available for personalised skins. I'd thoroughly recommend DecalGirl though. Their stickers include one for the keyboard rest, and have precise cutouts for the Chromebook logo. I left the Samsung decal on the lid, and it does show through the vinyl sticker a little.
The power supply cord is curiously thin, and it goes in around the back as do the USB sockets. I'm not sure that this is the best place - the sides would be more convenient. And Samsung does love to use a clover configuration power supply rather than the more common figure of eight version. The former includes earth of course, but so many power supplies make do without, it's a bit annoying, particularly if you want to travel light and use the same power cable for more than one adaptor. I've actually bought an inexpensive adaptor to overcome precisely this issue, but it's a small annoyance nonetheless. I wonder if a device like this mightn't be chargeable with a micro USB cable in a future version?
So what about whether you need to get a 3G version? I said I made the right decision not getting one. But that's because it's trivial tethering the Chromebook to your phone, and because things like Google Docs works fine offline, you can quite happily edit documents when you're disconnected anyway. I've used the Chromebook on a few train journeys now, and haven't felt I'm missing too much not being connected.
In practice, the data overhead seems to have been minimised as much as possible by Google, so when you're typing in a document, you'll more often than not see that "All changes saved in Drive..." displays at the top of the screen rather than "Saving..." when you are tethered online.
WiFi reception is excellent, and I've not had any problems hooking up to various public and private WiFi networks anywhere. The device quickly finds them and hooks onto them.
The keyboard is perfectly fine, and this was perhaps the biggest concern I had over the cheap build. But you can type on it easily and I didn't have any issues.
Similarly, while the trackpad might not be class leading, it's fine, and I've been happy with it.
There are some foibles that come with Chrome's OS. There's no delete key on the keyboard - just a backspace. And in place of Caps Lock there's a search button. This is in particular is no bad thing as Caps Locks keys are perhaps the most underutilised. What would traditionally be Function keys lose the F1-F10 and instead just do things like reload the browser page, turn the brightness or volume up and down etc.
Right-hand clicking takes some practice being more of a two finger tap than anything. The arrow keys are tiny, and the power button, being a keyboard key, feels strangely insubstantial.
A bigger issue is the screen rubbing against the keyboard when the device is closed. I've suffered this before, and it comes if the keyboard touches the screen when the clamshell is shut when the device is being moved around. These marks are in the form of a horizontal line on the screen. At first this was just an irritation meaning I had to keep polishing the screen. But there's now a small permanent chip in the screen. It's very tiny, but it's there. I've ended up having to order a silicon keyboard protector. While awaiting that, I went back to the box it came in, and retrieved the very thin bit of foam that came with it originally. This does the trick. Don't throw yours away.
The device has Bluetooth, but it's not completely developed yet. I tried hooking it up to a Logitech adaptor I use to play music through speakers. But while both my HTC One X and Nexus 7 connect to it fine, the Chromebook won't. I believe that it's not a hardware shortcoming, but rather a question of the developers including it.
Battery life is broadly speaking as advertised. It's only about six hours, but the device is slim and light as a consequence. I've not really had any issues with it.
This is where it's more about the operating system than the device.
The first thing to say is that while a Chromebook is nice to use out and about, or just for surfing on the sofa, it's not a full replacement operating system in my view. At least it's not unless you're requirements are especially minimal.
I've read articles about people who've tried to use only a Chromebook day to day, and it's all a bit pointless. The OS just isn't ready for the bigtime yet. Similarly, I've heard of people suggesting that companies ditch Microsoft Office and use Google Docs. Well I'm not sure many of the actual power users in your business would thank you for doing that. Ask your accounts department for a starter - they're probably using Excel far more than you realise.
My own usage of Spreadsheets has been primarily for my RAJAR analyses and accompanying charts. Even something as simple as that (and I'm not talking about motion charts) is pretty hit or miss. Trivial things like getting scales to display as you want are difficult to achieve. You end up duplicating data a lot to get multiple charts. It's a start, but not ready yet.
And while the sharing aspects of Google Docs is excellent, the presentation software is still missing some fundamentals. Have you tried embedding audio into a presentation for example? Or getting a speaker view alongside a presentation view?
I'm sure that these will come, but just not yet.
Similarly, nobody in their right mind would try to attempt video editing or even photo editing on a Chromebook. Yes, you can use web services. And maybe one day Lightroom or Photoshop will exist entirely within a browser. But they don't currently. So good enough for people for the less demanding, but not for serious use.
