SF Musictech

SF Musictech is an annual convention where all sorts of people ranging from music industry executives and entrepreneurs to the artists themselves get together to present and learn about the music business how it relates to technology. There were several startups presenting what they can do for artists as well as established companies that continue their mark of excellence in services and reputation. I had the pleasure of attending this convention for the first time this year, courtesy of my employer Spinlet. It was a great day where I learned new things and met some great people. Here is my summary of the day:

Keynote

The perfunctory welcome and opening marks can make or break an event like this. Most people are excited, so all you have to do as a moderator is say a few words and get off the stage so it can begin. I normally wouldn’t spend too much time talking about the opening remarks, but a great quote caught my ear from one Brian Zisk: “[San Francisco is the] best place for music technology business“. I pondered this for a second and started thinking about all the great venues we have here in the city, from the small venues like The Independent and Slim’s, to the midsize places like DNA Lounge – up to the historic places such as The Warfield, The Fillmore, and Bill Graham. And let’s not forget the really big venues like Cow Palace and just across the bay, Overstock Coliseum. I also thought of all the great live acts I have seen, both big and small since moving here years ago, I can’t even begin to name them all. And when job searching last, just how many companies I courted that are involved in music themselves (the now all but defunct Myspace, Soundcloud, and other companies the industry relies on such as Twitter). Indirectly or directly, I would have to agree that San Francisco does have a certain allure to the music scene, rich in history and promising in future.

Web Audio

After the greeting, I hightailed it to the Web Audio API session. The first remarks assured me I was in the right place – ‘this is going to be a technical conversation, so I trust everyone in here has programming knowledge‘. Lucas Gonze, CTO of Official.fm and Boris Smus, engineer from the Google Chrome team talked about four emerging audio standards:

  • Web VTT (closed captioning)
  • Web RTC (Real time conferencing with JavaScript)
  • Media fragments API (Indexing media fragments across the web)
  • Audio API’s with HTML5 and new abilities there.

Closed captioning on the web is a very important concept for accessibility. Whether for music, online talks, or conferences,  imagine a simple JavaScript ability to caption content. There are some solutions out there now such as speakertext, but at the moment cost money.

Real time conferencing has huge potential. The main problem here revolves around latency issues, and how to monitor them. It was brought up that cell phones often have a higher latency than online options even by today’s standards, which is very interesting, although we just notice it more online because video lag is a lot more distracting than audio chop.

With media fragment indexing, you can have one application traverse several links, along with starting and stopping points in the middle of select audio or video. So think about a great mashup between ten Youtube videos, all starting where you specify, and jumping to the next at a random point you choose. This indexing can access all sorts of content on the web.

With new abilities coming online with HTML5, we can now write codecs in JavaScript. Other things are possible as well, as Boris spoke about gaining control of a PC’s microphone for added capabilities. We have only scratched the surface of what can be done.

The most important thought behind the audio API session is making your JavaScript faster and more elegant. One way was by employing worker threads to help with garbage cleanup and other tasks. Flash is still an ultimate resource when it comes to streaming, though with the current anti-flash trend, you may have difficulties with compatibility.

Nic Adler, The Roxie

Next up I listened to Nic Adler talk about how social media resurrected The Roxie theater. He made several great points, such as make sure you are on EVERY social network, and the benefits of creating a community with your competitors. For example, he followed competition on twitter, and on days the Roxie was dark, he would tweet what was going on at the the place down the strip. They ended up doing the same in turn, both benefiting from joining forces, which at first would seem to most as a bad move. he also told a story about how someone at the theater tweeted about their watered down drink, finding said customer with her ‘face down in a blackberry and empty glass on the table with a lime’ – it was a gin and tonic she was complaining about – and brought her a new, heavy pour drink. He called this a ‘money moment’, as the girl then went on to tweet about what just happened, immediately creating an online advertisement about how the guy in charge at the Roxie cares about it’s clientele. That alone is worth more than any advertising you buy on a billboard or in a magazine.

