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The Good Experience Review of Bits, 2002/2003

Friday, January 10, 2003
by Mark Hurst

The biggest technology story of 2002, in my opinion, was the exponential increase in the number of bits and bitstreams engaged by Net users worldwide. Not just sp-m mail, which got the most attention, but all bitstreams.

In 2003 these bits will continue to increase exponentially, driven by the good experience - that is, the ease-of-use - of their publishing tools.

Therefore, to predict the upcoming year while looking back at the last, Good Experience presents this, the 2002/2003 Review of Bits.

Below are the most important bitstreams that increased in 2002 and will continue to increase in 2003.

Music bits

Music bits have proliferated because of the ease-of-use of new MP3 players, such as the Apple iPod, and "ripping" software, such as Apple's iTunes. It's now easy to centralize music bits onto one device, as opposed to the dozens or hundreds of plastic devices that most people have managed for several years - their CD collections. File-shares like Kazaa still thrive, helping to fuel the popularity of these bits and their players.

Online radio managed to survive 2002. A Congressional effort led by Jesse Helms saved webcasters from the worst of the royalty rates, but Web radio will never be the same as it was in the early, royalty-free years.

Salon on Jesse Helms, Web radio's hero.

Outbound music bits - creating and mixing new music - are still outside the reach of most users. This is due to the lack of ease-of-use in available publishing tools and the lack of users' compositional skills (relative to, say, photography or writing). This isn't likely to change soon.

For 2003: The consolidation of music bits onto single devices will continue, and will drive demand for the acquisition and storage of more music bits (via CD purchases, file-shares like Kazaa, or simply borrowing friends' CDs). The increase in storage capacity on player-devices will drive even more acquisition.

My own experience bears this out: Since I bought a 20-gig iPod a few months ago, I've bought more CDs than I have in years. There's something about the iPod's gaping, available space that makes it seem hungry for more music.

Photo bits

2002 saw a rise in photo bits, but nothing like what's in store for 2003. This year we'll see much wider adoption of mobile phones with cameras attached, allowing any user to take a picture, anywhere, anytime. Once again convenience is the trump card: I carried a cell phone and a small camera (the Canon Elph 100) throughout 2002, taking many more pictures, but most users won't want the hassle of dealing with two separate devices. The camera-phone has great potential, and given a reasonable price, its popularity will hinge entirely on the ease-of-use of its user interface.

An important consideration here is the interface of uploading photos - whether to a PC, a friend's camera-phone, or a "photolog" like (see below). In most cases it's still too hard today for average camera users to upload their photos.

Text bits

Text bits are supremely important on the Web, and getting more so. E-mail, IM, and weblogs - text-based online diaries - fit this category. As with other bits, their popularity is in direct proportion to the ease-of-use of the tools. Given that most users have a desire to type to someone (a friend, a stranger, a weblog reader), the only possible barrier to widespread popularity is a hard-to-use publishing tool. E-mail and IM dropped this barrier; weblogs are beginning to do the same.

Weblogs deserve a special mention because they finally gained mainstream prominence in 2002. The ultimate reason for their spread was the increased ease-of-use of the publishing tools. Many more users, possibly in the millions, will start weblogs in 2003, as major online services and ISPs inevitably roll out consumer-friendly weblog tools.

In terms of market activity, weblogs are quickly becoming today's version of the Geocities home page: lots of press buzz, lots of Net activity, and unknown market value. One thing is for sure: We won't see a repeat of May 1999, when Yahoo bought Geocities for $5,000,000,000 in stock. That's five -b-illion, if you're counting.

Still, weblogs are worth watching, for three reasons:

1. Weblogs are here to stay, not a fad. Like the Geocities-style homepage, people (to varying degrees) will maintain weblogs for years to come.

2. A small subset of the weblogs in existence are high-quality publications, well worth reading. Unlike the bottom 99.999% of all weblogs, the top 100 or so weblogs will command huge readership, press attention, and possibly, eventually, some revenue. Hundreds or thousands of niche-oriented weblogs will also thrive. Less popular weblogs will tend to link to the same top sites, thereby securing the popularity of the elites.

Here's one list of the top weblogs today.

3. This third reason is the most important, the greatest value of weblogs: they're leading to other kinds of advances that will become noteworthy in themselves. Examples are photologs (weblogs made of photos), "moblogs" (weblogs created via mobile device, like a PDA), and my favorite, meta-blogs like Blogdex and Daypop, which are indispensable guides to what webloggers are linking to every day.

So yes, weblogs are important, especially to the top 100 authors and their readers. Past that, count the weblog as an important R&D lab for future Web innovations.

As for other, non-weblog text bits: E-mail and IM had their own news stories in 2002. IM is undergoing standards battles. E-mail continues to be dominated by spam, which of course gained prominence because of the ease-of-use, and low price, of sending e-mail. The industry will continue to hack away at the sp-m problem in 2003. For now, the best solution I know of is to filter and delete it: see my free e-mail management report.

Life bits

Someday we'll be able to record everything around us, all day, and refer back to it later - for family archives, educational uses, obscenely detailed weblogs, and many other uses (imagine it as evidence in the courtroom).

2003 will see the beginnings, in garages and R&D labs, of this "life bitstream" - bits that are captured by devices attached to the user throughout their daily life. These bits are most likely to be video (from a video camera strapped to a backpack, say) or audio (from an attached microphone). They will stream constantly to be collected online, or in a local storage device (a hard drive kept at home).

Microsoft has already begun developing such a technology, under the name of MyLifeBits. Wired News reports that Microsoft wants this to be a "database application that would form part of the MS operating system." Considering the poor usability of Microsoft Access, the company's database product, I doubt I'd entrust the company with the sum of my life's digitized experiences - not to mention the obvious question marks around privacy, security, ownership, and other little details. (Almost NoneOfMyBits are in Microsoft format today, and I see no reason to change.)

Alternatives to Microsoft are already starting. One comes from Steve Mann, who used to lurk in the MIT Media Lab in the mid-90s wearing a bulky cyborg outfit, recording everything he saw. Now at University of Toronto, he and his team have created a line of "conspicuously concealed cameras" - in backpacks, necklaces, even a tank top (you'll understand when you see it).

Of course, the various devices users already carry - mobile phones with cameras attached, PDA's, hiptops, and the rest - are slowly creating a life-bits platform today. I may not capture a constant stream of every experience during my day, but I can choose certain moments to photo, video, or record. Within a few years we'll have the ability to do much more.

. . .

Also worth reading: the Guardian's technology predictions for 2003.

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