This all makes it sound very negative. And that's a little unfair. I knew the shortcomings, and I work within them. In fact, I'm using Google Docs more than ever now since it's so easy to start typing at a moment's notice. If I need to do something more complex with fully featured software later, then I can do so.
Chrome itself works beautifully, and I've not had any problems with any extensions I've either already had installed, or have subsequently added. So things like Chrome to Phone, Send to Kindle, Evernote Web Clipper (Google Keep has now launched, but like many bitten by Google Reader, I'm keeping my eggs in another basket) and the rather excellent OneTab.
Once you're signed in, favourites, bookmarks and passwords are passed over. And I've had no problems with any websites not working. I did see a warning that Shockwave had crashed on one exception though.
The machine has a paltry 2GB onboard memory, but this is a device built for the cloud. Really, that 2GB is only for offline access to files in Google Drive. Google gives you 100GB of free space for two years with your device, so you can access a decent array of files. What happens after your two years expire? I suspect you'll have to get your credit card out. Or buy a replacement machine.
Invariably, some of the shortcomings of Chromebooks are more failings of Google's ecosystem itself. Here's an example. If someone emails you a JPG to your Gmail account, and you want to use the image somewhere else, you may want to save the image to your Google Drive. You certainly don't want to be wasting local disc space with the image. But Google doesn't let you do that. You have to save the image locally and then re-upload the image. Other attachments are a little better, although you still have to open each one to save it. There are workarounds, but they require you giving varying degrees of access to third parties - something I'm not happy with.
There are some things I can do on my Nexus 7 that you can't do on a Chromebook. But as much as anything that's because it has a more developed app community. Essentially you're looking for people who want to develop Chrome extensions.
This could be construed as quite a negative review. A poor screen and plasticky build quality; a keyboard that marks the screen; software that's not ready for serious use. I know I'm being hard on it.
In fact, it does what I wanted it do, and I'm very happy with it. I can get up and online or writing within second wherever I want. And that is it's greatest and best quality.
Here are a few more things that I'd like to see in future iterations:
- Improved build quality. Samsung has made this device to meet a price point, and I think for a bit more cash they could have toughened the case and not allowed the screen to touch the keyboard.
- A bit more onboard memory - 2GB is ridiculously limiting and adding some more surely wouldn't add to the cost too much. While I've yet to run up against any problems, and there are expansion slots, I know that this will be
- Better Bluetooth support. In a Google cloud ecosystem, I should be able to stream music to Bluetooth speakers.
- Google Now built in. It's taken me a while, but I'm really beginning to appreciate the power of Google Now. It'd be really good if Google kept an up to date list of voice commands somewhere (there are lists that claim to be complete, but they're not!). There are rumours that it is coming.
Other improvements will undoubtedly follow in due course with updates to the Operating System. In the short time I've owned my Chromebook, I've had three updates. Google seems to roll these out almost weekly.
So would I recommend the Chromebook? A qualified yes. You need to know what you can and can't do with it. And your needs will differ from mine.
This is not a laptop replacement. I'd despair if it was my main computer. But as a second (or third) portable device for writing on? It's excellent.
I really do like the machine, and if you think that your productivity has perhaps suffered because you've switched to tablet from a laptop, then this is something to consider. If even a Tweet or Facebook status update feel a bit painful on the touchscreen keyboard of your tablet, never mind writing longer emails or documents, then this could be for you.
I'd suggest that, if it was a bit more robust, it could be useful in an educational environment. For note-taking in a WiFi networked area, it's excellent.
But in general, if you just want a small machine that you can whip open at a moment's notice to write a bit more of that work document, add another chapter to your novel, or get another few hundred words of your dissertation written, then you'd do well to look at this.
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.
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.
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...
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!
Recently News International won the rights for both mobile and internet highlights pacakges from the next season. These are the packages that are currently owned by ESPN (mobile) and Yahoo (internet), neither of whom will have any rights from next season.
According to a source at The Guardian, News International paid £20m for these rights. What's not entirely clear is whether that's £20m pa or £20m for the life of the three year deal. I suspect it's probably the latter. [Update] A separate Media Guardian piece puts the value at about £30m over three years. The piece also suggests that News International outbid sister company Sky, as well as Yahoo and Perform.
