Tuesday, January 18, 2011

(Crowdsourcing + Long Tail) x Freemium = 0

Every so often, I read a book that claims to have discovered a whole new way of doing business. The theory's always the same. Using the power of the Internet to interact directly with zillions of people, the old capitalist model of business has become obsolete and a new type of business will take its place. And you can prove it with this small list of examples.

They're always fascinating reading, right up to the point where you realise that it's idealistic bullshit, that it won't work for the majority of businesses, that it's not sustainable, and that showing a few successful examples is a fallacious way to prove a theory. That's usually when I flip to the back cover or dust jacket and start looking for the words "contributor to Wired" in the author's bio.

Let's take the three examples from the title of this post.


This basically says that instead of paying your workforce, you get them to work for free. In order to motivate them, you may give some of them a small amount of compensation, or you can run it like a competition where the best performing workers get a prize. Either way, you slash your running costs and reap the rewards.

Here's three real examples of how this works.
  1. The local newspaper that sacked all its professional journalists and editors and replaced them with ten amateurs, paying them $250 a month to submit stories and post them online. They made $175,000 a month in ad revenue.
  2. The company that got rid of its $20m a year R&D department and instead offered a prize of $25k to anyone who could solve a particular problem.
  3. The company that gets people to submit photos for free and then sells them at a fraction of the price of its competitors, and turns over $100m+ a year.
All sounds great, but that's basically exploitation. A whole load of people found themselves unemployed and replaced with free labour. Yes, one guy got $25k for something he did in his spare time, but several thousand others got absolutely nothing for their efforts. And, most importantly, all these people who are working for nothing still need a day job to pay the bills.

You see, it works on one fundamental, flawed principle. Somebody else pays for what I use. Someone else has to employ these people in a regular way so that they can pay their bills and give me their time as a leisure activity. It doesn't scale up. It's only good for skimming some surplus labour off the top. It's not the future of business.

Long Tail

This theory sounds like a dream come true for small producers. It says that while regular shops can only stock a relatively small number of items and therefore focus on what they can sell most easily, online shops can carry an infinite catalogue and therefore can continue to make very low volume sales of obscure items for a long time. So, no more deleted records or out of print books. Just keep digital copies online forever, and someone, somewhere, will occasionally buy them. Consumers happy, retailers happy, authors and bands happy, right?

Well, no. It's great for retailers, sure. If they make a buck a time from sales of a thousand small items, that adds up to a healthy bit of revenue. But when you dig down, it's not so good for the suppliers, though. Your one item only counts for one of those bucks. By the time the retailer's taken their cut, you're going to see 50c or less from each sale. In fact, you're probably not going to see any of it until your total has reached $50, so you could be waiting a while. You're certainly not going to make a living out of it.

Again, it doesn't scale up. As with crowdsourcing, suppliers depend on their day jobs to pay their bills. What's more, there's only room for a few retailers when anyone can stock everything. It's not the future of business.


This one's the consumer's dream. Don't pay for anything. It's all free. Well, there's a Pro version that costs money, but you don't need that.

It's another example of a model that relies on the principle of someone else pays. The guys who need the Pro version will subsidise the free users. The investors trying to build market share will subsidise the free users. The guy who donates via PayPal will subsidise them.

In practice, it rarely works. Not enough paying users come along to cover the cost of supporting the moochers, and when the money runs out, the company folds and the moochers move on to the next free lunch. It's not the future of business.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need

Put them together, and what do you get? In a business environment based on crowdsourcing, long tail and freemium, what you get is the following.
  1. People donate their labour with little or no expectation of reward.
  2. People get what they want for free.
This works fine as long as we universally abolish money and ensure that everybody in society contributes.

If I want a new garage, I'll crowdsource a bunch of handymen who will come over and build it for free, and the hardware store will give me free building materials (because you only pay for the top of the range stuff). The grocery store will of course give me free food, as long as they can crowdsource people who don't mind stacking the shelves for free, and the farmers are happy to donate their produce. I'm sure they can crowdsource people who will work the fields for nothing.

In other words, let's all become Amish.

Maybe that's the future of business?

Wait. I'm making myself prettier for you.

Long, long ago, before the Internet was born, if you wanted a new version of your favourite software, you had to... uh, how did we do it, exactly?

Then someone realised you could put new versions of software up on a bulletin board and people could just download them when they wanted. Which was pretty damn cool if you were a geek, even if it did mean waiting an hour while your 9.6k modem spluttered its way through a whole floppy disk's worth of stuff. When the Web came along and got all popular, that became the de facto way to distribute updates.

Of course, the problem with that was that developers had to figure out a way to tell people to go and get the updates. So they came up with the wonderful idea that the software itself would go online and check whether there was a new patch, and if so, it would just sort itself out automatically, so you'd always have the latest, greatest, wonderfullest version.


Except that it's become a total pain in the ass.

