About Matthew Buckland

Matthew Buckland

Matthew Buckland is a web entrepreneur, the GM of Publishing & Social Media at 24.com former GM of Mail & Guardian Online and co-founder of award-winning blog agregator amatomu.com and editorial blog Thought Leader.

He has also worked for iafrica.com, Carte Blanche (Interactive), Johncom (e-media) and the BBC Online (beeb.com) in the UK. He has spoken on panels around the world on online media issues, including New York, Germany, Kenya and London.


Latest Posts by Matthew Buckland

The Apple TV? Only if You Have Money to Burn

February 26, 2013 by  

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Apple TV

I’m lucky enough to own a Samsung Smart TV. I bought it because I believe in converged devices: I want to watch TV and hop in and out of the web and my apps seamlessly. That is our TV experience of the future. Samsung got that right with its Android-based TV OS and is streaks ahead of the competition.

Unfortunately Samsung got it right in concept only: the execution of that vision leaves much to be desired, meaning I never used the TV’s so-called Smart OS. It’s slow and clunky, and does silly things like perform automatic updates when you are about to load an app that make you sit for minutes before you access it. I’m over it, I don’t use it. While I may be an early technology adopter, I’m not your guinea pig, thanks.

I think this is the lesson that Apple taught the world. And it’s the reason it became the biggest tech company in the history of the world. After despairing at my dream of convergence TV and just thinking it would be well, a dumb screen, I decided to give the third-gen Apple TV go.

Generations ago

I had shunned Apple TV years ago in favour of a Mac Mini. The last Apple TV I had was the clunky, old school first generation with a large case, about as big as the old Mac Mini. The new generation is compact, sleek and minimal, just 23mm x 98mm x 98mm and weighing in at a mere 0.27kg. Its understated design is typical Apple beauty.

Image of Apple TV remote

But more importantly it comes with Apple’s TV iOS (6.1) which has brought it in line with its other iOS devices (the old Apple TV ran a version of Mac OS). It’s a typically slick and familiar iDevice experience — and if you are an iPhone or iPad user, it’s pretty much the same experience.

But if you have an older TV or monitor or a slow internet speed, don’t bother. This is only for digital HDMI and fast connections, aimed unapologetically at the upper-end of the market. Also if you live in a country other than the States, I would make sure you have a US app store account. I’m not sure Apple TV is worth it without one. The only reason I wanted one was to get the latest movies first — not to wait 100 years for them to be released in another country.

Apple TV OS shot

Apple TV’s 10 foot user interface is simple enough to use, and it is fairly attractive. For a TV experience you want big, you need HD and you don’t want to fiddle too much in front of your TV with a mouse or keyboard, moving through this window and that — you just want a simple, fast experience that gives you the media you want.

But the ugly stepsister of simplicity is something that is too simplistic. In the quest for understated brevity, the Apple TV comes with too many restrictions and not enough functionality. And it’s a balance I don’t think Apple has cracked.

I found myself wanting more, thinking that I should have rather just plugged a PC or Mac Mini into my TV, and paid the extra for a whole lot more, rather than buy this Apple TV. Why invest in an Apple TV that has no web browser? Why doesn’t Apple allow app downloads or more customisation? Why invest in an Apple TV device that can only download one show at a time, meaning a big fat wait every time you want to see a new show. Why use Apple TV when you can’t plug your portable hard-drive with all your movies into it? Why care about an Apple TV without an SD slot? Why watch Apple TV when you can’t seamlessly watch the AVIs you have just shot on your camera to the big screen?

Some are more equal than others

If I had to plug in a Mac mini or a PC hooked up to XBMC or Plex I would be able to do all of the above. A small PC with Windows 8’s metro tiles that are almost perfect for that 10-foot user interface experience, would also work a whole lot better. Hell, if I didn’t care about HD so much, I could even link up a cheap Raspberry PI to my TV.

I just wonder what Apple TV has got going for it when you get better products in the media centre market like (the now defunct, but gorgeous) Boxee, Mede8ter and a host of other media centres around. Compare the Boxee remote (multiple buttons and a neat little keyboard) with the rather dinky-looking Apple TV remote and you realise it’s just no contest. What was Apple thinking here?

A beautiful failure

Then there’s Apple’s closed ecosystem. It’s a pain in the ass, and I am tired of Apple telling me what I can and can’t do with my personal media. One wonders if this will be the downfall of the company as other companies catch up to Apple’s head start, and then improve on it with open media standards?

Another irritation with Apple TV was that the device came without an HDMI cable, which means I had to go hunting for one. It just wasn’t the usual plug ‘n play Apple experience I’m used to. Apple is all about that quality, seamless experience — why did it stuff it up by not including an HDMI cable?

Compared to other Apple devices, the Apple TV has a long way to go, and I bet you employees at the company are privately embarrassed at this product. Worst of all is that it is impossible to improve: the third-generation Apple TV remains unjailbreakable as of writing this article. There is just very little you can do with this walled garden.

My advice: run away. Or wait ’till Apple gets this right and brings it in line with its other products on the market.

Images: Apple TV from Apple.com

The iPad Mini: Why Apple Thinks You’re an Idiot

December 14, 2012 by  

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iPad mini 01

 

Behold the chamfered edge
 

I have quite a bit of Apple product fatigue. I’ve owned seven iPhones, three iPads and two mac minis in my time. They are quite pricey, and when the newest gadget comes out, the current one becomes pretty much worthless. When the iPad mini was announced, I felt that fatigue. I thought to myself – if I am going to complicate my life with yet another device, it better be good. And chances are, if it’s an Apple gadget, it will be good.

