January 2009 Archives

Pimp my CMS

31 January 2009

This is a long-winded reply to a short retweet that came from Retail Week online editor Martin Stabe of a question from developer Mark Ng: "Journalists: do you think internet story research tools built into your CMS would be a good idea?"

My initial response was along the lines of "let's try walking before we start with the whole running thing". Content management systems promise much but frequently fail to deliver anything vaguely usable. Their biggest failing lies in the idea that you should work in them entirely, yet fail to provide tools that word processors have had for 20 years. And writing in them directly is like playing chicken: how long do you have in which to compose and edit a story before it loses all the copy?

Compare it with the situation with blogging software which is often better written - thanks to having more complaining users – and more flexible. I very rarely use the CMS that Movable Type provide. Instead, I write most posts in MarsEdit and then, to publish, use the XMLRPC function that it provides. It also lets me work offline, which is a major plus. It is something that most CMS writers fail to understand: reliable network connections are not always present, particularly when you are out and about.

So, the idea of forcing even more of my working day into the CMS fills me with dread. However, it doesn't mean that the idea of putting research tools into a CMS is an entirely bad one. It just depends what they are.

As Martin points out, Wordpress has plug-ins that help with linking to related stories. This is the kind of thing to include in a editorially focused CMS. Mark suggests storing notes in the CMS and then having the system go out and find information that relates to them.

The problem with this idea is that web research is often more useful early in the process. What's going on? Is this story actually news? Has someone already reported on this or something very similar? What's the background?

As you progress into research, the questions are much more focused. So the idea of having a tool go out and sift the web for more is nice to have but probably just going to contribute to information overload. In reality, you are going to be cross-checking individual claims from a set of interviews. And very rarely do I transcribe an entire interview from shorthand, just key quotes and references to important sections. I may scan the pages but that's just to make the notes easier to find later on.

I've found, for long-term storage, a private blog or a wiki as good as anything for holding transcriptions. The other useful tools are outliners and, occasionally, mind maps for structuring material and spreadsheets and databases for those situations where the story or feature revolves around numbers or timelines. If you are doing financial reporting, then a way of just adding quarterly results to a rolling spreadsheet is probably going to be handy. But, do you need to put that in a CMS or just stick it all in something like Google Docs? Probably, a database is going to be more useful as you have more flexible ways of querying the data.

One area where I think a CMS could make a difference would be if stories acquired more metadata. Again, this is an area fraught with difficulty as the last thing you want to do is force writers to add metadata just to keep the machines happy, which is what tends to happen today. But if you were able to do something akin to what Microsoft tried to do with Smart Tags earlier in the decade, I can see some advantages down the road. Instead of writing "Q4 revenues were $2.4bn", you point to the source data within the financial repository. When someone clicks on the tag, they get taken to a virtual P&L sheet which shows the same number and, if it all works properly, whether that number was later restated.

Similarly, you might tag people so that the system can log all stories about them and build dynamic timelines so you can see when they moved companies or said certain things. That would go some way to making the information that goes into stories more remixable. You don't create new stories from the parts, but you can at least extract some structured information that may prove useful to a reader.

Looking back at that, I think the future for an editorial CMS is less to do with research for the journalist per se but for all the people who might use a news site.

It's got a good beat

18 January 2009

Take a look at the stills from these two videos. Somewhere, there's a cheese factory wondering where all its stock went. Look no further, it's all here. But, when you look at the pics or the videos, which concept do you reckon is going to win in the music biz? At the top we have an (apparently internal but unofficial) advertisement for Microsoft Songsmith which leaves me in no doubt that Poe's Law extends way beyond religion. And beneath it the ad for Beat Kangz's Beat Thang for making choonz and riddimz. Gotta use lots of Zs when working with these machines, sorry, maschinez because you can style them with stick-on Paintz and Grillz. Seriously, that's what they call the decals you stick on this machine.

songsmith.jpg

BeatKangz.jpg

Beat Kangz (warning, more Poe's Law in action with the background music at the website) is far from alone from doing a box like this although it seems to have cornered the market on bling-style home-sampling beat machines. For about the past 20 years, the pro end of this market has been more or less owned by Japanese company Akai. Fairlight may have brought the sampler to popular attention but Akai got all the money. Originally, the Akai sampler was a box you screwed into a rack and triggered from a keyboard. Roger Linn, the designer of the got together with Akai to combine his drum-machine ideas with the then relatively new MIDI protocol for wiring synths together.

