The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The Web on a cell phone? A dialogue

The Cyberbrains had the following discussion over e-mail the last few days (I know, we are so old school.) It all started when Clyde asked how Web pages looked on an iPhone and evolved into a treatise on the viability of the mobile web. It included Cyberbrains Clyde Bentley, Joe Kokenge, Jeremy Littau, Deborah Mason, and me, Hans K. Meyer. It’s kind of long, but we thought it pretty profound and appropriate for this forum, so we’re posting it here in its entirety in a point-counterpoint format. We hope it makes sense, and more importantly makes you think about why people use their cell phones, the Internet and when they use them together.

CLYDE: AT&T seems to have increased the operating speed of its cellular Web connection recently. I’ve just started reading a few papers on my Treo because it is now fast and easy. Today I read the NY Times, the Columbia Tribune and the Missourian.

The Times is great. It is only slightly slower than reading on my laptop. The Trib has some layout problems, but eventually reformats and does a pretty good job with color photos and stories. The Missourian is problematic. It immediately tried to download 160 MB of homepage. That homepage started as a big block of headers and navigation links. When it reformatted, it put half the page in big black blocks with purple type.

I had not read our version of the Taser story, but had read Tom’s e-mail on my phone. I read the story on the home page, then it gave me a sidebar link the the “Captain says..”, but that turned out to be the same story.

When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, the ads went a bit crazy. I’ll keep playing with this, partly because I’m now addicted. BTW, on the Treo the type reformats to one column wide and about 12 point, with 14-point bold headlines. Very readable. The photos have good color. Haven’t tried the video links.

Can someone tell me how the page looks on an iPhone?

JEREMY: Digmo surfs OK on my iPod Touch, not sure how similar the tech is to what the iPhone offers. The page does load slower than I expected though.

CLYDE: You are using WiFi. Most phones use cell web. We need to get more tests on that.

JEREMY: Ah, then yes, very different. I know very little about cell web, as I don’t sleep with my Blackberry like Hans. 🙂

HANS: Ok, I do not sleep with my Blackberry. Actually, I broke it, so thanks Jeremy for bringing up a very painful memory!

From what I understand, Blackberries and Treos have native software that truncates pages so they’ll fit on the smaller screen. Most of the major sites include code that interacts with this truncation software to make the sites look good. Smaller web pages do not. For example, I could see ESPN great on my Blackberry, but not MyMissourian or DigMo.

Apple uses entirely different software that tries to replicate the same page you’d see on your Apple desktop. It doesn’t truncate (whether connected on wifi or cellularly). The bugaboo I’ve heard on iPhones is sometimes the zooming feature doesn’t work, but all web pages should display fine.

Here’s an article that makes the distinctions better than I could.

By the way, I’d argue with you against young people using their cell phones to access the Internet. The old interfaces were so bad that all you could do was download a ringtone or see some news headlines. The only people I ever seen on the Internet have an iPhone, but that’s half the campus now.

JOE: Hans, I’m with you there. Surfing the net on a phone is really only worthwhile if you have an iPhone. Unless there’s some new fangled cellphone model out there that I don’t know about. It’s funny too, why can I get Internet almost everywhere on an iPhone but I still have to “find” wireless with my laptop. Ridiculous. If they can do it on a phone, they sure as heck could do it on my computer. And even if your download speeds are awesome, using an iPhone to actually do stuff on the Web is a pain. I mean how much can you actually do for how long on a screen the size of a tarot card. I want free wireless everywhere on my computer. That’s what I want.

CLYDE: Whoa! There are plenty of cell phones out there that are great Web platforms. Actually, the iPhone is a latecomer to that genre. Nokia, Sony-Erickson and Samsung have been turning out high-quality Web browsers for years. We don’t know about them because our phone system just reached the level that it can actually do the Web work.

We stayed 2G (second generation) long after Europe and Asia moved to 3G.

Now Asia is evolving into 4G, which allows good TV reception. The high speed that AT&T offered over the last two years was actually 2.5G. But 3G came up a few months ago, significantly increasing the speed of download.