I tried to work out where an iPad mini would fit in my life. Besides the large screen (the TV), the small screen (the phone) and the medium-sized screens (iPad and notebook), where would this new in-between screen fit exactly? Is this some kind of Kindle competitor that I would read books on? Is this a more casual iPad, or just a smaller iPad for people who would prefer something smaller?

Nicely priced

The price is nice (from US$329) and it’s a gorgeously thin, light and compact device. In fact it made my iPad 3 64GB feel like a tractor, which is great for the iPad mini, but not so great for those already invested in an iPad. But that’s life, the world must move on and the pace of technological change is rapid. Another unexpected surprise was that typing felt easier and smoother on the mini screen than the larger screen of the iPad. Ironically, as a result of the size of most human hands, it is easier to type on the smaller screen, than the larger iPad. So for typing its better than both the iPhone (too small) and the iPad (too big).

 

Attractively designed, but the fugly screen lets it down
 

So far so good, and unfortunately for my pocket, the mini is something I’d prefer to have over my paper weight/iPad. But then I switched it on… and what did I see? Grainy, pixellated text and images that belong to an iPad and iPhone that we saw a generation ago. Surely there is no way that Apple would release its latest and sexiest piece of hype with old technology? Was I trapped in a solipsistic nightmare? Is it 1 April? Am I on Candid Camera? I called a colleague over to check if I was indeed right. And I was: No retina display. Huh?

A Retina-free existence

Bringing the iPad mini out without the clean, finely tuned retina display is a big mistake by Apple. For a company known for innovation and high standards, this is a big letdown on so many levels. As an iPad retina display owner, the display instantly irritated me. I, like many consumers, asked myself: is there really any point in buying a device that you know will be upgraded to retina display in the next year?

 

Lightning is the best thing since sliced wheat-free bread
 

But it goes beyond what consumers think. It also asks very serious questions about Apple itself. This is a company that strives for high quality and does not overlook details, so then why did they bring this out? I have never said this before – and I hate buying into the cult of Steve Jobs because there are so many other talented people at Apple that have made the company what it is today. But I really felt it this time: I cannot help but think that if Jobs was still in charge – he would have done something Maverick like stop the production line to ensure the mini was a device that met Apple’s standards, not bring this inferior transitional device out.

So there it is. The iPad mini looks good on the outside, and is an antique on the inside. By Apple’s standard’s it’s poor. Buy it now, and you will feel sorry in a year when the upgraded version comes out and makes your investment look silly. It will be interesting to see the shipment figures of the mini to see if consumers reject it.

And I have to ask: What exactly is going on with Apple? Have I missed a joke somewhere?

Thanks to Wantitall.co.za for supplying the iPad mini.

Logitech Touch Mouse T’is Beautiful, But Not Bluetooth

November 28, 2012 by  

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logitech touch mouse windows 8

I guess I’m one of the stranger users of technology. I’m not an Apple zombie, insisting everything has to be Apple “just because” or an unwavering, die-hard Microsoft zealot based on Apple hatred. I like to use best-of-breed and what suits me, irrelevant of silly branding and ideology. So for a long while I have been using a mighty mouse (Apple) and Vaio PC laptop combination. And it worked well for about three years. Then Windows 8 came along and my wonderful little hack inexplicably just stopped working.

Even though I am an iPad and iPhone user, I do not want to go the Mac route. Apart from not wanting to be a cliché, the OS irritates me. I quite like Windows 8 and Microsoft cleaned up its act after the Vista botch up. It kept me as a customer… only just though! And I now use a Zenbook Prime, which I have to say makes me laugh with satisfaction every day I open it. It’s a beautiful machine, but it’s one mouseless beautiful machine.

Enter the curve

So, enter the Logitech Touch Mouse T620. It’s advertised as a premium mouse, and that it is: it’s good looking, curvy and feels solid.

It also has a touch surface which almost, but not completely, doubles as a touchpad. I can scroll by sliding my finger over the surface and switch my apps or call up the Windows 8 Charm bar by swiping from the edge of it, much like the trackpad. A double tap on the lower 2/3s of the mouse’ surface brings up my Window’s metro start screen too. It’s a smooth experience. There is stuff I can’t do though like the three finger swipe on my trackpad that shows me my desktop (on the mouse it’s a double tap with two fingers). Also I can’t pinch to resize or rotate photos, which I can obviously do on my multi-touch trackpad. These are irritating differences which does beg the question: Is there any standardization of these gestures?

Minor irritations 

But probably the most irritating feature of this good-looking mouse, is the so-called “unifying receiver”. I have to occupy one of my two USB ports with this receiver. It’s quite small and unobtrusive, which is its saving grace, but why I have to have it is beyond me. The mighty mouse worked quite well on Bluetooth (when it worked), and did not require a USB transmitter like Logitech’s wireless RF-based mouse.

So here’s the thing, the Logitech Touch Mouse T620 is beautiful and it works well. No complaints here. If you have USB ports to spare then go for this option. If you use a tower then plug the receiver in and forget about it. But if you are an ultra-book user like me, I would think twice, because it will permanently fill a valuable USB port and leave something sticking out from your ultra-thin and ultra-modern ultra-book.

It’s great to see the rest of the world catching up to Apple though. It’s about time. It’s a company that needs competition.

Verdict: A worthy purchase, and a great piece of tech for a shiny new OS.

Comebacks: Is Microsoft Regaining Its ‘Cool’?

