Category Archives: ipod

design proposal for ipod-based e-book reader

I got an email the other day from the fellow who made this: an interesting proposal and, incidentally, a clever use of Google SketchUp for modeling gadgets.

The central thesis is that, unlike the Sony Librie or other tablets currently available, a dual-screen reader with a dock for the iPod is the most viable design for a) popularizing the use of an ebook reader and b) streamlining the use of an ebook store.

He’s interested in getting feedback so leave your two cents.

jonas mekas has a plan

Jonas Mekas was mentioned in passing on this blog last week, which seems fortuitous timing. Mekas has just announced (by video, of course) a plan to release a short film every day next year. All will be formatted for the video iPod; however, video formatted this way doesn’t need a video iPod for playback.

jonas mekas playing the accordianSome background: Jonas Mekas is primarily an experimental film maker, having used film to document his life for the past fifty years. Along with Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty is one of the twentieth century’s great works of biography. He’s one of the most respected Lithuanian poets of the last century. And he’s also been a central force for avant-garde film culture in New York. Anthology Film Archives, his current cinema, presents an incredibly wide range of historical and contemporary film. It’s one of the great things about living in New York: the vast majority of what’s shown there simply isn’t distributed, and is inaccessible any other way.

Mekas has been taken in by the Maya Stendhal Gallery, which is currently hosting an exhibit of forty of his recent films (“recent” defined rather loosely). I spent an hour or so at the gallery yesterday; in the darkened space, flat-screen monitors present Mekas’s films on repeat. The selection of films at Maya Stendhal is tilted to the celebrity: there’s Andy Warhol at work, Salvador Dalí and Gala clowning about with broken-down cars somewhere in Chelsea, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in in Montréal, Jackie Onassis at home, the elderly Carl Jung carving stones.

velvet underground dancingIt’s a nice experience, but it’s difficult to actually watch the films there: the monitors are installed in series, so while watching one you can’t help but be distracted by what’s going on to the left and right. Mekas’s private epiphanies (Stan Brakhage making an enormous pile of pancakes for his children, for example) are interrupted by famous faces. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this exhibit isn’t actually going on in the gallery itself: the Maya Stendhal gallery is presenting the forty films online for public downloading. Currently, they’re available in iPod format – 320 x 240 pixel QuickTime files – but a few are available in high resolution: I downloaded a 665Mb file of the Velvet Underground’s first public appearance, at a psychiatrist’s convention in 1965. This is DVD quality: 720 x 576 pixels.

george maciunas, yoko ono, and john lennon on a fluxus cruise up the hudsonMekas’s films aren’t free, but they’re relatively cheap: $3.99 for iPod quality, $6.99 for high resolution. The money isn’t going straight to Mekas: it’s going through the gallery. But there’s something that feels exciting about this: an artist taking over the reigns of distribution. This isn’t work that the general public is interested in; neither the artist nor the audience would be well-served by a regular distributor. Here there’s a more direct connection. Mekas curates an enormous library of film at Anthology Film Archives; it would be a tremendous achievement if that could be made available online.

Mekas’s upcoming project to make a film a day and present it online is also interesting as an experiment in networked culture. Working online will create a much faster feedback loop for Mekas: there will almost certainly be a much greater role for the audience, not dissimilar to what we’ve been examining with our Thinking Out Loud series.

an encyclopedia in my pocket

A while back – last March – there was a great deal of excitement over Wikipodia, an open source project to install Wikipedia on an iPod. Wanting a portable Wikipedia, I installed Linux on my brand new video iPod, a necessary prerequisite, but was disappointed to discover that Wikipodia only worked on older iPods with smaller screens. I’ve waited for an update to Wikipodia since then, but the project seems to have gone dark. Probably Wikipodia wouldn’t have been an ideal solution anyway: it requires you to reboot your iPod into Linux whenever you want to look at Wikipedia. You could have an iPod to listen to music or a Wikipedia to read, but not both at the same time.

