U.S.News & World Report Needs To Bet On The Web

Disclaimer: I worked as a developer at U.S.News & World Report from 2006 – 2009.

News broke late on Friday that U.S.News & World Report was ending the monthly print version of it’s magazine. The focus going forward will be “a predominantly digital publishing model” according to editor Brian Kelly. The leaked  e-mail mentioned shifting their focus to emerging platforms, specifically tablet computers.

“…these latest moves will accelerate our ability to grow our online businesses and position ourselves to take advantage of the emerging platforms for distributing information such as the iPad and Android tablets.”

I’m generally a fan of this position but I really hope USNews executes their strategy the right way. When it comes to mobile platforms, their are two options: web apps and native apps. When most people think of apps on phones and tablets they are thinking about native apps. Apple’s App Store and the Android Marketplace distribute and sell native apps; apps which need to be built specifically for each platform and need to be downloaded and installed. Web apps, on the other hand, are open to anything running a web browser.

Mobile web apps are what USNews should be focused on. Chances are they don’t have anyone in-house with knowledge of building native apps, so that task would have to be outsourced at an additional cost. Meanwhile the stable of talented in-house web developers could start work on building a platform-independent experience as soon as possible. In the meantime they should read this online book, Building iPhone Apps with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: Making App Store Apps Without Objective-C or Cocoa.

But development talent aside, building on top of the open web is flexible. Updates can be pushed out nearly instantly without the need to go through a gatekeeper or approval process. As new platforms emerge, you’re brand is covered so long as it can connect to the web. Much of the functionality of native apps can be accomplished in non-desktop browsers like those found on phones and tablets. See check.in, iphone.netvibes.com, and even Apple’s own webapps catalog for examples of apps built on the web. For content publishers, native apps present far more problems than they appear to solve.

But what about money? Perhaps the biggest allure of native apps is the fact that they are attached to marketplaces where everyone browsing has a credit card attached to their account and purchases can happen with a single click. But do you get direct contact with your customers? Apps that want to span many platforms need their own payment process that they can be in control of. That way regardless of how or what platform your audience uses to accesses your content, they will get a consistent experience. And if you want to charge a recurring subscription for premium access your only option is to run your own payment platform. USNews already has this up and running with their Best Colleges and Digital Weekly products so why not extend that?

And judging from the past releases of magazine brands on the iPad, the industry is getting it wrong. They can’t just shove their traditional print product onto a touchscreen device with a few gestural interactions and call it a day. Jeffery Zeldman sums it up best in his post iPad as the new Flash

“Everything we’ve learned in the past decade about preferring open standards to proprietary platforms and user-focused interfaces to masturbatory ones is forgotten as designers and publishers once again scramble to create novelty interfaces no one but them cares about.”

So usnews.com is at a pivotal point where the company can focus on building a proprietary native app or an open web app. Today, it just seems so obvious to me to go the web app route. Native apps may seem like the answer today in the short term, but in the long term, their fragmentation overhead will hold them back for publishers while the open web will reign supreme.

I hope U.S.News & World Report doesn’t fuck this up.

DC Tech Events For Fall

The DC tech scene is just bursting at the seams with interesting (and free) tech events and un-conferences coming up this fall. I don’t know If I will be able to attend them all but here are a few that made it on to my radar.

Accessibility Camp DC Logo
Accessibility Camp DC is taking place at Martin Luther King Library on October 10, 2009. The event will cover topics and discussions about making the web more accessible.

Public Media Camp Logo
PublicMediaCamp will be at American University on October 17 and 18, 2009. The event aims to put 100 developers, 100 public media supporters, and 100 people who work for public broadcasting companies in a room and see what comes of it.

TedX MidAtlantic Logo
TEDx Midatlantic will be held on November 5, 2009, at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD.  The event will feature presentations by many of the leading thinkers and doers in the MidAtlantic Region.

BarCampDC Logo
BarCamp3 is the grand daddy of all DC tech events. It will be at the Martin Luther King Library on November 14, 2009. This is always my favorite event of the year.

Newspapers vs. the Internet (Cartoon)

It’s not the medium, it’s the content.

(via Slate)

DiggBar Brings Digg Features To Any Page

A screenshot of DiggBar in action.

