Technology Cannot Make a Platform, But It Does Help

The web literally exists to share content. The first web browser was also a web editor. And ever since then, programmers have been working on ways to make publishing easier and better. As such, there’s no shortage of existing technologies that a new platform can build off of.

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Sonic Mania and the Triumph of Fan Culture

The livestream was cutting in and out. There was a constant buzzing that replaced most of the audio. And instead of a trailer, the in-house audience saw a brief Sonic Mania logo followed by a Mac desktop. But after many fits and starts, the trailer finally played.

There’s a level of excitement around Sonic Mania that Sega hasn’t seen in roughly five years, the time since Sonic Generations was released. Fans are excited about the chance to play a new game in the vein of the classic Sega Genesis games many grew up playing. Polygon described it as “finding a long-lost Sonic title from the mid–90’s.”

But what makes Sonic Mania any different from previous Sonic games, introduced with much hype and fanfare only to be revealed as spectacularly mediocre at best? After all, this is the same company that has had many attempts to “reboot” the franchise or “return it to its roots,” often with lackluster (if not horrible) results. Is the anticipation justified this time?

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. But this time, Sega’s investing in the right chefs. And before I try to string this metaphor out too far, let’s talk about The Avengers.

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The Lines Worth Reading Between

Apple’s latest earnings have an interesting note: their research spending is the highest it’s been since 2006.

Research and development is a fancy business way of saying “doing new things.” When my previous employer entered the great recession of 2008, the plan to weather the storm was to double-down on R&D. By investing in new products when the market was slow, the company would have those products ready when the market was ready to buy. Our part of the company–tasked with entering a new market for the company–was one of the few areas allowed to hire new employees.

The economy’s recovery in general is up for debate, but the advice is sound: research and development is a key investment for any company, particularly product-based companies (which any software company is, SaaS not withstanding). It’s almost too obvious: as annoying as constant calls for Apple to release a new product are, they do have a point. New products and innovations are the lifeblood of these companies. Which is why every company invests in research and development.

To provide some context, simple research is a constant cost. A company sets aside a certain amount every year to pay a certain number of people to spend a certain amount of time exploring new ideas. Google is (or at least was) famous for its “20% time” that allows any engineer in the company to spend time exploring. Microsoft has an entire division devoted to exploration. Apple obviously has its own research and development; they would be unable to update their products annually without it.

When a project is close to completion, things change. Completing a project means investing in quality assurrance and testing. It means finalizing all of the little details that make the difference between a “good” product and a “great” one. What was once a fixed cost suddenly becomes more variable.

Which brings me back to the inital observation: the last time Apple’s R&D spending was this high was in 2006. Apple’s most important product of the last 10 years–the iPhone–was introduced in 2007.

By now there’s too much smoke for there not to be some kind of watch-like device from Apple, most likely to be introduced this Tuesday. And given Apple’s increase in research spending, it’s going to be a big deal.

Personally, I can’t wait. You?

The New Television

It was a little over a year ago that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings laid out their strategy:

“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

I would argue that this has happened. They’ve surpassed HBO in number of (paying) subscribers, essentially proving the market for streaming internet television separate from a traditional pay TV (cable, satellite, IPTV) subscription.

So let’s have some fun. If we take the assumption that television will move online at face value,1 what options could a television viewer have 5-10 years from now?

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Why Apple Should Not Buy Nintendo

They really shouldn’t. I want to set expectations up front, and when you’re talking about either Apple or Nintendo, people (myself included) are going to have Opinions. But let’s back up a bit first.

The ideal

A good merger is one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By that, I mean that the two companies coming together amplify each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.1 The best mergers will emphasize the second more than the first.

Let’s look at the Apple-NeXT merger in 1996 as an example of a successful merger. NeXT was a small company that made what they considered to be the best operating system in the world, NeXTSTEP. Their computer, the NeXTcube, was used for a variety of advanced computer uses, most notably by Tim Berners-Lee to create the first web server and web browser. They also had Steve Jobs, arguably one of the best business leaders in the industry. By 1996, though, they had dropped their hardware division and were only selling their software to run on conventional PCs as a replacement for Windows.

