Networked Publics and the iPhone

I’ve been delighted by the reception that the Infrastructural City has received. The entire press run sold out in 3 1/2 months. A less expensive paperback edition is on the boat from Europe and we hope that it’ll be in bookstores by the start of fall semester.*

Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that the Infrastructural City has overshadowed Networked Publics. And, since the latter is in the bookstores now, maybe its a good time to take a look? Networked Publics, which we produced as a research project at the Annenberg Center for Communication is composed of four chapters—place, culture, politics, and infrastructure—as well as an introduction by Mizuko Ito and my conclusion which lays the foundation for further work  on network culture. The book content is complimented by a Web site that we developed during the Networked Publics research year. You can visit it at networkedpublics.org

Just as the issues we brought up in the Infrastructural City have proved topical this year, so have the issues in Networked Publics. This week, I’m struck by the importance of the chapter on Infrastructure written by François Bar, Walter Baer, Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, and Fernando Ordonez. The authors raised the question of network neutrality as a major infrastructural challenge and indeed, even with all the diversion about OMA-designed windmills and Zaha Hadid-designed sewers, I have to agree. The question at stake in network neutrality is whether we legislate networks to be open so that they allow any applications to be run over them. Or will we let Internet Service Providers make that decision for us? When we were drafting Networked Publics, this discussion took place around the provision of broadband cable, dsl, and fiber. Today, however, the debate has reached wireless or rather, the iPhone.

Congress is currently discussing whether carrier lock in of phones (read: the iPhone) is desirable on a national level (is there anyone out there who likes AT&T?) while the Copyright Office is examining whether it should be legal to jailbreak devices like iPhones to circumvent the monopoly that Apple holds on the distribution of iPhone applications. In the meantime, after Google submitted an application to allow for the use of its new Google Voice technology on the iPhone, Apple not only rejected the application but retroactively banned third-party applications that gave Google Voice users an interface to the iPhone. Now its worth mentioning that all Google Voice does is let you forward calls to your iPhone or dial out via the Google Voice interface. You still talk over AT&T’s wireless network, although if you are dialing long distance you avoid their astronomical fees and you can also bypass AT&T’s maniacal SMS charges, although without the background notification that normal SMS messages deliver.   

Concerned that Apple’s actions were capricious and damaging to free trade, the FCC just sent letters to Apple and AT&T. You can read about these here. The stakes are high. If Apple wins any of these battles, and I certainly hope they do not, it will be a disappointing blow to network neutrality and to future innovation, particularly on the iPhone. 

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the next big plateau

Now that I’ve had the second revision of iPhone software for a month and an iPhone 3G for two weeks, I’ve had time to live in the promised land of locative media. Applications on my iPhone allow me to annotate the area I’m in and read notes by other users, to locate my friends, to see what Flickr images were taken in the area, what restaurants, gas stations, or whatever are nearby, or look up the area I’m in on Wikipedia.

So finally this sort of technology is here in easy-to-use form on a mass-market handheld product. In anticipation of this being the "next big thing," it seems, there has been a rush toward locative media, mobile Internet platforms, and ubiquitous computing. First the dot.com boom, then Web 2.0, now the mobile, locative net.

But having this stuff in my hand is deeply anticlimatic. Retrieving information tied to a location is turning out not to have much of an impact on my perception of it. Maybe in a few years, when the amount of geotagged data out there is huge (I dream of chow.com being geotagged) and aggregatable (right now information is divided up between different information providers—Yelp, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc.—and searches need to be made repeatedly) things will be different, but I doubt it. Walter Benjamin’s old dream of being able to see a place’s history superimposed upon it seems to have come too late.

I apologize for the disagreement or depression the next statement will induce in developers (and architects), but my sense is that now, of all times in recent history, developing new technologies is a backwards move. Our ability do retrieve infromation is all but ubiquitous now. The real developments are going to be in the way that society changes—in terms of finance, sexuality, politics, urbanism and so on—and these kind of transformations are going to be bottom-up. The horoscope for savvy developers, then, is to carefully tune what you’re already doing, but find ways to tread water. We’ve had a tremendous technological run. The next few years are going to be a plateau. If I’m correct that we have yet to see the economy tank, then it might be a decade of this.

With that in mind, it’s time to begin scratching out the outline for the Network Culture book in what remains of the summer. I hope that much of that can be done on the blog, but time will tell.

 

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locative media is here

I’ve been playing with version 2.0 of the iPhone firmware for a few hours already and am impressed.

For too long, locative media has been deferred into the near future, but now, overnight everything changed: a widely-used handheld platform can deliver a large (and growing) array of information swiftly and efficiently (yelp, hotels.com, and even the yellow pages can do this now). Some of this information (such as the nearpics application that draws on photographs at panoramio) is even user-uploaded.