February 15, 2012 by  

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During a cold December in Paris at a conference called Le Web, I was struck by an insight. It was a combination of what I had been feeling for a while and what a brilliant analyst was saying — and that is, Microsoft is on the comeback trail. It really is.

In recent times, Microsoft has struggled to exude that “cool factor” of companies like Apple, a coolness that is reflected in the companies’ respective share prices too. It’s a zeitgeist also brilliantly reflected in these “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC ads“.

Microsoft’s boss Steve Ballmer is uncool embodied in human form. His awkward stage presence and impassioned, sweaty speeches are in stark contrast to the calm and restrained polo-necked arrogance of Apple’s former leader, the late Steve Jobs.

iPhone and Mac users don’t have time for Microsoft. They become impatient when there’s talk of the Redmond-based company and a look of distaste appears on their faces when you whip out a PC. Microsoft has had a virtual monopoly on computing operating systems for years. And that monopoly has meant buggy operating systems, giving Microsoft a reputation it’s still trying to recover from.

The copycat and blue screen of death


Since the 90s, Microsoft’s reputation as an early innovator became gradually eroded, with the company becoming known more for its buggy software releases and for being a voracious “copier” rather than innovator.

Until Windows 7 arrived, the company gained a reputation for subjecting consumers to sub-standard operating systems. (Whether or not this was the fault of the device manufacturers or not was irrelevant — Microsoft had a responsibility to make sure its products worked on a variety of devices).

Microsoft also became known as a copycat. Bing is laughably close to Google in functionality and appearance. There are also Bing Maps and Bing News, much like Google News and Google Maps.

Zune is also remarkably similar to Apples’ iTunes-iPod model. Microsoft’s staunch critics say that the very first Windows design was a blatant copy of Apple’s Mac OS.

In the business world it’s clever to copy because you don’t spend money on research and making mistakes, but it is not something that will win you accolades and respect.

Microsoft’s ‘iPhone moment’
But times appear to be changing. When Windows 7 was released a few years ago, it was lauded. The release was finally a Microsoft OS that was stable and looked good. Windows 8, available as a developer preview, is also looking beautiful — and pretty innovative. But most importantly, Microsoft has truly brought out a truly amazing mobile phone operating system in its Windows Phone. Could this be Microsoft’s “iPhone moment” — the device that propels it, and its share price, to stardom?

Like it or not the iPhone changed everything. It has had such an impact that it caused panic at Nokia at the highest level. The phone has inspired envy and respect amongst rivals. When faced with the need to innovate, manufacturers suddenly go brain dead and manage to only bring out poor copies.

Windows Phone: Something special is about to happen
But Windows Phone is different. It feels original and truly innovative. In fact there’s been the odd quip that Apple in fact “copied” Windows Phone features in its latest iOS releases. Windows Phone is silky, smooth and beautiful. It is packed with amazing innovations like People Hub, Live Tiles, with applications like Facebook and Twitter baked into the OS. It may seem obvious now, but a mobile experience with heavy-duty apps works best when part of the core OS experience. It has been an instant hit.

Then there is the business part. Microsoft is (and has always been) better at business than Apple. How else could Microsoft still maintain market dominance for so long, when it clearly had an inferior products to those of Apple year after year, after year? I’ve written about why this is in “Apple’s folly: Why the iPhone is in trouble“. Microsoft may not have been the innovator Apple was, but it was better at forming business partnerships.

So when Microsoft gets its products right, and combines this with an exceptional business prowess, you know something special is about to happen. On a business level, Microsoft has now paired a brilliant mobile operating system, with the world’s largest mobile manufacturer. Suddenly the Nokia deal seems like a genius move. It sees two giant companies, who have faced stiff competition from Apple, coming together in a powerful alliance.

And it’s why I run a mile from expensive Apple shares and I’m rather interested in the cheaper-looking Microsoft shares.

 

‘Web-huggers’ under pressure

Even the brilliant head of research company Forrester, George Colony, reckons Microsoft will make a comeback.

He foresees a future where the web will be under pressure and the “web-huggers” — companies like Google and Facebook — will no longer be dominant. He sees a big push back to an “app-internet” scenario, where applications combine with internet power rather than pure cloud businesses. iPhone apps, in many ways, are the realisation of this.

“If you think back in the history of the technology industry, every ten years there is a major tech company that we think is dead that makes a comeback. In 1980 that was Intel, in 1990 that was IBM, in 2000 it was Apple.”

Colony says that Microsoft, with its strong software roots, is the company best positioned to make a comeback, but it would also need a “generational change in leadership” for this to happen.

Microsoft is well positioned because it is a seasoned software, hardware and internet player, so can take advantage of all these ecosystems — and harness both the power of the device and the network.

Its shares are looking like a bit of a steal at the moment.

DISCLOSURE: The author is an iPhone user, and loves it.

 

 

LeapPad: The Tablet That Kids Can’t Seem to Put Down

November 22, 2011 by  

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This is an odd review for me to write, because my opinion doesn’t count. It’s not designed for me, it’s designed for kids. But kids suck at writing gadget reviews, so I dug deep into my inner toddler to seek out any childish delight in the LeapPad, a low-tech iPad for kids that’s packed with educational apps.

As a geek-tastic adult, my first instinct was to label the LeapPad a complete failure.

It uses outdated technology. Its touchscreen is an old skool “resistive” panel instead of the smart, smooth capacitive touchscreens used by most of today’s modern tablets and phones.

Moreover the graphics are poor. They are low resolution, pixelated and blocky, and the interface is generally clunky. The device’s chunky plastic shell reminds me of the 90s and Fisher Price tug-alongs.

