Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Bundled writing

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times has an op-ed piece by Daniel Akst, Apple's tablet and the future of literature, which I highly recommend.  He asks a question which I think I can answer:
it's not clear how anyone will get paid for writing, or what will take the place of the existing commercial system, which produces ample dreck but a lot of great stuff as well, often written and edited by experienced professionals with families to support and bills to pay. It may get our egalitarian juices flowing to think that the digital revolution will open up this world, but a literary culture in which everyone is a writer and no one is an editor is likely to leave all of us poorer.

I agree about editors; almost every writer benefits from having an editor.  In the past the printing presses were controlled by the publishers, whose editors hired the writers and fixed up their output.  Now the writers have their own printing presses on the Internet, plus their work is unique in a way that editors' isn't.  So now the tables should be turned: writers should hire editors.

Which they will do if they make their living from writing.  Paying for editing services is then a justifiable expense to ensure that they have good products to sell.

Making a living from writing has never been easy, and nobody should expect that to change.  But great writers have long managed to do it by various means.  They generate unique content that people want access to, so they have something to sell.  It might be ad space next to the writing; it might be sponsorships that even members of the public can engage in (I once sponsored the publication of a printed book and my name was printed in the Acknowledgements); it might simply be that you have to buy a copy.  The public Internet hasn't been around very long and it can take a while for these things to be explored and winning formulas to be identified.

One thing is however clear to me:  there isn't much of a future for newspapers as we know them.  It's not just that they deliver stale "news"; most of their content is from wire services and is available on the Web at no charge (often from other newspapers).  Magazines are very different: all their content is unique.  I think they're the ones who should be putting up paywalls, more than newspapers, but while Google Search finds 5220 results for the phrase "newspaper paywall" it only finds 15 for the phrase "magazine paywall".  I'd pay to read articles from such magazines as The Atlantic and The Economist; I don't only because I don't need to (The Atlantic's content is open) or they won't let me (The Economist has no single-purchase option, not for a single issue let alone a single article).  But there's no way I'll subscribe to those magazines, i.e. pay for every article in every issue for a year or whatever, because I don't read that many of the articles.  I will however occasionally buy a single newsstand copy because according to its cover that particular issue contains something of great interest.  And then I don't even want most of the issue, just the one article.

That article I'm willing to pay for was written by a writer.  I'd like to find out about the existence of that article (through such means as Twitter recommendations and, in the case of technology articles, a website like Techmeme), and then read it, paying with money or ad-watching as required.  I don't want to have to get a bundle that was assembled by some newspaper or magazine editor.  I might however be interested in a volume discount, e.g. if the Globe and Mail's columnists collectively resigned and started their own website where one must pay to read each article, I might be tempted to pay one price that's good for a bunch of articles from any of those columnists and with no expiration date.  Unique content has realizable value.

We've been down this road already with music.  Album sales are way down but single tracks sell nicely through the iTunes Music Store (which I don't use myself, but I bought a couple of tracks today on Beatport).

Curated collections won't be going away.  But it's time for more of the individual creators to connect directly with their audiences.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Is Apple about to introduce a "no OS" computer?

From 2001: A Space Odyssey

For some time now the tech bloggers have been going nuts over the prospect of a tablet computer from Apple.  They've been focussing on hardware issues, in particular the "tablet" form factor.  But one of the major themes of this blog, the disappearance of the personal computer as we know it, is highly applicable as well.  Apple has a long and strong track record of streamlining user interfaces beyond their major competition (e.g. Apple ][, Macintosh, iPhone), and I expect them to do it again by introducing a "real computer" on which the visible operating system has been eliminated.  There will still be an operating system, but largely hidden from the user, as on the iPhone (and similarly just a version of OS X).

As for the form factor, a tablet would be better for frequent use than a laptop (which has to be opened up), and more in keeping with a device that's more about "output" than "input".  Most people don't type large amounts of text (tech bloggers are atypical but they usually forget that as they pontificate), and books and magazines and newspapers are gradually moving online (with the exception of those where high-quality printing is important).  The screen could use protection, but it's really not that difficult with a good colourless-plastic screen protector (like those often used to protect smartphone screens) or a flip-up cover (like my old Palm IIIxe had), and particularly nervous people can use a full sleeve.  As for typing, I imagine Apple would stick with an onscreen keyboard.

There's been some speculation that the device's software will be heavily oriented to reading material (e-ink based readers such as the Amazon Kindle won't appeal to all that many people; they can't even display colour, let alone video).  I don't know of anyone who's designed a proper screen reading experience yet, e.g. Google Fast Flip doesn't even fit a page onto my 1280x800 screen.  Apple would likely do it properly.  For a fascinating look at what a good tablet reader might be like, see this and be sure to watch the video there (which is apparently 8 minutes long but for me the time flew by).

And Apple's tablet (assuming that it does come along) will be followed by devices based on Google's Chrome OS, which takes a different approach but has the same idea of eliminating the visible operating system.  2010 will be an important year in the disappearance of the personal computer as we now know it.