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Samsung and Microsoft, sitting in a tree…

Galaxy S6 software will bring some amazing changes | SamMobile:

“The Galaxy S6 will come with apps like Microsoft OneNote, OneDrive, Office Mobile (with a free Office 365 subscription), and Skype. With Windows Phone failing to make a dent on the smartphone market, Microsoft has recently shifted focus to its software services, and having them pre-installed on one of the bestselling Android smartphone lineups might just give the Redmond giant the exposure it needs to court consumers into switching from Google’s massively more popular services that come preloaded on all Android devices.”

Well now, this is getting really interesting. Combine Microsoft services (Office 365, OneDrive, Outlook, Here, Bing) with Samsung hardware and all of a sudden does anyone really need Google?

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On David Carr and twenty years of journalism

When I started my career as a journalist in 1995, I realised pretty quickly that despite my skills as a writer, I knew precisely nothing about being a reporter. Being able to write is table stakes, something which gains you entry to the door marked “journalism” but doesn’t actually makes you a reporter. Everyone can write. Not everyone can report.

I remember the moment I realised what the difference was clearly. My first real reporting task, after a month or so of menial work in the testing labs, involved going along armed with a notebook and eager as anything to a press conference for the release of a Tektronix printer[1].

The reporting didn’t take place at the press conference, which was as staged and dull as these things always are. Instead, it took place afterwards, in a bar, with some of the old-school printing trade press journalists (in the days when there was such a thing as the printing trade press). Listening to them talk, I realised the fundamental thing: Journalism is gossip. Professionalised, occasionally slightly-pissed, but gossip nevertheless. I could do this. I had never wanted to be a journalist, but suddenly and permanently I had found my home.

And boy did it feel good. For the next ten years or so, I did every kind of technology journalism: reviews, features, columns, and my favourite of all, news. News writing was always the best kind of reporting, because it was the place where you could really make a mark – or at least you could if you were any good. And MacUser lived on its exclusives, on stories which other Mac publications didn’t even get a sniff of. We prided ourselves on getting stories which companies really didn’t want to be published. Our duty was the readers, and we were fierce about getting the truth for them. If was revealed a new product’s upcoming release, thus killing off sales of a previous model, so what? We’d saved our readers from buying a dud. If that company then got so outraged at our behaviour they pulled advertising, then fuck ’em – whether you advertised or not didn’t get you any influence on the editorial. Companies knew it, too.

How do you get the stories before anyone else? By gossiping. By understanding that reporting is about people, relationships, who you know, how you talk to them. We bandy around the phrase “cultivating sources”, but all that means is getting to know people and getting them to trust you. Never selling sources down the river, but always being aware of what someone is telling you and why they are telling you.

I’m reminded of all this by the death of David Carr. Carr wasn’t just an average reporter: he got under the skin of his chosen beat, and knew that reporting was fundamentally about people. Watch Carr at work in “Page One”, the documentary which is nominally about his employer but which turns quickly into the David Carr Show. Look at the way he talks on the phone, the easy venom which he drips on the hapless founders of Vice, who, despite their supposed new media smarts, come across like amateurs. This is a man who understands journalism is about people. As his colleague A. O. Scott puts it:

“What else?” was the question that would punctuate every conversation with him. What were you working on? What did you think of this or that political event, show-business caper or piece of office gossip? How was your family? What were you thinking? This was sincere, friendly curiosity, the expression of a naturally gregarious temperament. But it was also the operation of a tireless journalistic instinct. David was always hungry for stories. He was a collector of personalities and anecdotes, a shrewd and compassionate judge of character. A warrior for the truth.

The fundamental thing about journalism remains the same as it’s been for a hundred years: Whatever you do, get the story. Everything else is ancillary. And stories come from, and are about, people. Remember that the next time some journalistic pundit with a safe job in a university calls publishing “a technology business”.

  1. Solid ink, a technology which is now more or less forgotten but which at the time was the answer to many a printer’s prayer.  ↩


Inateck Surface Pro 3 sleeve


I’ve been using the Surface Pro 3 since it launched in the UK, and – so far at least – I’ve also been carrying it around loose in a bag. When something feels like a tablet, you kind of treat it like a tablet, which means perhaps a little more roughly than you would with a laptop.

Enter the Inateck Surface Pro 3 sleeve. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and it has served me pretty well.