ipodwikipedia.jpgBut a partial fulfillment for my desire to have a portable Wikipedia has come along: Matt Swann has posted a script that puts some of the Wikipedia on an iPod, in iPod Notes format. While it’s much simpler than installing a new operating system on your iPod, it’s still not for everybody – it requires using the OS X command line, although there’s an Automator-based version that’s a bit simpler. (PC versions would seem to be available as well, though I don’t know anything about them – check the comments here.) If you’re willing to take the plunge, you can feed the script a page from Wikipedia and it will start filling up your iPod Notes directory with that page and all the pages linked from it. I started from the entry for book; the script downloaded this, then it downloaded the entries for paper, parchment, page, and so on. When it finished those, it downloads all the pages linked from the linked pages, and it keeps doing this until it runs out of space: regardless of iPod size, you can only have 1000 notes in the Notes directory. This doesn’t meant that you get 1000 articles. Because each iPod note can only be 4 kb long, entries that are longer than 4000 characters are split into multiple notes; thus, I wound up with only 216 entries.

Though 216 entries is a tiny subset of Wikipedia, it’s still an interesting experience having a chunk of an encyclopedia in your pocket. What I find most captivating about approaching Wikipedia this was is that I found myself browsing interesting sounding articles rather than searching them directly. The iPod doesn’t have much input functionality: while you can scroll through the list of entries, you can’t search for a subject, as you usually would. (And with only 216 entries, searching would be of limited utility at best. The Wikipodia project promises full text searching, though text entry is a difficult proposition when you only have five keys to type with.) While you can scroll through the list of entries to find something that looks interesting, you’re likely to get sidetracked by something along the way. So you browse.

monotyping.jpgTo my mind, browsing is one of the primary virtues of a print encyclopedia: the arbitrary logic of alphabetization makes for a serendipitous reading experience, and you often come away from a print encyclopedia having read something in a nearby article that you didn’t intend to read. This is something that’s generally lost with online reference works: links between articles are supposed to make logical sense. This is also a reflection of our reading behavior: if I search for “book” in Wikipedia, I’m probably looking for something in particular. If I’m interested in book conservation issues, I might click on the link for slow fires. If I’m interested in some other area related to books – how to make vellum, for example – I almost certainly wouldn’t. Instead I’d click on the vellum link and keep looking from there. We tend to be goal-directed when we using Wikipedia online: it’s like going to a library and finding the specific book you want. Wandering in a library is an equally valid behavior: that’s what happens here.

Because you’re not looking for a particular piece of information, you do find yourself reading in a different way. Search-based reading is a different style of reading than browsing, which is slower and more casual. This has a downside when applied to Wikipedia: the often atrocious style is more glaring when you’re reading for pleasure rather than reading for information. And an offline Wikipedia inhibits some of the new reading habits Wikipedia encourages. I caught myself wondering how biased the declarations of the Shāhnāma‘s originality w/r/t other national epics were; without recourse to page histories and talk pages I’m left to wonder until I find myself with an Internet connection.

book-bookwhite.jpgThe experience of reading Wikipedia this way isn’t perfect: many links don’t work, and some articles seem to arbitrarily end, some in mid-sentence, some in mid-word. You also realize how many links in Wikipedia aren’t useful at all. If I’m interested in books as a concept, I’m probably not interested in 1907 as a concept, though that is the year that Marc Aurel Stein found The Diamond Sutra, the oldest known block-printed book. Marc Aurel Stein or The Diamond Sutra might be interesting subjects to a book-inclined browser; 1907 isn’t as likely. What you get on your iPod is an arbitrary selection. But there’s something very pleasant about this: it’s nice to have the chance to learn about both Neferirkare Kakai and the Rule of St. Benedict on the subway.

phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy

Since the release of the Sony Reader, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between digital text and digital music, and why an ebook device is not, as much as publishers would like it to be, an iPod. This is not an argument over the complexity of literature versus the complexity of music, rather it is a question of interfaces. It seems to me that reading interfaces are much more complicated than listening ones.
sony-reader.jpg ipod.jpg The iPod is, as skeptics initially complained, little more than a hard drive with earphones. But this is precisely its genius: the simplicity of its interface, the sleekness of its form, the radical smallness of its immense storage capacity. All these allow us to spend less time sorting through our music — lugging around stacks of albums, ejecting and inserting tapes or discs — and more time listening to it.
A sequence of smooth thumb gestures leads to the desired track. Once the track has commenced, the device is tucked away into a pocket or knapsack, and the music takes over. That’s the simplicity of the iPod. Reading devices, on the other hand — whether paperback, web page or specialized ebook hardware — are felt and perceived throughout the reading experience. The text, the visual design, and the reader’s movement through them are all in constant interaction. So the device necessarily must be more complex.
In other words, a book — even a digital one — is something you have to “handle” in order to process its contents. The question Sony should be asking is what handling a book should mean in a digital, networked context? Obviously, it’s something very different than in print.
Another thing about portable music players from Walkmen to iPods is that music, in its infinite variety, can be delivered to the senses through a uniform channel: from the player, through the wire, to the ear. Again, with books it’s not so simple. Different books have different looks, and with good reason: they are visual media. This is something we tend to forget because we so strongly associate books with intangible things like stories and abstract ideas. But writing is a manipulation of visual symbols, and reading is something we do with our eyes. So well-considered visual design, of both documents and devices, is crucial — as much for electronic documents as for print ones.
Publishers want their ipod, a simple gadget locked into a content channel (like iTunes), but they’re going to have to do a lot better than the Sony Reader. To date, the web has done a much better job at fostering a wide variety of reading forms, primitive as they may still be, than any specialized ebook device or ebook format. A hard drive with ear phones may work for music, but a hard drive (and a pitifully small one at that) with an e-ink screen won’t be sufficient for books.