Finally, a toolbar I might actually use. Digg unveiled their new toolbar/URL shortner today, though it’s not a toolbar in the traditional sense. Instead of downloading an add-on all you have to do is add digg.com/ to the front of the URL you’re currently viewing. How clever is that? The service will take you to a shortened URL, suitable for sharing on Twitter, as well as bringing all the goodness of Digg into a subtle, compact toolbar above the page. From there you can digg or submit a story, view comments from other diggers, bury the story, see related stories or peruse random stories that have already made the front page of Digg.com. Your Facebook and Twitter friends don’t have to be out of the loop since share buttons for the two services are also included. Check out the video below for a demo:

I really like this new feature which aims to take on Stumbleupon and tinyURL at the same time. To make it even easier to use I wrote a bookmarklet that you can use to add digg.com/ to the front of any URL with the click of a button. Just like a real toolbar! To use it drag the link below to your bookmark toolbar.
Update: Nevermind, you’re probably better off using the official DiggBar bookmarklet.

Digg Toolbar

Twitter Hackings Make Mainstream News

Screenshot of Twitter Hacking News on CNN.com

It seems like just yesterday that Twitter was an unknown start-up with a quirky idea. Now Twitter is definitely mainstream. News of the recent account hackings made the headlines of CNN.com. Apparently someone hacked into internal support tools used by Twitter to help their users. The hacker then tweeted from 33 prominent accounts including foxnews, barackobama, britneyspears and even CNN’s own ricksanchezcnn.

Screenshots of the defaced accounts can be seen in this Flickr pool.

This is in addition to a Twitter phishing attempt that happened over the weekend. When your site becomes the target of nefarious attacks then you know you have reached the big time.

Russell The Movie Star

Kristina needed to make a movie for her Introductory Design class. Lucky for her she chose me as the star as my schedule just happened to be free! The movie also featured everyone’s favorite Puck the cat. I’m proud to be apart of one of the most suspenseful movies of the year. Check it out…

It took about a day to shoot all of the pictures and another full day of editing in Final Cut Express. Kristina scoured for sound effects and music in my impressive collection that I have built up over the years since I was in school. Hopefully she gets an “A” for her late night of editing, but if not, we still had fun making it even if it isn’t the most professional flick on the interwebs these days.

PodCampDC 2008

PodCamp DC Opening Keynote

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the very first PodCamp DC. PodCamp is a new media unconference, meaning the participants decide the schedule of events and topics on the day of the conference rather than in advance. There was quite a diverse set of topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of podcasting in Podcasting 101 to an interactive discussion on the future of Social Media and New Journalism. The attendees were just as diverse as the topics from the young techies like myself all the way up to retired grandparents.

One thing that really surprised me was the number of senior citizens at the event. I saw a guy typing away on his Acer laptop running Ubuntu and another lady who looked to be a grandmother wearing a Red Hat Linux baseball cap. I thought the people that attended these things were mostly young computer nerds though I was pleasantly surprised to see people of all gender, color and creed.

Her Flip video camera (atleast that is what I think it is) matched her glasses.
Her Flip video camera (atleast that is what I think it is) matched her glasses.

Probably the most insightful talk of the conference was given by Gretchen Vogelzang of the MommyCast. She talked about how her and a friend turned a simple podcast about motherhood into a six-figure business attracting big name advertisers like Dixie, National Geographic, and Warner Independent films. Gretchen and Paige put a lot of research into their work and it shows with a loyal following that rivals that of a major media property.

Gretchen Vogelzang gave on of the best talks of the conference about how the MommyCast got where it is today.

Gretchen Vogelzang gave on of the best talks of the conference about how the MommyCast got where it is today.

Social Media and New Journalism was a great talk with old media veterans Jim Long (NBC News) and Andy Carvin (NPR) discussing how new media was shaking things up in the traditional news space. They covered the mass propagation of information via Twitter citing the recent Illinois earthquake which quickly spread around the Twitterverse before any traditional news team even had a clue about what was going on.

New tools like Qik let you stream live video over the Internet from your cell phone. While the quality is low there is the ability for people watching the stream to chat and send comments straight to the cell phone creating a new dynamic between producer and consumer. You can see their whole talk which as recorded using Qik below.

Another product mentioned called Utterz lets you call a phone number and leave a voicemail which will be converted and uploaded to the Internet and pushed out as a podcast. Interactive tools like Qik and Utterz make covering an event in near-realtime a possibility.

