It’s a very quick one – and one has to write something anyway after such a long hiatus. Even though we’re talking about pretty different things, both the Watch and the Research Kit have Apple taking on different verticals (luxury, healthcare), the “traditional” industries that are very much any agency or consutling firm clients base. In the automotive industry e.g. we’re seeing self-driving cars coming both from technology or service platform leaders (say Google, Uber) and the conventional automotive players. I guess this is a kind of different competition that it’s worth exploring with clients.
A post a year is not exactly brilliant but whatever – at least there is a post coming after one year… So over the winter holidays I managed to finish readingAdlandbyMark Tungate, in all of his 2007 hardcover edition weight and dignity – how long since I haven’t bought an hardcover? I think there was no ebook version available yet when I looked for it, but I might be wrong (I noticed that now there is a new July 2013 edition, Kindle and paperback versions). Here it comes my review, ready to be copy pasted into Goodreads, Amazon, everywhere (joking, I just started again with Goodreads because it seems to me that aNobii is moving slowly, if not going downwards, which is sad because I like the service, without having been a heavy user).
Adland is a very well written story, and a rare example, perhaps still unique, of an history of advertising offering a global perspective (note that I haven’t done any serious bibliographic research, but I’m pretty sure that this book will stand out for a long time in any case).
I think that Adland is most fascinating when it comes to the portraits of men and women that have built and developed advertising over the decades. Tungate has interviewed many of them in preparation of his writing or he has talked to them elsewhere as it appears evident from his standing as a top class journalist. It’s a kind of paradox, but even if naming agencies after the founders is one of the more enduring practices in advertising, very often little is known of these people, and even more of co-founders, and the other most important collaborators, were they partners in the business or not (I mean, all of the great professionals beside the greatest starts, the David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach and so on, which do have an obvious prominent space in the book) – and then sometimes clients played a key role also (even if by and large this is an history from the agency side). Now, advertising means of production are people – well, raw material is culture if you wish, but it’s not a ready to use asset that you can buy on your own, as you would do with whatever commodity or manufactured good. You need people anyway to make it work! This is typical of professional services in general of course – which by the way are often not well covered by business histories as far as I know.
On a critical note, I would say that the very last chapters are less convincing, or let’s say that even if they put it clearly about the total overhaul of the advertising world spurred by the Internet, there is no proper discussion as such. I read somewhere online about a possible “Adland 2” from Tungate so who knows, something not less robust on the topic might well be in the working.
PS: I’ve been always interested in the collective and often anonymous nature of many creative endeavours. Advertising I think is a typical example, in that often people experience artifacts with no mention of the authorship (which is very relevant instead in a trade or analytical perspective). Right on the topic, I’ll add here a shameful propaganda note to Advertising is the eye of the beholder, a personal side project based on Instagram and Tumblr.
Likely you scrobbler or even occasional Last.fm listener have already heard the bad news: on the 15th of January 2013 Last.fm stops streaming to a large number of countries, including mine – Italy.
The announcement came to me first as an almost unnoticed clickable display on the top of the personal page (not linked here because I’ve never been there with my real name), which at some point I decided to check, with inevitable disappointment. Judging from the related thread on the Last.fm forum, this decision has upset a good number of folks in “all other countries”, i.e. all over the world except the US, the UK and Germany (where Last.fm will keep also the ad-supported free Web radio), plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Brazil (where radio has been and remains a subscription feature only, as they say). Link to the official announcement.
I won’t delve here into considerations specific to Italy (if you are from my country, I have a few lines on the other side); instead, I jotted down some general commentary. And let me copy here a pic of the pin that I got as a gift from Alberto D’Ottavi @dottavi brought back from London after his brief interview with Last.fm co-founder Martin Sticksel published in English on infoservi – (the blog has also more Last.fm and related themes coverage, in Italian). Well, that pin was something!
Others keep streaming anyway
In short, what came out for Last.fm is that licensing costs for streaming music and insufficient ad revenues are pushing them to this new restricted geography. Have a look at the Paidcontent or Techcrunch posts for more. Anyway, it’s not new to anyone that streaming music on subscription models have stll to find solid business ground. But it’s also a fact that there are a number of services pushing it — to name two European-based big players, say Spotify (from Sweden, not available all over Europe though) or Deezer (from France – I started using it right now). Then there are also a few more already well established brands and startup, all with its own history and positioning, from Pandora to Rdio, from Soundcloud to whatever you can pick. The thing is, while they are different, all of them seem to pursue an enlarging trajectory when it comes to geographies, even if at different paces.
