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In response to Dave‘s Reading tea leaves in advance of Apple’s announcements, I added this comment:

Steve loves to uncork constipated categories with the world’s slickest laxative. So I’m guessing this new box will expand Apple’s retail shelf space to include newspapers, journals and books as well as sound recordings, movies and TV shows. It will be the best showcase “content” ever had, and will be a wholly owned proprietary channel. A year from now, half the people on planes will be watching these things.

It would be cool if it also helped any of us to become movie producers, and to share and mash up our own HD creations. But I think Steve is more interested in hacking Hollywood (entertainment) and New York (publishing).

I’ve thought for years that Apple’s real enemy is Sony. Or vice versa. But Sony got lame, becoming a Hollywood company with an equipment maker on the side. So think instead of the old Sony — the inventive one that owned the high-gloss/high-margin end of the entertainment gear business, the Sony of Walkmen and Trinitrons. That’s the vacuum Apple’s filling. Only, unlike Sony, Apple won’t have 50,000 SKUs to throw like spaghetti at the market’s wall. They’ll have the fewest number of SKUs possible. And will continue to invent or expand whole new categories with each.

And there will be something missing to piss people off too. Maybe it’ll be absent ports (like you said). Maybe it’s no multi-tasking, or skimpy memory, or bad battery life, or an unholy deal with some “partner.”

Whatever it is, the verities persist. Meaning items 1 through 6 from this 1997 document still apply:


At that last link I wrote,

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.
  2. It will be innovative.
  3. It will be exclusive.
  4. It will be expensive.
  5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

So now the iPad has been announced, Steve has left the building, and the commentariat is weighing in.

The absence of multi-tasking might be the biggest bummer. (Makes me wonder if mono-tasking is a Jobsian “feature”, kinda like the one-button mouse.) Adam Frucci of Gizmodo lists mono-tasking among eight things that suck” about the iPad, including no cameras, no HDMI out, no Flash, 3×4 (rather than wide) screen and a “Big, Ugly Bezel”. (That last one is off base, methinks. You need the wide bezel so you can hold the device without your hot fingertips doing wrong things with the touchscreen.)

Elswehere at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson says “PCs will be around as expert devices for the long haul, but it’s clear that Apple, coasting on the deserved success of the iPhone, sees simple, closed internet devices as the future of computing. (Or at the very least, portable computing.) And for the average consumer, it could be.”

The Engadgeteers mostly panned it. Unimaginative… underwhelming… one of Apple’s biggest misses.

MG Sigler at Techcrunch says, “The thing is beautiful and fast. Really fast. If you’ll excuse my hyperbole, it felt like I was holding the future. But is it a must-have?” Then answers,

Most people won’t yet, but as long as Apple has its base that will buy and use the iPad, they have plenty of time for either themselves or third-party developers to create the killer uses that make the iPad a must-have product for a broader range of people. We already saw that happen with the App Store and the iPhone/iPod touch. And at $499 (for the low-end version), there will be no shortage of people willing to splurge on the device just to see what all the fuss is about. They’ll get hooked too.

That’s getting close, but it’s not quite there.

First, the base Apple wants is consumers. Literally. We’re talking newspaper and magazine readers, buyers and users of cameras and camcorders, and (especially) TV and movie watchers. To some degree these people produce (mostly home video and photos), but to a greater degree they are still potatoes that metablolize “content”. This thing is priced like a television, with many improvements on the original. Call it Apple’s Trinitron. They are, like I said, after Sony’s abandoned position here, without the burden of a zillion SKUs.

Second, there will be a mountain of apps for this thing, and more than a few killer ones.

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

What you have to appreciate, even admire, is how well Apple plays the vertical game. It’s really amazing.

What you also have to appreciate is how much we also need the horizontal one. The iPad needs an open alternative, soon. There should be for the iPad what Google’s Nexus One is for the iPhone.

I got a ride home tonight from Bob Frankston, who was guided by a Nexus One, serving as a better GPS than my dashboard’s Garmin. Earlier in the evening Bob used the Nexus One to do a bunch of other stuff the iPhone doesn’t do as well, if at all. More importantly, he didn’t need to get his apps only from Google’s (or anybody’s) “store”. And if somebody else wants to make a better Android phone than this one, they can. And Google, I’m sure, hopes they do. That’s because Google is playing a horizontal game here, broadening the new market that Apple pioneered with its highly vertical iPhone.

So a big lesson here is that the market’s ecosystem includes both the vertical silos and the horizontal landscapes on which those silos stand, and where all kinds of other things can grow. Joel may be right that “the average consumer” will have no trouble being locked inside Apple’s silo of “simple, closed Internet devices”. But there are plenty of other people who are neither average nor content with that prospect. There are also plenty of developers who prefer independence to dependence, and a free market to a captive one.

Captivity has its charms, and an argument can be made that tech categories are best pioneered by companies like Apple and Sony, which succeed both by inventing new stuff that primes the pump of demand, and by locking both developers and customers inside their silos. But truly free markets are not restricted to choices among silos, no matter how cushy the accomodations may be. Nor are they restricted to the non-choice of just one silo, as is currently the case with the iPad. Free markets are wide open spaces where anybody can make — and buy — anything.

