Two Ideas
7Jun/102

Video Chat is a Breaching Experiment

For a while now, I've hated video chat. I've got a policy of more or less refusing or ignoring video chat calls. Now, watching the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, I understand why.

Because, just as Facebook's enforcement of unified identity is a breaching experiment, video chat is a breaching experiment too.

Now, video chat works acceptably in two situations: extremely intimate personal calls (i.e., spouse-to-spouse, or possibly grandparent-to-grandchild) — calls where the absence of staging and the creation of intimacy is itself part of the message — and videoconferencing for business, where each side of the call establishes a stage set, and people are prepared in advance to be on video. (I do think work videoconferencing misses subtle cues of great importance, but that's a separate issue.)

In other cases, however, video chat forces us to be who we are, for whoever is calling, whenever they call. If for example my mom tries to video chat me at 11:30 am, but I've just fallen out of bed and over to my computer, she won't see the me I want to present: active and engaged with the world, neatly groomed, and so on. Or maybe I'm at work, and a buddy from my D&D game calls. Do I really want to present myself to him in jacket and tie, surrounded by corporate beige?

Too bad that soon enough we'll all have the technology on hand that makes it more and more difficult to resist video chat. (Then again, I've kept off of Facebook thus far.) All of us seem to be engaged in that same giant breaching experiment, only without much of a control group.

[Update 12:21 pm PDT: Warren Ellis puts this more succinctly on his twitter: Videocalling deletes the most culturally adopted aspect of a telephone: its ability to facilitate lying.]

11Nov/095

The right iPhone headphones

Now that I have the iPhone, I need the right headphones.

They should be in-ear, not just earbuds, to block out noise. I'll stipulate that any reasonable current headphones are good enough in terms of sound quality: while I have loved Shure and Sennheiser headphones I've been using the iPhone headphones long enough that I'm not too picky anymore.

That much is easy - dozens of headphones will do that and have the requisite iPhone microphone and controls.

The catch is that I want a really good microphone.

What I really really want is my existing Aliph Jawbone headset with a second earpiece for listening to music, and a better in-ear fit. They can be wired; actually I prefer they be wired so I can use them on airplanes.

But I want the noise cancelling, or at least a really low noise passive design. I haven't seen a single iPhone headphone comparison that focuses on microphone quality as primary and speaker quality as secondary.

I want all this with decent build quality. Looks unimportant, though inoffensive is better than loud.

I'd spend up to $150 or so if they had excellent mic quality and good noise blocking design. But I can't find them: why not?

Anyone know where to find in-ear, wired headphones with awesome mic quality?

9Jul/090

Five Reasons Farhad Manjoo is Doomed

All right, maybe he's not doomed, but once again I'm less than impressed with Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, who says today that
Google's Chrome OS is doomed.

His article starts out by admitting that Google's Chrome OS (which I'll abbreviate GCOS, even if that name has been used before) is intended, at least initially, for Netbooks.

Nevertheless, his first point ("Linux is hard to love") complains that it's hard to install software on Linux and that Linux doesn't have much hardware peripheral support.

Of course, partnering with hardware manufacturers should address immediate peripheral support; the only other hardware most people want on a netbook is 802.11 support, CDMA or GSM wireless cards from various providers, and maybe an external mouse, if decadence is the order of the day.

His second point ("We aren't ready to run everything on the Web") is exactly why GCOS is being first targeted at Netbooks. They're called Netbooks for a reason: most folks aren't running Microsoft Office on these little boxes.

It's true that we aren't ready to run everything on the Web just yet. But Google isn't shipping GCOS on everything just yet, either.

His third and fourth reasons ("Microsoft is a formidable opponent" and "Google fails often") are true. But they apply equally to every product those vendors ship. If Manjoo was writing about the Zune, would he say that Apple is doomed? Unlikely—even if Microsoft shipped a great product. Does Manjoo think that Google Mail is doomed now that it's left beta? Of course not.

Really, points three and four are just puffery to stretch the whole article out to five points. Readers like lists. Well, editors do, anyway. And readers certainly click on top ten, five reasons. But I'm not sure that readers are more satisfied after having clicked through, given the frequent poor analysis of the lists.

Manjoo's final point claims that "The Chrome OS makes no business sense," because they're giving it away for free. His central claim in this section is that it's "a wasteful customer acquisition expense": it's better for Google to spend more money improving their advertising engine than to branch out into new areas.

Correctly, he notes that the primary point of Chrome OS from a business sense "is to screw with Microsoft." I think that's defensive: every dollar that Microsoft spends chasing the notebook market and protecting their desktop franchise is a dollar they're not spending on Bing. Which I haven't tried, but I hear is pretty good. So by attacking Microsoft, they're protecting their core franchise. (I doubt that Google's Web search improvements are hampered by pouring resources into GCOS.)

Within his "no business sense" claim, Farhad Manjoo also suggests that GCOS as customer acquisition is unnecessarily expensive because Gmail and Google Docs can run from Windows. The cost of customer acquisition may be high—but the customer defection rate of users back to Microsoft Office would be infinitely lower on an operating system that doesn't run office.

Really, though, whether Manjoo is right or wrong is beside the point. In a prior life, I wrote a column about computer security. My job, distilled to its most vaporous essence, was to be controversial, and attract readers; whether I was right or wrong was beside the point, as far as the bottom line was concerned. And make no mistake, attracting readers and clicks was the real objective. The content that did so was secondary.

Thus blogging about Manjoo's article helps accomplish his real goal: being controversial enough to attract readers. I'm torn between a cynical acceptance of that answer—which would push me to stop reading the damn articles, since they're worthless from an analytical perspective—and a utopian wish that higher-quality analysis would attract more readers, and be more valuable than "top five reasons X is doomed" journalism.

But how many of you clicked on this article because of its title?