The Inatek sleeve is made from felt – not quite the same as the felt you cut up and made into collages at school, but thicker and more protective. Now felt doesn’t sound like it’s a particularly protective material, and I wouldn’t bet that it can stop your Surface Pro 3 getting a broken screen if you dropped it from a decent height, but it does prevent the normal kinds of bumps, bangs and scratches you get when carrying a device around. I’ve had similar sleeves for my Apple devices in the past, and they’ve always proven to be pretty robust.

The design is nice, with plenty of pockets for carrying additional items. The flap holds down with Velcro, and there’s a small separate bag for carrying the power adaptor or another small device.

The Inateck Surface Pro 3 sleeve will set you back £15.99 from Amazon, which I think represents pretty good value. It’s not going to prevent you from damaging your Surface Pro if you throw it around, but it’s a nice extra layer of protection for the money.


On the putative 12in MacBook Air

I’m reluctant to say the rumours about a 12in MacBook Air with a single USB-C port “don’t make sense”. Mark Gurman has a pretty good track record and very good sources within Apple, although – as he states himself – his source has only seen a prototype and prototypes have a habit of changing before final release. 

What’s more, Apple has a habit of confounding people who say something doesn’t make sense. Every now and then a rumour will emerge which does’t make sense until the moment when the product is revealed and that single snippet of information is placed into the context of a finished device. 

I do know, judging by Gurman’s report, Apple is making one of the devices I dream of owning. Having had an 11in Air, I know the value of an ultraportable Mac which is robust enough to be thrown in a bag on a whim. Owning a retina MacBook Pro 13in, I know how wonderful a high resolution screen is. I don’t want a plethora of ports: thin and light are much more in tune with what I want a portable machine to be. 

What also interests me is how this might fit in with Apple’s overall product line. Will this be the onlyAir now? This would certainly make a much clearer split between Pro and Air lines. But a lot of people have bought 13in Airs as their only machine – would a 12in version be powerful enough for this?

Then there’s the (also rumoured) iPad Pro. Wouldn’t a 12in iPad and a 12in Air make for a confusing choice for consumers? Doesn’t this further muddy the product line? More importantly for me which one of these goddamn machines do I buy?


Check-list journalism: I’m sorry, it’s partly my fault

Apple’s implementation of NFC, it turns out, currently isn’t available for use by developers. No big surprise there: Apple has a history of keeping access to parts of the iPhone to itself before rolling out support to developers. However, looking at the replies to Tim Bray’s tweet about it, I came across this:

This is the kind of comment about technology which makes me hold my head in my hands. Pay no attention to real-world performance: what matters is that a company ticks a box on a spec sheet marked “2GB RAM”. You can, of course, argue Apple is being parsimonious with putting “only” 1GB of RAM in the iPhone 6, but even that’s moot: if including less RAM means Apple can include a fingerprint sensor (which actually works) and an NFC chip and a larger display, who actually cares?

The other thing this kind of comment makes me feel is guilt, because as a technology journalist who started writing in the 1990’s I’m afraid it’s partly my fault. At the time, we were obsessed with specifications, and working out “scientific” ways to determine which was a better product. Although we never quite got to the point of giving scores out of ten based solely on check boxes, it was (and is) incredibly easy to simply point to a list of specs, choose the product with “more” and make that the winner. Factors like user experience, which are more difficult to pin down and measure, tended to get less of a look-in when it came to determining ratings and winners.

You can see this attitude in comments like the classic comment by Slashdot’s CmdrTaco on the iPod: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” You can see it in every review online which devotes swathes of space to the specs, while skimping on the experience of the product and caveating everything with “mights” and “maybes”.

The big problem is that technology has moved on. Now, technology is everywhere, and it’s the user experience which defines it, not the hardware specifications. The fact that an iPhone 6 has less RAM than a Samsung Galaxy S5 isn’t important, except as it impacts the user experience – and in this case, it doesn’t. The days when hardware specs could be used as a proxy for quality of the user experience are gone.

UPDATE: Renganathan rephrased the problem – and I like the way he’s approached it. 


How exercise changes our DNA

How Exercise Changes Our DNA – NYTimes.com

Enter epigenetics, a process by which the operation of genes is changed, but not the DNA itself. Epigenetic changes occur on the outside of the gene, mainly through a process called methylation. In methylation, clusters of atoms, called methyl groups, attach to the outside of a gene like microscopic mollusks and make the gene more or less able to receive and respond to biochemical signals from the body.