IPhones get their Web reputation from using WiFi, which is also available from most other phone manufacturers. But WiFi is seldom available if you are mobile. It requires that you go to an identifiable place and keep there while you are connected. Not very handy.

Mobile Web, on the other hand, uses the telephone’s own system. It is far more predominate than mobile WiFi – even my $15 AT&T Go Phone could access the Web. I will bet a cup of coffee that your own phone has Web access, Joe.

My major use is to access Google Maps when I am on the road. Works great. I also look up products when I am shopping and read the Times while in waiting rooms.

Readability on phones is not bad, especially if the site is reformatted. Even the Missourian formats into one column for reading. One column on a phone is about the same width and type size as a column in the newspaper.

It’s pretty easy to read. It’s quite amazing how much you can do on that screen. The Treo has a stylus, which I find is much more accurate than my fat fingers.

The New York Times and others format so that the headlines, photos and sidebars are easily read. They go without the annoying design “button” text that take up so much space on the Missourian.

Your desire for universal wireless has some limitations, Joe. It would take WiMax to give you enough range to even walk around town. WiMax, however, does not use the same frequency as WiFi. I understand the next iPhone will have WiMax capacity, but so far you need to get a special modem for your computer to make it work. And buy a subscription (no free lunch with WiMax).

Don’t short those little phones. There are millions and millions of them out there and the phone companies are making a big push to get folks to use their Web browsers.

You can find out about 4G, WiMax, here.

Here is a review of 5 great phones. Here is a peek at what is happening in Asia:

And if you are still confused, here is an interesting piece on how mobile phones differ in the European and U.S. cultures.

HANS: This is a discussion we should be having on the Cyberbrains. I’m well aware of the phones that offer Internet. My free Motorola V70 offers Internet as well, but c’mon Clyde, can you use it?

You made the exact same point on your tryout of the Nokia N90. It’s just not functional enough for more than occasionally looking up directions, texting or downloading a ringtone. I don’t have any hard and fast research to back this up (and I think we should do some) but I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that Web use on ANY phone is limited. I remember when a certain professor got an iPhone last year about this time and I had to help her set most of it up.

I think what we are really talking about here is diffusal of innovations theory. No matter how many cool gizmos and capabilities phones offer, everyone except the early adopters will only use what they need it for. How many people actually need Internet 24/7, OK besides you and me.

Don’t know why I’m so fired up about this. I guess I just missed the other cool discussions you guys were having.

JEREMY: Another point is you have to pay for those super great phones. iPhones have some social cachet, I can’t even name another slick Web surfing phone. When in doubt, I want the free phone, and that usually doesn’t do all the big stuff of the others.

Truthfully, when I think of my phone, I don’t think of it as a web device. I don’t even text message that much with it. I know in other countries like South Korea the phone is more central, but I don’t see it being used for the Web a lot in everyday life here in Columbia unless it’s an iPhone.

JEREMY: I’ve heard you make a good point about South Korea in particular, that it is a commuter culture more suited for reading material in a mobile way. In the U.S., that has translated to newspaper use because our subways aren’t really great for being wired or getting phone reception all of the time. So perhaps if it takes off stateside, it could happen in commuter culture (of which we will all be members in two years when gas hits $20 per gallon).

The one caution I would make is that technology isn’t what changes society, it’s how we use it that changes society. The use of a killer app in one culture might have little use in another, or they might use it differently.

We saw with OhMyNews that citizen journalism as they experienced it was very, very different than ours. The web surfing technology looks damn cool (if my iPod is any indication), but there has to be cultural reasons to adopt it. I have surfed the web with my iPod something like 5 times in the six months I’ve had it. Four of those times were in the first two weeks after I got it. I have yet to figure out its utility for me (interestingly, it has little to do with finding a hotspot) even if the technology is pretty cool to me.

Apple seems to have found a way with the iPhone, combining a lot of essential features into one product. Maybe I’d surf more on my phone if I had one. But to be honest, beyond the cost I don’t want to shell out that much a month for service. To me, the latter (phone plus data monthly fees, according to /. those will run about $110 per month) is probably the big barrier for entry to me, and I’m sure it is to a lot other potential adopters. Oh my god, I think I’m a cheapskate.