There’s more to fear from heights than widths.

Bonus link: Dave weighs in. This is just a jumbo Oreo cookie.

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@robpatrob (Robert Paterson) asks (responding to this tweet and this post) “Why would GBH line up against BUR? Why have a war between 2 Pub stations in same city?” (In this tweet and this one, Dan Kennedy asks pretty much the same thing.)

The short answer is, Because it wouldn’t be a war. Boston is the world’s largest college town. There are already a pile of home-grown radio-ready program-filling goods here, if one bothers to dig and develop. The standard NPR line-up could also use a challenge from other producers. WGBH is already doing that in the mornings by putting The Takeaway up against Morning Edition. That succeeds for me because now I have more choices. I can jump back and forth between those two (which I do, and Howard Stern as well).

The longer answer is that it gives GBH a start on the inevitable replacement of signal-based radio by multiple streams and podcast line-ups. WGBH has an exemplary record as a producer of televsion programming, but it’s not setting the pace in other media, including radio. The story is apparent in the first four paragraphs of its About page (which is sure to change):

WGBH is PBS’s single largest producer of content for television (prime-time and children’s programs) and the Web. Some of your favorite series and websites — Nova, Masterpiece, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Curious George, Arthur, and The Victory Garden, to name a few — are produced here in our Boston studios.

WGBH also is a major supplier of programs heard nationally on public radio, including The World. And we’re a pioneer in educational multimedia and in media access technologies for people with hearing or vision loss.

Our community ties run deep. We’re a local public broadcaster serving southern New England, with 11 public television services and three public radio services — and productions (from Greater Boston to Jazz with Eric in the Evening) that reflect the issues and cultural riches of our region. We’re a member station of PBS and an affiliate of both NPR and PRI.

In today’s fast-changing media landscape, we’re making sure you can find our content when and where you choose — on TV, radio, the Web, podcasts, vodcasts, streaming audio and video, iPhone applications, groundbreaking teaching tools, and more. Our reach and impact keep growing.

Note the order: TV first, radio second, the rest of it third. But where WGBH needs to lead in the future is with #3: that last paragraph. Look at WGBH’s annual report. It’s very TV-heavy. Compare its radio productions to those of Chicago Public Radio or WNYC. Very strong in classical music (now moving over to WCRB, at least on the air), and okay-but-not-great in other stuff.

Public TV has already become a ghetto of geezers and kids, while the audience between those extrmes is diffusing across cable TV and other media. An increasingly negligible sum of people watch over-the-air (OTA) TV. Here WGBH lost out too. It’s old signal on Channel 2 was huge, reaching more households than any other in New England. Now it’s just another UHF digital signal — like its own WGBX/44, with no special advantages. Public radio is in better shape, for now, because its band isn’t the ever-growing accordion file that cable TV has become; and because most of it still lives in a regulated protectorate at the bottom fifth of the FM band. It also helps public radio that the rest of both the FM and the AM bands suck so royally. (Only sports and political talk are holding their own. Music programming is losing to file sharing and iPods. All-news stations are yielding to iPhone programs that offer better news, weather and traffic reporting. In Boston WBZ is still a landmark news station, but it has to worry a bit with WGBH going in the same direction.)

So the timing is right. WGBH needs to start sinking new wells into the aquifer of smart, talented and original people and organizations here in the Boston area — and taking the lead in producing great new programming with what they find. I’ll put in another plug for Chris Lydon‘s Open Source, which is currently available only in podcast/Web form. And there is much more, including Cambridge-based PRX‘s enormous portfolio of goods.  (Disclosure: my work with the Berkman Center is partially funded through PRX — and those folks, like Chris, are good friends.)

In the long run what will matter are sources, listeners, and the finite amount of time the latter can devote to the former. Not old-fashioned signals.

P.S. to Dan Kennedy’s tweeted question, “Is there another city in the country where two big-time public radio stations go head-to-head on news? Can’t think of one.” Here are a few (though I’d broaden the answer beyond “news,” since WBUR isn’t just that):

All with qualifications, of course. In some cases you can add in Pacifica (which, even though my hero Larry Josephson once called it a “foghorn for political correctness,” qualifies as competition). Still, my point is that there is room for more than one mostly-talk (or news) public radio station in most well-populated regions. Even in Boston, where WBUR has been king of the hill for many years. Hey, other things being equal (and they never are), the biggest signal still tends to win. And in Boston, WGBH has a bigger signal than WBUR: almost 100,000 watts vs. 12,000 watts. WBUR radiates from a higher elevaiton, but its signal is directional. On AM that means it’s stronger than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others; but on FM it means no more than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others. See the FCC’s relative field polar plot to see how WBUR’s signal is dented in every direction other than a stretch from just west of North to Southeast. In other words, toward all but about a third of its coverage area. To sum up, WGBH has a much punchier signal. I’m sure the GBH people also have this in mind when they think about how they’ll compete with BUR.