phony reader

sony reader in hand.jpg What to say about this thing? After multiple delays, it’s finally out, and in time for the holidays. David Rothman, as usual, has provided exhaustive and entertaining coverage over at Teleread (here, here and here), and points to noteworthy reviews elsewhere.
It’s no secret that our focus here at the Institute isn’t on the kind of ebooks that simply transfer printed texts to the screen. We’re much more interested in the new kinds of reading and writing that become possible in a digital, network environment. But even measuring Sony’s new device against its own rather pedestrian goals — replicating the print reading experience for the screen with digital enhancements — I still have to say that the Reader fails. Here are the main reasons why:
1) Replicating the print reading experience?
E-ink is definitely different than reading off of an LCD screen. The page looks much more organic and is very gentle on the eyes, though the resolution is still nowhere near that of ink on paper. Still, e-ink is undeniably an advance and it’s exciting to imagine where it might lead.
Other elements of print reading are conjured less successfully, most significantly, the book as a “random access” medium. Random access means that the reader has control over their place in the book, and over the rate and direction at which they move through it. The Sony Reader greatly diminishes this control. Though it does allow you to leave bookmarks, it’s very difficult to jump from place to place unless those places have been intentionally marked. The numbered buttons (1 through 10) directly below the screen offer offer only the crudest browsing capability, allowing you to jump 10, 20, 30 percent etc. through the text.
Another thing affecting readability is that action of flipping pages is slowed down significantly by the rearrangement of the e-ink particles, producing a brief but disorienting flash every time you change your place. Another important element of print reading is the ability to make annotations, and on the Sony Reader this is disabled entirely. In fact, there are no inputs on the device at all — no keyboard, no stylus — apart from the basic navigation buttons. So, to sum up, the Sony Reader is really only intended for straight-ahead reading. Browsing, flipping and note-taking, which, if you ask me, are pretty important parts of reading a book, are disadvantaged.
2) Digital enhancements?
Ok, so the Sony Reader doesn’t do such a great job at replicating print reading, but the benefits of having your books in digital form more than make up for that, right? Sadly, wrong. The most obvious advantage of going digital is storage capacity, the ability to store an entire library on a single device. But the Sony Reader comes with a piddling 64 megabytes of memory. 64! It seems a manufacturer would have to go out of its way these days to make a card that small. The new iPod Shuffle is barely bigger than a quarter and they start at one gigabyte. Sony says that 64 MB will store approximately 80 books, but throw a few images and audio files in there, and this will dramatically decrease.
So, storage stinks, but electronic text has other advantages. Searchability, for example. True! But the Sony Reader software doesn’t allow you to search texts (!!!). I’d guess that this is due to the afore-mentioned time lags of turning pages in e-ink, and how that would slow down browsing through search results. And again, there’s the matter of no inputs — keyboard or stylus — to enter the search queries in the first place.
Fine. Then how about internet connectivity? Sorry. There’s none. Well then what about pulling syndicated content from the web for offline reading, i.e. RSS? You can do this, but only barely. Right now on the Sony Connect store, there are feeds available from about ten popular blogs and news sources. Why so few? Well, they plan to expand that soon, but apparently there are tricky issues with reformatting the feeds for the Reader, so they’re building up this service piecemeal, without letting web publishers post their feeds directly. Last night, I attended a press event that Sony held at the W Hotel at Union Square, NYC, where I got to play around with one of the devices hooked up to the online store. I loaded a couple of news feeds onto my Reader and took a look. Pretty ghastly. Everything is dumped into one big, barely formatted file, where it’s not terribly clear where one entry ends and another begins. Unrendered characters float here and there. They’ve got a long way to go on this one.
Which leads us to the fundamental problem with the Sony Reader, or with any roughly equivalent specialized e-reading device: the system is proprietary. Read David Rothman’s post for the technical nuances of this, but the basic fact is that the Sony Reader will only allow you to read ebooks that have been formatted and DRMed specifically for the Sony Reader. To be fair, it will let you upload Microsoft Word documents and unencrypted PDFs, but for any more complex, consciously designed electronic book, you’ve got to go through Sony via the Sony Connect store. Sony not only thinks that it can get away with this lock-in strategy but that, taking its cue from the iPod/iTunes dynamo, this is precisely the formula for success. But the iPod analogy is wrong for a number of reasons, biggest among them that books and music are very different things. I’ll address this in another post shortly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ebooks are a dead end. Will it be convenient some day to be able to read print books digitally? Certainly. Will the Sony Reader find a niche? Maybe (but Sony Ericsson’s phones look far more dynamic than this feeble device). Is this the future of reading and writing? I don’t think so. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring in a much bigger and more mysterious plot that is still unfolding.
See also:
phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy
phony bookstore
an open letter to claire israel

“i photograph to remember” moves to the ipod

Pedro Meyer, founder of ZoneZero, the pioneering photography site, just wrote to say that he’s working on an Ipod version of I Photograph to Remember, the cdrom he made in the early 90s. It’s a deeply moving portrait documenting the last years of his parents’ life. Pedro invites readers of if:book to download a beta version HERE. He’s hoping for feedback so please send comments.
I thought it might be interesting to describe the debut of IPTR at the Digital World Conference in Beverly Hills in 1991. To appreciate this you have to understand that at that time no one had ever really seen anything on a computer screen with emotional content. The audience consisted of hyperactive, mostly male, senior executives who normally couldn’t sit still or be quiet for five minutes. But for thirty-two minutes, from the moment the lights went down till the closing credits, there wasn’t even the sound of breathing. People were literally stunned as they suddenly realized that the number-crunching, text processing machine on their desk could convey complex, profound feelings.

ebook ipod rumored

apple_ebook.jpg Engadget has it from inside sources at Apple that a next-generation iPod is in the works with a larger screen and a full-fledged text reader:

…two bits from separate, trustworthy insiders that Apple’s not satisfied merely vending Audible‘s books-on-digital-audio solution. With the iRex iLiad and Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader both right around the corner, is it possible the next iPod might catch the eBook bug? We’d say the possibility is very real, since according to a source at a major publishing house, they were just ordered to archive all their manuscripts — every single one — and send them over to Apple’s Cupertino HQ.