The actual value of Premier League rights auctions is confidential unless the bidders choose to reveal it. Sky and BT essentially have to reveal the costs because they're so great, they impact on the revenues of the businesses.
But the actual value of these rights, is always a bit questionable. Since they started to be awarded - mobile from the 2001/02 season and internet three years' later - the rights have never stayed with the same rights holder beyond a single season.
The table below shows who's owned the rights since they started being awarded:
UK Mobile and Internet Premier League Rights
|2001/03-2003/04||-||3 (used for single season)|
|2013/14-2015/16||News International||News International|
The other major factor that comes into play is that the BBC has negotiated a deal to allow Match of the Day to appear on iPlayer from the start of the 2013/14 season. It'll only go online early Monday morning, but hitherto, it's been the single notable missing part of the iPlayer. Interestingly, Match of the Day 2 is on the iPlayer and usually features all the goals from Saturday's games too in brief highlights.
But the fact that there's a free to air alternative to these rights. Having brief highlights is still a commodity of value - with internet viewers traditionally having shorter attention spans. To see that Wayne Rooney goal, it's easier to just load up the Man Utd short-form highlights rather than scrolling backwards and forwards through a full episode of Match of the Day.
ESPN's goals app has been an excellent service for the last three years. However you suspect that they'd have loved to have monetised it properly. Instead they gave it away as a kind of loss-leader to promote the TV channel. Yes, there are advertising pre-rolls, but it's doubtful that they will have fully mitigated the overall investment.
What the app does have is "post match pub appeal". You're out and not at home able to watch Match of the Day or Football First on Sky. So you boot up the app and watch the salient bits on your mobile.
Of course there are oddities. ESPN was only allowed to to stream its goals to "mobile" devices - defined as devices with a SIM card. So it'd work on an iPad with a 3G SIM in it, but not in a WiFi only one (the more common device). There's nothing to stop you streaming the app via WiFi once it's passed this test.
The reason for this is because the Premier League had separately licenced internet rights to Yahoo, and it had to differentiate them accordingly. It's no good trying to say that the internet and the mobile internet are... well... the same thing just differently optimised. As 4G grows, and mobile devices become more sophisticated, that'll very quickly be a distinction few aside from lawyers will be able to make!
The interesting question will be whether or not News International is forced to keep that somewhat arbitrary separation in place. 60 second clips come into play from Monday mornings (as with the BBC's iPlayer highlights), so are less relevant. Mobile rights are brief 30 second clips, and are instant except during the 3.00pm "window".
I must admit that I always felt that Yahoo didn't really do enough with its rights. Theoretically valuable, I don't think that football fans used Yahoo to seek out their football highlights. Did you miss that unbelievable goal at the weekend? You probably just searched YouTube to find it. Yes, the Premier League is pretty hot on getting illegal uploads removed from YouTube and other sites, but a great goal can always be found.
I was never sure what Yahoo was trying to achieve. Aside from those rights, I never felt that Yahoo became the destination for football news. Other sites did better and cleaner jobs. And because Yahoo's sports section is co-branded Eurosport, it was an odd bedfellow. Eurosport doesn't have any Premier League rights. So it would never be a destination for that sport (tennis and cycling, on the other hand, are right up their street).
How will News International monetise these clips? I suspect that there'll be a twofold approach. If you're a subscriber to The Times or Sunday Times, their match reports will now be "illustrated" with goal clips - something no other publisher will be able to do.
And then there'll be paid-for apps that give you access to these clips - free if you're a subscriber.
Because The Times and The Sun have different attitudes towards paywalls, there'll have to be a sensible way around that doesn't disincentivise people from paying for rights. Perhaps part of The Sun will go behind a paywall.
Mobile is getting bigger, and every time these rights come up, the view is probably that now is the right time. But in the end, I suspect that Dan Sabbagh on this week's Media Guardian podcast is right. They'll have these rights for three years, and then someone else will pick them up with their own strategy for monetising them. However, we shall wait and see...
At lunchtime I chanced across this shop in Berwick Street, Soho. Inside they had handmade DAB radios and BlueTooth speakers built from ceramic bodies that were cast in Stoke-on-Trent before having the technology added down south. Josiah is the name they're being sold under.
They're not cheap, but they're functional pieces of art. Some of the speakers had little places where, for example, you could put salt and pepper. The radio or speakers become part of the furniture to an even greater extent.
