Tag Archives: Wired


Journalism in the Age of Online Collaboration

Painting of Basho meeting two travelers, from the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008660384/

Savvy journalists have adapted (or have been forced to adapt) to a new, more collaborative publishing model online. Here are my notes from a keynote presentation I delivered on this topic at the OCLC Collaboration Forum, held at the Smithsonian, on September 21.

Matsuo Kinsaku was born around 1644 in Japan. As a young man, he became a master of a form of collaborative poetry.

It was a kind of party game: A poetry master would kick things off with a pithy short verse, and then other people in the group would collaborate (and compete) to come up with subsequent verses, each one subtly or cleverly linked to the one before.

He was very successful and popular, but around 1682 Matsuo became dissatisfied and started traveling around Japan.

As he went, he wrote compressed travelogues interspersed with very short poems. They were kind of like those kick-off verses, except they stood on their own.

Over time, his new approach gained popularity, power and subtlety. He took on the poetic name of Basho, and his artform is known today as haiku.

Since the 17th century it’s been primarily an individual activity, like other poetry.

But in my work over the past decade publishing an online journal of haiku, tinywords, I’ve seen haiku come full circle. On tinywords.com, haiku are published as poems, like on any other literary journal. But like many websites, we also allow readers to post comments, or as I like to call them, “responses.”

In some cases, those responses are simply comments like “great work” or “beautiful imagery.” But sometimes, people post their own haiku in response. On occasion, that’s sparked a whole chain of linked verses, each one responding to the one that came before.

Sound familiar?

A similar thing, I think, is happening in journalism.

Continue reading

iPad photo by Brian X. Chen

The iPad Is (Just) Television 2.0

The iPad has touched a nerve in the geek community.

Judging by comments on Wired.com and elsewhere, many people are outraged that Apple would try to foist a less-capable, dumbed-down device on an unsuspecting public. Thanks to clever marketing, these people point out, Apple has persuaded us to spend $500 and more for something that’s less capable and more restrictive than a netbook computer costing half as much.

Those critics are right. But their rage is misplaced.

The iPad is the ultimate media consumption device: It’s just a screen. It is a more beautiful and immersive screen than photos suggest, though. You really do have to hold one in your hand to appreciate how tangible it makes the digital world. Thanks to the in-plane switching LCD and the fast processor under the hood, photos, videos and web pages all come to life, in rich, vivid colors and with a presence that I’ve never seen on any laptop.

Apart from that, there isn’t that much that’s innovative about the iPad, technologically speaking. The rest of Apple’s innovations have to do with packaging, marketing, and a retail experience that’s almost frightening in its attention to detail.

But then, good customer experience, clever marketing, and a fast, bright screen that you can take with you may be just what Hollywood needs.

Because that’s who the iPad is made for: Hollywood. And Madison Avenue, Nashville, Fleet Street, Burbank and all the other places where mass media is produced. (Why do you think Stephen Colbert was one of the first to get an iPad? And why do you think the iPad ad debuted during the Oscars?)

In short, it’s a consumption device, not a production device. Sure, you can make short comments using the on-screen keyboard, but if this were your only device for writing and publishing blog posts, you’d want to fling it out a window.

In other words, the iPad is not ideal for the kind of interactive, distributed storytelling that the web has spawned: in a word, blogging. It’s not likely to do well as a photo or video editing tool or programming device either, though I haven’t tested that hypothesis.

The very thing that makes the iPad so good as a lean-back media device — its lack of a keyboard — is exactly the thing that makes it poorly suited to banging out thoughtful essays, outraged screeds or pointed corrections.

But you know what? That might be OK.

The iPad’s not taking away my keyboard, after all; it’s just another device. Sometimes the kind of passive entertainment it affords is exactly what I want after a long day at my keyboard. While its onscreen keyboard is no great shakes, I can type out a comment or a tweet on it if I feel the need to, and I can always walk over to my laptop if I decide I need to compose a full blog post to rebut some idiot.

As an entertainment device, it’s the next best thing to television. Actually, it’s kind of like television 2.0.

After a day with the iPad, I kind of like that. It’s no more, and no less, than Apple promised. For what it is, it’s a brilliant device: fun, dopamine-releasing, immersive, and easy on the eyes.

If I were to choose between a television and an iPad, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the iPad.

Thanks to by Brian X. Chen for the photo above, and some help sorting out my thoughts in this piece.