It gets worse: You have to use a stylus on the LeapPad, not your fingers — and we know how much children like to use their fingers. Sure, say the LeapPad’s manufacturers, this teaches your children the fine motor skills to hold a pen. It’s a convincing reason — but I can’t help but feel it’s really because of the poor touchscreen.

The app store is fairly expensive and the offerings on it are not as varied as you’d find on a full blown app store like Apple’s AppStore or Android’s App Market. The unit also runs on batteries, no recharging from the mains, which makes it eco-unfriendly, and a pain to keep swapping out batteries, which run out fast (and are pretty expensive these days).

But having said all this, I think you should buy it.

But the kids love it
Here’s the rub — the children I tested it on (a three-year old and a six-year old), loved it. They couldn’t put it down. In fact, they quickly abandoned the iPad they had been using for the past two years and quickly became obsessed with the LeapPad. Maybe the LeapPad manufacturers are onto something. Maybe it’s because while the LeapPad is no technological marvel, it hits the spot for the little people.

There are subtle features that make it attractive to children, like the ability for a child to build their own profile and stick their own face on that profile, displayed throughout the device’s OS. Narcissism is big in the world of toddlers, so it instantly gives them buy-in and makes the device feel familiar to them. The apps that come with the Leappad are also directly tailored for children, both in educational and entertainment value.

The app market may not be varied, but the quality of the apps is high and they are all focused on children – in the ‘grown up’ app stores this can be hit or miss. The apps were designed with kids in mind and you get the feeling quite a bit of thought and precision went into their design.

Hi-tech or hi-kid?
If you want to give your child a head start and get them using tablets with educational apps, is the LeapPad a good route to go? It’s a tough call. My feeling is that if you are price-sensitive, and not a technophile family, then head for the LeapPad. Over a one-month period, our iPad developed cobwebs and we became a “LeapPad family”.

However, the iPad too has plenty of educational apps and it is a far superior device. The only problem is that you don’t know what you are getting in the app store and have to dig deep and spend time finding the good stuff in the app store. But the iPad is quite an expensive children’s toy and mine permanently has a degree of snot and slime on it (Also some other stuff that I don’t want to know about). A possible option is to head over to an online classified site like Gumtree and pick up a second-hand iPad 1 that is already a bit roughed up.

Gear it or Burn it?
I’m going to Gear it. I think the makers of the LeapPad are on to something, but they need to pull up their socks and do some work on their device. The LeapPad is technologically stuck in the stone-age and the manufacturers appears blissfully unaware of the massive advances of the past five years. On the other hand, I can’t argue with the price, or my children’s obsession over the device. They love it. Who really cares what I think?

Who it’s for:
If you’re reading this, it’s not for you. It may very well be for your kids, though.

What we liked:

  • Kids love it. Nuff said.
  • Apps are clearly designed for kids, and are high quality in fun and education

What we didn’t like:

  • Old skool tech, old old skool styling.
  • Having to use batteries instead of charging. OK, yes, you can buy rechargeables, but that adds a whack to the cost.

 

.mobi is Dead and It’s Back to the Future

November 20, 2011 by  

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There was a time where it made sense to have a separate mobile site, running in parallel with your old faithful desktop website. We put these mobile-only sites under domains like “m.myveryspecialsite.com” or “myveryspecialsite.mobi”.

The argument was that because our online offering was being accessed via a different medium with different capabilities, we therefore needed clearly distinct sites. Mobile phones then were simple beasts, because they were mainly just phones with a bit of web browsing thrown in. These phones were not capable of showing complex, visually busy sites, so it made sense for website owners to just “start again” and create a simple, standalone companion mobile site.

Well, it’s not so obvious any more. The landscape has changed. The argument that you need a separate mobile site isn’t quite so compelling any more. In fact, in many cases, it doesn’t make sense to split your site in two anymore, and here are three reasons why:

1. Enter the smartphone: Mobile devices are more powerful and can render richer content these days. What this means is that you can create a richer mobile site that is much closer (although different) to your desktop site. In most cases, you can display many of the elements of your main site on a smartphone mobile screen. When this happens, the argument that you need to create a completely new mobile-focused site wears thin, because it’s now probably easier for you to create the same rich website as your desktop one, but just reworked for a narrower screen.

You may argue that vast majority of people on this earth still use simple phones, and yes you would be right. But this is the point you are missing: I don’t care about the now, a brief transient period in the world’s history, I care about the way it will be. It’s what you call a long-term business strategy.

2. Enter the social web: People are sharing content like never before. Sites are reporting that their biggest referrers are Facebook and Twitter, with Google now relegated to third. People share regardless of platform. Someone will share an article on their desktop computer, and it will be picked up by someone via their phone or tablet device. As a result it doesn’t make any sense to split your site, and share separate addresses, one for your mobile site and one for your desktop site. It makes sense to keep one, unified address. The more universal your site is, the less confusion and the more power it holds.

3. Multiple devices: There’s no such thing as a big screen and a small screen any more. There are now screens of multiple and variable sizes. You want your web application to look good on a 43″ TV screen, on a desktop computer, on a tablet, on a phone and even the oddly-sized Samsung Galaxy Note (Is it a tablet? Is it a phone?). It makes no sense to build separate sites for these multiple screen sizes, which will keep varying in size as more gadgets are produced. The economical answer is to build once and build to fit on any screen.