This dynamic duo talked about how New Media is disrupting journalism. They demoed Qik and Utterz and sparked lots of good ideas from the packed crowd.
This dynamic duo talked about how New Media is disrupting journalism. They demoed Qik and Utterz and sparked lots of good ideas from the packed crowd. See the footage from their talk below.

When lots of geeks get together, a gadget meet-and-greet is sure to happen. I saw a Nokia N810 Internet tablet and Asus Eee PC. Both were small, portable devices for surfing the web in a Wifi-heavy area.

Lots of gadget gawking going on at a geekfest like PodCampDC

Lots of gadget gawking going on at a geekfest like PodCampDC

The rest of the time was about meeting new people and trading ideas. I helped answer a few questions for a guy named Andrew who wanted to run a blog and video podcast all from his Blackberry. Using WordPress and Postie he can accomplish this as he travels around the country. Everyone seemed to be all abuzz about Twitter and I found a few more people to follow although it is getting harder and harder to keep up with all of my followers. I think I will be cutting back some.

Hard Time Hearing
There was so much discussion and exchange of ideas going on.

All in all, PodCamp DC was light on content but heavy on people. I heard a few complaints about the lack of technical podcasting instruction like the New Media Expo of late last year, but that’s what you get with a free, local conference. I know there will be a whole lot more presentations next year! I still had a great time hanging out with fellow web nerds.

You can see the rest of the photos from the day on my Flickr page. And if you want to see all of the pictures from the event just search for the tag ‘podcampdc

If you missed out on this unconference, there is the Social Dev Camp East coming up in 3 weeks. It is on May 10th, 2008, in Baltimore. I’ll be there and if you’ll be there do say hello.

Other PodCamp DC Recaps:

Microsoft’s Zune 80 Is A Joy

Around the end of October my Creative Zen Vision:M suddenly died on me during my morning commute. It’s no surprise that the player finally pooped out after being with me every workday for 2+ hours a day since I got it on Christmas, 2006. It was a fine media player and I would have gotten another one except Creative wasn’t making them anymore. Besides, the new Zunes were out with better features at a much cheaper price. So naturally I decided to “join the social.”

One of my favorite features of the Zune is how it keeps your place in the song or video after powering down. This makes it a breeze to pick up where you left off without fuddling around with bookmarks and now I don’t even hesitate listening to a podcast for a short drive. With my Creative Zen Vision:M I would spend more time loading and saving my place than driving on short trips. This feature is not important if you listen to music most of the time, but a podcast junkie like myself is always starting and stopping episodes and it is a relief to have a player take care of marking the place in my audio and video files for me.

Zune 80 Front and Center

The physical design of the Zune 80 is compact and simple. The player consists of two buttons, a large 3.5″ screen and a squircle for navigating. The squircle is a combination of a touch surface and button interface. Using your thumb you can flick up or down to move through list items just like an iPhone or press up or down for more precise navigation. Holding one edge of the squircle down will gradually speed up the seeking of a list when you need to go through a lot of items. To help you stay oriented as songs scroll by, the player will show the first letter of the track in a big, easy to read font so you know when to slow down. Basic categorization like Artists and Genre is available along the top which is accessed by moving left to right. To the right of the squircle is a play/pause button which is also used as an on/off switch when held down. On the other side is a back button. Navigating around the Zune is a real pleasure and a big improvement over the Zen player I was previously using.

The dimensions are pretty much like any other hard-drive based media player on the market. The Zune 80 is thinner than my Zen Vision:M and is probably just as thin as an iPod but I don’t notice the difference during everyday use. The player fits in my backpack and in my jacket pocket and that is all I really need to carry it

A Zune 30 would have been sufficient for my needs at the discounted price and with the newer Zune 2.0 interface, but the newer Zune 80 packs better video hardware. Formerly left to transcode MP4 files for playback on my Zen, the Zune has no problem playing these processor intensive video formats natively. Lots of podcasters offer their video up in the iPod-friendly MP4 files and since I have a device that supports the codec, a bigger selection of content is available to me. With the latest firmware update, I can now unsubscribe from a podcast feed right inside the player on the go making it easy to sample new podcasts without the extra hassle of managing feeds. When I dock the Zune with my host computer, the Zune software automatically adds the new content and removes the media I watched or listened to as well as updates any podcast feeds I have marked ‘unsubscribe’.