There are three forms of automatic updates, all of which are bad.
  1. When I start my computer. For various reasons, I've had to reboot my computer a lot recently, and it pisses me off that I can't do what I want to do because I have to wait for a bunch of applications to go online and check for updates. When I start my computer, I want to get to the apps I want to use. I couldn't give a damn about having the latest version of some app I use once in a blue moon.
    What pisses me off most is when these apps demand to get to the front of the task queue. The developers seem to assume that not only is the latest version of their software something I can't live without, it's THE most important thing I could possibly want. That's really, really stupid when, for example, I'm in the middle of installing a new network adapter and there's no goddamn Internet set up yet. I'm trying to get online, but I can't, because I'm dealing with a flood of error messages that tell me an app I've used once in the last six months can't reach its Web server. Well, duh.
    It's even more annoying when I just rebooted five minutes ago. I've just checked for an update, so why do I need to check again?
    Just back off and let me get on with it, willya?
  2. When I start the app. When I use an app, I want to use it right away. It was good enough last time I used it, so the chances are it'll be good enough for my purposes this time. I usually want to just fire it up, do what I need to do, and move on. I don't want to wait while it grabs a new version, installs it, makes me restart the app (or, worse, reboot my computer - see above), and then I have to figure out what's changed.
    The absolute worst example of this is when an update means that previous work is incompatible or introduces a new bug. I don't care if a fix comes out a few days later. I want to do what I want to do now, and the developer just screwed that up.
  3. In the background. Why's my computer going slow? Why did I just run out of space on drive C? Why's this app different to last time I used it? It's my computer, and I don't want anyone making changes to it without me knowing.
Obviously there are times when you need people to be using the latest version, such as when it's an online service which requires the client to maintain compatibility with the servers or with other users, or if the old version has a horrendous problem that could actually cause my computer to crash, but most of the time there's absolutely no reason why I can't stick with what I've already got.

I have absolutely no problems when an app goes online on startup, tells me there's a new version, and gives me the option to upgrade. That's fine. I really like having the option to download the update and then install it at my leisure. That's genuinely useful, especially if the upgrade gives me a clear benefit.

But please, please, software developers. Stop forcing me to upgrade when I don't want to and don't need to.

French cinema 2010: a playlist from Lucy

I may have given the impression a few weeks ago that I'm an uncritical fan of foreign movies. For example, last week we went to see Inspector Bellamy, starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Claude Chabrol. It was billed as a "witty homage to the mysteries of Simenon by France's master of the suspense thriller", and had received excellent reviews from critics and fans.

Frankly, I think a better description would be "a tedious and poorly filmed character study of a cop and his family based around a non-mystery with no twist at the end." I really can't understand why it was so successful. It felt like the sort of film buff's movie I was supposed to appreciate, based purely on the pedigree of the director and star, but I didn't find anything in it to enjoy.

After I posted this on Facebook, my friend Lucy Georges sent me this, which she's allowed me to reprint. She's English, but has been living in France for many years.
Your blog post prompted me to write some thoughts on French films from 2010, just in case you're looking for ideas on what to watch over the next few months...

Comme les cinq doigts de la main: A good action film about a Jewish family and their run in with organised crime.

Des Hommes et des Dieux: The only one I hated. This is an overhyped true story of the monks that were assassinated in Algeria, and was a raging success in secular France where people have a strange love-hate relationship with religion. Unfortunately, while both the subject and location should have provided ample opportunity for beautiful photography, this was sadly lacking. The scenario was dreadful, and full of clichés. Only the acting saved the film in my view. It was however a roaring success, but if the average age of the spectators is anything to go by, you need to be at least 55 years old to appreciate the movie.

Elle s'appeleait Sarah: Kristin Scott Thomas, another expat, in one of the year's two films about the 1942 event at the Vélodrome d'Hiver. Interesting narrative technique.

Imogen McCarthery: Based on Exbrayat's short novel, this is an amusing story of a Scottish girl who unwittingly becomes a spy. Worth seeing for the very French view of the British Isles!

La rafle: The other Vel d'hiv film, featuring Jean Reno. You need hankies ready for this one.

Les émotifs anonymes: I haven't seen it yet, but as soon as the snow melts, I'm on it. With Belgian Benoit Poelevoorde, it looks to be a box office hit.

L'arnacoeur: Handsome Romain Duris stars in this romantic comedy about a team of swindlers who break up couples.

L'illusioniste: The one I missed, and will be buying as soon as I find it on DVD. Jacques Tati did the scenario, and the animation is by the maker of Les Triplettes de Belleville.

L'immortel: More Jean Reno as a Marseilles gangster type trying to get out of his past life. A good action film.

Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc Sec: A superb adaptation of the Tardi comic books by Luc Besson. Great fun.

Pièce Montée: Rom com about a disastrous wedding. Some very funny scenes.

Potiche: Catherine Deneuve is back on form in this humourous tale about life in the seventies for a bourgeois wife. Also features Depardieu and Luchini.

Serge Gainsbourg Vie Héroique: An innovative take on the biopic with a dreamlike element which brings out another facet of Gainsbourg besides the provocative aspect he's famous for.