So Audible, huh? Interesting. They got a toehold in the market with audiobooks, and may now be making the transition to ebooks.

A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration…

I’d hope that such a device would have wifi, a web browser and an RSS reader that could be taken offline. I think that books will only be a part of the equation.
Teleread has the ebook standards angle.

vive le interoperability!

ipodmagritte.jpg A smart column in Wired by Leander Kahney explains why France’s new legislation prying open the proprietary file format lock on iPods and other entertainment devices is an important stand taken for the public good:

French legislators aren’t just looking at Apple. They’re looking ahead to a time when most entertainment is online, a shift with profound consequences for consumers and culture in general. French lawmakers want to protect the consumer from one or two companies holding the keys to all of its culture, just as Microsoft holds the keys to today’s desktop computers.

Apple, by legitimizing music downloading with iTunes and the iPod, has been widely credited with making the internet safe for the culture industries after years of hysteria about online piracy. But what do we lose in the bargain? Proprietary formats lock us into specific vendors and specific devices, putting our media in cages. By cornering the market early, Apple is creating a generation of dependent customers who are becoming increasingly shackled to what one company offers them, even if better alternatives come along. France, on the other hand, says let everything be playable on everything. Common sense says they’re right.
Now Apple is the one crying piracy, calling France the great enabler. While I agree that piracy is a problem if we’re to have a functioning cultural economy online, I’m certain that proprietary controls and DRM are not the solution. In the long run, they do for culture what Microsoft did for software, creating unbreakable monopolies and placing unreasonable restrictions on listeners, readers and viewers. They also restrict our minds. Just think of the cumulative cognitive effect of decades of bad software Microsoft has cornered us into using. Then look at the current ipod fetishism. The latter may be more hip, but they both reveal the same narrowed thinking.
One thing I think the paranoid culture industries fail to consider is that piracy is a pain in the ass. Amassing a well ordered music collection through illicit means is by no means easy — on the contrary, it can be a tedious, messy affair. Far preferable is a good online store selling mp3s at reasonable prices. There you can find stuff quickly, be confident that what you’re getting is good and complete, and get it fast. Apple understood this early on and they’re still making a killing. But locking things down in a proprietary format takes it a step too far. Keep things open and may the best store/device win. I’m pretty confident that piracy will remain marginal.

