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The Prisoner as a metaphor for the information economy

1984 is often held up as the science fiction work that best exemplifies the dystopian surveillance state. (You could certainly do worse.) But as I’ve been taking in a few episodes of the 1967 British TV classic The Prisoner, I’ve been struck by how it serves as a better metaphor for our consumer relationship with ad-driven business models.

For the unfamiliar, The Prisoner centers on a conscientious, wry British intelligence agent who falls victim to a gas booby trap after resigning from his job. He awakens on an idyllic yet pervasively monitored, self-sufficient village from which it is virtually impossible to escape. A revolving cadre of inquisitors appointed “Number 2″ and their surrogates constantly pressure him (now known as Number 6) to share information (principally why he resigned. Consider it the quest for “the why behind the bye”). Much of the focus is on the cat-and-mouse game between the Number 2s and the defiant Number 6.

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.

—”Number 6″

Cast aside that the population of The Prisoner’s village is tiny compared to the populace in 1984; the antagonists’ motivations differ. In 1984, Big Brother cares about what you think and demands the rejection of objective truth. But in The Prisoner, Number 2 wants to know your motivation to serve a never-identified Number 1, Big Brother is blunt, extracting information and confessions through torture. Number 2 is manipulative and sneaky, often trying to lull Number 6 into letting his guard down and tempting him with all kinds of benefits.

Similarly, many people’s worlds would be unrecognizable without Facebook and certainly Google, which cajole us into revealing our personal information for a host of benefits. Like Number 2, their ultimate goal is understanding why we do what we do. The ever-changing Number 2 could be Google Maps, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any number of compelling online services that are beholden to Number 1: the advertiser.

One difference: In The Prisoner, the hero resigns without divulging. In the modern digital battle for privacy, we are resigned to divulging.


The Sidekick video chat device brings cubicle culture home

In a parallel to the Garden of Eden story (one of of The Matrix‘s many religious allusions), Agent Smith reveals that the film’s humanity-conquering machines first tried to create a virtual paradise for those whose bodies they harnessed, but the human mind was unable to accept such a world. Thus, humans were fated, i.e., “cast out,” to a more familiar existence simulation that included pain and suffering. Indeed, those who have had a forced adoption to remote work due to COVID-19 may grow to miss elements of office life that they once resented—be it serendipity that leads to better collaboration or the vacuous chumminess parodied by the “Richmeister” in the classic Saturday Night Live Makin’ Copies sketch series.

Some of each would doubtless be delivered by Sidekick, an always-on, purpose-built, stationary tablet-like device designed to keep coworkers in each others’ views and encourage spontaneous collaboration among tightly woven small teams. The product simulates the oft-resented and distracting casual peer surveillance of open office plans within one’s home or other remote location. It’s your own personal manifestation of Zoom without a Leave button.

Actually, the product’s website notes that the device can easily be turned off with a tap. Like any persistent entity, though, it’s apt to fade into the background, almost surely broadcasting some unintentionally shared moment. But that may become a given through other means if, as my Techspansive co-host Shawn DuBravac thinks, companies will become aggressive about employee surveillance as they continue to support remote work.

If you’re sold, you’ll be paying indefinitely. Sidekick is offered as a service on a subscription model so customers must ask why colleagues would need a dedicated device for something that could be easily achieved with a small Android tablet or iPad mini on a stand as well as why they would pay $25 (or more, starting next month) per user in perpetuity to gain its benefits.

There’s much to be said for reducing the friction in remote collaboration. However, Sidekick swings the pendulum too far, throwing out the baby of privacy with the bathwater of isolation. To borrow AT&T’s distracted driving admonition, Cubicle ambushing: It can wait.


Tearing up the Note

At Digital Trends, Samsung alum Phil Berne argues that it’s time to retire the Galaxy Note line. Phil characterizes the Note 7 exploding battery imbroglio as a turning point form which the line never recovered. He also argues that the folding Galaxy Z series has outclassed the Note as Samsung’s avant-garde smartphone offering and that the S Pen isn’t enough to differentiate the Note from the mainstream S series. As evidence, he notes that Samsung has made S Pen an option in laptops and tablets are not branded “Note”.

I don’t see the Note 7 debacle as having been quite the point of no return that Phil does. Rather, I think the die was cast much earlier as Samsung started making the Galaxy S displays larger; it became clear that the S-series and Note were on a collision course. But now that they’ve collided with all but the (paradoxically branded, as Phil points out) S Pen separating them, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, while other Samsung devices may use the S Pen without the Note branding, that’s more justifiable in large part because Samsung’s volumes in categories such as laptops and tablets are a fraction of its smartphone volumes and can’t support a distinct subbranded “Note” line. (The tablets once did.) In the case of tablets, there is less room for stylus differentiation because the market-leading competitors (iPad and Surface) feature stylus compatibility.