The MPC-60 MIDI Production System was born. I'd be pushed to say that the MPC changed music production as it combined several existing pieces of hardware into one. However, it arguably altered attitudes to production, in which you built entire songs out of parts from other songs. As a result, it did a lot to break down the boundaries between DJ and performer and producer. Today, a lot of people are all three. The list of Akai users in R&B and hip-hop is pretty much a Who's Who of the genres.

When you bought your last personal computer, you probably didn't think you had two gadgets in one. But, whether you wanted it or not, the machine doubles up as a heater. So, it should come as no big surprise that these things burn through electricity like an electric fire. And it's not hard to make comparisons between the energy used by a computer and boiling a kettle, which is what the Sunday Times did.

The problem is that the story got mixed up with the idea that using Google to search is a particularly energy-intensive thing to do. In a way, it is. It's just that, even though it owns massive data centres, Google doesn't have a whole lot to with how much energy is used in using it to search.

What confuses me about Alex Wissner-Gross's complaint about the Times story is that he claimed his study did not mention Google and only talked about the search engine and power in broad terms. But, in the semi-ghosted piece (it's written by a journalist but in the first person as though spoken by Wissner-Gross) that appears attached to the main story this paragraph is associated with him:

"Google does not divulge its energy use or carbon footprint but, based on publicly available information, we have calculated that each Google search generates an estimated 5-10g of CO2, in part because Google's unique infrastructure replicates queries across multiple servers, which then compete to provide the fastest answer to your query. On the other hand, just browsing a basic website generates about 20mg of CO2 for every second you view it."

Google quickly issued its own estimates of how much energy a search needs on its own equipment that is way, way less than the 15Wh or so needed to generate 7g of CO2, as claimed in the story. In reality, most of the consumption is the user's own PC. This also makes me suspicious of Wissner-Gross's most recent protests as his business, CO2stats, is all about offsetting the carbon emissions from users' own PCs. He probably didn't want to just focus on Google: he wants to sell the offsets to midrange website owners. That is, sites running fewer than 5 million page views a month.

One problem with even analysing PC power consumption is that people often look at the power-supply rating of their PC and assume that's what it chews through every second. Power supplies are normally over-specced for good reason. You don't really want the thing tripping out out every time you fire up Call of Duty. So, it's unlikely that, unless you're running the biggest baddest graphics cards, that a system unit will consume 300W or more. But it's not unreasonable to expect it to demand in the region of 130W, dropping by around a half when idle but not asleep.

Tom's Hardware did tests at the end of 2007 on a variety of systems and came up with figures ranging from 132W for a system based on a Core 2 Duo to more than 200W for a Pentium D 800, with two Pentium 4 cores on a chip.

This is a fair amount, but not quite as bad as the 300W assumed in this analysis of Second Life's energy demand – not the one done by Nick Carr.

An 17in LCD monitor is likely to consume somewhere in the region of 30 to 50W, depending on how efficient it is. The bad news is that LCD monitor screen sizes moved up as prices fell – as with TVs. As most of the power consumption is in the backlight, the power consumed increases with screen area. LED backlights will increase efficiency a little but we won't see a dramatic improvement until organic LED displays – or something better – appear. So, for a 20in LCD, let's call it 50W.

So, that gives us a total of something like 180W for a regular consumer PC. Then add to that the consumption of the ADSL gateway, which is likely to be around 6W all the time it's switched on. There are plans to improve this but that's what the EU reckons is a good target for low power consumption. Even in a low-power state, which is not a given in current equipment, it will still draw something like 2W all the time it's switched on. However, that's nothing on a satellite receiver that can chew through 50W all day every day, whether you are watching the box or not.

That pushes the power up to around 190W for the PC and display, dropping to 130W or so when the processor is idling – that is, you are reading something on the screen, but there's not much going on. It's never really idling in that mode, as there are always things going on in the background in operating-system land. But nothing is causing the fans to speed up.

It means that the PC is consuming roughly as much power as a moderately big flat-screen TV – something in the 30in range – most of the time. Now, how does that compare with the kettle?