As it can be read easily all around, I also think that Last.fm is not new to a downwarding spiral since when the founders left, sometime after the well remembered 280 millions pound acquisition from CBS, a historic name of the media business (and big in radio as well – but as people noted, no visible result in that regard yet). And by the way, the two co-founders and former leaders are now up for a new general-purpose content discovery startup called Lumi, as I just learned from another Techcruch post.
Seeing this decline unfolding over time has been quite sad for people that have been hanging around for years (2004 in my case). I’ve always been a service enthusiast, praising and recommending it to friends at all times, and paying the subscription not just for the add-ons, but also for support. Not only Last.fm has been the eponymous streaming music machine: I think that their mix of music discovery, community and recommendations has made it quite unique for years – perhaps still unique in some respects.
Best jukebox ever
By encouraging people to be creative with tags and personal stations and following in the listening steps of others, be they “neighbours” or “friends”, with the variety of custom stations that the service has offered over time (some unfortunately well gone, from the famed loved tracks radio to the tag ones), I think that Last.fm has been incredibly good in exploring new music consumption paradigms. Now “consumption” might appear reductive: actually it’s not. What I mean is that Last.fm to me was still very much a music consumption machine, a place primarily for listeners, novice or expert, fan or not. Last.fm was and still is a kind of uber-jukebox, an entertainment machine. In this respect, it’s not very suitable for the music connoisseur, for those that want very high quality sound and even more the orderliness and quietness of album listening; but that entertainment is not trivial, nor it passive. Quite the contrary: on top of music there is an all set of added meaning that is distinctively social and interactive, as opposed to other more traditional types of music-related experiences, such as, say, going to a concert or chatting about your favourite album or song over a beer. Beside shouts and messages, not particularly original as such, e.g. I think that groups on Last.fm have often created very nice sort of music venues, especially when it is about getting across conventional music genres of even cross-linking media bridging different services, e.g. with ANobii+Last.fm books&music groups (or viceversa; then I noticed that some of these hangouts turned into social games, not always that funny).
Getting kicked out is not like opting out
Now that these days I’m really stopping using the service, there are a couple of phenomena that caught my attention. The first is related to the nature of this specific interruption for all of those “in all other countries”. Usually the big drama in this consumer internet world is getting people use something, more and more, or provide a decent way to opt out if they want to. I mean, the usual problem is getting users *in*, not *out*. And this is quite different from the paywall concept, where you can still have a (premium) chance to get in. On the other hand it’s reasonable to expect that this is going to happen over and over again. Service and companies can obviously fail the deliver to all of the intended markets. Yet it’s utterly frustrating from the user point of view, and surely very bad for branding.
Plus, UI habits can get very deep, and sometimes emotional
Moreover, to me some of the Last.fm UI distinctive features, namely those of the desktop player, have become such a strong element of my music listening habits that I feel like something rooted in my daily routines is being stripped away. Once you have hit the love, skip or ban buttons a few hundreds or thousands times, that’s get really deep. And it goes beyond routines. It’s well known that some of the best physical design features nurture some form of emotional attachment, as the thing becomes part of our mental landscape, and of our social realm.
Online services tend to continually evolve over time, and paradoxically keep being unstable, forcing people to change habits from time to time (at some point Last.fm redesigned its Web UI spurring waves of protests and a number of “bring back to old Last.fm” groups), except that some very characteristic aspects might continue to stay and they become the hallmark of the service, a sort of “experience anchor” that one can’t remove altogether easily. In this respect, it’s interesting to see how these emotional qualities perhaps are finally beginning to transit from the mighty world of “pure” physical objects to the relatively more fragile and liquid world of software and services. I guess that the interaction design and service design literature will have already papers and papers on the topic… just don’t know so if you have readings to recommend, please do, much appreciated.