Check out this video, where I give a 3-minute first look at the iPad’s high and low points:

You Could Easily Swallow This 32-GB MicroSD Card

electron microscope photo of cross-section of 32GB microSD card

Two — no, three — things in life are sure: Death, taxes, and the fact that storage manufacturers will continue to cram ever-more ridiculous quantities of memory into tinier packages.

SanDisk announced a new 32-GB microSDHC card on Monday, effectively doubling the maximum storage capacity of the tiny, less-than-dime-sized memory chips found in many modern smartphones. This is the maximum capacity that the HC-format microSD cards can hold, so any further advances will have to wait until manufacturers start installing microSD-XC slots in their phones.

The advance means it is now possible to swallow an entire 7,000-song iTunes library, or 10 hours of uncompressed HD video, without gagging.

SanDisk says its new card will be available for purchase on its website starting Tuesday, and through retail channels shortly thereafter.

(Samsung announced a 32-GB microSD card earlier this year, but the card does not appear to be available to consumers yet.)

With a retail price of $200 and a weight of just 0.5 grams, you’ll want to be extra-careful with this minuscule memory chip, as it’s worth about 11 times its weight in gold.

To achieve the increased capacity, SanDisk did two things: Switch to a 32-nanometer production process, and stack eight memory chips vertically inside the microSD card.

The first change refers to the size of a typical memory component, which is now around 32nm, or about the same size as the circuits used in Intel’s latest Core i3 and Core i5 chips. Using smaller circuitry enables the company to cram more bits onto a wafer of silicon.

The second change is pure micromechanical engineering. Although a microSD card is only 1mm thick, including the plastic housing, SanDisk’s engineers have managed to squeeze a vertical stack of eight memory chips inside it. Each chip holds 4 GB of data, so altogether the stack holds 32 GB.

“You’re basically talking about an entire jukebox on a flash memory chip the size of your pinkie fingernail,” said SanDisk vice president Eric Bone.

SanDisk microSDHC Cards (product site)

SanDisk First to Ship 32 Gigabyte microSDHC Card (press release)

Photos courtesy SanDisk

Originally published on Wired’s Gadget Lab blog

Nook E-Reader Promises, But Doesn’t Deliver

You can imagine that Barnes & Noble, with 774 stores scattered across suburban strip-mall America, finally got fed up with the way Amazon’s Kindle dominates the e-book market.

“I know,” some B&N exec must have said. “Let’s pull an Apple move on their sorry asses!” The result: a nearly buttonless e-book reader that has a color LCD touchscreen where the Kindle has a broad, ugly QWERTY.

The Barnes & Noble Nook is, in fact, a handsome device, close to the Kindle in size but with far cleaner lines and a less cluttered look.

But that’s where the Nook’s radical innovation ends. For the most part, the rest of the device is a Kindle clone with a few minor, but thoughtful, improvements.

The Nook is slightly shorter and narrower than the Amazon Kindle 2, although it’s thicker. Both e-book readers use the same E Ink technology for their main screen: a pale gray, matte surface that looks a bit like an Etch A Sketch but displays text (and monochrome images, with 16 levels of gray) in far more readable fashion than an LCD, thanks to its paperlike opacity. Instead of staring into the glowing eye of a LCD screen, you’re reading light reflected off the surface of the screen, just as you do with paper, and that’s much more comfortable. E Ink also uses less power, so battery life is long (about a week of ordinary use, B&N claims). Both the Kindle and the Nook have small, 6-inch, 600 x 800-pixel screens — only a little bigger than a 3×5 index card — but they seem bigger, thanks to the crispness of the text.

The Nook’s secondary LCD screen adds a splash of color to the reader’s face. This little screen (just 3.5 x 1 inches, with 480 x 144 pixels) displays the Nook’s menus and controls, and it’s where a virtual keyboard pops up whenever you need to type (when searching for a book). It’s not multitouch, but you won’t miss that feature on such a small screen: It’s all about tapping on virtual buttons or swiping menus back and forth.

Like the Kindle, the Nook lets you browse, purchase and download books via AT&T’s 3G wireless network. Most books cost about $10, or less than half what they’d cost as new hardcovers — but twice what they’d cost as used paperbacks. The Nook also has Wi-Fi support, although it’s perplexingly limited to B&N’s in-store networks, where you can use it to download books as well as special, location-specific offers (like free cookies).

There’s a built-in MP3 player and a headphone jack, which works for playing music while you read, or for playing audiobooks. You can load the Nook with e-books, PDF files, images and MP3 files via a USB connection simply by dragging and dropping, just as you can with the Kindle.