Digital Strategy

This session had several speakers: Rachel Masters from Red Magnet Media, Glenn Miller from Creative Artists Agency, Ted Cohen from Tag Strategic, Ethan Kaplan from Live Nation Labs, J Sider from RootMusic, and Ken Wagner from Smartley-Dunn Solutions. I don’t know if this session was compromised from the after lunch digestion taking place in my stomach (miso soup, vegetable tempura, and croquettes usually don’t slow me down that much), or the fact that the room was literally packed, but it seemed like the speakers were just throwing around buzzwords without much content. I just kept hearing ‘we provide strategy to our clients’ and ‘implementation of ideas’. All except for Ted cohen; who proved intelligent with two great quotes: “Know your competition and know why you’re better”  along with “Under promise and over deliver“. After about twenty minutes, I decided I wouldn’t last if I heard the words “facebook” and “Pinterest” again in such a short time and decided to catch the tail end of demos in the main room.

Demos

I caught only a few of these, but they seemed to center around apps creating a ‘music discovery game’ with an element of ‘I found this band first’-ness. Ultimately I wasn’t impressed by demos from Tastemakerx – ‘buy stock in the bands you like’ and Cred.fm – whose UI needs A LOT of work… so much so I’d rather not take a look at their product.

Being Social

This session was a roundtable of sorts about the social community and the web in general. It was a diverse group with a lot of opinions, but many good points, mainly revolving around establishing trust via online and offline methods and how is crucial to your branding. Without this trust and extra mile, you are only an online entity with little weight. Stefan Aronsen from SF Intercom made this great drawing of me saying “People will always get paid for stupid shit” meaning that, seemingly trivial things such as talking about your day on a Youtube channel, always have monetization potential if you know how to harness it. Sometimes all it takes is a clever idea. Pic courtesy of Stefan Aronsen:

Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss

David Lowery of Cracker fame hosted this quickie session relating to how the music industry has changed in regards of making money. He argues all the horror stories you hear about that evil behemoth ‘the music industry‘ aren’t really worth their weight – first of all, you only hear the bad stories, and secondly, with do-it-yourself online sales such as itunes, you may get a greater percentage of the proceeds (~60% versus ~30% from the big guys), but your publicity, sponsorship, and touring costs are all your own, therefore putting you at a disadvantage. I think he has a point, but I can’t help but think about all the ifs here. If the company puts faith in you, if they get your song on the radio (and other channels like Spotify and Pandora), and ultimately, if they promote you. Something about me just resists his premise that the artist is better off with a big conglomerate, but what do I know? Also, Mr. Lowery could have supported his assertions if he explained (or even mentioned) the ‘recoup-able’ parts of all those contracts big artists complain about.

API’s

This session had industry greats talking about their API’s for the net. Rahim Sonawalla from Rovi Corporation,  Ty Roberts from Gracenote, Andrew Mager from Spotify, Neil Mansilla from Mashery, Chad Taylor from Thrillcall, and Neil Tinegate from Open EMI all spoke about what things can be done through simple API implementation. I have to make a sidenote that Ty Roberts is a smart cookie, answering questions that I thought were beyond Gracenote alone. Several great thoughts came out of the session, such as monetizing mobile services with API’s is a very challenging model, basically because of network and visual space restrictions. Also, all the data that is being collected, by API implementation and by companies you’d never think of, is big money. Spotify along with BMW and Ford can all track your listening habits and equate them with factors such as time of day, speed, location, etc. The information collected is quickly mind boggling when linked up to create patterns. Ultimately this session had more of a commercial angle than a techie one. While I understand the ‘why’ here, the developer in me is more interested on how things are wired up versus ‘what we can do for you’ talks. One thing is clear: big databases equal big money.

Welcome to the Music Industry, You’re Fucked!

The great Martin Atkins! This was his presentation about his book of the same name. I owe an apology to my co worker Melissa Adair for missing her session to see Mr. Atkins, but this guy is spot on. Not only a legend in his own right, skating on the peripheral of the music industry as a pioneer in the industrial scene, but a hilarious, no- nonsense, intelligent person who has ‘been there, done that’. Most of his points were about how you fuck yourself over, with such truisms as not believing in yourself, placing blame, thinking that others care about what you do, not having a strategy, not doing ‘cool shit’, etc. He has a lot of advice for anyone in the music industry as well as artists in general. I haven’t heard one person make so much sense in an hour’s time since I last saw Henry Rollins speak. It was truly the highlight of the day.

Conclusion

The day was so packed with information that I am still downloading it days later. This convention is not one to miss if you are in either industry, especially if your company has any overlap. The host, the Kabuki hotel, does a great job accommodating so many people although the event may be outgrowing the space. I also met a bunch of people at the after party, all who were very interesting in different facets of the music and tech industries. I look forward to SF musictech ’13!

