I hate it when my ideas are the best in the room. That just means I didn't make the room big enough.
(Related: Bill Joy--"Wherever you work, most of the smart people are somewhere else.")
In physics, the greatest (theoretical) latent power in the universe is dark energy, waiting only for us to find a way to tap it (and to prove it actually exists; in the meantime it powers fictional superheroes). In people, the equivalent is "spare cycles"--the human potential that isn't tapped by our jobs, which for most of us is a lot of it. People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million.
I am at this moment, somewhat randomly, in the Salisbury (MD) regional airport. It is tiny airport like thousands of others across the country. But, like all the others, it has to meet standard TSA security standards. There is a flight (which I am on) at 2:30 pm. It is the only flight out of this airport for the past hour. There will not be another flight out of this airport for another hour. Yet we need our full TSA apparatus. That includes the local police, who are represented by a sheriff.
I'm watching him right now. He's in his room, labeled "Sheriff". Young guy. He's watching a movie on a portable DVD player. That's fine--he won't be needed for another half hour. But of course "needed" isn't quite the right word. "Required" is closer to it. He will be required by policy to stand by, gun in holster, while I take my laptop out of my nerd backpack. He may, fingers crossed, go his entire career without a terrorist going through that security checkpoint. He may indeed never unholster that gun in the line of duty.
That sheriff is watching a movie because he has spare cycles. Spare cycles are the most powerful fuel on the planet. It's what Web 2.0 is made up of. User generated content? Spare cycles. Open source? Spare cycles. MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Second Life? Spare cycles. They're the Soylent Green of the web.
In the next issue of Wired we've got a great story about a woman who cyberstalked the lead singer of Linkin Park. She correctly guessed the password to his cellphone account. The rest was easy. She was a technician at a secure military facility, the Sandia National Labs. When eventually confronted, she explained that her job only took her half an hour a day. The rest was spare cycles. She used them to stalk the lead singer of Linkin Park.
Web 2.0 is such a phenomena because we're underused elsewhere. Bored at work, bored at home. We've got spare cycles and they're finally finding an outlet. Tap that and you've tapped an energy source that rivals anything in human history. Solitaire Players of the World Unite!
The Time 100 is out and I'm in it, with an incredibly generous write-up by my favorite author, Malcolm Gladwell. Many thanks to all of you who voted me up in the online poll, which may not have decided the outcome but was certainly gratifying to see (I ended up solidly in the middle of the pack, but ahead of Osama Bin Laden!)
Here's what Gladwell wrote. I'm totally beaming:
All writers are in search of the Big Idea. A Big Idea has to matter. But you can have only one of them. Your Big Idea can't be that there are, say, 89 Rules of Power. E=mc(2) was, technically speaking, a Big Idea. But not really, because the best Big Ideas are also transparent. Truly Big Ideas are the rarest of phenomena, and when I first came upon Chris Anderson's The Long Tail last year, I knew this was one.
Born in 1961, Anderson became a physicist and conducted research at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico. As editor in chief of Wired, he described the idea of The Long Tail in a 2004 article; the book came out in 2006.
Here is what the idea says: Many of us see the same movies and read the same books because the bookstore can store only so many books and the movie theater can play only so many movies. There isn't enough space to give us exactly what we want. So we all agree on something we kind of want. But what happens when the digital age comes along, allowing the bookstore to store all the books in the world? Now, it doesn't sell 1,000 copies of one book that we all kind of want; it sells one copy of 1,000 books each of us really wants.
Five sentences to explain something that, if you think about Amazon and Netflix and iTunes, will make you see the world a different way. That's a Truly Big Idea.
(Note: I chatted with the HP team behind this initiative this morning at the ATG Insight Live 2007 conference in Charleston, SC, where I was speaking. What they told me seems to agree with the account below. The main thing I'd add is that one of the key parts of making this work is finding really cheap and scaleable ways to add cover art, descriptions and other metadata to archive content. For the cover art, for instance, they've developed a way to upscale frames from the video itself so they look okay on the DVD box. Clever):
From John Fortt at B2.0's excellent Utility Belt blog:
Tech titan Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has an ambitious plan to get a piece of the $35 billion U.S. consumers spend each year on TV and movies. The company wants to help studios automate the process of digitally archiving video and then help retailers sell more of that digital video onto iPods, phones, PCs, TVs, and any other platform that comes along.