There's no DAB display on the radios, and a fairly minimal number of buttons. I'm told that the idea is that you choose a station and stick with it. And I've no idea whether off the shelf radios from another manufacturer have been adapted, or whether they're building them from scratch.
You can find out more, watch a video, and even buy a model over on their website.
As I've been using my Nexus 7 more and more, it has also meant that my "old-school" Kindle has seen less action of late. I find it more convenient to carry a single device and use the Kindle for Android app on the tablet.
Yet it does sometimes feel that the app doesn't offer all that it might. In particular, there are two rather useful features that Kindle for Android is missing. And I know for a fact that one of those can be found on the iOS version.
Sort by Recency
You can only sort your books by either Title or Author. There is no option to sort by purchase or download date. That might seem very unimportant, but if you build up a decent-sized Kindle library, then finding your latest purchase becomes a tougher proposition.
This functionality can be found on the iOS version, so quite why it's missing in Android is a bit of a mystery. In programming terms, I'd have thought it'd be trivial to include.
[Update] I had an email discussion with a nice chap from Amazon customer support, and sorting by "Most Recent" is available amongst "Downloaded Items", but not amongst either "All Items" or "Archived Items".
With Kindle for Android you simply don't get one. Now perhaps this is due to licencing issues, but while you can change the font size, the colour, the spacing and the background, you're stuck with the default font.
(As an aside, lack of font choice is one of my main bugbears with e-readers in general. Some publishers and authors choose their typeface very carefully to be in keeping with the feel of the book. Yet when you reach an e-reader, you get re-rendered in something completely different.)
There are other things too. You don't get the ability to put books in collections as you can on Kindle devices. Nor can you make use of the lending library that comes with Prime membership if you have it. Again, I need to revert back to a Kindle device for that. These all feel like software issues.
A more devious person might think that Amazon isn't particularly prioritising generic Kindle for Android users, when they have their own hardware products to sell.
I note that on a Kindle Fire, you can sort by recency, and you have a choice of six fonts for your book reading pleasure. It's worth noting too that while there is a LoveFilm app on Kindle Fire (and in iOS), there isn't one for generic Android.
But I'm sure that's not the case, and Amazon just hasn't put enough resource into its Android apps. I know Android with its many OS versions and form factors, is harder to program for. But then Amazon's Kindle programme is based not on selling hardware but flogging media. And I'm getting a sub-optimal experience right now.
I should footnote this piece to assure readers that the majority of my reading is still done on paper since I can do what I like with paper books, and don't run the risk of losing my entire library due to my only "licencing" rather than "owning" it.
And so it has come to pass that HMV is in administration. When an unplanned "Blue Cross" sale popped up before the weekend, the writing was on the wall.
At time of writing, we can perhaps remain hopeful of some kind of partially successful outcome of the administrators seeking a semblence of a successful business. Selfishly, I'd love the Oxford Street branch to remain open. It simply seems wrong that the only other place you could buy CDs, DVDs or video games in central London would be in a Tesco Express or Sainsburys Local.
The writing has been on the wall for HMV for many years now. Once upon a time, a trip into London would see me move between Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus, before heading up to HMV near Oxford Circus and finishing at the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road. The former is now "The Sting" - no me neither. The latter a branch of Primark. Who knows what HMV's enormous square footage will become.
In swift succession we've also seen Comet and then Jessops disappear from our high streets. Both defeated by the internet. If you want to actually look at, touch or feel an electrical product from now on, you're going to be at the mercy of Currys/PC World or John Lewis.
Otherwise, you're just going to have to rely on reviews on Amazon. (And I can't help noticing that even Play.com is getting out of selling new products and just becoming... well eBay).
I'm not going to shed tears for the music industry - even though it's an industry that's important to me both personally and professionally. So yes, killing time in record shops is not something I'll be able to do much of any longer. But the fundamental difference is going to be felt by artists who are not in the top 30 or so albums (with even "albums" becoming a thing of the past). The random purchase of the soundtrack to Blow Up I made in HMV last week alongside a couple of other unplanned CD purchases simply won't happen in the future. Because I need to know about music before I buy it on Amazon or iTunes. (Incidentally, there's an argument that means that radio becomes more important now that a key distribution and discovery opportunity is being removed).
I'm not sure where that leaves the High Street. Clearly rents are severely out of kilter with what retailers can afford. And I'm not sure that there's a steady queue of replacements just around the corner. Online fashion outlets like Asos must be damaging the fashion end of the high street. Selling coffee based beverages seems to be the only area of growth!