I’ll make it easy for you

Klout: Your navigation bar is still fucked up. Here’s the solution, free of charge:
#header #menu #dropdown-summary .username {
max-width: 133px;
to
max-width: 121px;
You may want to go with an even smaller value for a bit more ‘wiggle room’.

Dear K____: I expected more.

Today I pulled up klout.com on Firefox – PC – (yes, to check my score!) and I was dismayed at what I saw:

klout.com

klout.com screenshot

Did you even test this quick n’ dirty implementation for a feel good Valentine’s Day wish? Is it worth compromising your navigation?

IOS 5 – NO MEANS NO! (Er, OFF MEANS OFF)

Catching Up

As I have said before, the concept of usability extends to all technology. And not a far leap from websites is the ubiquitous smartphone, and in particular, the iphone. In the grand scheme of things, I am relatively new to the game. I never felt the need to pull up a site while at dinner with my buddies or while riding MUNI, so I resisted. Now, I know what you are thinking: “Wait, You are a web professional?!?” well, therein lies the reason. I live, breathe, and eat ‘web’, and while I can code a site for a smartphone, I relegated any surfing to my laptop. After all, there are times when we need to escape and ‘turn off‘.

But it seems the concept of ‘off’ doesn’t jump the human-to-iphone synapse. What am I talking about? Applications, or for short, apps. I guess the following has been improved on with IOS5 – I came to this game after IOS4 woes – but here goes:

What is Going On?

I’ve noticed when I close an app on my iphone, it isn’t exactly ‘off’. If I have push notifications set, it will continue to chime (or vibrate) into the night. Okay, so I turned them off and finally the app is… wait, WTF? STILL CHIMING away! (Even after I double click the home button, hold my  finger on the icon, and click the minus sign.)

I’m probably missing something here, but why can’t a simple off mean off? Isn’t Apple applauded for their usability?

I guess the problem comes when there are processies that need to run while the phone is on. Messaging is an app. The ‘phone’ part of the phone is an app, and you (albeit rarer and rarer these days) wouldn’t want a person not be able to call you. So herein lies the problem, there is no distinct separation from the different kinds of apps that need to be ‘on’ all the time.

Connection Kills

Not only do all these notifications kill battery life (some tips to hopefully lessen the effect are at http://osxdaily.com/2011/10/16/ios-5-battery-life-fix-tips/), but are just plain annoying. When I am doing my thing, I don’t want my concentration to be broken by my phone chiming every second.

But maybe this is what they are going for? The advantage of being so ‘connected’. I admit, at times, I really like this concept. There should be another option though. We should be able to ‘turn off’ when we need to.

Die my darling!

Hot on the heels of my anti-Internet Explorer rants comes the news:

http://windowsteamblog.com/ie/b/ie/archive/2011/12/15/ie-to-start-automatic-upgrades-across-windows-xp-windows-vista-and-windows-7.aspx

It seems that Microsoft finally smells the coffee and has taken a cue from browsers such as Firefox and Google. And only a few several years late. I’m glad they have wised up.

Unfortunately, it seems these changes won’t be forced if the end user has automatic updates turned off, which is a real shame. Microsoft has the power to fix something once and for all, and it should just pull the trigger already. They should put their money where their mouth is and pull the band-aid off in one quick motion, expose the wound and let it heal.

So what does this mean? It will certainly make life easier for developers across the globe, but I wonder what the adjustment period will be, if one at all. Will some major system break in Sydney and trash productivity? Will it be Y2K all over again?

Hopefully, thankfully, not.

A real world usability example

I give you the penny. This video is totally worth the time; I will get back to the article in a second… er, a few minutes:
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with this video in any way

The problem

Pennies cost 1.8 cents to make, yet are only ‘worth’ 1 cent. They have no buying power. People hate them. The system does not work. So how do we fix this?

A solution

Many say remove them from circulation, as other countries have done, which is a definite solution (good luck on that).  Let me offer a second one: stamp out the middle. In turn use the extra material for more coins, and viola! Fixed. Sure, the initial purchase of the machine will cost money, but would pay for itself in no time.

