Hard News by Russell Brown


Warning: contains pieces of Apple

Well, we're exactly a week out from the Orcon Great Blend at the Civic Wintergarden and I thought it prudent a few days ago to close off the public RSVPs. It's going to be a ram dancehall. There are a few new things to talk about too.

The most notable of these is that you should be able to buy the collaborative works being presented on the night – or pieces thereof. Dylan Horrocks and Emily Perkins will have copies of their comic book "conversation about writing" for sale after they perform it on the night. And Karl Maughan and Askew One will be selling parts of their large-scale collaborative artwork, on a basis that probably won't be determined until they finish it.

After the stage programme concludes, Flying Nun Records and NZ On Screen have something special in the works for the Taj Mahal Room. Grayson Gilmour will be both performing and making a video, in which you all will feature. Well, not all of you. Around that, NZ On Screen will be presenting a selection of Flying Nun music videos.

And of course, Simon Grigg will be playing at the disco we're building for him in the main Wintergarden room, dancefloor and all. I had a meeting yesterday about our onstage conversation – about music, management, punk rock and 'How Bizarre' -- and I can say it's going to be intriguing and revealing.

See you there.

Warning: this section contains Apple. Please don't freak out.

Apple yesterday staged one of its mystery product events. If the format was familiar the results were … odd. After various generally well-informed bloggers forecast the reinvention of Apple TV as iTV – an iOS device paired with a special TV App Store, heralding a new age for the set-box – that wasn't exactly what happened. It is an iOS device, it runs on the same A4 chip as the iPad – but there are no apps and no new name.

For that matter, there's not much of anything, including storage. I can't imagine that Apple TV will never join the App Store ecosystem, but for now it's really not much more than an Airport Express for video.

There are no 99 cent TV show rentals for our market, so the key features would seem to be the ability to stream iTunes content to TV from not just your Mac but your iDevice, and access to Flickr and YouTube content via a nice interface (you can use you iDevice as a remore). It's small, it's cheap ($US99, $NZ169) but I'm still left thinking that I'll wait until the proper one comes out.

(Meanwhile, the "Sony Internet TV Powered by Google" is coming to Australia.)

There were also some nice (if pricey) new iPods, as expected. And there was iTunes 10.

A surprising amount of the first-day discussion of iTunes 10 has focused on the merits of the new icon (whatever) and the default vertical orientation of the "traffic light" window control buttons (ditto). It does appear that Apple's latest version of its overworked media application is faster than its predecessor (which hasn't always been the case) and it syncs more usefully.

But, most interestingly, there is Ping: Apple's crack at a music-centred social network application, which appears to have been the source from some rather odd goings-on on launch day.

Apple's intense, secretive development process has delivered a string of remarkable products characterised by groundbreaking industrial design – up to and including the iPad. But it's not at all a good way to develop products and services that rely on openness and network effects.

Moreover, the currently dominant social platforms all grew organically. They didn't need be ready for the world on day one. Their technical cultures were at least partially forged by their users, and evolved to scale.

Ping, by contrast, kicked off by "recommending" that I follow Lady Gaga, Yo Yo Ma and U2. None of the artists I might actually want to follow are there, and this comment under a Daily Telegraph story indicates there is no obvious way for anyone outside the small group of founding artists to establish an artist presence on Ping. For what's supposed to be a music discovery service this is completely insane.

The quirks continue: I can identify myself in my profile by choosing up to three genres I like, but my list of choices doesn't include "Electronic". Curiously, users in other places do have that option.

Weirdly, I was offered the option the option of using Facebook Connect to find other Ping users amongst my Facebook friends. I logged in, but was told that Facebook couldn't find any Ping-enabled friends for me. Turns out, what I saw was a mistake: Jobs says Apple was indeed negotiating to align with Facebook via Connect – but Facebook's terms were too "onerous".

Apple and Facebook appear to have been negotiating right down to the wire. The iteration of Ping demonstrated by Jobs at yesterday's launch did have a Facebook button. And even after Jobs had told journalists that Facebook Connect wouldn't be available, his offsider, Phil Schiller, was merrily enthusing to journalists about how great the Facebook Connect service was.

The curious absence of iTunes 10 afterwards – press material said the new software was "available today", and there were "download iTunes 10" buttons on Apple's website – may well have been a consequence of a rush to create a Facebook-free version. Apple's generally flawless content delivery network from Akamai suffered odd cacheing problems as a result.

For all its Facebook-lookalikeness, Ping isn't really a social network: it's a recommendation engine. The only way I can make a post is from the iTunes Store page for a particular release or song. This is something that the iTunes Store does desperately need.

As an eMusic customer, I've found real gems through the reviews and recommendations of other music fans there (which won't include you if you're not there already – the big music companies have not negotiated deals in most countries, even as they whine about iTunes' dominance). There are, I'm sure, many more gems deep in the iTunes catalogues, but there has been no effective way of finding good people to lead me to them, or to lead others to my discoveries.

Ping goes some way towards that. I was, for example, easily able to find Shangaan Electro – New Wave Dance Music from South Africa and recommend that to my small band of Ping followers yesterday. It might be hard to convince anyone to take a punt at iTunes' pricing though – I got the Shangaan album on eMusic for the equivalent of seven or eight dollars. It's $18.99 on iTunes.

Apple does have something very valuable to bring to this game – a billing relationship with 160 million iTunes users worldwide. It could be fun, and good for artists: but not unless and until Apple gets its act together and stops trying to run bottom-up services from the top down. Which may be never.


Anyway, that Shangaan Electro record. There's a backgrounder and track samples, along with this video:

Here's an interview about the music with producer-composer Richard "Nozinja" Mthetwa:

Loving that.


If you haven't checked out Damian Christie's interesting t-shirt proposition, you might wish to have a look at that.

And last night's Media7, focusing on approches to reporting suicide, and smoking on screen, is here.

The show kicks off with a backgrounder to the amazing story of Antoine Dodson and The Bed Intruder Song. Here's the video it's all about:

Yeah, I bought it on iTunes.

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