The Nook has some nice touches that the Kindle lacks. When shopping for books or browsing your library, you can swipe through color representations of their covers on the lower screen. While reading, the display lets you pick between 5 font sizes and two or three different font faces, depending on the title — so if you really like reading text in Helvetica Neue, go for it. And the Nook supports e-book lending for some titles, depending on the publishers’ preferences. If lending is enabled for a title, you can send to a friend, who can then download and read it on their Nook (or, soon, on Nook applications for the PC and iPhone). While they’ve borrowed the book, you can’t read it, but it automatically returns to your library after 14 days. Some people have also reported success getting the Nook to work with library e-books and audiobooks, via software called Overdrive.

Unfortunately, the Nook is marred by a frustrating interface and persistent slowness. Switching between the lower and upper screens is sometimes confusing, and the lower screen’s “back” button sometimes takes you all the way back to the top menu, clearing out whatever was on the upper screen. Occasionally the lower screen takes a few seconds to respond to a tap, so you impatiently tap again, accidentally triggering something you didn’t expect. The upper, E Ink screen is slightly slower to refresh than the Kindle’s — it takes about a second, instead of about half a second — which means these kinds of interface glitches quickly get very frustrating.

It seems reasonable to expect that the Nook’s software engineers will iron out these glitches in the next few months, and they’ve promised to deliver software updates wirelessly, with the first, minor update rolling out next week. When they finally get the kinks worked out, the Nook will be an elegant, customizable, competitive alternative to Amazon’s Kindle. Until then, it’s a slightly awkward runner-up.

WIRED Attractive, well-designed hardware. Color LCD makes menus and covers look pretty. Ability to switch fonts is a welcome change. Book-lending works with friends and with libraries. Easy reading experience. Expandable via MicroSD slot. User-replaceable battery.

TIRED E Ink screen is noticeably more sluggish than the Kindle’s. Occasionally poky interface on the touchscreen. Annoying interface glitches keep tripping up the browsing experience. $260 plus $10 per book might be cheap if you’re used to buying dozens of hardcovers a year — but it’s expensive for those accustomed to buying used paperbacks or visiting the library.

Originally published, with lots more gorgeous photos by Jonathan Snyder, on Wired.com

Tiny Reader Puts Wikipedia in Your Pocket

WikiReader photo by Jonathan Snyder / Wired.com

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll want to have a copy of Wikipedia with you. And you’ll want to make sure it works even if the power is out, cellphone and internet connections are nonexistent, and you’re hunkered down in a remote cave. That way, you’ll be able to consult the sum of all human knowledge to figure out if that mushroom you’re looking at is a healthy and nutritious snack, or a fatally neurotoxic toadstool.

Yes, what you need is the WikiReader, a simple, $100 touchscreen device that contains a cached version of Wikipedia.

Even if you’re not planning on a zombie apocalypse, WikiReader is handy because it doesn’t require (or have) an internet connection. That’s useful if you’re traveling, on a train, hiking or just too lazy to get up and reboot the Wi-Fi router. It’s small, so it’s easy to carry with you, and it runs on readily-available AAA batteries. And it has a minimalist and subtly asymmetric design that I find kind of cute (albeit cute in the way that those ugly dogs with smushed noses are cute).

The 3.5-inch touchscreen doesn’t have iPhone-like sensitivity, but it gets the job done, with a pop-up virtual keyboard for typing text into a search box. There’s also a “random” button which could be useful for diverting party games, or if you’re having trouble coming up with a name for your band.

WikiReader does have its limitations. The screen is merely functional, with low resolution, very low contrast, a nasty gray-green background and no backlight. It needs to be in bright light to be very readable. There’s no color here — not that you need it, since there are no images in this version of Wikipedia. (Better hope that the mushroom’s textual description in Wikipedia is detailed — and accurate.)

And of course, since it’s a completely offline reader, the information is only as up-to-date as when you bought the device. It’s possible to update the WikiReader by popping out a little microSD card inside the battery compartment. You can either pay $30 for a subscription service (the company will snail-mail a new card to you twice a year) or download a 4-GB file and update the card yourself (though you’ll also need a microSD card reader, or an adapter for your SD card reader).

Is it worth $100 to carry an offline Wikipedia in your pocket? That depends on how addicted you are to reading the encyclopedia — or how convinced you are that the end times are coming. Just make sure to pick up a few extra AAAs.

WIRED Massive, crowdsourced encyclopedia in a portable package. Simple search interface. Requires no internet connection. No monthly fees. Runs for months on two AAA batteries.

