Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A New Kind Of Conversation

Robert Scoble's post "A new kind of conversation is needed with Microsoft" asks us to tell them what we want in Windows Media Player, what kind of podcasting support we want and what we feel about the longevity of podcasting. Like it or not, Microsoft is going to the masses to find out what they want. Is this 'design by committee' a good thing? In many cases it's not (look at the Pontiac Aztek), but in the case of blogging and podcasting I think it is. We're talking about taking publishing out of the hands of the few and plunking it in the hands of the great unwashed. So they'd better have *some* idea of what the great unwashed wants.

But that leads me to another point. Are they really talking to the great unwashed? Let's call them the GUW for now to ease my typing. The GUW in this case are not the people reading Scoble's blog or Scripting News, the GUW are not checking Technorati or finding out what Doc Searls latest thoughts are. The GUW are like the guys in my office. I have approximately 12 co-workers, all male, most in their late twenties - early thirties, in what I would call a moderately technical workplace. We design buildings. We are a structural engineering firm. We are not idiots (save a few). But not one.. I repeat not one of them would be able to tell you what a blog is. This is not an insult, this is a fact. They are absolutely amazed by Google maps and it's satellite photos and would likely not have seen it for another year had I not pointed it out to them. Many of them have direct high-speed internet access but have no idea about things like blogging, podcasting or videoblogging. You mention MP3's and they think of Napster and PhUNny cHatRoOm signatures. The fact that MP3's can contain something else other than pirated Blink182 songs is an utterly foreign concept to most people. Wikipedia sounds like some kind of mental affliction to the GUW.

With their adoption of RSS and their huge installed base of GUW, Microsoft still have a chance to bring the potential of producing and consuming weblog content (the latter more likely than the former for many) and podcast content to the real masses. Microsoft should keep working in an open way, listen and look at what is being done by the influential people (like the ones attending Gnomedex) and talk to them. Their products have to play well with other products being developed in other waters (as they seem to be doing with RSS) and along with this and perhaps more importantly, they have to make it simple. Dead nuts simple. They've had a good crack at this in their IE7 demo and it looked pretty good to me.

Now they've got to open people's eyes, the eyes of the GUW, to the possibilities of things like weblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, screencasts.. the list is growing. Stick it in their faces and make them know that this is not some IT-only environment, give them real-world examples, push them to do more exploring. If there's one thing that 99% of the people I know with internet access do NOT do on the internet is explore. Not only make it easy for them to explore, impel them to do it.

As far as Windows Media Player goes, make sure it handles *all* kinds of file enclosures, make it open in where it can go to find directories and search tools. Give the option of working with what is already out there like existing open podcasting directories etc. For cripes sake, get Dave Winer to give some insight into giving it the required OPML abilities. Do it while you're on such good terms with him.

On the issue of the longevity of podcasting, my opinion is that there is an absolutely huge opportunity for education in podcasts - and I don't necessarily mean formal course lectures. I'm talking about special interest podcasts that actually inform and educate people. I don't think that the entertainment end of podcasting is necessarily going to sink every mass market radio station. The mainstream broadcasters may move into the podcasting realm (they are already), but the niche markets and educational opportunities are a huge untapped area just waiting for development. Sure we have a wide variety of I.T. and other 'early adopter' aimed podcasts, but there are lots of other passions that people have. A couple of weeks ago I thought 'hey, I'll go to and see what podcasts there are on the subject of photography', a passionate hobby of mine. I found one. Only ONE. And it was regarding how to build a wedding photography business - not what I was looking for.

There is scads of empty space in the podcasting realm for things OTHER than 'My Wife and I discussing the latest entertainment news' or 'Listen to me bitch for 20 minutes about the people I work with'. There is room for everything. Let's start filling it up.

I drive 50 minutes each way to work 5 days a week. My car radio has been off for probably 5 months now. But supply is running short. I have listened to almost every podcast available on IT Conversations and I'm not even in the IT business! That really means something. It has caught my interest and opened my mind. But you have to be able to keep feeding people for them to stay. The trick is to find out what most of them *really* want to eat. And it likely isn't mass-market drive-time radio.

If there were server problems due to Apple's Itunes 4.9 launch, then just wait until they make a Honda Civic or Chevy Cobalt with standard MP3 and wireless synching to the home PC. You will then see people get on board. Will Microsoft be a major player in enabling them when that time comes?