So where does that leave your “.mobi” or “m.” strategy. Well these are merely going to be domains that are marketing devices, pointing to your desktop site — and if a user happens to view it on a mobile site, your server will pick up the device type, and the site will dynamically adjust. In fact there may be no point in having these separate mobile domains at all in the future. They may just become defunct.

You may argue that powerful smartphones and tablets are able to view your full website, so why would you need to create customised sites. This is a cop-out. You do need to make adjustments on your site that play to the strengths of a particular screen size, Mobile OS, or device. But this is the wrapping, not the core.

Mobilize on the front-end or the back-end?
There are two ways to mobilise your site. You can do it on the front-end or you can take the back-end approach. An article on Memeburn a while back on responsive web design explored how a website can adjust dynamically, on the fly to a screen size it finds itself on. This is hardcore. It probably demands a large download and you may find yourself making compromises on your design. It may be too hardcore for now, but this is the future.

The other way to display your mobile version is via your site’s back-end. Your main desktop site, which is actually now all your multi-device, multi-screen sites rolled into one, would detect a device and then decide which theme or style sheet to render to suit the screen. The difference here is that it is all one site, using the same database, using the same articles and most importantly using the same web address.

A mobile-only online business doesn’t make sense to me any more, as does a business that just plays to the desktop web. Sites and services should be one thing, reformatted, on every device. Granted it may not be the now, but it’s certainly the future.

The Closing Web: Chris Anderson on FREE & Radical Pricing and The Long Tail

September 19, 2011 by  

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If you don’t know who Chris Anderson is, you don’t really understand the internet. He’s one of the great technology thinkers of our time who has given us new ways of understanding how the medium has influenced business and society, and where it is all going.

Anderson is the editor of Wired Magazine, an authority on tech culture, trends and innovation. Time Magazine called Anderson one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers.

The Wired editor is best known for popularising two key ideas that have helped shape internet thinking today: The Long Tail and Freemium. Companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix are long-tail companies, using the internet’s ability to reach a wide, varied and niched audience at fractional costs. Freemium is the idea that if you offer basic products or services for free, and charge for advanced features, you’ll be more successful. These ideas have been espoused in his two best-selling books, Free: The Future of a Radical Price and The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More .

Anderson is due to speak at Discovery’s Leadership Summit in the coming weeks with other luminaries such as former US vice-president and environmentalist Al Gore.

In this interview, part one of a two-part series, Anderson speaks about how our internet experience is moving from open to closed platforms, and how this presents challenges for consumers and opportunities for producers. He also touches on how HTML5 could be the web’s saviour — creating a future high-fidelity, application-like web.

Anderson gives us his thoughts on Google’s latest attempt at social, Google+, and how it’s making up for Twitter’s shortcomings, and shares some insights about his third book.

Matthew Buckland: You speak about the new “App Economy” — do you get the feeling that the web is decidedly out of fashion these days and that people are opting for controlled platforms (such as Apple’s app store)?

Chris Anderson: You’re referring to my “web is dead” article of last year?

MB: Yes

CA: I love the web, I hope the web isn’t dead, but there is a demonstrable shift in user behaviour towards mobile. And mobile brings with it two things: First of all there is a shift towards apps. Mobiles tend to be optimised for apps because of smaller screens … The other aspect of the web, which was implicit in your question, is the notion of “openness” which is built into the web. And increasingly we see closed platforms that happen to use the web as their transport and display – sites like Facebook — which are not open.

In the definition we chose, Facebook does not count as the “open web”. Your iPad does not count as the “open web”, Xbox Live does not count as the “open web”. They use the internet as transport and sometimes they use HTML as the display technology and sometimes they render in a browser. By and large, they are not open ecosystems and therefore don’t fall into Tim Berners-Lee’s original definition of “the web”.

So I would say there is very much a shift away from the wide-open web to closed platforms. Some of those closed platforms are on mobile, some of them are closed platforms within browsers, but we’re definitely seeing a shift — and frankly it worries me as a consumer but it’s a huge opportunity as a producer. So I am conflicted in that respect.

I love closed platforms as a way to build a business, but as a consumer I prefer open platforms. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s wave particle duality if you will, but that’s where we are.

MB: Why do you think people are opting for these closed, controlled platforms?

CA: Well, do you have any Apple products yourself?

MB: Yes I do…

CA: Well do you now need to ask that question? Apple has proven that a controlled experience can be a very good experience — that with control comes some certainty over the consumer experience. They can dictate how to get stuff, how to use it. And that can be a really smooth experience. Openness tends to bring with it chaos. I happen to like chaos myself, I quite like the web, but every now and then you just want something simple that works. For all that one may object to closed platforms, they tend to be quite a smooth experience.

MB: So what does this say about society? Is it a case of life mimicking art? We live in controlled societies… is this a case of the internet catching up with reality?

CA: Yes that’s a good question. I suppose you’re probably right in some respects, that we do need rules and policies and constraints to make life bearable. I can tell you as a father of children that if it weren’t for rules it’ll be Lord of the Flies. As humans we like freedom, but we also like predictability and some boundaries within which to work. Any designer will tell you that constraints are liberating. Tell me where the walls are and I will innovate within those walls. So I think there is something to that.

Clearly if you look at the app economy, half a million apps or something out there, there are very controlled sets of rules about how to write an app and how to get it in, but once those rules are set there is a huge opportunity for innovation between those walls as we’ve seen. So yes, I think that there is a place for rules and constraints and there is a place for unbridled innovation… you need both.

MB: Will there be a web in 10, 20 years time?