I think it's fair to say that the PC will be fairly near to idling when doing simple searching and browsing, maybe it's consuming about 150W. The next question is: how long does it take to do a search on Google? Assuming the machine is already running, it probably takes about 10 seconds to type in a query and hit return, and less than a second for the response to appear. You then have to read it and click on a result. Let's call that 20 seconds.

I ought to factor in how much power is consumed in the network but the reality is that, with a Google search, so little data traverses the network that it's likely to be a miniscule demand compared with that of the user's PC. However, the ADSL line card will consume power on behalf purely of the user, so that needs to be factored in. This is likely to be in the 5W range, maybe less as it's sharing a lot of circuitry with equipment used for other lines. Maybe add on another 5W for good measure – it's not going to make a big difference.

Power needed: less than 1Wh, which equates to about 0.5g of CO2 emitted. Oh dear, way below the Times figure.

However, before you relax, consider that you are generally searching for something to look at or read. Five minutes reading the thing you were searching for doesn't seem unreasonable. Now we're talking real money: 13Wh, or a little under 7g of CO2. So, if you analyse the power consumption attributable to a PC, the headline figure quoted in the Times is not a bad one. It's just that the figure doesn't have a lot to do with Google – it applies to any amount of surfing you do.

The figure in the Times story that I'm suspicious of is the ten-fold increase in power for handling video or interactive stuff. Video sent over the Internet is highly compressed, so most of the work winds up being done on the user's PC again. It's going to be more than the 30 per cent extra that the calculations above imply but that's a long way from 10x.

Bluetooth for all...if only

12 January 2009

A cheery missive arrived today via video-release distribution site The Newsmarket on how Bluetooth "allows users to stretch their tech dollars since they can connect and communicate with a wide range of devices and build upon gadgets they already own".

It's kind of true, but glosses over the vital detail that unless you bought the Swiss Army knife of gadgets, you have to have a blue belt in tech-fu to work out which gadgets will play nice with which Bluetooth peripherals. Not long after the Bluetooth protocol first appeared, manufacturers started talking about profiles. Profiles to print using Bluetooth. Profiles for headsets and hands-free operation. But few are mandatory which means it's up to the manufacturer to support any of them. Market pressure means most support the common ones, but it's easy to be caught out.

For example, you would expect the iPhone, which has Bluetooth, to talk to a Bluetooth headset, wouldn't you? Not any Bluetooth headset. The mono ones used just for calls do work, but stereo headsets – for listening to the music stored on the device – that use A2DP will only work with a hack. As of now, you have to buy an adapter that plugs into the audio socket to get A2DP to work as planned. For example, the Zikmu wireless speakers featured by the Bluetooth SIG in the release use a dock to get the iPhone to send any audio to them. But, as well as the highs and the low-end of the frequency range, they also put the bell-end into speakers.

There is talk of an updated A2DP which uses better compression – Belfast-based APT sells software that allows more audio to be sent for the same number of bits and would like to get that into A2DP. Some consumer manufacturers already use Apt-X as an option and sell on the higher audio quality - Sennheiser is among them. So, it's not hard to imagine Apple doing something similar. But it means that right now, you do have to dig into the alphabet soup around Bluetooth.

With the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) trying to push its technology as a universal protocol, that's likely to lead to problems and inevitable returns as people find out that their Bluetooth pulsemeter does not, in fact, talk to their phone or PDA. Any protocol that demands you have an innate understanding of obscure four-letter acronyms to get things to talk to each other is not really satisfying the job of consumer technology.

And then, even if the devices do work together, you are not guaranteed a smooth ride when it comes to pairing them. The situation is so bad that chipmaker NXP Semiconductors reckons it has a business in selling interfaces that use the Near-Field Communications (NFC) system, as used by contactless smartcards, to get Bluetooth devices to talk to each other.

Samsung claims it is making "it easier than ever to bring Blu-ray into the living room with its unique, wall-mountable design". That's the rationale behind the BD-P4600.

I'm not entirely clear on why having to bang some nails in a wall makes it easier to bring Blu-ray into the living room when you could stick it in the pile of unremarkable black and silver boxes that feature as the AV experience in most living rooms. Especially when the machine itself is a slab of monolith black, unless you fancy the idea of turning your consumer durables into bas-reliefs of Suprematist art.