Simon Werner a disparu: A first film worth seeing for the experimental narrative technique. It wasn't an enormous success, but I think we might see more from Fabrice Gobert in the future.

Thelma, Louise et Chantal: One for women over forty. A comedy road movie.

Tout ce qui Brille: Another first film about life in the 'banlieue' and two friends trying to escape.

Une exécution ordinaire: Based on a novel, this tells the story of a female doctor forced to leave her life to become Stalin's personal medic.

Une petite zone de turbulences: This is based on the British novel, A Spot of Bother, and features Michel Blanc in the main role. Funny.

There's definitely a lot there I want to see. I'm particularly looking forward to the Besson film, and if it turns up in any of the local cinemas, I'm right there. I'll also be on the lookout for the Jean Reno films, and the one about the doctor looks interesting.

I'm off to check out how many of those are on Netflix, while I watch a Thai pirate movie, Legend of the Tsunami Warrior.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Not so helpful advice

Why is it that when you tell people about a software, hardware or online problem, you inevitably get one (or more) of four responses, none of which is helpful:
  1. It works for me.
  2. I've never had that problem.
  3. It shouldn't do that. Are you sure that's happening?
  4. Have you tried [obvious basic operation]?
That's basically the equivalent of telling people my car won't start, and getting the responses:
  1. My car starts. (Yeah. My car's broken. Not yours.)
  2. My car's always started. (Guess what? Mine always started too, until it went wrong.)
  3. Your car should start. Are you sure it's not starting? (Yes, I'm pretty damn sure.)
  4. Have you tried turning the ignition key? (Uh, yes. How do you think I normally start my car?)
All obviously useless responses. So why do we treat computer-based issues so differently?

FML Film Club - Films Zero and One

At the start of this year, I joined a local film club. I wrote a bit about it over on the Moviestorm blog. In short, the idea is that every member has to make a short film every month, based on stories from fmylife.com. It's to get us all making movies instead of just talking about making movies, which is what I've done for the last three years.

The first meeting was on January 4th. The morning of the meeting, I decided to make a movie and take it with me. It's still rough in places. I thought about tidying it up before posting it here, but decided to show it exactly as it stands. Here it is. The Table (based on an allegedly true story). Enjoy.

So there we have it. My first actual movie in I don't know how long. Not a tech demo, not a tutorial, just a little story for the hell of it. It's not great, but at least I made it. Showing it to people was scary, but they seemed to like it.

Anyway, a few hours later, I found myself part of a movie crew by the simple expedient of sitting at a table with a bunch of random people. We had Zak (director), Paul (audio & lights), Dan (editing) and Steve (cameras), which pretty much covers all the necessary bases. Since I have absolutely no experience with live action film, I volunteered to write the script.

We volunteered Paul as producer, and fairly soon worked out that because of our schedules, we needed to shoot the movie on the weekend of 15/16 Jan, which would give Dan a week for editing & post-production to have it ready for the start of February. That meant I needed to get the script out by Jan 9 in order to give everyone else a week for pre-production. Since we had a Friday Ferox show on Jan 7, the pressure was on from day one.

We thought about filming my movie as live action, but decided against it, partly because we weren't sure we could find enough actors in time, and partly because I got all shy and suggested we chose another story. Everyone except me got their iPhones out. Within about 10 minutes we'd found our plot, about a guy proposing to his girlfriend.

(On a side note, there was one story I really liked, but the rest of the team vetoed it. The denouement called for a bus, and that added a whole level of complication that we weren't ready for. Ah, the world of live action filming. So different to animation.)

As luck would have it, that weekend we lost our Internet, so I ended up sitting at my brother-in-law's house writing the script on Celtx and frantically trying to get it out to the team before the Sunday evening production meeting on Skype. However, in the end, everything went off pretty smoothly, and we assigned people to find cast, props, and equipment, and planned for the shoot at my house on the afternoon of Sunday 16th.

As always, it's gone down to the wire. By mid-afternoon today, we still didn't have our cast, but with a bit of last-minute scrambling around, we finally found a couple of people willing to step forward. So it looks like we're good to go. Let's just hope the weather holds.

I'm really looking forward to this. I haven't been on a film set since I went to one of Phil South's shoots at the Bristol Old Vic. I'm not sure exactly what I'll be doing, but hey - someone's got to handle the catering. I can do that.

In closing, there's one thing that makes me smile. We haven't even started production yet, and already The Proposal has taken considerably more time than The Table. Next month, hopefully things won't be so rushed, and I'll have time to do an animatic. It'll be interesting to see what difference that makes to the way we work.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I will...

I forgot, there's one other major goal for this year. This is an easy one, but it's something that really needs to be done, and something that could turn out to be very important.

Make a will.

Here's a blog post by the good Mr Gaiman about why you should do it, including a sample will. I hope this doesn't turn out to be necessary, but I'll sleep sounder knowing I've taken care of it.

P.S. I've edited yesterday's post.