I'm fascinated by gene expression, the way the basic pattern of our DNA gets translated into us. If you ever wanted an example of why it's not nature or nurture, but nature and nurture and environment, this is it.


I’m picking on the Techcrunch story headlined In Europe, Spotify Royalties Overtake iTunes Earnings By 13%, but Techcrunch isn’t the only one to get this story a little wrong. Here’s what the story says:

Kobalt, a company that helps collect music royalties on behalf of thousands of artists — including “half of this week’s Billboard Top 10″ and musicians like Maroon 5, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Grohl, Max Martin, Bob Dylan, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — says that in the last quarter in Europe, revenues from Spotify streams were 13% higher on average than revenues from Apple’s iTunes for its customers.

To understand why this is misleading, you need to understand a little bit about the way musicians get paid. Royalty payments for songs, whether bought or streamed, consist of two parts: publishing royalties, paid to the writer of the song (or the owner of the song rights); and royalties which go to owners of the master recording (usually a record company, although in some cases this may be the artist too).

Kobalt, remember, is a company which collects on behalf of songwriters – effectively, a more modern form of music publisher, where the writer retains ownership of their work. It only collects and distributes that portion of the money owned, not the larger amount which goes to the record label and which then trickles down to the artist.

When a song is bought and permanently download, Apple takes its 30%. Apple then sends a separate royalty (8% of gross revenue in the UK) to a local collection agency, such as PRS in the UK or GEMA in Germany. The society then splits this money two ways, between the “mechanical royalty” and the “performance royalty” (in the UK, the split is 75% mechanical, 25% performance for a download, but 50/50 for a stream). The reason for this split is a bit arcane, and not really relevant to this discussion, but it goes to show how Byzantine the whole business of royalties is.

That leaves about 60p on a 99p download, which goes to the record company (the owner of the copyright of the work). Artists usually receive between 10–20% of this as a royalty from the record company. Say you’re an artist with a good lawyer negotiating for you and this is 20% – you just earned 12p for your song. Whoopie!

If you wrote the song too, you’ll eventually get back another 8% of the gross – say about 6p – for your writing skills. So, you’ll make a total of about 18p for your single song download. Minus, of course, whatever advance you got from your record company when you signed, which probably puts you into debt.

When a song is streamed on Spotify, things are different and if anything even more complex, because although with iTunes you get paid roughly the same amount per download, with Spotify you don’t get paid the same amount per-stream.

To work out how much to pay an artist, Spotify first works out its total monthly revenue. It then works out how popular an artist is, dividing their total streams by the total number of streams for all artists. This gives their “market share” – the percentage of Spotify’s revenue (after it deducts its margin) which they should get paid.

Spotify takes a cut of about 30%, leaving approximately 70% of Spotify’s revenue to be split between the owners of the copyright of the recording (usually a record company) and the writers of the song (usually in the form of their publishing company). The proportion of the split between record company and publisher is set by negotiation between record company, rights collection agency, Spotify and (sometimes) local laws. In the US, for example, the percentage which publishers get is around 21% of whatever the label gets.

How much does our hypothetical artist get from Spotify, then? The answer is “we just don’t know” – and, on a month by month basis, neither will he. The split between record company and publisher isn’t known, and without knowing the percentage of gross revenue which PRS, GEMA, etc have negotiated with Spotify, it’s impossible to make a direct comparison between the money a songwriter earns from a download and from Spotify.

But there’s more. But remember Spotify’s revenue bears only a loose relationship to the total number of streams it plays. If the company upgrades a lot of people to subscribers, revenue increases. Likewise, if the price of advertising per play goes up, so does their revenue (without any increase in songs streamed). If Spotify streams more songs to non-subscribers, its inventory (the number of ad spots it has available to sell) will go up – but that doesn’t mean its revenue goes up, because it may not be able to fill all the ads.

Let’s look at an example. In January, let’s say that Spotify’s revenue was £100m, thanks to a load of subscribers and some great ad selling. And it streamed a total of 100m streams. 70% of that revenue – £70m – goes to the artists, and I, Justin Bieber, account for 10% of all Spotify plays (10m streams), so get £7m. Champagne all round!