truth through the layers

iftripod.jpg Pedro Meyer’s I Photograph to Remember is a work originally designed for CD ROM, that became available on the Internet 10 years later. I find it not only beautiful within the medium limitations, as Pedro says on his 2001 comment, but actually perfectly suited for both, the original CD ROM, and its current home on the internet . It is a work of love, and as such it has a purity that transcends all media.
The photographs and their subject(s) have such degree of intimacy that forces the viewer to look inside and avoid all morbidity or voyeurism. The images are accompanied by Pedro Meyer’s voice. His narration, plain and to the point, is as photographic as the pictures are eloquent. The line between text and image is blurred in the most perfect b&w sense. The work evokes feelings of unconditional love, of hands held at moments of both weakness and strength, of happiness and sadness, of true friendship, which is the basis of true love. The whole experience becomes introspection, on the screen and in the mind of the viewer.
IPTR was originally a Voyager CD ROM, and it was the first ever produced with continuous sound and images, a possibility that completes, and complements, image as narration and vice-versa. The other day Bob Stein showed me IPTR on his iPod and expressed how perfectly it works on this handheld device. And, it does. IPTR is still a perfect object, and as those old photographs exist thanks to the magic of chemicals and light, this exists thanks to that “old” CD ROM technology, and will continue to exist inhabiting whatever medium necessary to preserve it.
eros - detail.jpg I’ve recently viewed Joan de Fontcuberta’s shows in two galleries in Manhattan; Zabriskie and Aperture,) and the connections between IPTR and these works became obsessive to me. Fontcuberta, also a photographer, has chosen the Internet, and computer technology, as the media for both projects. In “Googlegrams,” he uses the Google image search engine to randomly select images from the Internet by controlling the search engine criteria with only the input of specific key words.
These Google-selected images are then electronically assembled into a larger image, usually a photo, of Fontcuberta’s choosing (for example, the image of a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk reassembled from images of the 24 richest people in the world, Lynddie England reassembled from images of the Abu Ghraib’s abuse, or a porno picture reassembled from porno sites.). The end result is an interesting metaphor for the Internet and the relationship between electronic mass media and the creation of our collective consciousness.
For Fontcuberta, the Internet is “the supreme expression of a culture which takes it for granted that recording, classifying, interpreting, archiving and narrating in images is something inherent in a whole range of human actions, from the most private and personal to the most overt and public.” All is mediated by the myriad representations on the global information space. As Zabriskie’s Press Release says, “the thousands of images that comprise the Googlegrams, in their diminutive role as tiles in a mosaic, become a visual representation of the anonymous discourse of the internet.”
fontcuberta landscape.jpg Aperture is showing Fontcuberta’s “Landscapes Without Memory” where the artist uses computer software that renders three-dimensional images of landscapes based on information scanned from two-dimensional sources (usually satellite surveys or cartographic data.) In “Landscapes of Landscapes” Fontcuberta feeds the software fragments of pictures by Turner, Cézanne, Dalí, Stieglitz, and others, forcing the program to interpret this landscapes as “real.”
These painted and photographic landscapes are transformed into three-dimensional mountains, rivers, valleys, and clouds. The result is new, completely artificial realities produced by the software’s interpretation of realities that have been already interpreted by the painters. In the “Bodyscapes” series, Fontcuberta uses the same software to reinterpret photographs of fragments of his own body, resulting in virtual landscapes of a new world. By fooling the computer Fontcuberta challenges the limits between art, science and illusion.
Both Pedro Meyer and Joan de Fontcuberta’s use of photography, technology and the Internet, present us with mediated worlds that move us to rethink the vocabulary of art and representation which are constantly enriched by the means by which they are delivered.