No room on the wall? You can bung it on a table. Because everyone is going to enjoy moving vases and books out of the way for a sheet of black plastic. But the one place you can't put it is in among the stack of satellite receivers or CD players.

Apple might claim to be the maker of "the world's greenest family of notebooks" but the company is recommending to its shareholders to vote down a proposal that would make it easier to work out just how green it is.

Proposal four in the company's proxy statement, released on January 7 ahead of the company's annual general meeting in late February, asks the company to put together a sustainability report "describing corporate strategies regarding climate change, specifically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and addressing other environmental and social impacts such as toxics and recycling, as well as employee and product safety".

Although proposed by an individual shareholder, the move is backed by an investment fund – Green Century Equity Fund – and the Office of the New York City Comptroller, which holds around 2 million shares or 0.2 per cent of Apple's stock. A sizeable holding. Green Century holds around 7000 shares. The fund claims as an achievement the move by Apple to take back iPods for recycling.

In recommending that shareholders vote against the motion, Apple claimed that it already publishes much of the information, albeit in a bunch of different places: "...the Board believes that the proposal has been substantially addressed and publication of an additional report would produce little added value while requiring unnecessary time and expense".

Take, for example the product environmental reports. "No other company in the Company's industry provides this amount of detail at the product level," Apple says in the proxy statement. It's a claim that will take some checking but is possible as Apple has produced documents for a range of products – others have published statistics for selected, representative products.

However, it's difficult to parse the results as Apple has not provided the assumptions under which it calculated the energy consumed during use, or whether all the emissions from upstream suppliers, particularly the chipmakers, have been taken into account. I can't find in the MacBook Air document, for example, what the expected lifetime of the machine is or what proportion of the time is spent off, sleeping or working. Curiously, the company provides power estimates only as far as idling with the screen on, not actually doing stuff, which I assume the machine will be doing for at least part of its life.

If Apple has taken the full manufacturing energy cost in account – chips and all – then these truly are the greenest machines on the planet and presumably use chips made by aliens as no one has a fab that approaches that level of efficiency right now and isn't expected to for a good many years. A 2005 analysis by Fujitsu yields similar ratios to those presented by Apple and does not seem to take into account the energy consumption of integrated circuits. Mobile-phone makers such as Nokia are somewhat better at taking this into account.

The motion argues for the use of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. Apple counters by saying: "the Company has already considered the GRI Guidelines when preparing certain of its reports and determined the indicators most applicable and useful in the context of the Company’s business". Or in other words, we took the bits we liked, don't expect us to adhere to the bits we didn't. That's not peculiar to Apple: most companies are working to their own definitions of sustainability. However, as Dell found with its carbon neutral claim, you do need to be careful when shouting "I am the greenest". Especially if you are, a lot more quietly, blocking moves that might help to establish that claim.

In fact, it's not clear just when Palm's new baby, the Pre smartphone, will actually go on sale. The company will probably have to deal with a lot of criticism as to why it's locked the phone to one operator, Sprint, at launch at least. However, that might suit the company best.

Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, which has pumped hundreds of millions into a company that has been losing money hand over fist in recent years, even ahead of a major recession, told the New York Times that a slow start for Pre sales would suit Palm just fine. It would certainly keep the cashflow steady.

“Given the economy, a perfect outcome would be a critically acclaimed start followed by something like the early days of the iPod, where every buyer loved the product, but unit volumes started small and grew with time,” Mr. McNamee said. “In the 1.2-billion-unit cellphone market, you don’t need much market share to generate billions in revenues.”

Irony surrounded the unveiling of the Linux-powered Pre, although some of it was probably lost on Sprint chief executive Dan Hesse when he told the audience at CES that his company has the most "dependable 3G network". While live-blogging the event, Ryan Block wrote: "Sprint is crapping out on us." It might have been the time for Sprint to make sure it had a picocell in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Not the Now Network but the Not Network.