But what does it mean?
(Insert double rainbow reference here)

Most of us use coins everyday. Considering popular opinion that pennies are a nuisance means we, as ‘users of the penny’ are frustrated. Daily. We need to change the system. If we don’t eliminate them altogether, stamping out the center will allow people to not only easily identify pennies against the other coins in your pocket, but we won’t go into the red creating them. While we are at it, we could put holes in other coins to differentiate them as well. Ever have a dollar coin and quarter in your pocket at the same time?

Wait, am I still reading a blog about web usability?

Still with me? Now think of a website. If it, like the penny, is considered a nuisance, no one will use it. If it isn’t easily identified as having value, no one will use it. If it is frustrating, no one will use it. You need to identify site pitfalls and shortcomings and analyze how you can change what doesn’t work. This involves monitoring user habits and determining what users want. After this is identified, offer it! Focus groups and Google Analytics will help here. There are also low cost solutions that will film a first time user exploring your site, thinking out loud to offer an insight into user habits. Keep in mind, as with the penny example above, problems often have more than one solution. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of each to determine maximum effectiveness – Read ROI.

This harkens back to the simplest, and sadly, most forgotten rule:
If something isn’t working, change it.  (before your numbers dip!)

Did that explode? (part 2: wave goodbye)

On Focus.com, I discussed that burying IE 6 is not only a matter of technology, but also one of reputation:

http://www.focus.com/questions/do-you-use-internet-explorer-6-why/#comment38064

We have the power

I still maintain these opinions, and ultimately, we as an Internet community must move forward by eliminating support of old browsers such as IE 6 and 7. While supporting four versions of Internet Explorer can be a (albeit, rare) necessity, let’s face it: it’s a pain in the ass. If IE 6 and IE 7 are ever going to be put in the grave once in for all, it  is us as developers who have to do it. We have to stand up and say ‘fuck it’. We have the power.

Ultimately, this shouldn’t be a hard thing.  Any developer worth their weight should be well versed in the ways of IE. When I style my pages, I make sure to code my pages with a bit of wiggle room so they won’t break.

It’s getting gotten kinda hectic

At my last position, my first task was to clean up the site’s existing quagmire of CSS files. The first thing I did was hunt down all the IE conditionals and made those styles universal. This subsequently led to the deletion of IE specific files, leading to a faster site, less styles to maintain, and less files in the code base.

No more should we have the following:

<!--[if IE]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if IE 6]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if IE 7]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if IE 8]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if IE 9]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if gte IE 8]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if lt IE 9]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if lte IE 7]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if gt IE 6]>
...
<![endif]-->
<!--[if !IE]> -->
...
<!-- <![endif]-->

If I was interviewing a candidate who relied on  the above methods I would pass. This is an antiquated methodology that ultimately makes for more overhead to maintenance and load times, but more importantly speaks to a lack of skills. The developer can’t make it work the first time around, so they have to program the same layout three or more times.

The future

Even Microsoft is sick of the beast it created:

http://www.ie6countdown.com/

Let’s join them and wave goodbye to an old friend.

Do you still support IE 6 or 7?  How much longer do you think it will stick around?

Seven mistakes that are easy to avoid…

…as they are to fix:

1. Flash intros/lame ‘splash’ pages (along with long load times)

1990 called: it wants it’s internet back. Seriously, all a long intro does is eat bandwidth and prolong a user from accessing content. This applies to static splash pages as well: I don’t need to click on a huge graphic to ‘enter’ the site. While on the net today, if a user doesn’t have quick access to content, they will find another site that does. If you have an entire Flash site, have at least an HTML option with minimal functionality.

2. Music (along with talking ads)

Another bandwidth gobbler. I don’t even like the music you chose. And forget about me visiting your site while at work or another sensitive situation (after all, when do you think the peak surfing hours are?) Sound effects? Talking advertisements? Even worse.

3. A web within the web

Ever been to a corporate site (this is usually where the issue manifests) where it is obvious they just tacked on pages to existing pages with no solid plan of navigation? You click all over the site to find something, and when you think you found it, it returns a page totally unlike the existing site… or even worse, a 404. Even worse still: through some asinine implementation, the page (404?) you end up on was loaded via a server command which effectively disables the back button.

4. “Under Construction” pages

Another convention from the beginnings of the popular Internet. Do or do not; I will not check back “soon”.

5. Broken sites due to browser choice

While it can be a tall task at times, make your site function in IE, FF, Chrome, and Safari without gross discrepancies. At the very least, it should ‘fail gracefully’. If you are programming for the net, take an extra few minutes and check your site in these four browsers, and hopefully on a smartphone or two. If you don’t have access to multiple platforms, find it – or don’t code. It can be as easy as buying someone a latte in a coffee shop to pull up your site on their laptop. Also note different resolutions and how they affect your site.