blu-ray, amazon, and our mediated technology dependent lives

A couple of recent technology news items got me thinking about media and proprietary hardware. One was the New York Times report of Sony’s problems with its HD-DVD technology, Blu-Ray, which is causing them to delay the release of their next gaming system, the PS3. The other item was Amazon’s intention of entering the music subscription business in the Wall Street Journal.
The New York Times gives a good overview on the up coming battle of hardware formats for the next generation of high definition DVD players. It is the Betamax VHS war from the 80s all over again. This time around Sony’s more expensive / more capacity standard is pitted against Toshiba’s cheaper but limited HD-DVD standard. It is hard to predict an obvious winner, as Blu-Ray’s front runner position has been weaken by the release delays (implying some technical challenges) and the recent backing of Toshiba’s standard by Microsoft (and with them, ally Intel follows.) Last time around, Sony also bet on the similarly better but more expensive Betamax technology and lost as consumers preferred the cheaper, lesser quality of VHS. Sony is investing a lot in their Blu-Ray technology, as the PS3 will be founded upon Blu-Ray. The standards battle in the move from VHS to DVD was avoided because Sony and Philips decided to scrap their individual plans of releasing a DVD standard and they agreed to share in the revenue of licensing of the Toshiba / Warner Brothers standard. However, Sony feels that creating format standards is an area of consumer electronics where they can and should dominate. Competing standards is nothing new, and date back to at least to the decision of AC versus DC electrical current. (Edison’s preferred DC lost out to Westinghouses’ AC.) Although, it does provide confusion for consumers who must decide which technology to invest in, with the potential danger that it may become obsolete in a few years.
On another front, Amazon also recently announced their plans to release their own music player. In this sphere, Amazon is looking to compete with iTunes and Apple’s dominance in the music downloading sector. Initially, Apple surprised everyone with the foray into the music player and download market. What was even more surprising was they were able to pull it off, shown by their recent celebration of the 1 billionth downloaded song. Apple continues to command the largest market share, while warding off attempts from the likes of Walmart (the largest brick and mortar music retailer in the US.) Amazon is pursuing a subscription based model, sensing that Napster has failed to gain much traction. Because Amazon customers already pay for music, they will avoid Napster’s difficult challenge of convincing their millions of previous users to start paying for a service that they once had for free, albeit illegally. Amazon’s challenge will be to persuade people to rent their music from Amazon, rather than buy it outright. Both Real and Napster only have a fraction of Apple’s customers, however the subscription model does have higher profit margins than the pay per song of iTunes.
It is a logical step for Amazon, who sells large numbers of CDs, DVDs and portable music devices (including iPods.) As more people download music, Amazon realizes that it needs to protect its markets. In Amazon’s scheme, users can download as much music as they want, however, if they cancel their subscription, the music will no longer play on their devices. The model tests to see if people are willing to rent their music, just like they rent DVDs from Netflix or borrow books from the library. I would feel troubled if I didn’t outright own my music, however, I can see the benefits of subscribing to access music and then buying the songs that I liked. However, it appears that if you will not be able to store and play your own MP3s on the Amazon player and the iPod will certainly not be able to use Amazon’s service. Amazon and partner Samsung must create a device compelling enough for consumers drop their iPods. Because the iPod will not be compatible with Amazon’s service, Amazon may be forced to sell the players at heavy discounts or give them to subscribers for free, in a similar fashion to the cell phone business model. The subscription music download services have yet to create a player with any kind of social or technical cachet comparable to the cultural phenomenon of the iPod. Thus, the design bar has been set quite high for Amazon and Samsung. Amazon’s intentions highlight the issue of proprietary content and playback devices.
While all these companies jockey for position in the marketplace, there is little discussion on the relationship between wedding content to a particular player or reader. Print, painting, and photography do not rely on a separate device, in that the content and the displayer of the content, in other words the vessel, are the same thing. In the last century, the vessel and the content of media started to become discreet entities. With the development of transmitted media of recorded sound, film and television, content required a player and different manufacturers could produce vessels to play the content. Further, these new vessels inevitably require electricity. However, standards were formed so that a television could play any channel and the FM radio could play any FM station. Because technology is developing at a much faster rate, the battle for standards occur more frequently. Vinyl records reigned for decades where as CDs dominated for about ten years before MP3s came along. Today, a handful of new music compression formats are vying to replace MP3. Furthermore, companies from Microsoft and Adobe to Sony and Apple appear more willing to create proprietary formats which require their software or hardware to access content.
As more information and media (and in a sense, ourselves) migrate to digital forms, our reliance on often proprietary software and hardware for viewing and storage grows steadily. This fundamental shift on the ownership and control of content radically changes our relationship to media and these change receive little attention. We must be conscious of the implied and explicit contracts we agree to, as information we produce and consume is increasingly mediated through technology. Similarly, as companies develop vertical integration business models, they enter into media production, delivery, storage and playback. These business models create the temptation to start creating to their own content, and perhaps give preferential treatment to their internally produced media. (Amazon also has plans to produce and broadcast an Internet show with Bill Maher and various guests.) Both Amazon and Blu-Ray HD-DVD are just current examples content being tied to proprietary hardware. If information wants to be free, perhaps part of that freedom involves being independent from hardware and software.