TIRED Dim, low-contrast screen. No graphics in encyclopedia entries. No easy way to jump from heading to heading within articles. Updating requires a subscription, or a microSD card reader.

Originally published on Wired.com

Why I’m Not Getting a Droid Today

I’ve been testing the Verizon Droid for the past few days, and it’s an awesome phone.

But even though I’m eager to ditch my iPhone and eighty-six AT&T, I’m not going to switch to Verizon for the Droid.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very impressed with what Motorola has built. In my mind, the Droid and the iPhone are the two best smartphones on the market today. The Droid can compete with the iPhone in almost every respect.

In some features, such as the screen, it comes out way ahead: The Droid’s vivid, high-resolution 854 x 440 pixel display blows away the iPhone’s 480 x 320 screen. It’s simply crisper, clearer, and easier to read. (Note: The photo above does not do it justice.)

Voice-call quality is much better than on the iPhone. Callers sounded crisp and clear. And I was able to set up Google Voice to work with both incoming and outgoing calls and SMS messages — something you cannot do with the iPhone.

For that matter, since all of my contacts, calendars and e-mails are hosted by Google now, setting up the Droid to work with my information took me less than five minutes. Because I have more than 3,000 contacts it took the Droid nearly an hour to sync them all to the phone over the 3G network (and during that time, the phone got alarmingly warm), but I never had to install desktop software or even plug in any cables.

It was hands-down the easiest and fastest setup process of any phone I’ve used, and when it was done, the phone had everything I needed. (By contrast, getting the iPhone to sync with Google was a tricky and time-consuming process — and you need to install iTunes and connect your iPhone to your computer by USB in any event.)

The Droid also uses Verizon’s 3G network, which in my ad hoc testing came out ahead of AT&T’s. Downloads seemed faster, and the data connections were generally more reliable. It still dropped one of my calls, as I was riding the commuter train, in almost exactly the same spot where AT&T inevitably drops my iPhone calls. Without further side-by-side testing I can’t definitively state whether the Droid on Verizon’s network trumps the iPhone on AT&T’s, but my sense is that it generally does.

In terms of interface and features, the Droid is the first phone that’s truly comparable to the iPhone in terms of power and ease of use. There are interface differences, but for the most part they’re not better or worse, just different.

Multitouch is the most glaring omission, which means you can’t pinch to zoom the screen. But, like the iPhone, you can double-tap to zoom in, and the Droid is similarly smart about sizing the screen to fit whatever column of text you want to read.

Its onscreen keyboard works almost exactly like the iPhone’s, and is even superior in that you can choose among multiple type-ahead suggestions rather than just waiting for the phone to suggest the one you really want.

And while there are only about 10,000 Android apps, compared with the iPhone’s 100,000, there seems to be plenty of selection. The Android Market should be more than enough to keep me happy, with a couple of exceptions.

The reason I’m not switching to the Droid is twofold. First, the hardware keyboard troubles me. It’s not especially good, and I worry that the slide-out mechanism could be prone to failure. There’s no way to confirm that other than heavy use for three to six months, but it’s a risk I’m not quite ready to take — especially because the onscreen, virtual keyboard is so good.

With such a good virtual keyboard, the hardware keyboard seems like an unnecessary and even dangerous, trouble-prone appendage, like an appendix or a vestigial tail: It can only cause problems.

Plus, it adds weight; the Droid, at 6 ounces, is about 2 ounces heavier than the iPhone. So I’d rather wait for a lighter, keyboard-less version of the Droid.

The second big reason is that I’ve grown dependent on two iPhone apps: Instapaper Pro and Tweetie. I also occasionally use RunKeeper, Stanza, Pandora and a handful of games, but Instapaper and Tweetie are the killer apps. They’re the things that, together with e-mail capability, make the iPhone useful to me.

Tweetie I could probably learn to live without: There are plenty of Twitter apps for Android, and the most popular one, Twidroid, seems to work fine, even if it lacks Tweetie’s elegance and speed. But Instapaper’s ability to collect, reformat and display news articles and blog posts I want to read — even if I’m offline — has made it an indispensable commuter and downtime companion. I would sorely miss it.

So while I’m no fan of AT&T or Apple, I’ll be sticking with the iPhone now. It’s one of the two best smartphones on the market, and it’s the only one that has the apps I depend on.

Originally published on Wired.com

FCC Position May Spell the End of Unlimited Internet

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s unsurprising affirmation of support for network neutrality is a victory for the high-minded principle of open, unfettered internet access. Too bad it means the days of all-you-can-eat, flat-rate internet access are probably over.

