Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Future of TV Have Two Screens?

In Like Apple, TV Explores Must-Have Applications, The New York Times tell us:

DirecTV and the FiOS service from Verizon Communications have recently announced app stores modeled directly on Apple’s App Store. Just a few applications have shown up so far, but already these few — Bible verses, Facebook updates and fantasy sports team updates — suggest that people may not be content to sit back while watching TV but rather want to lean forward and interact and customize their TVs.

While there may be an audience segment that values FaceBook on TV, I suspect that most people want something similar but different: They want to use FaceBook (or Bible verses or fantasy sports updates) in the same room as the TV. If so, there’s a better way than putting apps on the TV. Put them on the remote control instead.

No, not today’s remote control with all the buttons. That device will soon be the equivalent of a pre-iPhone cell phone. Your future remote control will have a high-resolution touchscreen rather than buttons. It will have WiFi. You will get the TV program guide on the remote, not on the TV. You will make your choices by touching the remote’s screen, and the TV will obey. No more reading text across the room. No more fiddling with arrow keys to plod around the distant screen.

Along with controlling the TV, Remote Control 2.0 will specialize in text-oriented apps—like FaceBook, Bible verses, fantasy sports updates, The New York Times, and so on. That way, the TV can keep doing its thing, displaying big and fast-moving images from across the room, since that’s what it is good at. This combination of far screen and near screen will make a nice division of labor. Media multitaskers rejoice!

Remote Control 2.0 will also enable a new type of app that coordinates with the TV’s content. For example, a baseball game is on the TV screen. The remote has extra statistics, alternate angles, Twitter-style fan commentary, e-commerce if you must have that throwback jersey the players are wearing, and new forms of near-screen/far-screen ads. Different people in the room may have their own remotes, displaying distinct near-screen experiences for the same far-screen program.

Of course, it will take time for apps to realize the possibilities of coordinated, two-screen TV. Normally, this might raise the specter of a chicken-and-egg problem: no apps, no second-screen remotes sold; no second-screen remotes sold, no reason to build apps. But the beauty of the second-screen remote is that it can evolve out of devices that are successful for reasons beyond being remote controls, such as the iPhone, iPod Touch, and their future variants. Today’s iPhone or iPod Touch hardware is already close to enabling Remote 2.0 functionality; if you have Apple TV, the functionality is already there in a limited way. The bigger challenge is enabling everything else necessary for media and apps to coordinate across two screens, but the world has come a long way since Intercast.

So, if you hear the assertion that people want to lean forward and interact more with their TVs, it is worth asking why. If the answer is, “To use apps like those in the App Store,” consider instead a future where people interact less with the TV and more with the remote. You will know that future is happening when people wonder, “When is a remote not a remote?”

[Update, 9/30/2009: I was not aware of it at the time, but the day I posted this, Boy Genius Report passed along a rumor, complete with picture, that Apple has prototyped a touchscreen remote control. If the picture is to be believed, it’s a touch version of the traditional remote-control form factor (long and thin). That’s a step in the right direction. See also MG Siegler’s Touching: All Rumors Point To The End Of Keys/Buttons on TechCrunch.]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Woe is GDP

The metric Gross Domestic Product has been under fire lately, more so than usual.

I’m not enough of an expert to evaluate the technical aspects of the debate, but this commentary caught my eye:

The basic problem is that gross domestic product measures activity, not benefit. If you kept your checkbook the way G.D.P. measures the national accounts, you’d record all the money deposited into your account, make entries for every check you write, and then add all the numbers together. The resulting bottom line might tell you something useful about the total cash flow of your household, but it’s not going to tell you whether you’re better off this month than last or, indeed, whether you’re solvent or going broke.

Because we use such a flawed measure of economic well-being, it’s foolish to pursue policies whose primary purpose is to raise it. Doing so is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness — mistaking the map for the terrain, or treating an instrument reading as though it were the reality rather than a representation. When you’re feeling a little chilly in your living room, you don’t hold a match to a thermometer and then claim that the room has gotten warmer. But that’s what we do when we seek to improve economic well-being by prodding G.D.P....

Given the fundamental problems with G.D.P. as a leading economic indicator, and our habit of taking it as a measurement of economic welfare, we should drop it altogether. We could keep the actual number, but rename it to make clearer what it represents; let’s call it gross domestic transactions. Few people would mistake a measurement of gross transactions for a measurement of general welfare. And the renaming would create room for acceptance of a new measurement, one that more accurately signals changes in the level of economic well-being we enjoy.

