Right on the money

 Mickey Mouse - Steamboat Willie

Probably the most interesting debate at the moment in digital is about DRM. Digital Rights Management – the attempt to restrict and control the distribution of copyrighted digital (entertainment) content – has a sort of farsical quality.

Typically DRM only really impacts on all the sorts of people who would never dream of copying music in the first place. All the others – the ones that scare the record companies to death, basically clued up kids – simply ignore and circumvent it.

Bill Gates (and bear in mind that Microsoft created the most widely used DRM platform outside iTunes) advised customers to buy music on CDs and rip them, because DRM was so problematic and badly implemented. In particular, we are now expecting customers to pay for something that they don’t then get to own – they can’t resell it, lend it or even store it somewhere temporarily. If their computer goes “bye bye”, the music will probably go with it.

EMI’s move to sell DRM-free music is bizarre for two reasons. Firstly because they are charging 20cents more per track which is DRM free. What signal are we sending there if not ‘pay us 20cents more and get to share it with your mates’? Secondly because it seems to have been done without any strategy for how it might be made to work. It feels incredibly last chance saloon.

Peter Gabriel has just launched a new site that hopes to solve this problem by inserting pre-roll ads on otherwise freely downloadable music. We7 gives you the track free, and if you listen to ads on the track for a few weeks, you get to download a version without ads. I love the desire to solve the problem but don’t think it will work. The problem is that these sites aren’t really competing with paid-for music, they’re competing with free music on bit torrent. The youth of today (!) simply don’t expect to pay for this stuff. It’s a big problem. As Peter Gabriel said on News 24 Click, the record companies seem to be a bit like King Canute, sitting on the beach and ordering the tide not to come in.

One commentator on this subject is Andrew Orlowski. He’s been predicting some sort of PRS-style blanket licensing of music, although this dream has only recently been shot down by the head of the Collection Societies (of PRS-style organisations around the world).

In this lecture (on the site you get the slides and an audio recording), Larence Lessig points to the fact that despite the internet we are actually less free than we ever have been with regards to what copyright law allows us to do. Some of the laws may be unenforced or unenforcable, but he argues – quite brilliantly – that rights’ owners are pushing their luck more than ever before, and that this control is actively stifling creativity.

It’s quite a long presentation (30 odd minutes) but I’d strongly recommend anyone who’s interested in this area to take the time out to give it a listen. One brilliant observation is that Walt Disney took most of his inspiration from uncopyrighted works to create everything from Steamboat Willie (the first Mickey Mouse movie, above, a take-off of Steamboat Bill with Buster Keaton) to Snow White (from the Brothers Grimm). Of course, Disney now protects copyright as its most important asset.

The solution remains elusive. It seems it’s more likely to be around the major labels disappearing and artists and consumers having more direct relationships. Will users pay for value? of course. But heaven knows if it will be in the form of a music download. With the DRM genie firmly out of the bottle, we need to find a way to pay artists for their work but perhaps not to milk the content for time immemorial as we are today. 

Atomic experiments

Atomic explosion 

It was a pleasure to go along tonight to the final event of widget week, NMK’s Widget Nation (part of the Beers and Innovation series). The panel was Fergus Burns of  Nooked, Ivan Pope of Snipperoo, Matt Looney (who was chairing) and, slightly bizarrely, me. 

It turned out to be a very different evening from the Chinwag widget event, even though Fergus was on both panels. If the downside was a smaller crowd, the upside was that the whole setting felt more intimate. There were certainly more questions, and more open discussions, without the pressure of a 200-strong audience.

While the panel did spend a lot of time on definitions, we also touched on  broader topics with plenty of detailed discussion about copyright and monetisation.

All round, an enjotable experience, so many thanks to Ian for inviting me and for keeping up the excellent work.

PS: Unlike the last one of these I was on, I had been asked to prepare a little intro to me and my views. It came out very differently on the night but here’s what I had planned to say!

I’m from Conchango. For those of you that don’t know, Conchango is one of the biggest and best digital agencies in the UK.

I work in the interactive media department of that company. Traditionally that’s meant doing a lot of big sites for big brands. More recently it has meant lots of smaller widgets and lot of proofs of concept around widgets.

Quite a few of the people who are here tonight (including Fergus in particular) were at the Chinwag event last week in a slightly less salubrious pub about 500 meters away! Like all of these events we ended up in this strange quagmire where everyone had been talking about widgets for some time with relative confidence before some one put their hand up and asked what a widget was.

This would have been less worrying if they’d got a straight answer from the panel but there still seemed to be a fair amount of confusion.

One audience member suggested that widgets were the “bumper stickers of the internet”. Well I’m sure that’s a great definition of something, but certainly not of widgets.

While we try and define widgets using metaphor and simile, we’ll become unstuck. Widgets are a symptom, in my view, of a much broader shift in how we consume information and services.

We can call the new paradigm “atomization” and say that it is about streams of content being delivered seamlessly into new and alien environments – like the adwords that sprouted overnight onto just about every surface of the internet in 2003.

We could talk about the new paradigm being about personalization, users can now take just the content they want and see it just where they want it.

But the real shift is deeper than that. It is the resolution of all of the systems integration problems which made it difficult to deliver truly customer focused website solutions the first time round in “Web 97”. RSS does bits of that, and so does XML. Although personally I think it’s crazy that the public to know about RSS. It is like them knowing about SQL and C#.