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New England is full of ruins. Woods everywhere are veined with stone walls, relics of an agrarian age that ended when the industrial one began. Shipping canals, which were thick with horse-drawn cargo when the Thoreau brothers rowed past them up the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, were abandoned once railroads did the same job better. Mills along canals and rivers have long since been torn down or turned into museums, stores or condos. Bypassed by cars and trucks on highways, old railroad beds have lost their easements or turned into bike trails.

So now what happens to radio and TV — two more old industries with landmarks on landscapes? I visited the subject to some degree over in Linux Journal yesterday, with What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came? Here I want to go farther, and look at an industry we know is going to die — and to start doing it well before the end arrives.

AM radio, which operates on such low frequencies that signals are radiated by entire broadcast towers, are built as single or multi-tower “arrays” sitting on buried conductors: “ground systems” that can take up more space in soil than their towers occupy in the air above. Most of these facilities were built between the 20s and 80s. Since then scarce land and environmental restrictions have slowed their spread. I would add that available frequencies are also scarce, but that hasn’t stopped the FCC from easing rules, over and over, turning the band at night (when signals bounce off the sky to reach hundreds of miles from their transmitters) into wall-to-wall hash.

FM radio has only been around in a serious way since the 1950s. Operating on a VHF band, where the antennas themselves don’t need to be large (as they do on AM), FM does best when radiated from altitude, meaning the tops of mountains, buildings and high towers. Some of the latter grow to the legal limit of 2000 feet.

With its VHF and UHF signals, television also requires transmission from altitude. When you see a very high tower standing on landscape, or a bristle of short towers atop mountains and skyscrapers, you’re looking at sources of TV, FM or both. A huge percentage of the world’s tallest masts (a category that includes buildings and towers) stand in the U.S., and many are the full 2000-foot height. Most were built for TV stations. (Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of these. Also of tower collapses — a remarkably long list.)

The first set of these to go the way of ship canals is low-band VHF TV. That is, channels 2-6. After June 12, no antenna broadcasting on those channels in the U.S. will continue to operate. Most high-band VHF TV channels — ones operating on channels 7-13 — will also be abandoned, though a few will continue to transmit digital signals. All stations that formerly occupied channels 2-6 will move to a UHF channel (14 to 50).

Old analog TV transmitters are mostly worthless and can’t be re-purposed. (Here’s an excellent piece on that subject, from The Current.)

What I’m wondering about are the towers. The Current’s story suggests that they’re too expensive to take down (not worth enough in scrap), and that most will be re-purposed in any case.

I don’t think so.

It might be easy enough to re-purpose a few former Channel 2 or Channel 4 towers. But what happens when AM and FM transmission is obsoleted by webcasting? This hasn’t happened yet. There are many architectural and UI challenges, plus the added legal burden of copyright restrictions, which are much tougher on music broadcast on the Web than on the air (at least in the U.S.) But the end will come. The brightest writing on the wall right now is the Public Radio Tuner, a project of CPB and several public radio organizations. Last I heard (disclosure: I’m involved in the project), downloads of the free tuner for iPhone were past 1.6 million. This and other tuners, on the iPhone and other portable devices, will account for more and more listening, especially as more cell phone data plans take the ceilings off data consumption — as AT&T has already done for the iPhone.

Some have suggested that TV and FM towers can be re-purposed for cellular use, and to some degree that’s true. But cellular coverage requires many sites at low elevations, rather than a few at high elevations. As one Cisco guy told me, “they might be able to lease out the bottom 200 feet” of a tower.

Still, ends always come, and The End is in sight for over-the-air radio as well as TV. Then what?

Bonus linkage: Scott Fybush‘s amazing series of visits to broadcast towers, over many years; and a few of my own photos of transmitting sites, many shot from altitude. Also the blog and tweets of George Clark, both of which led to this digression.

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Digging KGSR

Until I hit SCAN on the little radio I carry with me on trips, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed KGSR/107.1 the last time I was here at SXSW. They’ve added some power since then (up from 39kw to 49kw), but their stream still plays hard-to-get. There appears to be no .mp3 stream coming from the station (so forget using it on iPhones*), and one can only listen live in the browser, with a pop-up window that doesn’t work (at least for me).

They do note that they are in “HD”, which is audible only on a few expensive radios that almost nobody has, since the radio industry decided that HD needed to be a proprietary play, coming to the world only by grace of a company called Ibiquity. I could get started, but it’s not worth it. (Go here and click on “buy a radio” and see what happens.)

Anyway, if you’re in town, give it a spin. As I said three years ago here, great radio lives.

*[Later...] Thanks to Rod K, I am now listening to KGSR on my iPhone. WunderGround Radio did cost $5.99, and it took me awhile to find where in the app’s vast directory tree the radio listings were stored, but once I got there I was very impressed. And quite surprised that one can listen to a Windows Media stream. I sit corrected on that.

I still wish KGSR also had an .mp3 stream, but it’s still good to be able to hear them in any case.

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One reason I got the iPhone was that it’s GSM. Meaning it should work outside the U.S. I also thought I had a plan with AT&T that allowed that. Well, now I’m in Europe and my iPhone just says “Searching…”. Did it in Frankfurt, and does it in London.

Anybody have any clues for a fix on this?

[Later...] Fixed. See comments below, and thanks to everybody.

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