CA: Absolutely. In my article I made that very clear. Right now we’re seeing a shift. Commercial content is tending to shift toward these more closed platforms. Other content such as community, amateur content or content that doesn’t intend to have a business model tends to seek openness for the sake of the largest possible audience.

So you could imagine a bi-polar world where there is a completely free world that isn’t intended for business. This is the world of human-to-human communication and that exists in the open web. Then there is the commercial web which is increasingly closed. That again leans to your point that the “web reflects human society”. You have your job, and you have your life. Your interactions at work are paid interactions. Your interactions with your friends and family are unpaid. The two worlds coincide and superimpose, but the notion of commercial and non-commercial existing in the same domain is completely in line with our civilization, so I don’t see any problem there.

MB: One of the big problems about the world of mobile applications is that you have to develop multiple apps for multiple devices. It’s an industry in tremendous flux. Do you think we will in the future see a universal application standard, so you can develop once for all devices?

CA: That’s what we all want. There is some hope that HTML5 could represent that… we’ll see. We’re pretty bullish on HTML5. We’re certainly developing our apps with that in mind.

With universal standards comes the fear of the lowest common denominator. We love the web, but let’s face it — the web is not a high-resolution design platform. It’s really difficult to create beautiful and predictable rendering designs on the web. You can do it with Flash but then you break all sorts of web conventions. You can do it with fancy HTML, but then it doesn’t work in half the browsers — there’s lots of browsers out there, lots of platforms, different aspect ratios, pixel densities, operating system… some places support different versions of HTML, Javascript, Flash or not Flash, or Silverlight. We’ve been struggling with this for 20 years and it’s not getting any better.

That’s what happens when you have a completely open innovation environment. It’s very hard to establish standards that are universal. I hope HTML 5 can advance on this, but I don’t think it’s going to be the silver bullet to solve all of our problems. Right now it’s pretty simple: it’s an Apple world. You develop for iOS and Android — and you’re done.

As there is more competition, it’ll be more complex. We’re going to bet on HTML5, we’re going to accept that it is going to limit us somewhat in design fidelity — but we will accept that for the sake of production efficiency and flexibility across platforms. We’re going to continue to operate in an app environment because browsers just aren’t there yet.

Maybe someday browsers will support standards that allow us the design scale that we want — in which case we won’t need to ship an app. That would be great but we are not there yet.

MB: So a future website could actually look pretty much like an application on an iPhone or iPad device?

CA: It could do. We’re not wedded to executables, we’re not wedded to applications. We are wedded to a high-fidelity consumer experience. Right now an application is the only way for us to achieve that. If tomorrow’s browsers allow us to achieve the same thing, using the web model of content with the application being in the browser itself, that would be great — but we haven’t seen that yet.

MB: What would your advice be to Apple? Obviously HTML 5 threatens its turf. We’ve seen what some major media companies like the Financial Times have done in this space, with their web app versus the iOS app.

CA: I have learned long ago not to try and give advice to Apple. They don’t need my advice, they are doing fine on their own. The great thing about Apple is that they have an extremely coherent vision of one way of doing things — and again I love clear and coherent vision. I know how to navigate with it to accommodate them or navigate around them. Clarity is good.

But I don’t think it’s the only vision out there. It’s good to see Android rising as a competing vision, but there will be others. My advice to Apple is “keep doing what you’re doing” because that’s really helpful in establishing a direction and executing well on that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Apple was the only company, but I wouldn’t want to live a world where Apple wasn’t there at all.

MB: Should Apple embrace HTML5 and this new way of creating free apps outside its proprietary operating system? Is that the way Apple should go?

CA: Again, I am in no position to be prescribing any path for Apple. I think Apple understands HTML5 certainly better than I do. I have no doubt they will integrate it where appropriate.

MB: What’s your take on Googarola, the Google acquisition of Motorola Mobility?

CA: I don’t claim to know anything special about it. What do you mean?

MB: Well essentially — Google acquiring a device manufacturer and moving into hardware. What is your take on that?

CA: I don’t know if that’s what they are doing. You say they are moving into hardware, but there are other possible explanations — they could be buying a patent portfolio, they could be buying some technology spinning off others, they could get into hardware and they could spin something off the hardware side. Those are all valid approaches, but I am not privileged to their thinking on that.

MB: So do you think it would be a good idea for Google to move into the consumer hardware space? And what advantage do you think that would give them?

CA: I really don’t want to speculate on that.

MB: For me, what makes today’s web and mobile sites or platforms successful is “simplicity”. We live in an age of distraction and we have lots competing for our attention. Do you think simplicity, the concept, is key to the successes of many of the large successful internet companies of today?

CA: Yes, I think that’s well put. Simplicity is one way to put it. It’s lowering the barrier to entry. It’s clear what to do and it’s clear how to do it. That’s crucial. I think what we’ve learned from Apple is focusing on clear easy benefits. It’s the key to their success. All companies have lessons to learn there.

Google has clearly made some mistakes in social by building products that were too complex to both use and understand. I think Google+ is an effort to make something simpler and more obvious. It’s obviously more complex than Twitter.

One could argue that for all Twitter’s success, its simplicity is also a constraint in that it’s hard for the service to evolve to address secondary issues of true conversations without adding a whole layer of complexity that’s contrary to their mission. I do take your point, and broadly, simplicity is something every successful product has — but it can’t be the only thing it has.

MB: It seems you’re quite weary on commenting on what Apple should or shouldn’t do — but here’s a big question… We’ve see how Android has grown in numbers, so do you think that Apple should open source its platform like that of Google’s Android?