Now secondary questions arise: is this kind of information going to be limited to walled gardens within individual applications or will developers find ways of exchanging this information between databases (as openid promises for identity). Is this kind of interaction between informatic and physical space a minor tweak of an existing relationship to networkedpublics.org/book/place or is it something else entirely? What sort of radical applications can this platform spawn?

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Update: Tim O’Reilly on iPhone as E-book Reader

Back in January, Tim O'Reilly agreed that the iPhone would make a great e-book reader.

The infrastructure for selling .pdf e-books is already in iTunes. All Apple has to do is make .pdf downloads available to the iPhone. I can only imagine that they are working on a better .pdf reader prior to doing that.

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iphone or networked book reader?

Last year, longtime readers of this blog will note, I did some work with the Institute for the Future of the Book. One of the things that we were always talking about was the failure of all previous dedicated electronic book readers.

Well, that may have come to an end on Friday.

It is remarkably comfortable to read text on the iPhone. The screen is small, but it is 160 dpi, roughly double what a conventional screen has and about 1/2 the dpi of a printed page. At 320 x 480, the screen is quite a bit smaller than than, say the Sony Reader 's 600 x 400, but instead of the latter's 4 level grayscale screen, it is capable of displaying thousands, if not millions of colors under its optical quality glass. The iPhone's zooming and navigation features work remarkably well for browsing texts, even multi-column texts and pulling out the iPhone to read on the subway is easier than reading the paper, let alone reading text from one's laptop. Of course if the iPhone were double or triple the size, say the size of a Moleskine notebook, it would be perfect for this. But then it wouldn't be a phone.

Perversely however, the iPhone lacks the ability to download text or PDF documents to it so I am condemned to posting them to a private web site and downloading them via Safari in order to read them. But if e-book readers have always failed—partly because they were too limited in their functions, the iPhone's stealthy approach to the e-book may be precisely what was needed.

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First Impressions: the iPhone, Proficiency, and the Internet as Appliance

Being the Director of the Netlab means that I have to try anything being touted as a fundamentally new way of networking, right? Of course, it doesn't mean that the Netlab pays, unless by that you mean that I pay!

So what are my first impressions?

To be sure, this is a paradigm shift. The gestural aspect of the Interface seems to work well. Assigning some rough values to proficiency, I would say that I am about 70% proficient with it now, whereas I might be 98% proficient with my Mac's interface and ever only reached 95% with my Treo.The difference between 95 and 98 may be small, but it's big enough that whenever I used the Treo, I felt like I wasn't at home. That was significant. In contrast, there's something about drawing pens that doesn't work for me. Whenever I use one, my hand cramps up and I've never been able to get beyond 75% on them. In other words, they're unusable. The first big test of the iPhone is how quickly I will get used to the interface.

In certain ways the interface is contradictory: on the one hand, web pages are rendered as exquisite miniatures that you zoom in on to read, on the other hand, settings pages have inordinately large text for such a small device, making it necessary to navigate multiple menus to accomplish a task.

An obvious solution would be for the user to have some access to the settings, but this isn't possible. There is definitely a locked-down feeling on the phone compared to my Treo. On the Treo I was limited in my options, but I had them. For example, I could set up my screen as a set of icons or as a list. Not so on the iPhone. The most frustrating aspects of the Treo was the phone application which was impossible to configure. The iPhone is entirely like that, which is disappointing, except that unlike anything Palm has done in the last few years there is some sense of design here.

Now on to another, serious issue that has larger implications beyond the iPhone. Over the last few years, it's become rather common to see the Internet as a place of media convergence and the web as the means by which this will happen. In particular, open APIs such as Google Maps, Amazon, or Flickr have allowed programmers to build applications that remix online content in a plethora of way, some ludicrous, some, like hopstop.

The iPhone's interface undoes this completely. If you go to a YouTube site in iPhone's Safari, a notice that you either have javascript turned off or an old flash player appears instead of a video. Quicktime videos from Apple's web site work great (perfect for watching trailers from Apple's web site!), but flash doesn't play. And of course you can't download anything so forget about trying to install Skype or Google Earth.

To be fair, I still remember the bad old days when every architect had to have a flash site built. All of these were equally wretched and I welcome another nail in that coffin. But the the iPhone has reinscribed the isolated nature of flash sites. The widget based nature of the device suggests that Apple sees a future in single purpose applications for the web. Really the weather and stock applications (who needs the latter, really?)—front ends to Yahoo! services—aren't much different. So what's next, Wikipedia and Flickr widgets? Certainly I have nothing against such projects when they make Internet resources easier to access, but in the iPhone's closed architecture they suggest that Apple will lock down the web into a series of discreet applications with Apple the arbiter of who gets to be a provider (read provides a sexy widget and good corporate sponsorship).

The iPhone is less than a day old and Apple was scrambling just to get it out the door, but the device clearly will make the Internet a true mobile platform for the first time. How this will play out, however, is far from certain.

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