Apple at this time was in trouble. They made what they considered to be the best computers in the world, but they were lagging behind in the software race. They had tried and failed to develop their own modern operating system, and were in serious danger of losing the personal computer market to Windows 95. Their management was unfocused and unable to bring the different factions within Apple to work together.

Apple and NeXT shared the common goal of making the best products they could. NeXT had a solid operating system but couldn’t convince people to give up Windows to use it. Apple had strong hardware but their software hadn’t evolved enough to take advantage of that hardware. At its core, the merger brought the two companies together on their common goal, with Apple supplying the hardware NeXT needed and NeXT supplying the software and management Apple needed.

The end result? The immediate change with Apple was the influx of good management from NeXT, particularly Steve Jobs. The software team at Apple immediately began work on newer versions of the existing Mac OS (versions 8 and 9) that bought Apple enough time to get the new, NeXTSTEP-based Mac OS out the door as Mac OS X. The advanced operating system not only improved performance on Apple’s existing hardware, but allowed them to switch to a completely different type of hardware when they needed to. On top of that, OS X was versatile enough that Apple would eventually use it to power the iPhone and iPad.

Over 15 years later, that $400 million investment is still paying off. That’s a good merger.

The reality

So where are Apple and Nintendo today? What are their strengths and weakness that would make-or-break our hypothetical merger?

The Apple of today prides itself on a–dare I say it–magical marriage of hardware and software. The design ideal is that when you see their work, whether hardware or software, it is beautiful; but when you need to actually do work, the hardware and software become almost invisible compared to what you are doing.

However, Apple has traditionally not been good at games. Not many people know of their attempt at making a game console with Bandai, and for good reason: it wasn’t good. Gaming on the Mac has always been a second-class citizen, and companies like Valve have only begun targeting the Mac in the past few years. Games are very popular on iOS devices, but those games are not significantly tied to iOS itself. As Ben Thompson writes:

  • Games take over the whole screen; this means that tailoring a game to fit a particular platform’s look and feel isn’t important
  • There is an entire industry devoted to providing cross-platform compatibility from day one. Most game developers are targeting game engines such as Unity, not iOS or Android. This is acceptable because of point one

Nintendo is committed to making the best gaming experiences possible, then making them better. In the past, this has led them to create some of the most beloved franchises in the video game world, including Super Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and Pokémon. In recent years, this has meant pursuing new hardware: not only the gyroscope for the Wii and the touchscreen for the DS but also things like the DK Bongos for the GameCube, the microphone for the DS, and the stereo camera on the 3DS. For every hardware feature Nintendo releases, there is a game like Wii Sports, WarioWare, or Donkey Konga designed specifically to get the most fun from that feature.

The current Nintendo is a victim of a changing landscape. They lost mindshare and marketshare of hobbyist2 gamers to Sony and Microsoft, and their (smart) response was to pursue the mainstream market with the Wii and DS. This strategy paid off until iOS and Android devices began capturing mindshare and marketshare in the mainstream with free-to-play casual games among other benefits. Their efforts to woo both markets with the Wii U and 3DS have been decent, but some worry it won’t be enough to keep the company around.

The dream

So what happens if we bring the two companies together? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Apple uses some of its cash horde and buys Nintendo outright.

From day one, Apple has a large library of exclusive games for its platform, games that are fun and that people want to play; and Nintendo is essentially guaranteed a place in the new smartphone world. Nintendo can, with some effort, create versions of classic games from its library for iOS, accessable to a massive audience that would easily pay the current asking prices of $3-5 each. These games would obviously not be available for any other smartphone or tablet platform, increasing the value of iOS both to consumers who want to play Nintendo games and to developers who want to reach those consumers.

Going forward, Nintendo can help Apple to move its platform forward much like they have with their own platforms in the past. Possibilities dreamed up by the iOS platform team can be made concrete by Nintendo’s game team. Both companies thrived in the past by pushing the integration of hardware and software, and having both companies push each other could bring out the absolute best in both. If Apple does release an app-capable Apple TV as rumored, a library of Nintendo games would only help sell the device.