Playing with it
Last.fm APIs have also provided a playground for many inventive minds. Last.fm has held a series of hackatons in which they invited people to build on top of the service. As for me, I have a very vivid memory of @jnkka showing his Last.fm+YouTube visualization mash-up exploring Italian oldies like Venti chilometri al giorno transformed into 00s cult pieces with the voice of Mike Patton. Go for a break with this amazing cover of Nicola Arigliano.
It was in a Bergamo hotel conference room, if I remember well; after Jukka’s speech we started chatting about the thing, sharing our common enthusiasm for the service and the inspiration it provided for new ways to listen to music and enjoy it, as for instance it somewhat could do with new and promising combinations of audio and visualizations. We moved from there to writing a project idea with a number of friends & colleagues. It was about music and media “trails”, or hyperlinks of sort, an idea still causing a bit of Vertigo to us (project paper here with all references and credits).
Research folks, look here for a moment
Even before, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I presented Last.fm as an early, brilliant and simple socially-aware content discovery case from the consumer internet at one of the large WWI R&D mobile&wireless projects meetings, raising bright gazes from the youngest guys in the workpackage team and some skepticism from others (“yeah pretty interesting but mobile is different, these Internet models are not going to change everything”). When later on Last.fm got that huge 280 millions pounds CBS cheque I had the minor satisfaction of saying, you see? it seems that they are on something relevant…
Better must come
Now of course those skeptics might come back and point to me that the Last.fm decline proves that the model is wrong. Well, I think they are still wrong. The fact is, this stuff is so still in its infancy. As said, for a Last.fm retiring back to its song-tracking scrobbling roots, there is a very lively squadron of others already battling for music streaming leadership, not to mention the likes of YouTube and others. Clearly there is a big question here on licensing costs, business sustainability, industry changes and everything, but to me it’s difficult to argue that music streaming is here to stay. All of these providers will compete based on prices, sure, but also on the service, the interaction qualities, the user experience, call it as you like. In this respect, I think Last.fm has done quite a lot.
The corporation & the startup
Oh, of course I think that all of this story can also be cited as an example of yet another brilliant startup gone down when ingested into the huge corporate world. Some coverage offers support for the argument. But who knows, it’s easy as well to bash the bad big guys. If one wants to stay away from easy generalizations, the only way to go would be proper investigation and analysis of the company history.
Best of luck to the Last.fm team
As for the change and its possible effects on the future of Last.fm, I wish all the best to the team. Honestly I think that I’ve really got a lot of music & media pleasure for a few euros (I’d have given more, that’s sure, at least something closer to what you pay for proper on demand services).
Stay calm and keep scrobbling
So, at least for me that’s the end of the unpredictable, but very often enjoyable streaming story: no more love, skip, or ban, it’s a stop — with Last.fm I mean, thanks God there are alternatives out there. For sure, Last.fm has made me addicted to 1, music streaming in subscription mode and 2, scrobbling (i.e. tracking) + tagging + getting music suggestions + enlarging my (virtual) library as core aspects of the whole experience. I suspect it happened to many others, “in all other countries” as in the lucky ones. I’ll try to see if scrobbling keeps me attached to the place. It’s like one of those old bars long gone from the fashionable list, but where you keep going, because you get used it, and you have spent endless hours in good company, and well you just like it too much. “We’re ugly, but we have the music”.
Full disclaimer: I am a very happy Ikea customer, and I have spent endless hours walking along their aisles in search of the perfect match for an usually limited budget and some Bauhaus-ish/Scandinavian piece of taste and practical use. Ok, getting closer to reality, I spent some good hours when in company (i.e. girlfriend), while I have always tended to run through when I was on my own. I am not sure about the side-effects of these meanderings on my mood and relationship health, but well, furniture is here at home, in good use. Then Ikea is a Generation X cultural icon, and I am right there. When I ran into the small illustration about the “semidisposable Swedish furniture” in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X it has been a kind of epiphany, truly a moment of self-awareness (what a self you have, one might wonder). And I guess that there is an already large body of scientific literature about Ikea and business and strategy and design and culture and everything in between, and I have not checked it, so this is just my own immediate thinking, bla bla, and that’s the end of this too long premise.
