Jeff Jarvis

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Al Jazeera story

Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English *now* Jeff Jarvis commands, correctly, on his blog — and also in , under the headine . For me now was a few minutes ago, when I read both items on the family iPad, which has been our main news portal since the quit coming and I suspended my efforts to reach them by Web or phone. (The Globe also wants a bunch of ID crap when I go there on the iPad, so they’re silent that way too.) So I went to the App store, looked up , saw something called Al Jazeera English Live was available for free, got it, and began watching live protest coverage from Cairo.

We don’t have cable here. We dumped it after network news turned to shit, and we found it was easier to watch movies on Netflix. We still like to watch sports, but cable for sports alone is too expensive, because it’s always bundled with junk we don’t want and not available à la carte. (You know, like stuff is on the Web.) When we want TV news, we go online or get local TV through an gizmo plugged into an old Mac laptop. Works well, but it’s still TV.

And so is Al Jazeera on an iPad/iPhone, Samsung Wave or a Nokia phone. (See details. No Android or Blackberry yet, appaerently.) The difference is that real news s happening in Egypt, and if you want live news coverage in video form, Al Jazeera is your best choice. As Jeff puts it, “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”

And it’s very good. , “If you’re watching Al Jazeera, you’re seeing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations, along with reporting from people actually on the scene, and not “analysis” from people in a studio. The cops were threatening to knock down the door of one of its reporters minutes ago. Fox has moved on to anchor babies. CNN reports that the ruling party building is on fire, but Al Jazeera is showing the fire live.”

In fact six Al Jazeera journalists are now being detained (I just learned). That kind of thing happens when your news organization is actually involved in a mess like this. CNN used to be that kind of organization, but has been in decline for years, along with other U.S. network news organizations. As Jeff says, “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.”

And that’s a Good Thing, because cable is a mostly shit in a pipe, sphinctered through a “set top box” that’s actually a computer crippled in ways that maximize control by the cable company and minimize choice for the user. Fifteen years ago, the promise of TV was “five hundred channels”. We have that now, but we also have billions of sources — not just “channels” — over the Net. Cream rises to the top, and right now that cream is Al Jazeera and the top is a hand-held device.

The message cable should be getting is not just “carry Al Jazeera,” but “normalize to the Internet.” Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles. Let your market — your viewers — decide what’s worth watching, and how they want to watch it. And quit calling Internet video “over the top”. The Internet is the new bottom, and old-fashioned channel-based TV is a limping legacy.

A few days ago, President Obama spoke about the country’s “Sputnik moment”. Well, that’s what Al Jazeera in Egypt is for cable TV. It’s a wake-up call from the future. In that future we’ll realize that TV is nothing more than a glowing rectangle with a boat-anchor business model. Time to cut that anchor and move on.

Here’s another message from the future, from one former cable TV viewer: I’d gladly pay for Al Jazeera. Even when I can also get it for free. All we need is the mechanism, and I’m glad to help with that.

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I was just interviewed for a BBC television feature that will run around the same time the iPad is launched. I’ll be a talking head, basically. For what it’s worth, here’s what I provided as background for where I’d be coming from in the interview:

  1. The iPad will arrive in the market with an advantage no other completely new computing device for the mass market has ever enjoyed: the ability to run a 100,000-app portfolio that’s already developed, in this case for the iPhone. Unless the iPad is an outright lemon, this alone should assure its success.
  2. The iPad will launch a category within which it will be far from the only player. Apple’s feudal market-control methods (all developers and customers are trapped within its walled garden) will encourage competitors that lack the same limitations. We should expect other hardware companies to launch pads running on open source operating systems, especially Android and Symbian. (Disclosure: I consult Symbian.) These can support much larger markets than Apple’s closed and private platforms alone will allow.
  3. The first versions of unique hardware designs tend to be imperfect and get old fast. Such was the case with the first iPods and iPhones, and will surely be the case with the first iPads as well. The ones being introduced next week will seem antique one year from now.
  4. Warning to competitors: copying Apple is always a bad idea. The company is an example only of itself. There is only one Steve Jobs, and nobody else can do what he does. Fortunately, he only does what he can control. The rest of the market will be out of his control, and it will be a lot bigger than what fits inside Apple’s beautiful garden.

I covered some of that, and added a few things, which I’ll enlarge with a quick brain dump:

  1. The iPad brings to market a whole new form factor that has a number of major use advantages over smartphones, laptops and netbooks, the largest of which is this: it fits in a purse or any small bag — where it doesn’t act just like any of those other devices. (Aside from running all those iPhone apps.) It’s easy and welcoming to use — and its uses are not subordinated, by form, to computing or telephony. It’s an accessory to your own intentions. This is an advantage that gets lost amidst all the talk about how it’s little more than a new display system for “content.”
  2. My own fantasy for tablets is interactivity with the everyday world. Take retailing for example. Let’s say you syndicate your shopping list, but only to trusted retailers, perhaps through a fourth party (one that works to carry out your intentions, rather than sellers’ — though it can help you engage with them). You go into Target and it gives you a map of the store, where the goods you want are, and what’s in stock, what’s not, and how to get what’s mising, if they’re in a position to help you with that. You can turn their promotions on or off, and you can choose, using your own personal terms of service, what data to share with them, what data not to, and conditions of that data’s use. Then you can go to Costco, the tire store, and the university library and do the same. I know it’s hard to imagine a world in which customers don’t have to belong to loyalty programs and submit to coercive and opaque terms of data use, but it will happen, and it has a much better chance of happening faster if customers are independent and have their own tools for engagement. Which are being built. Check out what Phil Windley says here about one approach.
  3. Apple works vertically. Android, Symbian, Linux and other open OSes, with the open hardware they support, work horizonally. There is a limit to how high Apple can build its walled garden, nice as it will surely be. There is no limit to how wide everybody else can make the rest of the marketplace. For help imagining this, see Dave Winer’s iPad as a Coral Reef.
  4. Content is not king, wrote Andrew Oldyzko in 2001. And he’s right. Naturally big publishers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Condé Nast, the Book People) think so. Their fantasy is the iPad as a hand-held newsstand (where, as with real-world newsstands, you have to pay for the goods). Same goes for the TV and movie people, who see the iPad as a replacement for their old distribution systems (also for pay). No doubt these are Very Big Deals. But how the rest of us use iPads (and other tablets) is a much bigger deal. Have you thought about how you’ll blog, or whatever comes next, on an iPad? Or on any tablet? Does it only have to be in a browser? What about using a tablet as a production device, and not just an instrument of consumption? I don’t think Apple has put much thought into this, but others will, outside Apple’s walled garden. You should too. That’s because we’re at a juncture here. A fork in the road. Do we want the Internet to be broadcasting 2.0 — run by a few content companies and their allied distributors? Or do we want it to be the wide open marketplace it was meant to be in the first place, and is good for everybody? (This is where you should pause and read what Cory Doctorow and Dave Winer say about it.)
  5. We’re going to see a huge strain on the mobile data system as iPads and other tablets flood the world. Here too it will matter whether the mobile phone companies want to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, or just conduits for their broadcasting and content production partners. (Or worse, old fashioned phone companies, treating and billing data in the same awful ways they bill voice.) There’s more money in the former than the latter, but the latter are their easy pickings. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

I also deal with all this in a longer post that will go up elsewhere. I’ll point to it here when it comes up. Meanwhile, dig this post by Dave Winer and this one by Jeff Jarvis.

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