Second, while Phil is right that Samsung’s Galaxy Z devices now reflect the highest level of Samsung’s advanced phone wizardry, those folding phones are priced too high and are too technologically immature to be an effective enthusiast product to replace the Note, which is pushed heavily to business users that need something practical and durable. While that could change, I don’t see it happening by this time next year, which means the Note likely has at least one more iteration ahead.

It’s hard to kill product lines that aren’t outright drowning; look at how long it took LG to dispense with the separate the struggling G and V lines despite years of shake-up warnings or, per Sony or HTC, exit smartphones altogether. Samsung also needs something above the S series to more directly answer the iPhone Pro.; that’s clearly not the Z series at this point. Still, it’s getting crowded at the top of the Galaxy product line.

A final question is how Samsung might handle branding the Note’s successor within the Galaxy S line were it to discontinuesthe Note brand (assuming Samsung doesn’t make the Pen standard, which it shouldn’t). It also seems wasteful to ship an empty silo in the Galaxy S and make the S Pen a separate purchase. Does the future hold a Galaxy S40, Pen edition?

Mobile Devices

Quibi needs a free tier

Vulture has an extensive, let’s call it, “pre-mortem” article on Quibi, the short-form, episodic video content service that’s gotten off to a slow start. The piece focuses a lot on Jeffrey Katzenberg’s involvement. However, this simple economic Catch-22 highlights many of the service’s travails:

Because [Quibi’s] point was to charge for content, it had to start out by raising an enormous amount of money in order to afford content worth charging for.

Quibi’s challenge is that it’s stuck between the rock of YouTube, which thrives on free short-form (if generally not episodic), highly viral content, and the hard place of subscription-based long-form services (Disney+, HBO Max) that offer increasingly more mainstream, well-known content and big-budget exclusives, often based on franchises.  One other high-profile subscription-based newcomer, Apple TV+, also started with a clean slate. But Apple has the advantage of close proximity to a billion screens in people’s pockets. While Apple’s service also rolled out with no shortage of star power, it is now reported to be acquiring back-catalog titles amid reboots such as Fraggle Rock.

Quibi’s content may have been optimized for a smartphone’s reorienting display, but it has failed to tap into a key element of mobile media: virality.  The service attracted criticism for being unavailable on TV at launch, but the far bigger sin of omission was not having any web accessibility. Indeed, the closest thng akin to Quibi shows from other content sources are skit shows or late-night monologues that attract millions or viewers on YouTube. A show like Will Arnett’s Memory Hole would do very well in such a format (even if its alleged namesake has attracted only a few hundred thousand views).

Quibi has also fought the perceived value of serialization. Relaying the reaction to the service, Vulture’s Benjamin Wallace posits:

Who needed Quibi to break things up into “snackable” chunks for them to begin with? As one longtime Hollywood executive told me, “I have a pause button.”

Indeed, the very brevity of Quibi’s shows make them better suited to binging. And in that scenario, there’s little practical difference between having three or four short episodes or one of more traditional length.

Most singificantly, though, Quibi missed an opportunity by not offering a free tier of service available without login, at least on a limited trial basis, and at least for a limited time. Such an approach proved powerful for Hulu which, in its early days, was also viewed skeptically as being redundant to what was already available “free” on TV. Indeed, like Quibi, Hulu had ads from its inception. But those were far more acceptable when Hulu offered a free tier, and at least today’s Hulu has an ad-free option. Quibi’s ads pass quickly enough, but they’re still an annoyance in what is marketed as a premium service.

As the Vulture article notes, Quibi will soon have its 90-day post-launch reckoning in which many of its free trials expire. If the uptake disappoints, its not too late for the video startup to offer a limited free tier, preferably without login. It’s the best way to let its content market itself.


Microsoft store closures a loss for Xbox Series X

If you were planning to take along your Olympus camera on your Segway to visit the Microsoft Store, it’s not been your week. Microsoft Stores were often the subject of derision compared to the robust traffic of the Apple Stores. Still, Microsoft’s retail locations were the best settings for showing off Surface devices at that product family grew (even though Surface has seen most of its success in corporate channels). In my personal experience with the New York flagship, the staff provided outstanding service.

Microsoft’s stores were launched at a time when the company saw itself more in the thick of the battle for consumer platforms against Apple and Google and their closure represents just the latest chapter in the company’s healthy retreat from that brutal battle. Of course, many store chains have succumbed to the dominance of online sales, especially during these times. Still, while COVID-19 may have represented the nail in the coffin for Microsoft’s mall stores, the timing of the closures takes away an opportunity to promote the launch of the Xbox Series X.

