The Dawn of Recording

phonoautograph image

An article that treats the topic with surprising depth, reminding us that early efforts in sound recording were directed toward converting sound into graphically interpretable artifacts, rather than what Edison came up with: Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison

For more than a century, since he captured the spoken words “Mary had a little lamb” on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edison’s invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades.

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

“This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,” said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.

[…] Listeners are now left to ponder the oddity of hearing a recording made before the idea of audio playback was even imagined.

“There is a yawning epistemic gap between us and Léon Scott, because he thought that the way one gets to the truth of sound is by looking at it,” said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.”

An Interesting Argument/Observation

Wired looks at the Apple management culture, and reads some tea leaves about the future of the internetworked world: How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong

For all the protests, consumers don’t seem to mind Apple’s walled garden. In fact, they’re clamoring to get in. Yes, the iPod hardware and the iTunes software are inextricably linked — that’s why they work so well together. And now, PC-based iPod users, impressed with the experience, have started converting to Macs, further investing themselves in the Apple ecosystem.

Some Apple competitors have tried to emulate its tactics. Microsoft’s MP3 strategy used to be like its mobile strategy — license its software to (almost) all comers. Not any more: The operating system for Microsoft’s Zune player is designed uniquely for the device, mimicking the iPod’s vertical integration. Amazon’s Kindle e-reader provides seamless access to a proprietary selection of downloadable books, much as the iTunes Music Store provides direct access to an Apple-curated storefront. And the Nintendo Wii, the Sony PlayStation 3, and the Xbox360 each offer users access to self-contained online marketplaces for downloading games and special features.

Tim O’Reilly, publisher of the O’Reilly Radar blog and an organizer of the Web 2.0 Summit, says that these “three-tiered systems” — that blend hardware, installed software, and proprietary Web applications — represent the future of the Net. As consumers increasingly access the Web using scaled-down appliances like mobile phones and Kindle readers, they will demand applications that are tailored to work with those devices. True, such systems could theoretically be open, with any developer allowed to throw its own applications and services into the mix. But for now, the best three-tier systems are closed. And Apple, O’Reilly says, is the only company that “really understands how to build apps for a three-tiered system.”

If Apple represents the shiny, happy future of the tech industry, it also looks a lot like our cat-o’-nine-tails past. In part, that’s because the tech business itself more and more resembles an old-line consumer industry. When hardware and software makers were focused on winning business clients, price and interoperability were more important than the user experience. But now that consumers make up the most profitable market segment, usability and design have become priorities. Customers expect a reliable and intuitive experience — just like they do with any other consumer product.

Monopoly? Not!

And waterboarding isn’t torture, either: Justice Dept. Approves XM Merger With Sirius

The Justice Department’s antitrust division announced Monday that it approved the merger after determining that prices were not likely to rise, in part because of competition from other program sources, like high-definition radio as well as iPods and other MP3 players that can be connected to home or car audio systems. The deal, the agency said, was unlikely to hurt competition or consumers.

“In several important segments of their business, with or without the merger, the parties simply do not compete today and therefore the merger would not be eliminating any competition between them,” Thomas O. Barnett, assistant attorney general, said in announcing the decision.

In other segments of the market, XM and Sirius compete fiercely and, according to their balance sheets, unprofitably; both companies are saddled with debt.

Later, from the Washington Post — Out of Tune With Consumers (pdf)

It took some doing — and more than a year of “investigation” — for the Justice Department to come up with its undisclosed evidence and tortured logic to justify this strikingly anti-consumer decision. As precedent, it could be used to justify the merger of ABC with both CBS and NBC, Clear Channel with the Bonneville radio network or even Coke with Pepsi. The message it sends to business executives is clear: If you find yourself in a tough competitive environment, the best strategy is not to find a way to offer better products and services at a better price, but rather to call your investment banker and negotiate a truce with your biggest rival.

Sure sounds like the Yoo memo (pdf), doesn’t it?

Marketing and Life

The new Batman movie promotion moves into new territory: Teasing Batman (pdf)

So to stand out, “The Dark Knight’s” alternate reality game (ARG for short) is mashing up advertising, scavenger-hunting and role-playing in a manner that variously recalls “The X-Files” and the play “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” “The Matrix” and the board game Clue — all in the name of galvanizing a community of fans to bond (with the new Batman and each other) over the course of a wild goose chase.

Or to be more precise, a wild Joker chase — one that so far has involved clues spelled out in skywriting, secret meeting points, cellphones embedded inside cakes, Internet red herrings, DIY fan contests and even fake political rallies. Moreover, last week several players were nearly arrested in Chicago while engaging in civil disobedience to promote the movie; others have even been “kidnapped” and “murdered” over the course of the game.

Befitting the campaign’s covert-ops M.O., neither Warner Bros. nor 42 Entertainment would comment for this story. But as Jonathan Waite, founder of the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (www.argn.com) sees it, “The Dark Knight’s” multifaceted promo push transcends marketing to exist as a standalone cultural event.

“This is looked upon as viral marketing, but you have to look at it as an engrossing experience — you have people getting very attached to the game,” Waite said. “You’re not a passive onlooker, you’re taking an active role. And any time you take an active role, you’re emotionally connecting. That’s why people keep coming back: You make personal connections with others and a community gets built.”