Using the squircle on the Zune 80

Speaking of the software, the Zune 2.0 software is good enough for syncing media to your device but falls short in a lot of areas. For one, it is resource intensive causing my machine to slow down considerably when using it. To be fair, my 4 year old computer doesn’t meet the recommended requirements but I still didn’t think the software would be a big resource hog. If you don’t use the official Zune 2.0 syncing software then you are out of luck as any third party software is locked out from managing the Zune hardware. I would prefer to use the excellent Media Monkey software for organizing and syncing my media but since the Zune uses proprietary drivers, there looks to be little anyone can do to break the tie with Microsoft.

Once you have your media set-up, the software isn’t that difficult. At first there were issues with duplicate podcast episodes showing up but as I made my way through the unplayed media, the issue sorted itself out. The Zune does a great job at staying synced with my computer. I just have to plug the Zune to the USB connector and off it goes with little intervention for me. I haven’t tried using the wireless syncing yet. In face I have turned the wireless capabilities off for the time being because I have never found another Zune device nearby and I would rather save the battery power than send out messages to my non-existent Zune neighbors. But one powerful feature about the wireless capabilities in the Zune has gone unnoticed. Wireless sync only works when the player is charging. Since I only have the included USB cable which connects to my computer, it doesn’t make sense for me to use wireless sync. But if I had a the Zune dock that connects to your TV than what I basically have is an Apple TV that I can carry in my pocket. Think about it. The Zune 80 will sync wirelessly with your computer and can output video to a standard definition TV at full resolution. Anything you can watch in your pocket, you can easily enjoy on a larger TV parked in front of a comfy couch. What’s not to love about that?

My biggest complaint about the Zune is there is no obvious comfortable way to hold it, especially when watching videos. The rectangular design is simple and makes great use of the space, but there is no place to put your hands. The best way I found to handle the Zune 80 is to rest the bottom corners in the web between your thumb and the index finger of both hands. Similar to holding a book.

This is the best way to hold a Zune 80

A must have accessory for the Zune is the leather case. Not only does it protect the player from outside abuse, but it gives you something to hold on to while watching videos. The squircle pokes through but the buttons are covered but usable through the brown leather case. A large flap goes over the device to protect the screen when not in use and is secured by a magnet. It’s easy to open and stays out of your way while using the Zune.

Microsoft Zune 80 with premium leather case

If Microsoft is listening, they really need an accessory that lets you control the device while it is tucked away in a backpack. Creative had a wired remote control that allowed you to play/pause, change tracks, and adjust the volume all by a little dongle that goes between your headphones and the player. This was a dream to have on morning commutes with my Zen in my backpack and the remote clipped to my shirt. A wireless version would be cool but dealing with a battery to keep it charged sounds like a big hassle.

After a month of using the Zune 80 and putting it through it’s paces, I am really happy with my purchase. Every morning I wake up with glee knowing that my commute will not be a dull, monotonous one-hour train ride thanks to my slick media player to keep me informed and entertained. If a digital media player is part of your daily life then you will know how important it is to compare what is on the market and find the best player for your needs. Apple vs. Microsoft politics aside, the Zune is a fantastic device that I could enthusiastically recommend to any media junkie I meet. Don’t let the trash talking sway you, as I truly believe the Zune 80 is the best portable media player out on the market right now.

Update: On January 8th, after writing the bulk of this review, my Zune suffered a software crash as I was walking home from work. The podcast that I was listening to suddenly stopped and the screen read “Could not play track”. Thinking it was a problem with just the MP3 file itself, I tried to play a song from my music library. When I selected play from an album view my player froze and became unresponsive to any button mashing I attempted. When I got in front of my computer I looked up the hard reset button combo which requires holding the back button and the top of the squircle. This Microsoft knowledge base article details everything you need to know. Upon reboot I was greeted with this lovely message, “To recover from an error, Zune must erase all content.” The only option was to hit “OK” by pressing the middle of the squircle. The media player would then reboot and this process continued forever in an endless loop.

After digging around on the net for a better solution, I decided my only course of action was to replace the firmware and completely wipe out my nearly 40GB collection. Following these arcane directions, I managed to get my Zune back to its factory default. It then took me all night to reload all of the songs from my library back onto my fresh Zune.

I suspect this crash was due to a hard drive glitch and I can’t really blame Microsoft for the fragile nature of hard drive based portable media players. Problems like this will eventually be a thing of the past once solid state flash memory, which has no moving parts, comes down in price. For now I thought it was important to add this addendum to the review of what problems can happen after normal use out in the wild.