Perhaps the way we do shopping needs to change. On the one hand we get massive shopping centres that still seem to do well, yet on the other end, the nature of how we shop is changing. This isn't just the recession.
So yes, where once we bought physical pieces of music and owned discs or tapes with films, we now download and rent, even for those things still retailed on an ownership model, the nature of sales is changing.
I'm not averse to change, but I do think that we've yet to match the browsing nature of bricks and mortar stores in an online world. If I go to Amazon, I know what I'm looking for. I bought my last camera on Amazon and not in store at Jessops because it was substantially cheaper online. Of course Jessops was acting as a free showroom for me. When I want to buy my next camera, I'm not sure if I'll ever see it in person before it comes out of a brown packaging container with a .com retailer stamped on the front.
If you have physical premises, you just don't have an advantage these days. Big distribution centres near motorway junctions trump expensive retail locations in hundreds of towns and cities. Claiming your business is based in Luxembourg or Ireland trumps actually having to sell your products in the UK.
The majority of the UK press has been vehemently reacting against the recommendations last week of the Leveson report, and in particular reject any kind of government legislation of their industry in spite of the systematic abuse that many titles have treated members of the public.
But as they do that, one wonders - with a great deal of concern - what the ultimate future of the printed press is. And to a greater extent, serious journalism overall. Are they fiddling while Rome burns?
Today we learnt that News Corporation is shutting down its fledgling tablet publication The Daily.
So far what we have learnt is that:
- Paywalls don't work
- Giving everything away free and using advertising doesn't work
- Trying to use a single form of distribution - even tablets - doesn't work
Being the critical resource in a specialised area and doing most of the above does work. Or at least it does if you're the FT (or WSJ). And breaking the shackles of a store proprietor who wants 30% just for listing you is probably no bad thing (FT again).
Perhaps I'm being a little unfair with my bullets, but I think that's fairly much the case to date. And well done if you're breaking that mould.
Let me talk about my own news requirements for a moment.
I'm a paid up subscriber to The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer. For a discounted rate, I buy tokens in advance that let me pick up printed papers at newsagents. Remember, this is the newspaper group that already puts all its editorial up online free of charge.
So why do I pay? Well for two reasons in the main. One, I know that if nobody buys their paper editions, then there won't be a free ad-supported online version because the sums don't yet add up. And two, I like paper. Aside from anything the editors of printed papers provide an excellent mechanism to give me a broad church of stories to read. My natural online tendency is not to stray too far from the Media Guardian section of their website, but the paper copy gives me a broader selection of stories, and I read things that I'd have never strayed across online.
So despite frequently reading stories online the night before I take physical ownership of the paper version, I still feel that I'm getting excellent value.
That said, I certainly could see myself moving to a digital edition, were I able to.
You see my subscription also entitles me to the iPad version of the paper. But that's of no use to me. I don't own an iPad (and have no intention of getting into the walled garden of apps that Apple deigns to let me install on a device that I have to pay for).
I do, however, have a Nexus 7 that I've become rather attached to it. Yet The Guardian doesn't have an Android tablet app. So I'm left out. Yes there's a generic mobile app. But it's not optimised for a tablet form factor, and is essentially a mobile-optimised version of the website, without essential functionality like offline caching.
To be fair, there are hardly any mainstream Android apps for UK newspapers. That is to say, ones that are truly optimised to make use of the larger screen size, and feature essential functionality such as offline reading, and a scheduler for getting editorial delivered to the device.
The one exception seems to be The Times. I've not subscribed to it, so have no real experience of it working, having only used their standard mobile app on my phone. But I do find it very interesting that they're currently offering a deal to let you pay £50 for a Nexus 7 if you subscribe for 18 months to The Times and Sunday Times for £4 a week (or £17.33 a month).
It's got to be said that this sounds like an excellent deal, since that's for the full 32GB version of a device that retails for £199. You end up paying a further £193 or just under £11 a month for your newspaper. And it's cheaper still if you pay up front for the lot - £299.
This is precisely the kind of deal that I suggested newspapers should be making two and a half years ago.
I'd like to see a newspaper group really do something clever. A deal to give me a free iPad (or similar - because we all know that the iPad is vastly over-priced) if I take up a two year subscription - like my mobile phone company does.
Perhaps it has only been with the advent of inexpensive yet powerful tablets like the Nexus 7, that such deals become possible?
