Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Posts Tagged ‘apple

Financial Times bursts out of Apple straitjacket

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Screenshot of FT HTML5 web app announcement

Well, will you look at that. Techdirt and All Things D are reporting that the Financial Times is the first major media organisation (in the UK, at least) to figure out that Apple doesn’t have publishers’ best interests at heart and that apps for individual platforms might not be the best way to get their content out to their readers. They’ve launched an HTML5 web app and are encouraging users to switch to using it in preference to the installable variety – calling it a “new, faster, more complete app which is available from your browser rather than an app store”. The web app even keeps content accessible when the device has no connection.

This does ever so slightly echo the themes of a couple of blog posts I’ve written here and over at the Graduate Times, arguing that Apple is a poor choice of gatekeeper and one which will have an adverse effect on news content, to the detriment of readers’ and viewers’ understanding of and access to the news, and that development time spent on platform-specific apps is a money black hole that news operations would be better off avoiding in favour of HTML5.

Here’s hoping all the other papers and broadcasters who seem to think that the only mobile users who matter are clutching an iPhone or iPad follow suit sooner, rather than later.

And here’s hoping the Almighty Steve will be comforted by the Bond-villain-esque new headquarters he’s asking the city of Cupertino to give him planning permission for.

 

 

 

 

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Written by Tom Barfield

June 8, 2011 at 7:18 am

Why Apple can’t be trusted with the future of news

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Steve Jobs (Picture: Acaben, via Flickr)

So Apple has decided that it’s not going to let publications offer free iPad access to print subscribers (at least for some European publications, although when everyone affected inevitably rolls over and plays dead it’ll doubtless extend to other markets).

This is yet another glaring example of why the media industry’s favourite tech company can’t be trusted with the hopes and dreams for the future that everyone from Rupert Murdoch to The Guardian seems to be investing in it. If you’re Big Media and you haven’t got an iPhone and iPad app of some description, no-one is taking you seriously at the moment.  This is a huge mistake for people who want to make news profitable again and for people who want to keep the news free of undue influence and bias.

First, the profitability side of things: if you’re investing huge amounts of your developers’ time and energy developing an iOS application, that is a massive amount of investment that’s going to be lacking in your offerings for other platforms. It doesn’t matter how many millions of iDevices Apple has managed to ship in impressively short amounts of time; your target market for an iPad app is laughably small compared to the number of people who could potentially access your content using smartphones on a different operating system, lesser phones that still make up the vast majority of handsets available worldwide, desktop and laptop computers, netbooks, and the coming avalanche of tablet computers that was announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Not only that, but the drive to get content onto iDevices means that media organisations are going to be failing to perform their basic function of informing people about events. Ownership of such gadgets, as well as online services like Twitter that are constantly endorsed and reported on in news media, is overwhelmingly concentrated among a young, metropolitan demographic who are likely to be media workers of one kind or another themselves. News produced to interest and animate these people isn’t going to be the news that gets the rest of the country, or the rest of the world, to reach for their wallets – and that’s even if they had the chance to buy it in the first place, which they won’t.

Large media organisations are yet to succeed in finding a sustainably profitable model for making content available on the web, accessible to any kind of device with a browser. The big experiments are ad-supported Mail Online and paywalled-off Times Online – and the jury’s still out on whether they’ll still be around in five or 10 years. The one thing that’s not going to turn things around is artificially limiting the audience to those who think that an iPad is a good investment.

The second reason to reject the iPad as the saviour of the media is Apple business practice. As the Register article I linked to earlier notes, the company isn’t just forbidding print/iPad bundles just to get the 30% cut of subscriptions it gets as part of the App Store arrangements. What it really wants is to interpose itself between media companies and their customers, making it the middleman in the information transactions going on. It can earn 30% of customers’ money this way, but it can also go back to the newspapers, the TV channels and other businesses and sell them the demographic data on their customers that they need to get advertisers interested in their publications and programming.

Not content with extracting money out of its role as informational middleman, Apple has its sights on controlling the public discourse as well, at least as far as it takes place through the medium of their devices. The company has been repeatedly accused of censorship, rejecting dictionaries and James Joyce’s Ulysses from the App Store – with Jobs declaring that Apple offered “freedom from porn”. This is all done in the name of retaining Apple’s image as a family friendly computer company, the computer company that understands that you want everything done for you and served up on a plate without you having to think about it.

This might be fine for a company that is selling people what is ultimately hardware. They can’t have their products associated with the idea of children using them to access unsuitable material online. But that’s not how the news should work. Current events TV pictures and photographs, and even textual descriptions of events, can be harrowing and horrifying experiences, totally unsuitable for children and rightly so. If the news is squeezed through the Apple child-friendly filter, it’s going to provide us (or at least Apple users) with an even more sanitised, family-friendly, Western-centric and politically vacuous picture of the world than the one we make do with now.

Apple is a business. It wants to sell as many products as possible in as short space of time as it can, and to keep customers coming back for more. If we think that the news is more than a business, that it should aim for something more than sales figures, then jumping into the Apple embrace is the wrong move.

Written by Tom Barfield

January 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Facebook-Myspace Mashup: opinions roundup

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Everyone on the internet has by this point posted exactly how they feel about the Facebook-Myspace “Mashup” over the last week, so I thought I’d pull together what some of my favourite sites and people saw fit to say about it.