Let’s not leave hardware out of the equation. A Jony Ive-designed game console would be great for publicity, but Nintendo could gain more immediate benefits from Apple’s supply chain. Apple has incredible buying power when it comes to quality components, especially solid-state storage and touch screens. A (relatively) quick update to the 3DS and Wii U touch screens would elevate the quality of those devices, and that is an area that Apple has made itself an expert in.

This, of course, assumes there are no cultural issues with the merger. Part of what made the Apple-NeXT merger so successful was the understanding that NeXT management was essentially taking over Apple. If the hardware or software teams at the two companies aren’t able to find common ground with each other, the best talent could walk out the door and the resulting company would be far worse off than either company would have been separate. This could be a moot point; desperation on either side has a way of forcing compromise where it wasn’t thought possible.

But that’s not why I think it wouldn’t work.

The problem

The best mergers amplify shared strengths and compensate for weaknesses. The worst mergers amplify shared weaknesses. And Apple and Nintendo share a similar weakness: online services.

One of Apple’s biggest competetors moving forward is Google. Google was born on the web, and as such, Google understands the web on a near-instinctual level. Servers talking to servers talking to phones is a beginning requirement for a product, not an idea tacked on halfway through the process. More importantly, they know how people use the web. They know how many people leave if search slows down less than half a second. They know how to give users email, file storage, online document editing, and keep it all in sync. Apple’s previous online service, MobileMe, was not well received. Their new service, iCloud, is an attempt to modernize the service and make it more reliable, but the reality falls short of the ideal.

One of Nintendo’s biggest competitors moving forward is Microsoft. The Xbox is a powerful game machine on its own, but its biggest strength is the Xbox Live service. Every Xbox Live game ties into the same online infrastructure, allowing individual players to define their friends once (using easy-to-remember names) and play with them in every game. This is something Microsoft has fought for from the beginning of the service. Most importantly, the interactions and purchases in Xbox Live are defined around people. Contrast this with Nintendo, which bases its interactions around devices. Social connections are made by exchanging device-specific friend codes which have all the joy and personality of 16-digit phone numbers. Purchases and friend lists are device-dependent, so replacing a console outside of a warranty repair means losing your entire library of downloaded games.

Knowing all this, how appealing does it sound to know that the company that brought you MobileMe is merging with the company that brought you friend codes?

To be fair, both Apple and Nintendo are learning in this area. Apple’s iCloud service is getting better, but it will be some time before developers (and their users) begin to trust the service. Nintendo is slowly making improvements to their online service, but they would still rather shut down a service than see it misused.

Both companies, still approach the internet the same way they approach products: slowly and deliberately. This often leads to them missing a crucial component of what their customers actually want. A merger would make this worse, not better, as companies (just like people) lean on what they know during times of transition. A merger would deny both companies the opportunity to truly learn and understand online services in the modern, connected world.

Which stinks because I really want to play Pokémon on my iPhone.

  1. It’s a lot like marriage in that regard, but that’s a topic for another day. 

  2. Some places call them “hardcore” or “serious” gamers, but the basic idea is people who pursue gaming like most people pursue hobbies: investing more time and money than average and knowing more about the subject than most people. 

There’s a Difference, Guys.

Apple didn’t sue Samsung because they had a touchscreen phone. They didn’t sue because of rounded rectangles. They didn’t sue because of icons arranged in a grid.

Palm added all those together to get WebOS, which was easily distinguishable from iOS.

Microsoft added all those together (save rounded corners) to get Windows Phone 7, which was easily distinguishable from iOS.

Google added all those together and made the Nexus series of Android-powered phones that were easily distinguishable from iOS-powered iPhones.

Samsung added all those things together and arranged them to be as similar to the iPhone as possible. They ignored advice from Google warning them not to do so. Instead of pouring creative effort into improving on what iOS had to offer, they focused on copying what iOS had to offer.

That is why Apple took then to court, and that is why they lost.

File Sharing Rant

I’ve largely taken a back seat on the whole file sharing debate. However, now that I actually have a self-published work I feel it is time for me to make a public stance. Here goes…

I’m going to have to agree with John Gruber’s assessment of Richard Stallman’s latest essay:

I waver between rolling my eyes at Stallman’s kookiness and admiring his singleminded determination.