Which brings me onto my next issue. The lack of Android support - The Times excepted - across the newspaper industry. With the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire surely flying off shelves this Christmas, the likelihood is that they're going to rapidly take a significant market share.
As a user, I believe that the 7 inch format is a much convenient one for travelling with and reading on the go. It slips into pockets and bags much more easily than 10 inch tablets do, and the price point makes it affordable to a much larger range of consumers.
Where once upon a time, it was entirely understandable that companies developed for the iPad first and then considered their options before moving onto another platform, it seems to me that it's actually essential that today they develop in parallel for Android. Indeed, such is the state of play currently, they'll probably have more standout in the Google Play Store than they will in Apple's iTunes Store.
Newspapers are simply missing a trick by not pushing fully featured Android applications out.
Even worse - sometimes when they do it's that most awful of things, an exclusive partner tie-up. Take for example The Guardian's Eyewitness app. It's available to buy on iTunes for £1.49 and presents a range of stunning photos in tablet form that builds from what's available in the paper and online. One of the reasons I love the printed paper is the massive Eyewitness photos usually spread over the centre pages.The power of a photograph can never be underestimated.
Sadly, for what are clearly marketing purposes, The Guardian has only released an Android version of its Eyewitness app to users of the Amazon Kindle Fire. Despite being essentially an Android platform, it's exclusively available for users of that device.
I'm waiting over here to pay good money for the app, but they don't want it (or rather, they probably prefer Amazon's slightly larger cheque). Ironically, because The Guardian has APIs, someone else has written an Android app that takes the available photos (not the full range that the paid apps deliver) and presents them to users in such a way as you might not realise that there was a premium app available.
Getting back to the start, what the closure of The Daily shows us is that solely appearing on tablets was a bit too much too soon. But that doesn't mean that tablets - in some form or another - aren't perhaps the most preferred way for newspaper to prosper in a digital age. The paper was clearly generating real revenue, as this excellent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab points out. But the model didn't work in a tablet-only environment. Multi-platform is essential for the scale to make paying for those journalists achievable.
Again, I've not read The Daily, because even though there seemingly was an Android version, I never heard about it. But I do know that if you're not offering more than I can already get in the Metro or on websites built around agency copy, then you've not got a hope.
Put the resource in, and build good apps - for both iOS and Android. Ideally launching them simultaneously (it's notable that Rovio launched the iOS and Android versions of Angry Birds Star Wars together, just as Xbox 360 and PS3 titles arrive together).
Use it to support your print proposition.
Be creative in how you market your offering. Heavily discounting devices is a great idea.
There still could be money to made here. Because if there isn't, the industry really is in trouble.
George Entwistle may be the new Director General of the BBC, but the current one, Mark Thompson, was to be found in County Hall this morning alongside representatives of the other shareholders for the launch of YouView.
Lord Sugar - chairman of YouView - kicked off procedings, although most of the demostrations were conducted by CEO Richard Halton.
It's been a long time in gestation, but now it's here, it's actually quite smart. In essence, it's a connected Freeview PVR. And there are already plenty of those on the market. But that probably underplays the power of it.
What you have is a very smart and very slick looking EPG which at first glance is just a list of Freeview channels. But the neatness comes in the way that on demand functionality is built straight into that EPG. If you go forwards in time then you can set it to record that programme as usual. It also does clever things like suggest the HD version if you'd prefer.
But if you go backwards in time, then you can see what was on TV - say yesterday - and if you select that programme (and it's available on demand), then it'll launch the relevant on demand service like iPlayer or ITV Player and boot up the programme. It means you can reach programmes within just a couple of clicks which makes it very powerful.
Of course if channels want to include pre-roll advertising then that's fine too.
The search functionality is also excellent. In the demo, we saw the letters "EM" immediately suggest Emmerdale (no - not my choice) and selecting that brought up something like a month's worth of episodes, as well as another TV show and a radio programme which both featured cast members.
What's clear here is that metadata in programming information will be key. It's going to be no good just saying that Jeremy Clarkson is a guest on your show. You'll want to say "Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear" is a guest to ensure that viewers searching "Top Gear" are offered your programme's interview!
The search functionality is really smart visually and shares the kind of "guessing" that Google does in search now. It makes the whole thing look very slick.
From the demonstrations, it was clear that the box will come with on demand offerings from the major shareholders, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. They'll offer their usual deep archive offerings - so that means Father Ted or Black Books on 4OD for example.