But on a serious note, I agree there are a lot of research avenues here.

CLYDE: This is a good discussion and could lead to good research. I wonder what people do with their phones other than talk on them? Do they take photos? Do they listen to music (most new phones have some MP3)? Do they Web surf?

Part of what I was pointing out in that European article is that we “assume” a phone is not a Web tool. The Europeans and Asians do. Now we have 3G, we may also. It makes a BIG difference. But right now only Apple is taking advantage of that.

JOE: Clyde, thanks for the articles. I will check them out. Jeremy, I remember reading this article about cell phone novels in Japan. These become actual bestsellers, on paper even, but they start out pecked out on a cell phone. I thought of that as a fun example of the print/web intersection. And, it really argues against my complaining that I can’t do work on a mobile device, which I would love to do instead of driving. My phone is ancient, though, and maybe that’s the problem. If I had media money to invest, though, I would put as much as I could in a mobile browsing technologies and ways to get cool content on it.

Cross my fingers and hope for a house in Brentwood. It’s going there eventually. (As for me in Brentwood, that’s more of a long shot.)

CLYDE: By the way, if you push AT&T you can get a Web bargain. I pay $19.99 a month for unlimited Web and 200 messages a month. It is called Media Max 200 and is not advertised. I added it to get my MU e-mail via the Palm VersaMail program. All I do is hit “sync” and it updates my mail and calendar. But now I am using the Web more and more.

When I temporarily had another phone, I just used Webmail. I still do that with my G-mail account. Works like a charm.

Now the biggie:

How are we going to get this discussion onto our blog? Should we just copy the thread in order and plug it in? Or somehow summarize it. It is too good to leave behind in an inbox.

DEBRA: OK, I am a Mac snob but I will say that while there are many phones that offer web surfing, etc., there is a look and feel and “fun” element of the iphone that certainly was not matched by my highly utilitarian Blackberry. I can’t keep my kids away from my iphone. True, there will be imitators quick enough, but even though there are imitators to the ipod nothing comes close in sales. It’s not just the “fun” element of the Ipod, but it’s a combination w/ the easily accessible and reasonably priced content on the itunes stores. Content and device, I think.

So what is it about these devices that go beyond functionality to make the device part of the entertainment. That is what matters to my 15-year-old.

JOE: Debra, I agree. Not that this is about age, (and I don’t mean anything by that) I just realized that at my age and social position now, I feel the reason of practicality and the pull of the “shiny and slick.” I always would have liked to work from a mobile device but never thought about buying a Blackberry. But I would think about buying an iphone, when, it appears, the functionality is more or less the same.

But, there’s no reason why utilitarian shouldn’t be sexy and fun, other than the designers were too lazy to make “x” utilitarian, sexy and fun. And, newswise, I say that’s the bar that’s been set for any product. At least when it comes to young people. Like Slate.com is the New York Times for college age kids who actually read. And, sad to say, I think what makes something sexy and fun is marketing, at least in part. The iphone design is super-cool and slick. But so are those 80 foot billboards in Times Square and looming over the corner of Sunset and Vine. How does that slogan go, “Advertising is the fuel of a free press?”

JEREMY: One other thought I have is that Debra is describing a sense of cultural cachet that goes with owning one of these, but is that the realm of early adopters or something that drives the diffusion of innovation? To me it would seem that if you’re not dealing with the volatile teen/tween market, then cool and hip aren’t selling points so much as utility. I find myself thinking that if Apple will continueto have success with the iPhone, they’ll have to sell its features and uses more than its social hipness.

It’s the same reason I don’t own a riding mower; I think it’d be fun to own one and ride around, but I don’t have a lawn. And what’s thepoint of owning a Prius if you don’t drive very much? As much as I want to think these situations are classic laggard behavior, I think that’s more rooted in the rational self-interest of capitalistic market behavior. I think Hans is right that D of I theory has some anchors in this discussion.