When, during Steve Ballmer's keynote, Robbie Bach was shown demonstrating Windows Mobile on a Treo only one day ahead of its maker explaining why you probably don't want one, I was reminded of when I wrote on Palm's trials in 2007. Back then, as I did the research, I wondered why the company didn't just cut its losses, dump the OS research and just do what it wanted to do on top of Windows Mobile. With a Linux base, Palm would lose the heavy licensing cost but, in 2007, Windows Mobile was responsible for an increasing proportion of Palm's sales, although the company was keen not to shout about that. And the risk of developing a handset OS from scratch remains. Yes, it looks very nice but Exchange sync, as both Microsoft and Apple have found, is troublesome – it can kill your battery stone dead if implemented badly.

It looks as though Palm has dodged the curse of the Faileo this time around. From the reaction of people at CES, the user interface looks to be fluid and in the spirit of what people now expect from a smartphone, having broken away from the old desktop metaphor of PCs and made something that carries more the illusion of a physical desk.

As Michael Gartenberg points out – he reckons Palm is back – the key to the Pre's success is execution. Will it actually work? The LifeDrive was a good concept for a PDA but sucked as a product. The Foleo was not a bad idea – having pre-empted the netbook rush – but messed up on the details. And the many, many missteps with PalmOS...

Peter Rojas tweeted that the Pre could be good but Palm, through its stumbling, allowed other OSs to become entrenched. I'm not so sure that any of them are entrenched. The question in 2007 was whether Palm would have enough money to make it to a 2009 smartphone launch. In fact, it didn't. It's taken a second call on Elevation's cash to get to launch and McNamee's hope for a gentle start implies that the private equity people aren't ready to pump in more to support a massive increase in production capacity at whichever Chinese factory is going to turn these out. It only support EV-DO, not UMTS. But then, why fight Nokia on its home turf when all you need is a slice of the business centred on CDMA?

The whole mobile OS business is very strange right now. As Gartenberg says: "There is no Windows of mobile."

Symbian should be the OS that everyone talks about. It has the market share. Yet, it's not the first name on anybody's lips. One reason is that a lot of the buzz comes from the US, where Symbian does not do at all well. Windows Mobile is arguably the most entrenched. Yet, I am never left with the impression that anyone actually likes it. Not even companies making money from selling it, like Palm.

Android is a contender for entrenchment. But people have discovered, as with the iPhone 3G, that bad battery life can seriously damage their love for the G1. Rojas pointed to the polish that Pre has versus Android. I argued, some time ago, that the biggest problem with Android and Limo by extension, was the idea among the established handset makers that they thought a leading handset OS would just happen and they could take it as-is and bung it on a phone:

"Phone makers want two things: to create a must-have product that nobody else can make; and to spend next to no money making it. They haven't quite worked out that the two are mutually exclusive."

I'm still not sure any of them have learned the lessons of the iPhone, or where Windows Mobile has failed to shine. Android still has a chance. Limo? The lights are on but...

Then there's the iPhone and the Blackberry. These probably do qualify as entrenched but RIM has stumbled with the Storm. And, as McNamee says, it's a very, very big market out there. Apple's vice-like grip over application development will help Palm in the short-term. And Blackberry's difficulties getting out of the enterprise business provide Palm with an opening.

What about applications? Palm claimed Pandora ported their application to the Pre in three days. That implies that the Pre runs Flash and not a cut-down version at that – they seem to be using a TI-made ARM Cortex-A8 processor that is currently used in most of the non-x86 netbooks.

If Palm is smart, the company has adopted some of the Web 2.0 frameworks. They look to have cut any ties with PalmOS 5, but to have a compatibility mode would probably have meant extra cost and complexity with not all that much benefit for the kind of web-oriented applications Palm is looking to attract. This is a machine for things like Evernote and Google Docs, running Gears and AIR not Documents To Go.

So, where will it all go wrong, go wrong, go wrong...? Power consumption is probably going to be tough to crack as it seems to take everyone time to work out. And the other people have more money. Palm's history on software implementation, at least in recent years, has not been good. It was a good-looking demo but how much was real and how much was Memorex?

If Palm succeeds, it says as much about the handset industry's failure to deliver as much as Colligan and company's ability to pull off what would count as one of the biggest turnarounds in history. Post-1997 Apple managed it.

Palm is faced now, however, with two short-term problems. Getting the Pre out on time, and dealing with the inevitable drop-off in sales of Windows Mobile-running Treos while prospective customers wonder what the Pre will actually cost them.