Net neutrality sounds like a good idea. After all, it’s the internet’s openness to any and all users, applications and content that gave it such a resounding victory over closed networks like AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. And there’s no question that as a general business and networking principle, “anything goes” is both desirable and beneficial, to users and network operators alike. Over the long run, the most open networks attract the most customers and will be the most successful — and the most profitable.

But somewhere along the way, this principle of good network architecture turned into a political tenet that, according to some true believers, is almost equivalent to the Bill of Rights in importance.

The argument goes like this: Internet service providers have such strong motivations to restrict access to content or applications that they don’t like that the government needs to step in to ensure a level playing field. For net neutrality’s true believers, Comcast and Verizon no longer get to decide how best to configure the networks they spent billions building: Their networks are so ubiquitous, and so critical to the common good, that the government has a responsibility to ensure they are managed fairly.

It’s easy to see the merits of the argument, and when we’re talking about ISPs that are near-monopolies built in large part on the basis of government subsidy or exclusive federal licensing, it seems downright un-American to argue against net neutrality.

Unfortunately, there are at least three big problems with making net neutrality a federal mandate.

First is that bandwidth is not, in fact, unlimited, especially in the wireless world. One reason ISPs are averse to neutrality regulation, they say, is that they need the flexibility to ban or mitigate high-bandwidth uses of their network, like BitTorrent and Hulu.com, which would otherwise run amok. Take away their ability to prioritize traffic, the ISPs say, and overall service will suffer.

“As long as there have been networks, people have had to engineer them to ensure that congestion doesn’t occur,” Carnegie Mellon professor and telecom expert David Farber said Monday (he’s the co-author of a cautious anti-net neutrality opinion piece published in 2007). Farber is especially concerned about the impact of the FCC’s position on wireless networks, where bandwidth is already very limited. “When you’re operating that close to capacity, you have to do a very tricky job of managing your spectrum. If you have unconstrained loads being dumped on you, something’s going to have to give.”

Case in point: AT&T has repeatedly stumbled in its ability to provide 3G wireless capacity, thanks to the unexpected popularity of the iPhone. Those difficulties lend credence to AT&T’s (and Apple’s) reluctance to allow apps like Skype and Slingplayer unfettered access to the 3G network: If the network can barely keep up with ordinary demand, just imagine what would happen if we were all live-streaming the Emmy Awards over our iPhones at the same time.

Take away ISPs’ ability to shape or restrict traffic, and you’ll see many carriers running into AT&T-like capacity problems. Their response will almost certainly be to make consumers pay for what they’re actually using. Want to BitTorrent all 6.7GB of the uncompressed Beatles catalog via 3G? Fine, but you’ll have to pay for the bandwidth you’re taking away from your neighbor.

Second, enforcement of neutrality regulations is going to be difficult. Comcast may not be able to block Skype traffic altogether, but what’s to prevent the company from slowing it down relative to other traffic it carries? Such preferential “packet shaping” is easy to turn off and on, as network demands ebb and flow. By contrast, proving such infractions of neutrality will be complex, slow and difficult. It sets up a classic “nimble, resourceful criminal versus slow-footed, underequipped cop” scenario.

Third, the new regulations create an additional layer of government bureaucracy where the free market has already proven its effectiveness. The reason you’re not using AOL to read this right now isn’t because the government mandated AOL’s closed network out of existence: It’s because free and open networks triumphed, and that’s because they were good business.

Now the FCC is proposing taking a free market that works, and adding another layer of innovation-stifling regulations on top of that? This may please the net neutrality advocates who helped elect the current administration, but it doesn’t add up.

Net neutrality regulations make sense in closed, monopolistic situations. But outside of small, rural markets, most of the U.S. offers a high level of competitive choice. Don’t like Comcast cable internet? Switch to SpeakEasy, Astound or SBC, or look into satellite internet. Don’t care for AT&T’s spotty 3G wireless network? Try T-Mobile or Verizon. Need help finding an alternative? Check Broadband Reports’ interactive ISP finder.

That’s why the FCC should take a very cautious, careful approach to implementing its brave, new principles. Free, unfettered innovation has been the secret to the internet’s explosive growth over the past two decades. Let’s not let a well-meaning attempt to preserve that innovation wind up doing exactly the opposite.

As Farber says, “Whatever you do, you don’t want to stifle innovation.”

Original: FCC Position May Spell the End of Unlimited Internet