Now, you might have seen the video here below. It’s about Uppleva, the new TV and furniture offer for the living room put forward by Ikea. It has had a broad coverage, so not need to talk about it in detail etc. The video itself is a very well done piece of communication I think; it would be nice to know who has authored it as well. It’s a promotional thing but really smart in conveying the context explored by the people behind the design and the all business initiative.
I read about Uppleva somewhere when it broke the news and pinned it on my Pinboard (yeah “pin it” to me is for super-functional “anti-social bookmarking” Pinboard first, not Pinterest, with all due respect for the wonderful Pinterest). Then I noticed on Twitter that Alberto D’Ottavi had a post about it, and we had a couple of exchanges on the topic there with him @dottavi and @evilelka (in Italian, here to credit people). Alberto’s post is in Italian but see here for some recent Alberto Dottavi posts in English at Forbes; second disclaimer: Alberto is a good friend of mine).
In short, as tweeted, I might be totally wrong but I feel like there is something not quite right about Uppleva. So, discussion.
People took good notice that Uppleva is more than the separate elements that made the thing. It’s more than a TV set, and it’s more than a standard TV cabinet or table. Alberto and others called it “a solution” – which of course is something that many want, as the increasingly complex lives of us are more or less always in demand of solutions (to more or less serious problems). And yes design does not want to stop at the design of things etc. (do not open that door! I agree on the general concept, but it actually raises so many more questions).
But what kind of solution is this? I’ll stick to the words of the Uppleva girl in the video. She says that according to research done “all over the world”, people are not at ease when it comes to their TVs placement in the living room, because TVs come with too much stuff around them, first audio boxes and set-top boxes and game consolle (but she doesn’t name them) and especially CABLES (she actually screams at that point), yes the cable mess we are so used to and that now could go away with Uppleva. And it’s not just cable-concealing. Ikea has also worked on the TV software / UI and on the remote, so that the integrated blu-ray and connected / smart TV features are all better accessible and easily usable and more enjoyable and everything, which I think it’s a very sensible effort and objective.
Now, there are still two or three interesting problems here to me, somewhat related, even though they are of different nature.
Let’s talk about CABLES first, as they have an unusual prime-time in this spot. Yeah they are not nice. It’s very true that they give that messy nerdy garage-like air to everything and some might think that this tech flavor is all so passé now that TVs are just a normal presence in our home environment. Say that their tech appearance, black electronics with blinking LEDs is out of place. Well, now let’s step back from the argument that tech flavor given by cables is passé, because I might not agree (nerdy electronics is a matter of love for many, perhaps rightly so!). The point is that Uppleva comes with a number of *ports* (USB and HDMI) that, guess what, are obviously done for the damned plugs and CABLES. So the nice picture from the catalogue might disappear pretty soon… CABLES again; not easy to get rid of them, definitively (of course I think that Ikea has very sensibly produced Uppleva with all these ports — my take is just on the cables disappearing and then coming back, really much like nasty snakes).
Let’s see the remote then. Here we have another typical classic case of design chaos in the living room. Raise your hand if you have never used a slide with a bunch of remotes in your UX presentation (third disclaimer: I think I did used one of these slides more than once, I confess). But here it comes the same point. Once you have plugged your extra stuff that is not already put into the integrated (integralist?) Uppleva you are back into square (slide) one with a bunch of pretty remotes, badly designed by unaware designers (whose houses have at least one Ikea piece I bet!). Point is, remotes are just one side of a bigger game and getting rid of too many remotes is as easy as solving the all issue of interactivity and television, which is still *huge* – I mean, even Apple, kings and priests of Design and User Experience in their Most Noble Forms, are still quite working on it… (not joking on Apple btw… they do great design of course etc. but it’s a fact that with TV they still have to find success etc.).
And what about more general or abstract qualities? What about the very notion of order and cleanliness and messiness that are at stake here? Because there is it, the Uppleva girl tells us that people around the world are tired of messy living rooms, full of nasty cable snakes. And how not to note that order is such a central concept of everything designed, from architecture to the universe? (I am talking about all things/intangibles that are artificially made, no implication about the fact that the “natural” universe has been designed 😉 — Well the intriguing point is that the messiness of consumer electronics in the “home context” (scientific tone) might be at the heart of the all evolution of related technologies, something really central and inherent to the thing.