At the center of that strategy is a secret facility outside Sacramento where HP has placed its first big bet on the future of video distribution. (I call it secret because I was the first reporter HP let in, and some of the company’s own employees haven’t been allowed to see it yet. HP has requested that I not spill the beans on exactly what city the facility is in.) At the facility, set to go live this summer, where HP can crank out DVDs on demand. Order Karate Kid 2 on a website, and rather than send the order to a warehouse where the movie’s being stored on a shelf, the system will place an order in HP’s on-demand facility where a professional-quality DVD will be burned especially for you.
The most obvious benefit under this system would go to retailers, who would no longer need massive warehouses to store movies. But longer-term, the system could allow retailers to sell the “long tail” of video content that’s too obscure to give shelf space in your local Wal-Mart. (I’d love to mix and match old episodes of Quantum Leap, for instance.)
Wal-Mart (WMT), the world’s top seller of DVDs, happens to be the first customer for HP’s on-demand service. Customers ordering through the DVD site HP built for Wal-Mart will be able to access the on-demand facility in Sacramento. (The Wal-Mart site itself needs work, and both companies assured me they’re continuing to upgrade it.)
“We're quite optimistic about it – the amount of untapped content that could be made available is pretty substantial,” said Kevin Swint, Wal-Mart’s divisional merchandise manager for digital media. “Long tail businesses are not easy to develop, but there's plenty of opportunity there.”
Read more here.
Due no doubt to a clerical error, Time has picked me as one of the top 200 most influential people of the year. They've put it all online as an interactive poll, with the aim of helping the editors pick 100 people for the magazine's Top 100 list. I'm not sure whether it's the number of votes or the average rating that will ultimately influence the decision, but your clicking will help either way (unless you give me a really low rating. Ulp.). Right now I've got an average rating of 44, which puts me somewhere between Osama Bin Laden and Moqtada Al-Sadr. I'd like to be, well, a different kind of influential. Vote me up and make it so!
Long-tail helps niche albums
23 April 2007
The so-called “long-tail” impact on the singles market, since the introduction of legal downloads, is starting to reach the albums business, according to new Music Week research.
MW’s detailed study of quarter one trading patterns indicates that, while sales of the Top 200 sellers plummeted year-on-year by more than 20%, the rest of the market dropped by little more than 3%. It indicates that, as the top titles suffer the biggest falls in a clearly tough market, sales are being spread out more widely across a greater number of titles.
The apparent trend is being warmly received by labels and retailers alike, coming after a challenging opening three months of 2007 when artist albums were 8.94% down on Q1 2006, despite having had the added benefit of download album sales. These were not added to OCC sales figures until quarter two last year.
The drop was led by disastrous sales of the Top 200 artist albums, whose total of 11.29m physical units in the 13-week period was 21.13% lower than the first quarter of 2006.
Further down the chart, however, it was a different story, with sales of wider catalogue remaining relatively healthy. Excluding the top 200 best sellers, 13.10m physical artist albums were sold in the first quarter of 2007, down just 3.33% on a similar total for Q1 2006.
Furthermore, OCC data indicates that, despite the generally poor state of the artist albums market, sales of the 5,001st to 9,999th best-selling artist albums in Q1 2007 increased 11.82% year-on-year.
This comparatively robust performance, suggests Universal commercial director Brian Rose, is partly due to the falling price of chart CDs, which has forced many retailers to shift away from chart albums.
“Because there are thinner margins on chart, retailers are being forced to work campaigns even harder and getting better at it,” Rose says. “It’s either price-driven or people are giving more space to promotions.”
Rose adds that the rise may also be influenced by the growth in online retailers, which can offer a far wider range of product than physical stores – Play.com, for example, aims to offer all available UK catalogue albums by April and Amazon.co.uk already provides more than 1m different titles.
“We have grown and grown our catalogue business,” says Play.com head of music Helen Marquis. “We have had growth just by expanding the catalogue.”
[crossposted from geekdad.com]
Today I spent the day in Seattle at the headquarters of Bungie Studios, makers of the Halo videogame series. A couple years ago I'd had dinner with Marty O'Donnell, Bungie's audio director (and composer of the legendary Halo theme music), and after a lot of wine had got him to half-jokingly promise me a voice-acting cameo in Halo 3. Earlier this year I slightly exaggerated the absoluteness of his commitment and reminded him of that. To my delight he agreed to have me come up and record a few lines. Today was the day. It was awesome.