In my case, however1, Stallman’s kookiness extends to a large portion of the Free Software Foundation’s philosophies. Above all else, the FSF champions the right to modify and redistribute software. I have no problem with this goal as I will often promote a free or open source program (which apparently are not the same) when it is a viable alternative to a commercial program. I use WordPress instead of ExpressionEngine. I use The GIMP instead of Photoshop. But I use Safari instead of Firefox because I find Safari to be faster on my Mac. In my case, I am willing to give up a “freedom” that I don’t really use (the ability to modify the source code) in exchange for a more pleasant computing experience.

It is Richard Stallman’s opinion on creative works that I find unacceptable2. Never mind that because not all Creative Commons licenses are free he refuses to endorse any of them (he, of course, suggests the GPL). What is dangerous is that he equates creative works such as movies and music with information and file sharing with the general term “sharing.” In doing so, Stallman shows his background as a computer scientist. A program is written to solve a problem; the FSF’s arguments that there are more benefits to releasing the source are valid here largely because the program can benefit from the scientific method. Information wants to be free, and the solution to the problem (the program) is simply another form of information.

A creative work, however, is not simply information. It does not consist of simple facts or present a solution to an established problem. It is, when done properly, a reflection of the author or artist’s heart. It can be anything from a commentary on society to a rewrite of a poorly done movie to an attempt to reconcile temporal existence with eternal life. As such, creative works cannot be held to the same standards as computer programs, and vice versa.

Equating creative works to information reduces the author’s creative expression to its digital format, an act of language that cheapens the work even more than the term content. And distributing digital creative works over file sharing is not simply sharing, it is copying. Like anything distributed over the internet, the digital information is copied, not moved, from one computer to another. Loaning a CD or a book to a friend is sharing, since while one is in possession of it the other is not. File sharing creates copies, so that both are in possession at the same time. While not necessarily the same as theft, this cannot, by any reasonable definition, be considered sharing.

This is not to say I am against file sharing as a whole. There are hundreds of out-of-print and hard-to-find works that can benefit from file sharing in order to preserve their value to society. Also, it can be used by lesser known artists to encourage the viral word-of-mouth growth that is essential to growing a fanbase. This is the aim of Creative Commons, and I am disappointed that a man committed to “freedom” refuses to acknowledge the benefits of such a system.

1 John Gruber may agree with me, but I won’t presume to speak for him.

2 Yes, it’s a Wayback Machine link. The post as linked from the original slashdot article no longer exists.

Scientific Voting

Comments like this chicken-or-crap essay pointed out by John Gruber notwithstanding, I’m still on the fence to a certain degree about this election. I’ve appreciated John McCain’s willingness to go against the party establishment the past few years, a reason I’ll be voting for our current senator as well. On the other hand, Barack Obama appears to have a solid technology platform and it’s undoubtable that he’s inspired a lot of people to take interest in politics.

At the end of the day, I want to make an informed decision and choose the candidate that aligns most closely with what I believe. Now, my most closely held beliefs may or may not be held by the candidates; in today’s political environment it’s almost impossible to tell what beliefs are genuine. (Not completely impossible, mind you, but those guys don’t typically win, endorsements or not.) As far as political beliefs go, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell just what I believe. Less government spending is good, abortion is bad, morals in general are kinda… not sure. After this policy and that boycott, I’m wondering how right the “Christian right” really is.

Sounds like a job for… a political quiz! Or rather, several. First stop is The Compass, a several-part quiz that shows where you are on a two-dimensional graph that compares social and financial issues. The postmodernist in me is actually quite proud of my position, but other people are not impressed. And it doesn’t help me pick a candidate.

Enter Glassbooth (found via TechCrunch). They’re supposedly nonpartisan and nonbiased, and I’m inclined to believe it. You first pick your most important issues and then rate your position. What I like most about it is that you have the option of remaining neutral on an issue if you so choose. It then compares how you feel about the issues with how the candidates feel about the same issues, and it gives you quotes and voting records to back it up.

So who am I voting for? Should I really have wondered in the first place? Actually, I’ve got more in common with Obama than the Libertarian candidate. Wonder how I would have compared with Ron Paul…