However YouView won't be offering a central payment mechanism. So if and when ITV launches its micropayment mechanism later this year, they'll have to manage that themselves within their on demand environment. That's also the case with other providers. Lord Sugar was quite clear on that point.
It also doesn't seem likely that there'll be advertising within the EPG itself. Once you get into a channel provider's environment, that's up to them.
Radio didn't get much of a mention, although the results of search certainly bring up radio programmes which is great - and takes me back to my metadata point. Initially it seems you'll be limited to stations available on Freeview. But here's hoping that there'll be other ways of getting radio on the device!
There are plenty of "empty slots" on the box to fill, and we were told that STV and Now TV from Sky are likely to be early arrivals during the summer. What Sky offers isn't clear right now, but I'd imagine it'll all be on a pay-per-view basis. We'll have to wait and see.
There was also no sign of either Lovefilm or Netflix. I think it's safe to say that they'll also get onto it soon.
Interestingly the two ISPs that partnered with YouView will each offer their own branded versions of the boxes. Essentially, they'll have their own programme offerings. I'd imagine that BT will package in BT Vision for example. What TalkTalk offers, I'm not sure, but we're told they'll tell us all later this month.
The first box will come from Humax, who've long worked in this area, producing some of the most popular Freeview PVR boxes. Lord Sugar was very complimentary about them.
It'll cost £299 at launch, since it comes with twin tuners and a hard disk for the PVR. I think some will be surprised at that price point as it's still quite high based on the fact that the target market is those who've not signed up for either Sky or Virgin Media. But clearly prices will come down, and Sugar suggested that there might be a much cheaper "zapper box" with a single tuner and no PVR functionality that could be priced at something more like £99. This technology could then be embedded into other devices including connected TVs.
And the box is likely to be heavily discounted to subscribers of BT and TalkTalk who take certain packages from them. I'd anticipate free TV "data" for those subscribers without caps. And I speak as someone who's had to help their parents confront data "bill shock" when they ate through nearly 40GB in a month of watching iPlayer via a Sony BluRay player. Incidentally, those who buy this box and are on tight usage deals with their ISPs may need to revisit their internet packages fairly promptly. If you're not with a partner ISP, you may find that even their "fair usage" hoves into view quite swiftly!
The Humax box will be in all the main retailers by the end of this month - which I think is sooner than many expected. In what quantities I'm not sure, although Sugar - employing some of his Apprentice terminology - said that orders from the retailers were very strong and much larger than he'd expected.
One slight disappointment with the box is that it requires an ethernet connection and doesn't come with WiFi. That might be a hurdle for those who's routers are not within cabling distance of their TVs. Homeplugs and the like may be the answer for those who don't want to start drilling holes in walls. I wonder if WiFi dongles will prevail. I'd imagine future devices will include WiFi, although testing may have revealed non-optimal user satisfaction via WiFi.
Sugar claimed that new entrants could get onto YouView for as little as £50,000 and that's a really low price point for what could be a substantial platform.
There are challenges for YouView, but they're not necessarily that insurmountable. Connected TVs are big business and all the TV manufactures have their bespoke systems already in play. I suspect that it'll shortly be impossible to buy a TV set without at least one included system. But that leads to fragmentation. Do I use Apple's system? Or Sony's? Or Xbox's? Or Samsung's? Or LG's? Or, now, Google's?
YouView could consolidate some of that fragmentation. Sony, Samsung and Apple (OK - maybe not Apple), could all make their offerings available via YouView. But I doubt they will for a while. Perhaps one lagging TV manufacturer might jump into bed early. It's difficult to say.
But I'm certain that this is not a white elephant that some are saying it is. The UK broadcasters behind it mean that it isn't. Apple doesn't have iPlayer. Google doesn't have... well... nobody really knows. And all the TV services have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whether we'll see Facebook or Twitter integration will be interesting further down the line, but as they kept emphasising during the presentation, this isn't for the bleeding edge consumer who probably already has this functionality. It's for everyone else.
Will I be buying one myself? Probably not. But that's not because I wouldn't like one. I already have a Sky HD box, as well as a couple of older Freeview PVRs - one of which lets me burn programmes to DVD. I've no need for one. But in time, I've no doubt that future purchases will come laden with YouView functionality if not just a standalone YouView box themselves.
And there's no doubt that that EPG functionality is really smart.