In February, the costs per ad played go down a bit and Spotify revenues are only £80m, which means £56m goes to the artists. Plays hold up, though, and I, Justin, still end up with 10m streams. However, this month, 10m streams only gets me £5.6m. WTF? How can I afford my new Mercedes?

In March, things look up for Spotify, and it’s back to £100m revenue. And, even better, the number of streams has grown to a massive 120m. Justin’s still hugely popular, with a steady 10m streams. However, this month that 10m only amounts to 6.6% of total streams, so I’m getting £6.6m. WTF? This is crazy! How can I afford my new penthouse apartment?

For a download, the amount which ends up in the artists’ hands is relatively easy to work out and based on how many copies that artist sells. With Spotify, the percentages are unknown, and the number of streams of your work could easily go up while the amount of cash you get at the end of the month goes down, or vice versa.

There’s no doubt that streaming is growing and downloads are shrinking. But Kobalt’s numbers, based as they are on just the revenues going to song writers, don’t mean that the total amount being paid to artists by Spotify is now greater than iTunes. There’s too many variables and too many unknowns to make that simplistic conclusion.


The new Evernote web interface

The new Evernote interface is clean. Really clean. It’s obviously designed to let you write without distraction, which is a step forward from the old (and quite cluttered) web interface. Where the previous incarnation looked to ape a desktop application, the new client looks more like something which is native to the web.
I hope they bring this interface over to the mobile applications as quickly as possible.

Surface Pro 3 from a Mac and iPad user’s perspective


Earlier this year, I spent time with Microsoft’s flagship computer hardware, the Surface Pro 2. Although I found a lot to like, when compared to the combination of Mac and iPad, I found it was more than a little wanting. In particular, I thought although the new kick stand was an improvement, it still compromised the ergonomics of the device compared to a laptop. The screen, although great, was just a difficult shape for both laptop and portrait tablet use. And (of course) all the cruft of Windows itself was always lurking just below the surface (sic).

Despite these drawbacks, I was still intrigued by the Surface Pro, to such an extent that I almost bought the Pro 2 when it started to be discounted. I’m glad I didn’t, because the Surface Pro 3, which I’m typing this on, is a big leap forward over the previous generation. It manages to fix most of the major issues which I had with the Pro 2, and had become almost a different category of device. It’s the first Surface which I would recommend without too many caveats. [click to continue…]


Things I’ve found interesting – 21 September

This update is bought to you by Apple, Apple and more Apple. And did I mention there’s some Apple?

Why banks are buying in to Apple Pay. It’s pretty amazing Apple has managed to get the banks to pay them to add a feature to their phones.

After 30 years, Macworld is no longer a magazine. I’m really sorry to see Macworld go. End of an era, etc, and proof of how hard it is for print brands to make the transition to online — although Macworld actually did a pretty good job of that.

The Apple Watch and the battle of fashion and functionality. Apple’s transition from a technology company to a fashion and lifestyle one is going to be one of the most interesting narratives of the next couple of years.

Apple hires Gap’s number two marketer. When I said that Apple is becoming a fashion and lifestyle company, I really meant it. It’s going to drive the geeks crazy.

Revolutionary User Interfaces, Part 2. Everything – everything – about the Apple Watch depends on the interface. Can Apple hit a home run of revolutionary interfaces three times running?

Philips debuts headphones that connect via Apple’s Lightning port. The only question which matters: does using Lightening as an interface allow them to do something different from the standard audio port?

Apple reportedly building-out Boston Siri team. The big question about Siri: Will Apple stick with the current way that Siri works, where you have to ask it to do something, or will it change to become more like Google Now or Cortana, and sometimes pre-empt what you want?

Reddit is a failed state. Harsh, but fair.

Between Google and Apple, the smartwatch wars are over before they’ve even begun. It must really piss Microsoft off that it pioneered smart watches, but gets neither the credit nor the profits.

So Bill Gates has this idea for a history class… What Gates is doing is awe-inspiring.

Destiny review: The future of games remains locked in the past. I’m not sure about Destiny. It’s a strange mix of MMORPG, first-person shooter, and PvP. It’s kind of intriguing, but I’m not sure about the longevity.

Why terrorists probably won’t hijack Google’s driverless cars. To which we might add, “yet”.

The next small thing. Does Apple know what the Apple Watch is for? Probably not, yet. But it’s betting a lot of money it’s the next big thing.