To answer the obvious questions, yes, I've seen a lot of the game. Yes, it's amazing. No, I can't talk about most of it (I'm NDA'd). But I can say (because this feature has been discussed) that the one thing that completely blew me away (aside from the graphics, animation, level design and new vehicles and weapons) was the ability to record a game and play it back on Xbox Live, freezing the action at any point and flying around the scene, Matrix style. It may sound just like a standard replay function, but take my word for it, it's not. I think it's revolutionary, and I predict that Halo 3 will take machinima to a whole new level.
Marty had me record about 30 lines, mostly playing a marine (that's me in the recording studio, above). I got to utter timeless phrases such as "Brutes can't smell through rock, can they?" and "Wonder if anyone knows we're down here..." They said I warmed up nicely, but I think they were just being polite. They were trying hard not to crack up as I screamed like a girl when I was being "possessed by the Flood". My entire script is scanned here, with a few bits redacted. Click on the images for the full-sized readable versions.
When the game is released this fall, I'll find out which of my lines made it into the final version. Then I will have awesome bragging rights: "You know that marine on level X, near the beginning, sort of off to one corner by himself? No? Well, anyway, if you do find him and you melee him, that's my scream!
(A GeekDad aside: I'd wanted to bring up one of my kids to record the voice of a grunt, but Bungie rightly noted that the game is rated M and this could be seen as an inappropriate setting for kids. Fair enough. But just imagine the cred the kid would have had on the playground if Bungie had gone for it. They could have told their friends that they're IN Halo 3! That would have won me GeekDad of the Year, hands down.)
Finally, here's a video of Marty talking about the thinking behind the fanfare that opens the Halo 3 E3 trailer. And then he plays it, live:
Those of you who have seen my speeches on the legal dimensions of the Long Tail know that I consider the absurdly complicated and expensive process of rights clearance to be the primary barrier to unlocking the latent Long Tail value in content archives. The example I usually give is WKRP in Cincinnati, not because there's necessarily a lot of value in that 1970s sitcom, but because it's often cited as one of the hardest TV series to clear. Since it was set in a radio station, there are dozens of songs playing in the background of each episode. To release the series on DVD would require clearing the rights to each of those songs, which is too expensive and time-consuming for anyone to consider.
Yet today comes news that WKRP in Cincinnati is indeed being released on DVD. How did they do it? Read the following, from Wired's Listening Post blog, and weep:
The series will finally be released on DVD on April 24th, but fans are already irate. The music originally included in the show has been replaced by generic muzak in order to placate the almighty copyright gods, who would otherwise have prevented the series from being released by (apparently) demanding so much licensing money as to render the whole project unfeasible.
Here's an account of the situation from the guy whose job it was to replace the offending musical compositions in order to pave the way for the series' release on DVD:
"During my years with MTM, I was asked to perform the most painful duty I have ever had to do in entertainment business. I was given the task of excising much of the original music from the episodes and replace it with Muzak-style songs that could be licensed in perpetuity for a small flat fee. This was deemed necessary in order to keep the program in syndication.
"The new music that was inserted into the show sucked ass. It was wrong for the feel and attitude of the show. Some scenes relied on specific songs at particular junctures (i.e., Les Nessman trying on a toupee to the soundtrack of Foreigner's “Hot Blooded”) . Those scenes were ruined. In many instances, we couldn't even finesse the proper audio levels in order to cut the costs of replacing the music...
"Allegedly, the original producer of the show (Hugh Wilson) was involved in replacing the Muzak with some other generic songs that are more palatable. While this is admirable, and Wilson has some great artistic instincts, it still isn't enough to undo the damage."
[Read more here]
Note: I do think that musicians should be paid for their work, if that's what they want. The problem lies with the convoluted rights clearance process, which imposes its costs mostly in delay and uncertainty, depriving both artists and fans of value from archived content. Nobody wins when WKRP in Cincinnati is released with a muzak soundtrack!
FREE was available in all digital forms--ebook, web book, and audiobook--for free shortly after the hardcover was published on July 7th. The ebook and web book were free for a limited time and limited to certain geographic regions as determined by each national publisher; the unabridged MP3 audiobook (get zip file here) will remain free forever, available in all regions.
Order the hardcover now!