By the way, it occurs to me that what Clyde has been posting on is the media dependency side of U&G theory, where I am more talkingabout the utility and needs gratified side of it. Theoretically speaking, we’re talking the same language even if we are disagreeing in plain terms.

This discussion is making me feel old. We need to stop that.

July 30, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley, From The Cyberbrains, Hans Ibold, Hans Meyer, Jeremy Littau, Joe Kokenge | Leave a comment

McSneaks!

I wasn’t quite sure how to react when Clyde passed this link to me and the rest of the Cyberbrains. My wife was sittingWebcam mug Hans next to me in our downstairs office / sewing room (She sews, not me!) and I didn’t want to break into histrionics. Besides, she’s an intelligent news consumer as well, with a perspective that’s different, and probably more grounded in reality than mine.

But as I explained to her why it’s bordering on blasphemous for anything resembling a newscast to try to sneak an ad past its consumers, I actually made sense, so much sense, in fact, she encouraged me to share it. Her exact comment was something along the lines of, “Don’t you have a blog for this?”

So here’s the rub, and I’ll try to get to it without resorting to the tired arguments that news should be a public service, news shouldn’t focus only on money, big business shouldn’t control the news because frankly, we know none of those are true. News has always been, and should be to some extent, about making money, maybe not obscene 30 percent margins, but at least some. It makes the news gatherers responsive to their audience, which I think citizen journalism has taught us is needed now more than ever.

We also know that as nefarious as McDonald’s is, they aren’t placing fake cups of iced coffee on the morning news desk in a plot to take over the world or even control the news. How many McDonald’s related stories will the Las Vegas station cover anyway?

I also won’t talk about how news needs to fix its broken trust with its audiences, as Roy Peter Clark discussed today in Poynter’s Centerpiece, because while I do agree, I’m not sure that this move really adds to the woes the media have already inflicted by allowing front page ads or signing revenue sharing agreements with sports stadiums. The real problem with these ads, as Clark states, is they lack transparency, a vital cog to reconnecting with audieces. Audiences deserve to know who journalists spoke to, who they didn’t, and how they gathered their stories. In the same vein, they deserve to be told explicitly they are watching an ad, and this is where I think Clark misses the point.

I would not have a problem if the newscast began with, “This insipid babble brought to you by McDonald’s, your stop for scalding hot coffee.” I’d even have less of a problem with this if the anchors were told they had to drink from the cup three times each hour, while also uttering, “MickeyD’s now serves iced frappalattachinos.” What I dislike and what I think goes against a core journalistic value is that it looks like the news station is trying to pull a fast one. It’s like they are the Wizard of Oz saying, “Pay no attention to the beverage on the desk, except of course when you are driving down the road past some Golden Arches and you’re thirsty.” 

I like my news like my McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese. I choose both because I know what I’m going to get. Let’s keep it that way.

July 24, 2008 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains | Leave a comment

Vanity Fair’s history of the Net

jpkthumb.jpgThis month’s (or actually next month’s, July-month’s) Vanity Fair has a great article “An oral history of the Internet: How the Web Was Won.”

The article does just that, with quotes and anecdotes from the big names today, the guys and gals who made all the dough and quotes from the egg-heads who made it all happen.

Here’s some highlights in case you don’t want to shell out six odd bucks:

Jim Clark is one of the founders of Netscape:

One of the things that struck me at that early embryonic state (the early 90s) was that the Internet was going to mutate the newspaper industry, was going to change the classified-ad business, and change the music business. And so I went around and met with Rolling Stone magazine. I met with Times Mirror Company, Time Warner. We demonstrated how you could play music over this thing, how you could shop for records, shop for CDs. We demonstrated a bunch of shopping applications. We wanted to show the newspapers what they were going to undergo.

The venerable Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone wasn’t a taker and neither were the newspapers. DOH!

They got another chance, however.

Vinod Khosla created Sun Microsystems with some Stanford buddies and later joined a prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers.

