You Say You Want A [News] Revolution…

One’s consumption of daily news has run an interesting course.

In its heyday, television newscasts were relatively popular, and perceived as authoritative, balanced, and informative.  I wish I could say the same for the 24 hr news cycle, which is easily the biggest media-related atrocity of the last decade.  And while internet based news has become more and more popular, print media, such as magazines and newspapers have clung to their values, remaining largely unchanged, thereby insisting their format is flawless.

And perhaps it is.

If you don’t already get most of your news via the internet, you’re either moving in that direction, actively avoiding it,  or procrastinating adoption of it.  The TV newscast is an obsolete closed, specialized, filtered, biased, ad-driven, outlandish, sensationalist and overtly dramatic form of news delivery that I believe will see a decline in popularity as more people turn to news that’s centered around facts instead of drama.

Intriguing idea, don’t you think?

Well, nostalgists should celebrate.  Because while news consumption moves more and more to the internet, we’re quickly discovering that internet based news is not about video.  According to this recent study, only 12% of videos uploaded by users are news related.  Online news is about text, photos, and graphics casting shadows over (hopefully) short, informative video clips included only some of the time.  And now, with the popularity of RSS Feeds, people can follow many different news sources throughout the day using RSS Feed Readers as their News Aggregator.  If you’re into self discovery of the most up-to-date stories and aren’t using RSS Feeds, you’re seriously missing the boat.  RSS Feeds are currently the best way to compile various online news sources into one place.  Most websites offer RSS feeds today, and there are many different RSS Readers.

My parents read their paper in the morning; I check my Feeds.

However utopian my description may seem to imply, the current system is certainly not without its problems.

Headline Lists
Perhaps the biggest problem with RSS Readers is their addiction to the ‘Headline List’ format.  What would you do if the front page of the New York Times was just a list of the issue’s headlines?  This is a boring, ‘2.0’ style of news aggregation and we need progress.  Bad.  Unfortunately, many proposed solutions to this complaint present the second and third major problems with the current state of RSS Reading.

Clearly, there is more than one place online from which one gets their news.  And often times, there may be several websites we enjoy that cover similar topics.  On the one hand RSS reading is great for this, as you can simply follow a dozen websites that cover a topic like Sports and feel as though you aren’t missing much in the world of Sports if you’re up to date on 12 different websites’ published content.  And you’d be right; that’s the beauty of the RSS format.  Instead of hearing what one or two or three networks choose to cover and air in my local area during their 30min dedicated to Sports, I can quickly browse a large range of dedicated Sports journalism, published to a global audience, on a global scale, and choose which stories interest me the most.

However, it becomes incredibly annoying when a major event occurs, (let’s say, this for example) and each one of the 12 or so websites I’m subscribed to via RSS publishes a story on the same event.  Of course it’s their duty to be reporting such a major event, but the user is left with an over abundance of identical news stories clogging up the RSS Reader, and getting in the way of other content.  And it’s not just 12 stories; many of these major events become ongoing, developing stories that last for days or weeks, while the user is forced to sift through stories related to this event when browsing for other news.  Anyone who follows a good number of Feeds will tell you that when some sort of major event occurs in their subscribed area of interest, it throws off the news for a few days, in a big way.  When the iPad launched I stopped reading the news for about a week because according to RSS world, it was the only thing that happened that week; just the way that if you watch Fox news you begin to feel that the only things occurring in the world are horrific deaths and accidents, coupled with a dramatic rise in socialism.

While much of this has a lot to do with the simple fact that news publishers love a good story, and want to milk it for all it’s worth, it would be great to see some sort of topic filtration that could take major news stories on the same event, including follow-up articles, and group them together as one.  Maybe RSS Readers could have an ‘Events’ tab that cruises headlines, trying to group similar or identical events together while also allowing the user to add new stories, that may slip past the software, to a particular ‘Event’, as well as tell the Reader that a story in the ‘Event’ may not actually belong there…

Anyway, this brings up the final big problem:

There are a number of alternative-style RSS Readers that claim to compile your news in a much more rich format, comparing them to a newspaper, or magazine layout.  This seems like a good idea at first, but the result is either a horribly designed user interface, or the sense that the common assertion that such software will ‘Learn’ your favorite topics and present them in a more prominent way simply feels like your news is being filtered and edited.  Whether or not this is the case is somewhat irrelevant, as the winner in the game will be one that gets out of the users’ way, and allows clean access to a wide range of news sources.

