Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Disappointed but not Surprised

Over the weekend I noticed that my DirecTV TiVo DVR wouldn't let me pause or "replay" XM radio stations. Clicking pause or flashback brought the "error beep" and an on-screen message that this functionality was unavailable for audio-only programming.

I am not sure if that is a new change subsequent to their switch to XM for music, or if it has always been part of the TiVo software on their boxes, but I couldn't help laughing at how ridiculous it was. Most likely they are preventing "digital recording" of the audio channels as some sort of protection against imagined piracy.

The reasons I laughed are these -- top reasons why a DirecTV TiVo DVR is not a piracy threat:
  1. Although the box has a S/PDIF digital audio output, the audio is compressed in transmission to the satellite receiver, so it's not as if some magical studio-pristine copy of the audio is there on the box.
  2. DirecTV TiVo units (unlike Series 2 TiVos) do not allow an ethernet adapter to be added on, or saved files to be removed from the unit. So pirating anything off of the box would have to be done by playing the file back in real time!
  3. Every DirecTV satellite receiver (at least every legal one) has a smartcard with a unique ID and account information. Since activity on the DirecTV box doesn't even pretend to be anonymous or unobserved, it's not the most appealing channel for doing anything illegal or inappropriate.
  4. Since DirecTV owns the box, they could always restrict the unit if it were being used excessively for audio recording and replay in a way that looked suspicious (although, as already explained, it's hardly a practical or appealing way to do anything like that)
  5. In the last case, they could always watermark the media on the unit and allow customers to do whatever they want, figuring that (a) most customers wouldn't do anything remotely inappropriate if they know the media is traceable to their account (and bill!) and (b) anyone sophisticated enough to remove watermarking would be getting their media somewhere else in the first place.
  6. Unlike the TV and movie channels, the audio channels do not publish a time-based "guide" listing each program or song that will be played. So it would not be possible to plan a recording of a particular song. Basically, the would-be pirate is like a 1980s teenager making a mix tape off an FM stereo. This guy (or gal) would have to either sit there waiting for the song to come on, and Quick! Press record! or else they'd have to record hours of content and then play it back in real time and chop it up on a computer.
I love this whole scenario because it shows just how silly the whole thing is. My DVR has specific features and UI in it that basically amount to guaranteeing that when my 21-month-old hears banjo music he likes, I can't press pause or rewind. Welcome to the 21st century.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Change in Context Does not Require Rebuilding the World

I love YubNub.

Besides just being very cool in a geeky way, it's got a lot in common with Skip. The interface that YubNub exposes to the user (a "command line for the Internet") and the Skip interface (a "click interface for getting things done with a phone") are diametrically opposed. YubNub is about typing out commands, while the Skip interface avoids typing at all costs. So it's not that part.

What Skip and YubNub have in common is the idea of adapting some of the great applications out there for a new context -- without rebuilding massive parts of those applications from the ground up.

YubNub rocks when your context involves keeping both hands on the keyboard. Maybe you're working in various console windows, or you're a writer or a reporter. I'd love to have this under a hotkey in Microsoft Word (maybe someone's already written the plugin). I type in a command like "gim porsche 911" and *bam* pictures of Porsche 911s. YubNub is extensible and has the notion of pipes and filters. So maybe I want to insert a picture of a 911 into my Word doc -- I could execute the search in such a way as to return just the first image, copy, paste, done. In the keyboard/console context, this is a powerful way to access anything that lives on the other end of a URL.

Skip does something similar, for the no-keyboard, no-typing context you're in while sitting at a stoplight or running from airport parking to catch a plane. We don't want to rebuild all of the airline checkin applications, limo reservation systems, or fast food point-of-sale systems in the world just to make them "mobile."

We'd rather build a context-specialized application that knows just enough about what you're trying to do to make it a whole lot easier, and lets companies get the transaction systems they've already built and operationalized literally into their customers' hands.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

It's Not a Tumor ... er Toaster

HCI specialists have metaphors they like to use to describe how products can be made more usable. One of these metaphors is the toaster. They may explain how a complex copy machine, or a PC printer, should behave more like a toaster. You should be able to walk up to one you've never seen before, be able to tell what goes in what hole, press a lever, and reasonable default behavior should pop out a minute later.

Now this is fabulous Crossing the Chasm advice. But the early adopters don't buy toasters -- they buy electrical thermal-transfer bread processing systems. They are interested in the options in the print dialog box -- or to use a literal example, my friend's ancient toaster (an early adopter toaster, as it were) had a tuning screw on the bottom which could be adjusted to calibrate the toaster such that the color of the toasted bread exactly matched the color on the enamel toast darkness selector.

So what's my point?

I recently got to try a Roomba home vacuuming robot. The robot, an interesting piece of technology from a company that clearly makes some hard-core gear, came with about a 4-page instruction booklet. The instructions try to follow a toaster model: simple, clean, "nothing complicated here" -- push "Clean" and go. But it's not a toaster, it's a domestic robot! Like in the Jetsons! This isn't like buying a lamp (and it's not cheap either), so I want to know exactly what the heck it does. It's probably best if I don't have to read a 50-page manual to use it, but I would certainly appreciate one that answers some basic questions.

I'm the guy who's going to be recommending (or not) this device to the people on the other side of the chasm. So when it fails to manage its battery charge and fails to return to its charging station like it's advertised to, I'm the guy who will be very sympathetic if only I can get some understanding of what it's trying to do and why it fails.

A device with great docs is a Samsung VCR-style DVD recorder which I bought a year or two ago, when those devices were a little more raw. It's a solid piece of equipment, and easy to use without reading the manual. But it came with 50+ pages of docs so that I could understand exactly what it could and would do, and where some less familiar recording formats (like DVD-VR) came into play. Because I understood what it could and couldn't do, I felt comfortable recommending it to less technically inclined people. Those people in turn don't want the 50 pages -- they want the toaster, and good for them!

As for iRobot, they score massive points for putting a serial port on the outside of the device and encouraging people to reprogram it if they want! I love seeing a company that isn't afraid to say, "Hey! You bought it, it's yours, go ahead and hack! We're mature enough not to worry about managing perceptions or fighting imaginary lawsuits if you make it do something stupid." That alone is enough to make me forgive if it mysteriously misses a swath of carpet.