Fortunately for that product, Microsoft will retain a few flagship stores. Its first-party retail landscape, then, should match those of its main videogame competitors. The Xbox’s main competition lost its dedicated retail locations years ago while Nintendo also retains a few flagships. That Apple has been able to grow its retail stores into such incredibly efficient profit centers remains a testament to its exceptionalism among tech brands.

What’s next? Microsoft will rely more on its retail partners, notably Best Buy in the U.S., except that Best Buy, too, is planning to downsize its average retail square footage.

EcosystemsVideo Games

In Surface Pro 3, no cover for the touch cover

Like its predecessors, the Surface Pro 3 can accommodate type covers in a range of hues. Unlike its predecessor, though, Microsoft has not made it compatible with the Touch Cover, once the pride of its keyboard slimming prowess. There are at least two reasons for this. First, while the Touch Cover continued to retain an advantage over the ever-slimming Type Cover, the marginal advantage was starting to shrink given the superior tactile experience of its more expensive alternative.

The other, more important reason is tied to the “laptopification” of Surface. Of course, Microsoft has always maintained that Surface — and indeed many other Windows portables — was both lapto and tablet. But it’s subtly refined that positioning over time to acknowledge more explicitly that the classifications don’t necessarily apply to the same degree. Surface Pro 3 — with its larger screen and better stability — is evidence of this. And so, with the emphasis on laptop-like productivity, it makes more sense to have a tactile keyboard despite the impressive

Is the Touch Cover dead? Microsoft might continue to keep it around as an option if the Surface RT/2 should re-Surface, in which case  bundling it in would provide further differentiation. A significant portion of buyers would probably upgrade anyway.



iOS 8’s split screens and Microsoft’s split identity

At 9to5 Mac, Mark Gurman reports that Apple may be adding some kind of multitasking (really simultaneous app display) to iOS 8, at least on the iPad; LG and Samsung have added the capability to their Android smartphones in addition to tablets, at least for some apps. Then again, maybe it won’t. The article includes the de rigueur rumor hedge:

…iPad split-screen multitasking… could be pushed back to iOS 8.1 or cancelled altogether…

…or never exist at all.

The article also includes a brief concept video by Sam Beckett showing how adding an app could be added into Apple’s current app-switching user interface. Thera are some nice elements to it, but overall  it’s closer to the tacked-on approach of LG and Samsung and clunky compared to Microsoft’s approach.

One aspect of the rumor that seems odd is that the feature would be reserved for the larger iPad. After the long wait to get a Retina display on the iPad mini and the price it commands, it seems incongruous that Apple would reserve such a feature only for the larger iPad. After all, this has at least as much to do with resolution as screen size.

iOS gaining access to multiple screens would chip away at another advantage the Mac has versus the iPad, but the article (which appears on a site with “Mac” in its name) ignores the feature in that context. (Maybe it was written outside the hours of 9 to 5.)

Rather, starting with the headline, it discusses the feature answering a feature of Microsoft Surface. But split-screen app display is not actually a feature of Surface per se: it’s a feature of Windows and not even just Windows tablets. As the article points out, it’s true that Microsoft has cited multiple app display as an advantage of Surface versus the iPad in TV commercials, but again the article down’t mention Windows once.

That split-screen app display has been so closely associated with Surface when it’s actually a Windows feature merits kudos to the Surface team, or shame on the Windows team. or both.

Apps and SoftwareTablets

iLuv’s Selfy puts a great name on the meme of the moment

I’ve long been a fan of functional cases and covers (although sometimes they can be a little too integrated to the product if they are an accessory). Differentiation is particularly important in the oversaturated market for iPhone cases, that can now be had for the price of some MakerBot filament. So kudos to iLuv for getting the brand name Selfy — Hollywood’s current infatuation — for its camera with integrated remote shutter. The product hearkens back to the iPhone case with integrated Bluetooth headset that was offered by MoGo. The selfie is starting to move into the limelight with smartphones like the HTC One M8 starting to give a bit more love (and resolution) to the front-facing camera. Ultimately, though, the remote shutter is likely going to wind up on one of those Bluetooth key chain devices along with a key finder and other functions.

AccessoriesImages and Video

Google Now expands into retail product availability alerts

Chris Welch at The Verge reports that Google Now will now alert you if a product you’ve shopped for online is available at a nearby store, continuing the proactive features walk along the tightrope between helpfulness and creepiness. The key challenge with this feature is that there often isn’t a loop closed when a product is actually acquired (as anyone who has shopped for something on Amazon and then seen an endless barrage of ads for that item even after it’s been purchased). However, Google has implemented the feature in a smarter way than apps such as RetailMeNot that bombard you with messages about a whole bunch of stores selling stuff that may have no relevance to you.

Making proactive suggestions based on you and your behavior is the essence of Google Now. If you consider it an invasion of privacy or creepy, simply turn it off; there are other ways to get the weather. But over time, I suspect that more people will find its utility outweighs its imposition.