The user already filters their news to taste by choosing which sites’ RSS Feeds to subscribe to. We don’t need software for this.   We don’t need some news to be more prominent than others, and we don’t need a rating system.  Does the New York Times think that they’d earn more money if they offered various formats of their paper, specialized for users that want to hear more about a particular subject?  No – it’s just a bad idea, and a software version of this format is a novelty at best.  Users don’t want to hear about a news event they missed because it became a tiny link as opposed to a giant icon on their RSS Reader simply because they never read or rated a movie review, or a political article, or whatever.  It’s just silly.  We want access to things we subscribe to to be relatively equal.

The Future
As I see it, we need an RSS Reader that displays everything we subscribe to, and allows us to choose what to read in a richer, more enjoyable way.

'Pulse' iPad app by Alphonso Labs

Alphonso Labs has recently released Pulse [iTunes Link],  a new iPad app which seems to be a step in the right direction.   While the app is still very new, and has clear limitations, Pulse provides a very rich, accessible interface that still manages to stay out of the way, and let the user feel that all of their subscriptions are being equally represented, which they are. This is not an endorsement of Pulse, but an endorsement of what I perceive to be a very worthwhile change, and one that’s been a long time coming.  I think this style, and perhaps this very app, can be seen as a platform for the future of news consumption.

Similar to the way the iPad’s design gets itself out of the way of the user, presenting nothing but a big multi-touch screen, and allowing the developer complete control of the look of the interface, the best RSS Reader will present the user with huge amounts of news in an equally representative, dynamic, unobtrusive way.

Consider the following:

  • News Consumption is shifting more and more towards the internet
  • Internet-based news is provided chiefly by way of RSS Feeds
  • RSS Feeds need RSS Readers
  • A de facto standard for the best RSS Reader has still yet to emerge, and current formats are still begging for reform
  • Apple sold an iPad every 3 seconds for the first 2 months following launch
  • iPad has been described as, and predicted to become, a user’s primary means to consume internet media

Clearly, the king of online news media consumption (sorry TyrannosauRSS Media, it’s not you, even though I used your creative icon) has not only yet to be named, but is openly accepting all applications for the job.  The crown will probably go to an iPad-centric app that addresses the concerns above, follows the lead of apps like Pulse, and changes the world.

Your move, developers.


Don’t Judge a [Face]book By Its Cover

If you do not have a Facebook account and are complaining about one of a plethora of things that have recently become quite trendy to complain about, please shut up and go away. It’s not your battle. As a matter of fact, it isn’t a battle at all.

If you do happen to be a Facebook user, and have also succumb to the vogue that is ridiculing Zuckerberg’s notorious kin, please delete your account (preferably on May 31, which happens to be my birthday!)

Then shut up and go away.

To sum it up, here are the main tenants of the most recent complaints:

Do any amount of reading about any one of these popular complaints, and you will discover that there is only one real issue: privacy.  Thus, I refer you to the following brilliantly written article entitled Facebook Privacy?  Who Cares? (it’s long, skim through later when you’re bored)

I submit, as did Mr. Cuban, that the Facebook privacy issues are none other than trendy headlines, and bandwagons for a generation that had no Woodstock to jump onto faster than you deleted (or at least stopped using) your MySpace account.

No, we don’t really care about how our data is shared any more than we care about identical privacy issues in our non-digital lives.  And let’s not forget that this is an optional service that posts or shares only what you feed to it.

“How dare this free, voluntary service not live up to my own personal, rigorous standards!”

It’s time for personal responsibility to trump issues like this.  It’s time for the complainers to decide how they really feel about Facebook, and do something about it.  Most of all, it’s time to stop giving Facebook so much credit, whether positive or negative.  Facebook isn’t insensitive and irresponsible, people are.  We’re flawed.  Sorry.  I mean, is this really Facebook’s fault?

But the sooner we become comfortable with whose fault it really is, the sooner we can all update our statuses and spread the word.

This just in: Steve Jobs CANNOT predict the future.

9To5Mac Intelligence has rounded up two rare video interviews between Steve Jobs and Walt Mossberg.   The interviews took place at the 2003 and 2004 D:All Things Digital Conference.

Steve makes some very interesting remarks…some contradictory…some quite perceptive.  Frankly it’s quite refreshing to watch Steve Jobs be flat out wrong about some things, as the web seems to often times be inundated with articles about his charisma, and business savvy-ness.  Here are some choice remarks.