CA: I am not going to go there. My tablet is an iPad, and my phone is Android… I live in both worlds. I am huge open-source evangelist. As you know my robotics company is 100 percent open source. I fully understand the advantages of open source, but that said, I love my tablet. I think that the Apple model, a closed system in the hands of a visionary genius, is a beautiful thing. So I am not really dogmatic about this, I think there is a place for both open and closed. I wouldn’t want the world to be only one or only the other. I think Apple is doing just fine. They don’t need to deviate from a successful model.

MB: Looking at the open ecosystems and the closed ecosystems that you’ve come across, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of either of these?

CA: There are books to be written on that. It’s a big question. Broadly the strength of openness is that you get a breadth of participation and lots of new ideas come in. There’s lots of energy, there are applications you wouldn’t have thought of and you could do faster, cheaper and better in open.

The downside of open is that, in the absence of clear leadership and vision, it can become chaotic and over-burdened with things that are very interesting to software engineers but not very interesting to the rest of the world. We’ve definitely seen lots of open source software projects become over-complicated. And to your earlier point about simplicity, the genius of Firefox is that in the hands of strong leaders they’ve managed to make it a simple and easy to use product, despite all the bells and whistles that software engineers might want to put in. So I do think that openness is an incredibly powerful technique, but requires very a special class of strong leaders with clear visions to be successful.

The success of closed is that you have the traditional form of command-and-control organisation, so that a clear vision can create a good product without having to jump through all sorts of hoops in inventing new organisational structures. In the open source world if you have a clear vision that’s not enough, you also need to create an organisational structure that incentivises all these volunteers to follow your vision. In a company it’s really easy, you pay them and you tell them what to do. So I would say that leadership and vision is easier to execute in a closed system than it is in an open system. But in those rare cases where you have leaders with both vision and organisational skills, an open system can get you there faster.

MB: What technologies do you think are defining our future in the web and the media world?

CA: Obviously the shift toward mobile and tablets and smartphones in particular is the biggest driver. I think what we’re seeing here is an opportunity to rethink the user interface, rethink the experience of consuming media. It’s rethinking pricing, rethinking how we get media, rethinking what social means as a form of marketing. So it’s like the web was 20 years ago, it’s a brand new domain. Nobody really knows anything and we’re all groping in the dark. We’ve learned a lot from the web about what works and what doesn’t work and I think that we have an opportunity to right some wrongs.

For example, on the tablet, this time these platforms have come out with an eCommerce model built in via the iTunes or Android stores. This means we have the capacity to try different pricing and economic models. Before we didn’t have the physical ability so everything had to default toward banner ads as a business model.

But now we have the capacity to do everything from Freemium to micropayments to pure paid content. We have the capacity to integrate with social and really understand what people want, how they get content in a way we didn’t have 20 years ago on the web.

Obviously we continue to do print and the web as well as we can and innovate there, but mobile is an opportunity for us to really come at these questions of what business are we in anew and through radical experiments in trying to figure out what consumer behaviour is going to look like and how people want to interact with our products on tablets and smartphones. As Wired magazine it’s our job to be a laboratory for these things. You’ll see more and more experiments coming out in that.

MB: It’s been some time since you wrote your book. Give us some successful examples of freemium.

CA: Since I wrote the book, the app economy has risen. Right now freemium is really the only major business model in the app economy since the rise of the iPhone, the iPad and the Android Marketplace. The shift of consumer behaviour from traditional desktop to mobile has all been built around freemium. There are many examples prior to the app economy but they are largely on the web. The rise of the app economy and the dominance of freemium within that has been the big new trend.

MB: What’s your take on Google+? Do you think that it is a fresh new take on social networking, or do you think just more noise?

CA: I like it a lot. I think it’s early days yet so I am still trying to figure out quite how to use it and get critical mass, but I think it solves one of the problems of Twitter which is a lack of a secondary engagement stream, and the notion of comment and of being able to engage in a conversation with people that doesn’t have to be broadcast to all of your followers.

I like that a lot. I like the multimedia aspects of it. It’s really easy to share pictures and videos and get a little preview of the links. I think that it’s still harder to navigate than Twitter. There is still the feeling that it doesn’t have the same critical mass of Twitter. It’s coming out of the gate, because you can write longer which I like and you can include photographs.

It’s become a more contemplative or thoughtful place than Twitter. Google+ feels less newsy and ideas are more fleshed out than condensed into snippets like Twitter, but by the same token it feels less urgent. Google+ is a more contemplative place and more incoherent. I haven’t yet managed to create a stream that feels as focused as my Twitter stream, but these are early days yet.

I would rather post on Google+ than I would on Twitter mostly because I am just not funny enough or pithy enough to get my thoughts down to 140 characters. So I like having a little more room, I like having a comment stream. I like engaging in a proper back-and-forth with people that doesn’t have to be broadcast to my followers.

That said, I am still on Twitter, I find it very useful for little broadcast messages where I want to point people to a link so I think [the answer is] somewhere between those…

I am pretty bullish on Google+. I do think that it’s going to work this time. It’s relatively well designed and it gets better by the day. I am a big fan of Google’s overall efforts and integration across the products. I pretty much live on Google with Gmail, Calendar and Docs and all that. I want this to succeed. That said, I am not giving up on Twitter any time soon.

MB: Your third book… can you tell us a bit more about it and the ideas you’re exploring there?

CA: This is based on an article I published in Wired last year called “The New Industrial Revolution”. It’s about the extension of the web’s revolutionary innovation model into the new world. Basically it’s about how the “Maker Movement“, which is using democratised tools of production, is providing a new manufacturing model and can be a new way to make things — real things that both allows more people to do it… a longtail of products that don’t just necessarily fit the mass-production model and possibly the future of manufacturing the developed world where labour costs may be high, but innovation potential is higher yet.