[From Eric Zencey,  G.D.P. R.I.P., New York Times op-ed, 8/9/2009]

The author of the article does not propose a new measurement, although the latest commission on the subject proposes a path to creating supplementary metrics.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

21st Century Family Photo

My parents live 2,600 miles away, but they see their granddaughter regularly via Skype video call. For no particular reason, I took a screenshot of a recent call. My daughter was holding up a doll to the camera. My dad, on the other side of the country, was pretending to grab it.

Looking at the image afterward, I thought it captured something about our time. It was the visual version of “reach out and touch someone,” and the connection itself was part of the picture.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Twitter

I am on Twitter as stkrause.

There you will find pointers to new blog postings plus smaller bits (interesting quotes, links, and the like) that won’t otherwise get to this blog’s main content.

As a sampler, here are last week’s tweets:

  • “Don’t just write to be understood; write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” — R.L. Stevenson, quoted in http://bit.ly/1Np9B2
  • Does a pier really need this sign? http://bit.ly/1GHHi6 (pic taken in Sorrento, Italy)
  • “[He] was brainy in a way that didn’t quite add up to smart.” — from Stephen Foley’s postmortem of Lehman Bros. http://bit.ly/3bmGNf
  • 3-sentence case study on my Intelligent Cross-Sell group’s impact at Dell UK, featuring the phrase “more than doubled” http://bit.ly/2mmz3O
  • Fantastic book about a true legend: “The Great Siege: Malta 1565” by Ernle Bradford. My review is at http://bit.ly/hk8QL
  • From the warmongering politico in “In the Loop”: “We don’t need any more facts. In the land of truth, the man with one fact is king.”
  • Saw film “In the Loop,” a political satire thick with droll/foul repartee. Think Karl Rove + Groundskeeper Willie. http://bit.ly/QPkzN

Previously I had not done the Twitter thing because I felt it (and, for that matter, Facebook) represented a preliminary phase of social media more akin to AOL/CompuServe/Prodigy than the open, standards-based Web. I was fine waiting out that phase.

However, Twitter has achieved something interesting. For some people, it has become a replacement for feed reading. Where once they used Bloglines or Google Reader to keep up with their favorite blogs, they are now following, and sometimes interacting with, their favorites via Twitter.

I suppose it’s an honor that such people have cared enough to complain that I wasn’t on Twitter, and it doesn’t look like an open alternative is poised to sweep the world soon. So, I’ve decided to go with the tweetstreaming flow. For those on Twitter, I encourage you to follow me and to suggest any favorites you like to follow.

And for those who don’t want to get their own Twitter accounts but still want to see what I’m saying there, just bookmark this page or subscribe to its RSS feed. You can also find my latest five Twitter postings on the right sidebar of this blog.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Good Old Days, Inflation-Adjusted

In my list of factoids about the year 1919, I had some misgivings about including, “Congress reduced the price of a first-class postage stamp from 3 cents to 2 cents.”

It was notable because of the rare price reduction, which has not happened since. However, in our time of 44-cent stamps, it might seem more notable that stamps once cost a few cents. I can almost hear an old record player in the distance, warbling about the good old days.

Cue the misgivings.

If you want to compare prices across a long period of time, you need to adjust for inflation. Considering the general rise in prices between 1919 and now, maybe today’s stamps actually cost less than those of 1919.

It turns out, they don’t. A 1919 stamp would cost 24.7 of today’s cents. That is close to the lowest inflation-adjusted price for a first-class stamp in the past 150 years (21.3 cents in 1920).

But before we resume our tune about the good old days, let’s go further back, to 1878. The inflation-adjusted price of a first-class stamp was 49.2 cents, the high across the past 150 years. So, for stamp prices, the old days had some good and some bad.

Wm. Robert Johnson has a chart showing the price of U.S. first-class stamps from 1866 to 2009, both in prices of the time and inflation-adjusted prices. He also provides the underlying data, which I used in this post.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bradford’s The Great Siege: Malta 1565

On a map of the Mediterranean, Malta is a dot of an island in the Strait of Sicily, between Europe and Africa. This position, plus Malta’s natural harbors, made it a naval prize for many conquerors over thousands of years. The Wikipedia article on the subject mentions, in chronological order, the Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimids, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and British. Malta achieved its indepenence from Great Britain in 1964.

