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December 31, 2003
[ A Way Forward For RSS Content ]

RSS is one of those technologies that's hard to explain to casual users of the Internet. When you tell them they can have their news and site updates in the form of a feed, direct to their desktop, they usually ask

a) can't I do that already? I thought I could do that already.
b) you mean like email? I don't want more programs on my computer. Or
c) OK, sounds good but what kind of things can I get?

Don't get me wrong. RSS, or something like it, is the future. But it's a hard sell to folk who haven't downloaded a program in their life (more people than you're care to imagine; I wonder what the stats on that look like), or to folk who are so worn out by spam they don't want to sift through more bits and pieces arriving on the computer. But even if people do like the sound of it, RSS still doesn't lend itself to grabbing information. It's great for folks looking to read what other people are writing, or even keeping up to speed on general news, but it doesn't quite have the customisation necessary to lure ordinary folk. Not everyone considers reading blogs in another format to be their idea of fun.

This may be changing (not the idea of fun, the customisation of RSS.) Klips, an RSS-type desktop feed from Serence, have introduced modules that include feeds of more specific, user-defined data, allowing you to track selected currencies, UPS and FedEx packages and stocks. (While I love the design and simplicity of Klips, I don't think they work for large bodies of information, such as blogs and news, so expect to see Klips move more and more in the direction of small clumps of changing data, such as traffic reports, flight departure and arrival times, or hot deals, scattered around your desktop.)

RSS could do a lot of this too, but so far hasn't. You can harvest a lot of information via RSS but most of it is passive: You can't tailor it too much. Either take the feed or don't. This will change, and already is beginning to, thanks in part to a guy called Mikel Maron from the University of Sussex. He's come up with a way to deliver some of the personalized data from your My Yahoo! account to an RSS feed, a neat trick that arose from his university studies. (If you're interested in the technical aspects, here they are in PDF form.) So far his feed -- which is not related to Yahoo! in any way -- can handle market quotes, weather and movie listing, depending on how you've configured your Yahoo! account. But of course his approach offers great potential for funnelling all sorts of personalized data straight to your RSS browser. Let's hope Yahoo! support, or even buy, Mikel's efforts.

(Thanks to Chris Pirillo's LockerGnome RSS Resource for pointing out Mikel's site.)


December 30, 2003
[ Goodbye To The Browser? ]

Here's some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It's become harder to distinguish when you're on the Internet, blurring the lines between what's sitting on the desktop and what's coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn't get confused by the data. This doesn't mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there's been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products -- say Microsoft Word 2003's Research Pane, for example -- so it's clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We're not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I'd like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It's deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen's. I'd also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don't have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become 'part of the desktop' let's try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.


[ Online Holiday Spending Throws Up Some Kinks ]

I think we might have said this last year (and the year before) but this holiday appears to have been the Big One for spending online. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings ('the eSpending Report') the total amount spent online was $15.8 billion, up a whopping 37% from 2002. (They don't say this was in the U.S., but I'm assuming it is.)

There's some interesting ticklers in the details too: While every category went up, a lot more was spent on practically everything except music this year. While folk seemed to spent a lot on clothes ($3.1 billion spent, up 40% over 2002), the biggest increase was in DVD and video ($1.4 billion, up 58%), a jump that could be explained largely by the rising popularity in DVD players, one of the biggest selling consumer items this year.

But it's the meagre 20% rise in online music spending that gets me. They splashed out only $790 million this year -- a bit more than half of what they spent on books or video. Now while some of this discrepancy may be blamed on the rise of the DVD -- they weren't available in such numbers last year, they're usually sold in the same store as music CDs -- it doesn't really hold water when you compare it to the books category, which has been available for years online (at least 1996, if not earlier) and yet also showed an impressive 39% growth, with folk spending $1.4 billion on tomes this year. Could this either be a sign of the lingering appeal of online file sharing, suspicion about the spread of 'hobbling technologies' that restrict usage of CDs, or a growing lack of interest in what is on offer at current prices?

I've asked Nielsen for more data, so perhaps there's another explanation for this.


December 29, 2003
[ Some (Not So) Light Reading ]

For those of you easing back into work after the holidays, or stuck in the office before the New Year partying begins, here are some suggestions for Internet reading.

The future of Microsoft: Is 2004 going to be Redmond's swansong? Some people think so, including The Inquirer, which says that the company's flat first quarter earnings are a sign "it is running low on wiggle room, the core customers are negotiating hard, and Microsoft is giving way". Interesting, if somewhat aggressive, reading. For the usual Slashdot discussion of the topic, go here. Certainly it's going to be a difficult year for Microsoft, and one way the company may go is to try to further lock in users to its formats -- Word, audio, Excel, whatever -- and to lock other software companies out.

That's also the tack that veteran commentator Steve Gillmor believes Apple is taking with its iPod. He points out that what was once a MP3 player is now threatening to be a lot more than that, from a PDA to a video device (to a handphone, as well). But Gillmor also points out that this is part of a bigger battle to try to establish one kind of Digital Rights Management over another. (This basically is a legal and software trick that limits your freedom to copy or alter files, whether they're music, words or pictures. Say your version of Microsoft Word supported DRM, you may find yourself unable, say, to copy a document you're viewing, or to save it in another format, or, more insidiously, unable to access a Word document composed in a non-Microsoft program, say, Open Office. DRM effectively removes the kind of supremacy you've enjoyed over what you own: In music, for example, DRM would mean you rent rather than own your CD collection.)

Gillmor discusses Apple's approach, which is slightly different, but with seemingly similar goals: To lock the consumer into using a proprietary format. I think consumers will -- and should -- fight any attempt to limit access to their files, whether they be music, words, pictures or movies, tooth and nail. Legitimate fears of piracy and security should not allow any corporation to dictate the size or make of wall protecting us (look at e-voting for the lessons we should learn on that.). This year will define where we go on this issue. Or as Mr Gillmor says: "With the election looming as a referendum on issues of security, rights and opportunity, and the Internet emerging as a major player for the first time, DRM may be democracy's Last Waltz."





about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

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