6. Extremely outdated/erroneous information

This can be a tough one. With information flowing so fast on what makes the Internet the Internet, it can be hard to stay on top of things, let alone update every piece of content. A lot of this is the nature of the beast: most content is, by definition, an archive of sorts. Still, there are times when you come across blatant outdated or wrong information. Let’s say you reference the ‘new’ iphone 3 or the Sistine Chapel and the wonderful job Da Vinci did painting it.  Even if these errors are due to a momentary brain fart, it is going to cost you loyalty. If you can’t get an obvious fact right, what else are you wrong about?

7. AND THE WORST…

Ads that expand and take over the page on ROLLOVER. I’m sure you’ve seen these – often for a movie or the car of the day, disguised as a small banner/box ad until your mouse comes in contact with it – often accidentally – and WHOOSH! CHECK OUT THIS CAR! Note these ads usually are video based, adding more bandwidth consumption and even more distraction. If you collect revenue though ads, this will not help. After a user encounters a few of these, you won’t have to worry about revenue, but rather a new business – your site won’t be visited again.

A bonus tip:

Grammar. Spelling. Even I fail at this from time to time, everyone does. But at least make an effort. One or two errors is forgivable, three or more is just lazy.

So, are you guilty?

Fixed headers (and footers)

As a web developer I am conscious of not only what I deliver to the end user, but also in the method I do so. Personally, I have a strong aversion to anything in my browser window that I do not have control over. Although I understand the need, at times, to have static content on a website, this shouldn’t be at the cost of irritation to the end user or sacrifice valuable site real estate.

The two most popular sites (those of course being Facebook and Twitter) have fixed headers. So if they are doing it, it must be a great idea that works well for all sites, right?

Wrong.

While employing a fixed header has some definite advantages, it is extremely important to understand the disadvantages as well.

ADVANTAGES

Status messages – Alerting the user of important changes or issues, such as site downtime or that you no longer support IE6 (granted, you shouldn’t be supporting IE6 – yeah, I said it – more on that in a future post).

Navigation – quick access to navigation is important so the user can get around. The more functional a site, the better.

DISADVANTAGES

Toolbars – It  is important to note that several users these days end up with a lot of toolbars on the browser window. This is fixed content on the browser window that will further reduce the real estate available to a website. This in turn leads not only to less of your site being viewable, but an extra degree of frustration to the end user. While it is an easy task, many do not know how to disable (let alone fully remove) extra toolbars.

most toolbars today have their own dropdown menu to disable/remove them. If not, you should be able to do so via the following:

  • IE – click on tools -> manage add ons -> Toolbars and Extensions
  • FF – click on Friefox drop down -> add-ons -> extensions
  • Chrome – click on wrench -> tools -> extensions
  • Safari – preferences -> extensions

Flash – Yes, the big evil flash that not only Apple doesn’t like, but most people don’t care for either. You will notice a lot of fun things happening if you happen to have flash content on your site and a fixed header or footer div. Sometimes the flash content doesn’t want to scroll under. Sometimes it will scroll under but cause weird ripple effect in the content above. What happens when Flash content collides with fixed content is, unfortunately, unpredictable.

Design – If your site has very strong colors or graphics, take a moment to think about how this affects the end user. For instance, if your header is a neon green (not only do you need a new design), how long do you think someone is going to tolerate it staring back at them? Remember your goal is to keep people on your site.

If you decide on a static header for your site, take some time to really think about if the information within it and if it is absolutely necessary to be  persistent. And most important:

  1. Give the end user an option to close it (provided it isn’t your main navigation). The ubiquitous little ‘x’ in the upper right corner has now all but become convention, and is an excellent implementation.
  2. Keep it minimal! Note that, at the time of this writing, Facebook’s header is only 38 pixels high; Twitter’s is 40 pixels.
  3. All of the above applies to fixed content in general. Sometimes sites have fixed footers. While theses scenarios are not nearly as common, it is important to keep the above in mind for those as well.

Do you have a static header on your site? Thoughts?

Hello world!

Every programmer writes their first program – one that prints “Hello World”.  Being that this blog is about code, design, and development, it only seems right I keep this default post :).