I visited Malta recently, which led to reading The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford. My father-in-law suggested it, saying it told an incredible story. He was right. The book deserves its five-star rating on Amazon across 23 reviews. At a few hundred paperback pages, it is a concentrated dose of military conflict in extremis.

In 1565 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, sent a force of 200 ships and at least 30,000 men against 9,000 men at Malta. The goal was to take Malta and destroy the island’s rulers, the Knights of St. John, a Christian religious order that was the sworn enemy of Suleiman’s Islam. The Knights themselves only totaled 600 on the island and, for purposes of this battle, had no naval counterforce. Thus, their only option was to dig into fortresses and repel the Turkish hordes as they came.

The Turks expected Malta to fall in less than a week. But the Knights’ leader, Jean Parisot de la Valette, correctly anticipated most of the Turkish moves, including the bad ones, and exploited them. Most critically, the Turks went straight for the kill, failing to first sever the Knights’ communication and reinforcement lines, both within the island and to the outside world. This mistake allowed the Knights to hold Fort St. Elmo, a weaker fort at the first line of defense, for a month through nighttime reinforcement. In the last days of Fort St. Elmo, the nightly reinforcements knew the goal was not to win but rather to die in the process of prolonging the enemy’s advance. Hundreds of volunteers went willingly.

Here we have a key feature of the conflict. On both sides were holy warriors whose highest purpose was to die in service of the faith. The Turks had the Janissaries, which were something like today’s Special Forces except they were conscripted and trained for this elite role from the age of seven, when they were taken from Christian families living in the Ottoman Empire. Janissaries were subject to the harshest training and discipline, denied marriage or any familial connections, and were singularly forged for war. On the other side, the Knights were elite fighters drawn from the aristocracy of many nations, with hundreds of years of warfare lessons and lore. The Knights had the added fervor of those fighting for their order’s very existence. With these ingredients in the mix, the chance of a limited, gentlemen’s war was nil.

For example, after Fort St. Elmo was conquered, the Turk leaders floated the mutilated bodies of several Knights across the harbor as a calling card. In response, la Valette had Turk prisoners decapitated, then fired their heads from canons back at the Turks. Bradford neither spares such details nor glorifies them, yet he uses them to substantial effect in illustrating the conflict’s brutality.

The book was published in 1961, and Bradford’s battle descriptions have an appropriately old-school, epic quality:

For six hours the Turks attacked, hurling themselves regardless of losses against the thin line of defenders. For six hours the battle swayed back and forth, trembling sometimes in the balance, but always—as the smoke and dust clouds cleared away—revealing the besieged still active with arquebus, cold steel, or artificial fire.

At several key junctures, the Knights could have lost. But through a combination of luck, crafty deceit, and superhuman effort, they withstood months of continuous bombardment, plus regular all-out assaults aimed at delivering the final blow.

The most dramatic turning point was when the Turks burrowed underground and mined one of the last walls protecting the Knights. The explosion breached the wall and surprised the Knights. Seeing the chaos that ensued as the Turks charged the breach, the seventy-year-old la Valette grabbed a pike and personally led the counterstrike, rallying his men to drive the Turks out.

While one might question whether such heroics were exaggerated over the years, the siege was documented in detail at the time, as it happened. Bradford draws from those primary sources. He adds insightful analysis about the strategies pursued, as well as missed, by the various players.

After nearly four months under siege, the Knights prevailed. The Turks had been taking losses on the wrong side of a 4 to 1 ratio. Demoralized, depleted, and increasingly infested with disease, the Turks gave up when they saw Spanish reinforcements for the Knights arrive.

The vastly outnumbered Knights—along with allied soldiers and, near the end, seemingly every man, woman, and child of Malta at the barricades—had beat back one of the most powerful military machines of the time. Although long ago disbanded as a military force, the Knights of St. John are now better known by history as the Knights of Malta.

If it was fiction, the story of the 1565 siege would be a gripping enough tale. As fact, it is a true legend, well told by Bradford’s The Great Siege: Malta 1565.

[Update, 9/7/2009: I didn’t notice that Amazon, where I usually point book links, does not stock the book. The third-party sellers on Amazon start at $57 used, although there is another paperback edition at Amazon starting at $29 used; there is no Kindle edition. Also, Alibris has some used listings starting around $20. Of course, that’s all as of 9/7/2009. If you’ve wandered to this page at a much later date, the prices will be different.]