Google’s White Space Plans

Google tells FCC of “white space” airwave planspdf

In comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Google said it would propose an enhanced system to prevent wireless devices operating in the so-called “white space” from interfering with adjacent television channels and wireless microphones.

Google said the enhancements “will eliminate any remaining legitimate concerns about the merits of using the white space for unlicensed personal/portable devices.”

The FCC’s white space testing page: TV Band Device Testing

From that page:

3/21/08
Remaining bench tests of devices for sensing in the presence of DTV signals in adjacent channels will continue from Monday (March 24, 2008) till Thursday (March 28 2008). In addition, the Laboratory plans to complete transmitter characterization for devices with such capabilities. Weather permitting; the transmitter characterization will include testing outdoor (in the open area outside the laboratory building on the FCC premises). Currently there are no plans to test on Friday (March 28, 2008).

Later: Google revives push to get free airwaves (pdf)

Google turned its attention to TV “white spaces” after it failed to win any spectrum in the recent auction by the Federal Communications Commission that raised $19.1 billion. Analysts said the company probably did not want to win any of that spectrum. Google provided the minimum $4.6-billion bid on a large nationwide group of spectrum licenses ultimately won by Verizon Wireless in an effort to ensure that those airwaves be required to be open to any device or software.

[…] “Right now they don’t think they need to own a network,” said Blair Levin, an analyst with brokerage Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., who called Google the “happy loser” in the auction.

Also, a related question: FCC Asked to Probe Auction: Failure of Public Safety Band to Draw Bids Raises Suspicion (pdf)

The failure of a Federal Communications Commission auction to draw sufficient bids to build a wireless network for emergency responders provoked sharp criticism by members of Congress, consumer groups and leaders of the 9/11 Commission yesterday. It also prompted a call to investigate whether auction rules were broken.

Nine organizations, including the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, wrote to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, saying the FCC should “investigate carefully the allegations” that representatives of the nation’s police, fire and emergency officials undermined the auction. They cited reports that public-safety representatives demanded that any winner of the auction make additional payments to them.

A Shock of the Old Article

Why Old Technologies Are Still Kicking (See David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 for more examples)

The mainframe stands as a telling case in the larger story of survivor technologies and markets. The demise of the old technology is confidently predicted, and indeed it may lose ground to the insurgent, as mainframes did to the personal computer. But the old technology or business often finds a sustainable, profitable life. Television, for example, was supposed to kill radio, and movies, for that matter. Cars, trucks and planes spelled the death of railways. A current death-knell forecast is that the Web will kill print media.

What are the common traits of survivor technologies? First, it seems, there is a core technology requirement: there must be some enduring advantage in the old technology that is not entirely supplanted by the new. But beyond that, it is the business decisions that matter most: investing to retool the traditional technology, adopting a new business model and nurturing a support network of loyal customers, industry partners and skilled workers.

The unfulfilled predictions of demise, experts say, tend to overestimate the importance of pure technical innovation and underestimate the role of business judgment. “The rise and fall of technologies is mainly about business and not technological determinism,” said Richard S. Tedlow, a business historian at the Harvard Business School.

Rickrolling, Anyone?

The ’80s Video That Pops Up, Online and Off

Rickrolling is a descendant of an older Internet joke called duckrolling. A Web site or blog post would offer a link to something popular — say celebrity photos or video gaming news — that led unsuspecting viewers to a bizarre image of a duck on wheels.

For rickrolling, the duck was replaced with the 20-year-old Astley video, and in the last year it has become a hugely successful “meme,” the Internet’s word for an idea repeated across the Web. The video from yougotrickrolled.com has been viewed more than seven million times.

The “Never Gonna Give You Up” video has been watched over a million times on YouTube — not bad for a song that last had heavy radio play in 1988, when it spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart of the top-selling singles.

Searchity Search Search

A New Tool From Google Alarms Sites

This month, the company introduced a search-within-search feature that lets users stay on Google to find pages on popular sites like those of The Washington Post, Wikipedia, The New York Times, Wal-Mart and others. The search box appears when someone enters the name of certain Web addresses or company names — say, “Best Buy” — rather than entering a request like “cellphones.”

The results of the search are almost all individual company pages. Google tops those results with a link to the home page of the Web site in question, adds another search box, and offers users the chance to let Google search for certain things within that site.

The problem, for some in the industry, is that when someone enters a term into that secondary search box, Google will display ads for competing sites, thereby profiting from ads it sells against the brand. The feature also keeps users searching on Google pages and not pages of the destination Web site.

A Little Blurb from Today’s NYTimes Most Wanted

Most Wanted

Some other background: Gibson Guitar Tangles With Game Makers (pdf)

Gibson Guitar Corp. has widened its attack on the video game industry with a second patent infringement lawsuit.

It claims, in a case filed Thursday in federal district court in Nashville, that by developing, distributing and promoting the video game “Rock Band,” Harmonix, MTV Networks and Electronic Arts are violating a virtual-reality patent the guitar maker holds.

The same 1999 patent is at issue in a separate lawsuit Gibson filed earlier in the week against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and five other retailers. The real-guitar maker claims the stores are violating the patent by selling the Activision Inc. game “Guitar Hero.”

Before Gibson filed either lawsuit, Activision sued Gibson in Los Angeles this month asking for a federal court declaration that it is not violating Gibson’s patent.