This new feature is a great illustration of our strategy around social entertainment and enabling the real-time stream. The stream is one of our most popular features on Myspace, and it is now delivering an even richer entertainment experience of relevant content for our users to enjoy.

That’s how it was announced in a press release that is, as usual, about four times as long as it needs to be and sounds like it was written by a computer program designed to emulate the 100 most carefully inoffensive corporate websites in the world. The important things to take away from this are (a) that Myspace is now pushing itself as a “social entertainment” service now that it has been comprehensively thrashed at social networking by Facebook; (b) that their most trumpeted new idea is a “real-time stream” which might have been original in about 2004 but which is pretty contemptible as a flagship feature for 2010.

I should make the point here that I didn’t sign up for the Facebook-Myspace-Mashup-ganza to try it out. I already use Facebook, Gmail, Google Calendar and all kinds of other Web applications that are merrily gathering my personal data and farming it out to advertisers. If anything, I trust Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation even less with my personal data than the band of geeks-turned-corporate-zombies who currently have access to it, so no amount of one-click transferring all of it to yet another website could tempt me.

Gizmodo and Techcrunch managed to totally miss the point, saying:

It’s a desperate act on MySpace’s part, an acknowledgement of their irrelevance and Facebook’s social data dominance. And saddest of all? Facebook just doesn’t give a shit about MySpace. The fact that Facebook is comfortable letting you carry your precious info to what at least used to be a direct competitor shows how little competition is actually going on. It’s the equivalent of giving away your raggedy old t-shirts to charity. Now, of course, this isn’t an act of charity—perhaps MySpace had to drop some cash on Facebook’s lap before this happened—but it solidifies MySpace’s place as a haggard has-been.

(Sam Biddle at Gizmodo)

and:

The event is less of a partnership announcement and more of a formal surrender ceremony.

(Michael Arrington at Techcrunch)

If they’d read the press release I’d quoted earlier instead of bashing out an article (which is, admittedly, full of funnies) the second they heard the words “Facebook” “Myspace” and “sharing data”, they might have realised that the reason Facebook doesn’t give a shit about MySpace having access to its users’ data is because MySpace isn’t trying to compete with them any more. MySpace is trying to adapt itself to the role people have chosen for it; it’s where you go to follow your favourite bands, not your friends (bands are still practically required by law to have a MySpace page).

This might actually work out, because being a “fan” of something is still a pretty dull and pointless activity on Facebook (notwithstanding the British monarchy’s recent adoption of a fan page), and MySpace always had (I don’t know if it still does) better tools for customising your page and making it look like your own personal website rather than an entry in the Internet Yellow Pages like Facebook.

Mashable and Cnet are a bit more optimistic about the venture, saying:

The move is significant for a couple reasons. First and most obvious, it’s official acknowledgment on the part of MySpace that Facebook has indeed become top dog in the social networking space, and it’s better to be with them than against them at this point. Second, and more important as MySpace looks to turn itself around, it creates a huge new audience for MySpace’s content and affirms its focus on entertainment.

(Adam Ostrow at Mashable)

and:

MySpace is trying to stop comparisons to Facebook by rebranding itself as a “social entertainment” site … Adding Facebook’s broad array of “likes” gives MySpace users a quick way to assemble that data …

Why people wouldn’t just follow their favorite bands and actors on Facebook–especially if they’ve already updated their Facebook profiles with all of those “likes”–is a little confusing.

(Tom Krazit at Cnet)

Ostrow’s first point is easy to agree with, and seems to be exactly what the good Sam Biddle of Gizmodo missed above; MySpace is acknowledging that it’s just not a competitor in the social networking space any more, which, if anything, makes them look like more of a viable business proposition than before. If they’re offering something significantly different from and complementary to Facebook, they stand a far better chance of surviving (and justifying all those Murdoch millions) than fighting some kind of noble last stand to defend their founding identity.

The second of Ostrow’s points is a bit more problematic and illustrates why you have to be careful with words, even when you’re writing on the Internet, for people on the Internet, about the Internet. This isn’t “creating a huge new audience for MySpace’s content” at all. It’s making it easier for Facebook users (i.e. people with a pulse, under 30, in the Western hemisphere) to sign up to MySpace. That’s it. Maybe only 3 people will decide to do it. Nothing has been “created” here, but there’s a possibility that enough buzz has been created around this event that MySpace might build up a sustainable user base for its new business model.

Krazit has latched onto the social entertainment concept as well, which is all to the good, but misses the point that being a “fan” of something on Facebook is about as interesting as collecting stamps on one of those loyalty cards that Starbucks gives out. It’s an experience devoid of personality, humanity and any real interest. Giving bands the opportunity to offer a personalised experience to their fans is something that MySpace ought to be able to do much better than Facebook; they at least have a long history of offering customisable personal web spaces, where Facebook has an Apple-like laser focus on getting everyone’s profile to look EXACTLY THE PERFECT WAY THE ALMIGHTY CEO HAS DECREED IT SHOULD LOOK.

Then again, MySpace is just another huge corporate entity which is hell-bent on collecting your personal data so that it can sell you things, or sell other people the opportunity to sell you things. So I’ll leave you with the thoughts of my favourite author William Gibson on the entire social-networking phenomenon:

I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace because the environment seemed too top-down mediated. They feel like malls to me. But Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.

(William Gibson in an interview with nymag.com)

Written by Tom Barfield

November 26, 2010 at 8:43 am