Take the argument of two top scholars. Even though I haven’t still managed to finish the reading (second confession, nth disclaimer!), Dourish and Bell recent book on ubicomp (Divining a Digital Future) outlines a vision of the real evolution of technology in which messiness is not a casual attribute or contingent nuisance. Quite the contrary actually: it stands really much as a distinctive aspect of an endeavor that progress by not planned competitive (techno-scientific I’d add) programs and additional layers, as it happens with many of the traditional infrastructures of the urban environment (think the networks of mass transportations for an analogy, or I’d say the city itself as an infrastructure for living). Can we remove this mess, if it is so rooted in the all thing? Or, how to deal with it? Perhaps the first question should be about the mess itself, its relation with technology, etc.
I’m afraid that messy ubicomp can not be easily stored in a cabinet. It doesn’t disappear in the background (or not yet), it’s not part of an integrated solution, because it can’t be (maybe it will).
One specific aspect of the latter issue is about design & industrial cycles I think. With consumer electronics and information technologies and especially everything digital, you often have cycles that are pretty fast, say 2 years and another game begins. I can’t see how it’s possible to match these cycles with those of the furniture consumption. What about my Uppleva wooden side in 2 years or 4? What will be the average TV size then? Furniture has a pretty long consumption curve, it just works for a long time until it breaks down (or one decide to dump it), while tech stuff goes up and down like on a rollercoaster.
Having said all of that, it’s a fact that Ikea has taken an interesting and new challenge here, so I’m very curious to see how the thing plays out. In the meantime, I’ll roll my cables on the bottom of my Ivar shelves.
PS if you wonder… according to Google Translate, Uppleva means “experiencing” (have to check with Swedish friends).
(note: this post has been in draft for ages but I want have to publish something quickly 🙂 in reaction to a nice tweet from Alberto D’Ottavi, very good friend of mine; so guess what this is again design and methodology and tools stuff)
Stephen Andersonis working has a new deck of cards aimed at helping idea generation and creative turns in the design process. The material comes from psychology: each card presents a principle or a model, with a nice illustration and a brief explanation, plus some associations to other concepts. It should go like this, as far as I can undestand it: you and your team are about to face a design challenge; instead of going tabula rasa and start brainstorming, you pick up one of the card, just randomly, and the proposed concept provides the starting point for a freewheeling discussion on how to apply that concept in the given context. Each proposed concept is definite enough and accompanied by exemplary cases as to make its application feasible and effective, or this is the plan anyhow.
After more than six months with not a single new line (except for shared links and the occasional publication update), one could well wonder… Too bad. Anyhow, by analogy, enjoy the taste of the original zombie cult, weird, funny and retro.
William Mitchell, MIT dean and professor, architect, urbanist and theorist, widely regarded as one of the most prominent thinker on “smart cities”, has passed away; see here the official MIT obituary.
Right now a Twitter search shows a flow of related messages. My personal impression is that Mitchell is being remembered by a really diverse big bunch of people, ranging from fellow specialists to an original crowd of professionals, scholars and students of different disciplines, all sharing the appreciation for his work and intuitions. It’s not something that I can prove with the numbers, but I feel it’s quite right. And I think it’s a mark of oustanding intellectual achievements.
Update: Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, now at Nokia, has a short but intense post in memory of Mitchell: “Bill’s optimism about technology and cities was infectious, even if (like me) you thought of yourself as the kind of person who’d been inoculated by experience against anything as uncritical as everything implied by that word.” There is an upcoming book from Adam on technology, the city and “networked urbanism” titled “The City Is Here For You To Use” (see more on Speedbird, his blog).
I first heard about Mitchell quite late; it was end of 2004 or beginning of 2005. I was attending the first public meetings of what then became the network of Living Labs, a mixed formal and informal coalition of various organizations engaged with open innovation (see the site of ENOLL, European Network of Living Labs). In that context, Mitchell was credited as the one that originally forged the concept at MIT Media Lab. I remember especially references made by Veli Pekka Niitamo (Nokia, CKIR Helsinki) and architect/professor Jarmo Suominen. See e.g. this definition reported in a presentation given in Budapest by Niitamo (I can’t publish it right away as it reports a copyright notice; likely the document has been just shared between meeting participants — can’t remember exactly):
[The Living Lab idea] [O]riginates from the MIT, Boston, Prof Wiliiam Mitchell, MediaLab and School of Architecture and city planning. ‘Living Labs as a research methodology for sensing, prototyping, validating and refining complex solutions in multiple and evolving real life contexts’.