“The iPod might be great; it holds all your music, but we see it more as a satellite device because you couldn’t really do a music store on it because a music store needs more screen real estate…it’s going to be hard to browse music and find the music you want on the iPod itself, even if it has an internet connection.”
-Jobs 2003

No music store on a mobile device?  Oh really, Steve?  I beg to differ.  Steve had this to say about the future of tablets, and Microsoft’s recent (at the time) push for handwriting recognition.

“No plans at the current time to make a tablet”
-Jobs 2003
“I think it’s about handwriting input verses a keyboard…the problem is it’s really slow to write stuff and so it turns out that people want keyboards.  People know how to type now, and if you do email of any volume, you’ve got to have a keyboard.”
-Jobs 2003

While it’s interesting to note that in 2003 Jobs said there were no tablet plans, it’s even more interesting for him to talk down to handwriting recognition which, at the time, was thought to be the wave of the future.
But what about the tablet simply as a reading device?  Steve had this quip for Walt.
“If you’ve got a bunch of rich guys, who can afford their third computer; they’ve got a desktop, a portable and now you’re going to have this reading device…that’s you’re market.”
-Jobs 2003
Clearly the iPad, and the popularity of eBooks had yet to be realized, at least by Mr. Jobs.  Walt then shifted the conversation towards a PDA.  Steve’s response is a good one; here’s one I think he got right.
“We thought about this a lot, and what we decided was that for all the universe of people using a PDA, 90% of them just want to get the information out, only 10% want major input on this thing, and so if what they really want is a repository for data that they can put out, occasionally correcting a phone number or address; we believe that cell phones are going to do that.”
-Jobs 2003
Walt then asks the obvious question: Are you working with cell phone carriers to try and make this happen?
“Yes, absolutely.”
Cool stuff eh?  The 2004 interview had some interesting tidbits as well.  When Steve gave this interview, the iTunes store was just over a year old, and growing in popularity fast.  At the time there was a lot of talk among the record industry that songs needed to cost more than 99c apiece.  So Walt obliged Steve, only to get a simple, wry response, that in fact turned out to be a lie.
“Well the prices aren’t going up on iTunes, I can tell you that.”
-Jobs 2004
Everyone knows there are plenty of songs on iTunes now that are above 99c; Apple introduced the tri-tiered pricing plans some time ago.  So Steve flunks the class on this.  Walt then shifts the discussion to products, asking Steve what other products may be in the pipeline for Apple.
“We don’t want to get into something unless we can invent or control the core technology.”
-Jobs 2004
This is a very interesting remark, given that these days Apple is accused all the time of being to controlling and private.  Said in this context it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for Steve to say, but these days that model seems to be pissing a lot of people off.  Walt then mentions that cellphones are gaining capability, and asks Steve if he still sees the Mac as the center, the digital hub, of ones digital life.  Here is a glimpse into Apples strategy for iPod back in 2004, which we all seem to take for granted these days.
“Oh yeah, where are you gong to put your 5,000 digital photos?  You’re not going to put them on your cell phone for safe keeping.  Where are you going to put your 5,000 songs?  You’re not going to put them on your cell phone.”
“Cell phones haven’t docked with computers.  So every time you buy a new cell phone you’re sitting there putting the new numbers in…it’s crazy!  You want these things to dock with your PC so they grab your calendars they grab your contacts etc.”
-Jobs 2004
Ahead of your time much?  This answer is just a home run, and you can tell that when he introduced the iPhone, and talked in length about how long they have been working on the product, he wasn’t lying.

But of course, I’ve got one more swing and a miss for Steve.  Walt asks “Wont the introduction of hard drives to cell phones allow for more data storage?”

“…you’re not going to want to sit there and edit these things…you’re not going to want to sit there and browse music on these tiny little screens.”
-Jobs 2004
Well Steve, just last year you introduced the ability to edit video on the iPhone/iPod Touch, and the iTunes store has been a huge success on these devices.  Looks like you can’t predict the future after all.
For someone as idolized as him, it can be quite a breath of fresh air to look back at some of these comments and realize that Steve Jobs is just as human as you or I, and while he does have a good amount of valuable insight (and frankly, control) as to where the future is heading, a good part of him has absolutely no idea where we will be in 10 years.