Read part two of this interview on the Future of Media and Journalism. The above: with additional reporting by Michelle Atagana and Steven Norris.

China, Russia, South Africa….and the Facebook Connection

February 17, 2011 by  

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There is something going on in China, Russia and South Africa. Via various internet investments and creations, these three countries combined have built up major stakes in some of the world’s biggest sites and social networks.

Russian investment company, Digital Sky Technologies (DST), now owns about 7-10% of Facebook by various estimates, putting the company among Facebook’s biggest owners. Via its sister company Mail.ru, another 2.4% of Facebook is held. Recently, according to the New York Times, DST ploughed a further $50-million into Facebook.

DST also owns about five percent of the popular social gaming company Zynga and another five percent of the prominent shopping-coupon company Groupon. The company is now apparently eyeing a piece of Twitter, but then again who isn’t?

The Mail.ru Group, which has grown into the biggest Internet company in the Russian-speaking world, owns 100% of Russian social networking site Odnoklassniki, and has a significant stake in the country’s other major networking site, Vkontakte. DST also owns the early-web era instant messaging service ICQ, an interesting investment because the service is somewhat of a fading star.

The Chinese and South African connection
There is also a Chinese, and even a South African connection to the Russian group.

South African emerging markets media giant Naspers, an $18-billion company, also owns a stake (reported at 28.7%) in DST, and therefore indirectly holds a stake in Facebook.

Naspers also owns a chunk in TenCent’s QQ, China’s largest instant messenger and social network. In December 2010, QQ.com ranked 9th overall in Alexa’s internet rankings, ahead of Twitter which ranked 10th. According to Business Day, TenCent had about 637-million registered users in December 2010.

Ironically Naspers hails from a newspaper background, but started to make serious money via pay-TV operations in South Africa and throughout Africa. Naspers operates from a home market with a comparatively small internet user base of anywhere between 7-12 million South African users, so this may explain why the company has been aggressively fishing beyond its borders for internet properties.

Naspers is headed by a tough, shrewd and ambitious Cape Town-based CEO in Koos Bekker. At home, the company owns the largest internet media player in News24, which attracts a modest — by world standards — five million monthly users. It also owns a piece of the South African MXit, a mobile-app-based IM now claiming around 25-30-million world-wide users.

In 2001 Naspers bought the 46,5% piece of Tencent for $32m, making it the largest shareholder in the then three-year-old company. Then QQ had just 18-million accounts. As Tencent grew and turned into the world’sthird-largest dot-com by market value, the value of Naspers’ stake jumped more than 400-fold to exceed R14bn.

With these impressive figures, it appears that Tencent’s QQ platform may be challenging Facebook as the world’s largest social networking platform. They are not exactly comparable platforms because QQ is an IM first and a social network second. For Facebook it is the other way round. But a broad definition of “social network” — a somewhat abused term these days — could put the companies in the same category.

In September 2010, Naspers snapped up yet another social network, but this time in the US. The company bought a “controlling interest” in social networking site Multiply. Multiply, headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida,reportedly has more than 11-million registered users.

Naspers also owns Indian social networking play Ibibo, as well as various ecommerce platforms in Eastern Europe, South America and other parts of Asia. The company holds 25% of Singapore-based BuzzCity, a mobile media company that runs a global advertising network on the mobile internet.

Memeburn has it on good authority that Naspers sometime back had an opportunity to buy a piece of business networking site LinkedIn, but turned it down at the time — a decision which has caused some regret at the company.

The Russians are not coming, they have in fact arrived
On the other side of the world, the other figure leading this new emerging markets internet charge is the low-profile Internet tycoon Yury Milner. Milner is also the chairman of Mail.ru.

The shaven-headed businessman trained as a physicist in Moscow before starting out as a manager at the World Bank. He began investing in the Russian Internet in the late 1990s and founded Mail.ru in 2001.

A report in The New York Times noted that if DST had invested 50 million dollars (37.5 million euros) more in Facebook, its combined stake with Mail.ru would be worth about 500 million dollars.

Mail.ru made its debut on the London stock exchange in November and was valued at 5.71 billion dollars on flotation.

In a rare interview with business daily Vedomosti late in December 2010, Milner said that Mail.ru had “chosen a strategy to have a global expertise in a very narrow sector”.

He said that in every Internet sector, there was a tendency for one single firm to become dominant, and that the company had picked Facebook as the leader in English-language social networking.

“On the Internet there is a tendency for ‘winner takes all’ and a leader emerges in every niche with surprising consistency,” he said. “This is the main issue that we look at. When we made our first investment in Facebook, it was not obvious that it was a winner.”

Milner said he planned to invest the proceeds of the IPO in Internet projects, which he called “one of the most promising areas for the next 10 years”. The Mail.ru Group and DST are part owned by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian billionaire of Uzbek origin who first invested in DST in 2008 and is also a major shareholder in Arsenal football club.

The Silicon Valleys of emerging markets
The first ten years were all about Silicon Valley — the undisputed king of web innovation and home to the great internet properties that have defined the online landscape of today. The next ten may see the famous Silicon Valley share its mantle with new and rising centres of internet innovation in key emerging markets like Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and Africa.

Disclosure: Matthew Buckland previously worked for Naspers’ News24.com. He is now involved in his own internet startup. Originally posted on Silicon Valley Watcher.

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