I found the idea quite fascinating. The “living lab” image was very powerful, if anything. Perhaps it might appear as nothing big when one considers the amount of books and scholarly work produced by Mitchell, but I think that these concrete imagery is badly needed in the research and innovation discourse. It helps a lot in communicating the vision, it creates the opportunity for more articulate conversations.
At that time I also started following a bit the Living Labs community, and I tried to kick-start an interest group in Milan, but without much success (see the archived page); anyway, I haven’t been much involved in the community as such since then, even though I managed to keep some contacts alive.
Mobile business and online advertising enthusiasts have welcomed this latest deck from Mary Meeker, perhaps the most famous Wall Street Internet analyst to date (see the Wikipedia bio). I noticed it on the blog of London-based mobile agency Addictive (their weekly Mobile Fix is also worth reading).
The presentation has been given at a major industry event in New York just a couple of days ago. I read somewhere that Meeker has been often credited with an outstanding capability to capture big trends early on. So, her takes on the “unprecedented early stage growth” of the mobile Internet are of particular interest for all of those concerned with mobile things.
Meeker co-authored a seminal report on then emergent Internet industry more than 10 years ago — “The Internet report”. There is a digital version available from the Morgan Stanley web site but it comes also in book form from Amazon. The picture below is from KPCB site.
In short, the parallel drawn by Fabrizio is about the contrast between better but closed operating systems (the ones from Apple) on one side and not vertically integrated / somewhat open alternatives on the other side (Windows in the past for the PC, now Android for mobile — yesss, not open source on the MS side 😉 The end result is that Apple’s share in the PC market never reached high marks.
Any pattern recognition? I bet. That’s the PC business. One Apple operating system which was closed, and one Microsoft operating system that hardware manufacturer could adopt and ship at “low” cost (for the time). Apple was better and now they have 4% of the PC OS market share.
1, We all have heard the argument that you can run a very successful company with a small share of the market; but it can be counter-argued that the perspective of the analysis above is not focused on a single corporation as such, but on general market dynamics, which at some point in the future could indeed impact the performance of any company in the arena.
2, I know that I am mixing (real 😉 apples and pears, but the surprising NPD data are a striking confirmation of the expectations about future mobile OS diffusion expressed by the respondents to the RTM survey on which I blogged about a while ago (it was: Android first, iPhone second, but now it looks like it could be a very distant second).
Update: I noticed that Apple has publicly reacted to the NPD data claiming that “this is a very limited report on 150,000 U.S. consumers responding to an online survey”, as reported by Reuters and others. Furthermore, Apple reference to another report by IDC on global market sales for mobile vendors in 2010 Q1 highlights also how big is the difference for Nokia penetration in the US vs. the global markets. BTW, perhaps analysts shoud measure (OS) platforms and device vendors together (terminology discussions on “smartphone” vs. “mobile converged devices” might be interesting but they are not very practical).
Having been invited to give a talk about “challenges and opportunities” of digital terrestrial TV — this month in Italy many regions will start the switch-over — I tried to draw some reflections on expressions like “audience”, “users” and “people”. I think they bring many assumptions that often go unquestioned. “Audience” is TV and media jargon, “users” are those of ICT, HCI and user research, and I guess “people” are the real individuals behind the previous categories. One great reference in this respect I think is the 2009 paper on “non use” by Satchell and Dourish (see here the PDF from Dourish publications page); some more comments on the local perspective in the Italian version of this post (click Italiano on top right).
Now, the presentation was mostly a series of visuals, so there is not much sense in sharing it here. But see below the video with which I managed to entertain the conference audience 😉 — It is a 2008 viral produced by a then successful FOX talkshow; the intent was to show how “insanely difficult” had been the switch from analog to digital TV. The conference has been held in Trento, under the auspices of the Autonomous Province of Trento and the public agency Trentino In Rete, in cooperation with Create-Net (I have already worked with them).
Digital, technology, UX, design research. Reviews. Some Philosophy here and there.