RSS is just the tip of it, of course. For an industry that normally can’t agree on anything, it’s amazing that there are now shared paradigms in webservices, in APIs. There are standardized design patterns for cross site interfaces of all types. And this is why we now have mashups all over the place – both very publicly on the web, where you can see them, and more quietly in lots of back offices, where you can’t.

Widgets are a symptom of that. For a developer of a large website widgets are a way to get their services out there (in this respect content is a service). And that is why they are often seen as little more than affiliate marketing schemes; designed to return traffic to the mothership

From a pure developer’s point of view, widgets are a great way to expose one webservice or a number of webservices to users. They’re also often the easiest coding project in the end-of-year computer-science project.

But widgetisation isn’t the end game. It’s the middle game.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Last FM / MySpace widget. You go to Last FM and type in a few details and WHAM, they go and stick a load of javascript onto your myspace page, to make it look even uglier. Think the Last FM / Facebook integration will look like that? I don’t. I think it’ll be properly integrated to create a good user experience.

As with all significant technological improvements, users will adopt it when they hardly even know they’re doing it. We can’t very well make that claim now for adding widgets in Vista. It’s easier on Live.com or iGoogle but is still not easy enough for my mum.

So many widgets are born in the name of “branded utility” (the idea that brands should “do something” for their customers). But what good is a widget with all the utility in the world if only the uber-geeks can get the bloody thing working.

To install a third party widget on my desktop the other day for Nike + ipod, I had to agree to seven Vista security warnings- each with a bigger and more inflamed error message. And that was after spending 5 minutes finding the bugger.

Even then it didn’t work very well. No branded utility there.

Apart from poor usability (and to a certain extent, findability), what else will limit the spread of distributed technologies, not just widgets but general integration across systems and desktops? Well content owners are going to have to find a way to let go a bit, and yet still keep their eyes on revenue streams. If this means advertiser funded content, then we’ll have to find a way to make that acceptable. If it’s micropayments, then we’ll need much lower barriers to entry.

We hear the cries of foul play from Newspaper owners like the Telegraph about RSS content devaluing or ripping off their output. These sectors should look at what’s happening to music now and for the last couple of years. Don’t fight the tide, find a way to profit from what consumers want, because they will get it in the end.

Taking the broader picture of data and service integration, if we look at the medium term we’ll be seeing plenty of plays in Software as a Service from people like Google and Microsoft, and webservice integration will be a battleground, not because customers want to tailor the interface themselves or geek around with mashups, but because they just want it richer and more fulfilling.

On the flipside the idea of ‘download’ will become fairly meaningless with the speed of connection and the ability to install light, protected applications within the new operating system frameworks, or even straight within browsers will seem like a good, helpful thing for users. And we’ll start to see rich interface applications which again will be fully integrated but don’t just reside in the sidebar – ‘widgets’ plus.

My favorite prediction du jour is not just a facebook widget for my mobile phone, but a facebook app for my phone that replaces it’s current, annoying interface with one that tells me the status of whoever I’m about to call, their location and their last change of favourite film and all that. Think what we can do when we start thinking seriously about integrating these services quietly at the back-end rather than painfully on our desktops, phones and browsers.

Would you like widgets with that?

Lots of widgets (Mac OSX) 

Tonight’s media widgetised was the fourth in the Chinwag live series of events. This one is part of a broader collection of discussion groups about the effects of widgets, and I’m delighted to be speaking at the next one, being organised by Ian at NMK and Beers & Innovation.

Staging was massively improved but more importantly we were also treated to an exciting panel and an engaged audience. Steve Bowbrick kept things moving along swiftly and Fergus Burns of Nooked and Kaj Häggman of Widsets both had massive depth of experience.

I suppose it’s unsuprising that there was a few detours into the definition of the term. We ended up with the “content or service atomised and made available for sharing”, as well as “website peel offs” which is a nice take. Interesting discussions too about the common runtime environments and sandboxes that are coming from Microsoft and Adobe.

Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about this year being the year of the widget. If that means anything, we’re going to have to work out what these things are for and how they provide business value as well as consumer value.

The response to the question about whether widgets were just complex affiliate marketing wasn’t brilliantly complete but three basic models did get talked about in a variety of terms

  1. Widgets as affiliate-style traffic generation, allowing relevance and atomisation but returning users to a base website
  2. Widgets as branded utility
  3. Widgets as the whole experience, just in the wrong place (as it were)

(I’d add a fourth, widgets as just a subset of the broader church of mash-ups, SaaS and web-service integration) 

One thing irked a little. The panel as a whole and the chair in particular were very scathing about widgets on mobiles, the claim being that the networks have excessively locked down handsets (preventing widgets) in order to protect revenues.

Well, I’m not saying networks don’t think about protecting revenue streams but I think this is exceptionally over simplistic, especially when networks could benefit enormously from the traffic such tools would generate. For all the that the widget-merchants on the panel talked about the importance of user-focus and usability, no one could see the problem with opening up mobile phones to the random and unpredictable behaviour of unpoliced widgets. Widsets may well provide the decent security and usability framework that is required. The alternative is an unthinkable security and usability nightmare as Andrew Orlowski points out here. How exactly will Vodafone or Orange’s oursourced call centres handle calls about a malfunctioning widget!!