“The media people essentially did not think the Internet would be important or disruptive. In 1996, I got together the C.E.O.’s of 9 of the 10 major newspaper companies in America in a single room to propose something called the New Century Network. It was the C.E.O.’s of The Washington Post, and The New York Times and Gannett and Times Mirror and Tribune and I forget who else. They couldn’t convince themselves that a Google, a Yahoo or an eBay would be important, or that eBay could ever replace classified advertising.”

DOH! DOH!

Don’t even mention Craigslist to them. And speaking of that list. Continue reading

June 12, 2008 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains, Joe Kokenge | 1 Comment

Standing behind what you print, even if you didn’t write it

Reviewing anything is a daunting task for a newspaper. Believe me – I know firsthand. After using a poor auto review Thinking in the sunfrom a wire service and losing our biggest advertiser at a weekly I helped I start, I don’t think I ran another review again. But newspapers and other media organizations cannot ignore reviews either. It’s fundamental to the community mission of providing objective information. Most importantly, if a news organization has the guts to run a review, it must stand behind it, no matter who complains – and in today’s converged age of journalism – no matter who writes it.

A case in point – The Columbia Missourian rarely writes reviews anymore. That’s why all of us citizen journalism watchers cheered when they began to include reviews from CoMoWhine and Dine, a local blog from five frequent diners who claim “the only thing we’re sugar-coating is the desserts,” in the weekly free circulation paper. The site deserves the publicity because its authors write some pretty good, and I think pretty fair, reviews. It’s the first place I go now before deciding where to eat in town. What I like about the blog, that I think it would be hard for a media organization to duplicate, is the reviewers divergent tastes. They review everything from fine dining to fast food. They differ on whether to hate or love the national chains or whether fast food is barely edible or ultimately satisfying. One of their contributors gave Arby’s 5 for $5.95 a glowing review (just don’t try to eat all 5 sandwiches yourself, Revee cautions). Continue reading

March 16, 2008 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains | 1 Comment

‘Sphere’ of Influence

Despite their increased popularity and use, news organizations still struggle with how to handle blogs. Do you ignore or embrace them? Do you make all your reporters write Thinking in the sunone or do you rely instead on the blogs that are already out there? The best approach that media critics and scholars have suggested is finding a way to bring them all together, and I was surprised to see that CNN.com has embraced the cause. (See what I’m talking about here.)  Using an application created by Sphere, a start-up that has been around for a little more than a year, CNN is aggregating blog entries that are related to its news stories on the same page.  CNN is just one of the more than 1 million content providers Sphere claims is has partnered with.

My first question is why I have just noticed this. It’s a great idea. In fact, it’s something I’ve been pushing for a long time. Interactivity theory is based on bringing the audience and the news providers together. But I also have to ask if Sphere isn’t typical of how the traditional media has responsed to citizen content. Continue reading

September 26, 2007 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains, Hans Meyer | Leave a comment

Don’t cry for the Times

For about a year, I felt like I was the sports king of the world. I had just won my newspaper’s fantasy football league. The Denver Broncos had just beaten the favored Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl, and I could follow it all with my newhans-mug.jpg subscription to ESPN.com’s Insider package. Actually, I don’t think it was called Insider back in 1998, but it still gave me access to all the top columnists, the trade rumor mills, and the fantasy sports tip sheet all for $5 a month.

I don’t remember exactly why I canceled my account. Maybe it was bitterness over not making the fantasy playoffs the next year. Maybe it was just a one-year trial offer. (I’m notorious for signing up for those.) But I do know I’ve never really missed it. In fact, every time I click on an ESPN column and am rudely taken instead to the Insider page, I curse ESPN and wonder what kind of idiots actually pay for that junk.

It came as no surprise to me then that the New York Times decided to cancel its Times Select service after less than a year. Continue reading

September 19, 2007 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains, Hans Meyer | Leave a comment

The Amazon Model

Amazon logoReading Jeremy’s last post about what newspapers could learn from Starbucks made me remember an article I read not too long ago about Amazon.com and its founder Jeff Bezos. What newspaper’s really need in a day when investors demands for more and more profit are forcing wholesale staff cuts is a man like Bezos who can hold investors off and even encourage them to support a product in development. Continue reading

September 7, 2007 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains | Leave a comment