What Makes a Quality Playlist?

Earlier this evening I made a “Genius playlist” on my iPhone from White Town’s song “Your Woman” and it turned out surprisingly well, considering all the music was automatically selected by a computer algorithm in a matter of 1 or 2 seconds. Steph commented on how much she was enjoying it, and Caleb danced the whole time. I was impressed.

I suppose methods used to measure the quality of a playlist are a much-debated thing. We could get into deep aesthetic discussions about how one song can lead into the next and bring the listener through “arcs”, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing playlists that way. But to me, there’s a simple beauty in playing the hits, straight up, without any pretentiousness to it. We got pretty close to that here. I really love about 20 of these 25 songs, even if most of them hail from deep throwback territory.

  • White Town – “Your Woman”
  • Cake – “Never There”
  • The Cardigans – “Lovefool”
  • EMF – “Unbelievable”
  • Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet (Radio Edit)”
  • Beck – “Where It’s At”
  • U2 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
  • Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me With Science”
  • Cut Copy – “Lights & Music”
  • Cake – “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”
  • They Might Be Giants – “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
  • Simple Minds – “Don’t You Forget About Me”
  • Cold War Kids – “Hang Me Up to Dry”
  • Phoenix – “Everything Is Everything”
  • Shannon – “Let the Music Play (David Delano, Dirty Lou & Swedish Egil Remix)”
  • Hot Chip – “Over and Over”
  • Yello – “Oh Yeah”
  • Beck – “Devils Haircut”
  • Scissor Sisters – “Take Your Mama”
  • Madonna – “Beautiful Stranger (William Orbit Radio Edit Version)”
  • Radiohead – “Karma Police”
  • Gorillaz – “19-2000”
  • Cut Copy – “Hearts On Fire”
  • The White Stripes – “My Doorbell”
  • The B-52’s – “Rock Lobster”

Perhaps the perfect playlist would use the Genius feature as a starting point, and then take manual tweaking and editing to bring it to perfection.

iPhone OS 3.0 – Accessory Ideas

The iPhone OS 3.0 presentation that happened on Tuesday really got me thinking. There were a lot of exciting announcements that are being loudly touted by the press: the arrival of a rather elegantly designed Copy and Paste to the OS, Stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) support, CalDAV support, new application payment models, and device-to-device interactivity are a few favorites. These are all pretty big announcements. But the biggest announcement of the show wasn’t the addition of Copy and Paste, but something Apple is just calling “Accessories.”

Let me explain briefly what “Accessories” means for those who don’t know, and then I’ll tell you what I see in this idea’s future.

Up until now, the iPhone has had only a short list of ways in which it could interact with other devices. You could sync it with iTunes, pair it with a Bluetooth headset for hands-free phone conversations, or plug it into a music speaker system with a dock connector. It’s a simple, highly-focused list.

But what if the iPhone could talk to other kinds of hardware? Any kind of hardware? Apple gave a very safe example for starters: a custom application that would allow the iPhone to control a hardware equalizer built into a particular iPhone-compatible music speaker system. But later in the presentation, Apple showed the idea is much bigger than that. The iPhone could soon connect to things that aren’t necessarily music-related or phone-related at all. They asked us to imagine medical devices being assisted by the iPhone. Like a blood pressure cuff wherein the traditional display (which sometimes requires its own cart and custom computers) is replaced with just a cord and a dock connector. Custom software on the iPhone would display all the relevant readings from the cuff (on a large, high-resolution color screen no less), just like the current stuff does. But since the iPhone platform is so powerful, why stop there? Record the readings over time, advise the patient based on trends, and wirelessly send the collection of reports to a doctor from anywhere in the world with a click of a button. Now we’re talking. None of the blood pressure monitors I’ve ever seen could do that.

Keep in mind, also, that these new accessory connections work with both the dock connector or a Bluetooth connection, depending (I assume) on your application’s bandwidth and latency considerations. The cord doesn’t necessarily have to be there.

So what else could be done with this? I’ve come up with a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.

Mobile Magnetic Strip Reader

It’s not easy to process credit cards wirelessly. If you want to sell something to people without a big Point of Sale cash register system and store walls around you (like, say, at a garage sale) it would seem you’re limited to taking cash. Not anymore. Hook a magnetic stripe reader up to the iPhone, write some software, and take credit card payments wirelessly from anywhere. I would be shocked if Apple wasn’t using these by November of this year in their stores to increase the number of points of sale and mitigate holiday shopping congestion. I think they’ve previously (embarrassingly) had to use Windows Mobile to do this.

Device Firmware Updates

Ever had a device whose software could be updated, but you never bothered to do it? My TV has an update to its software right now that I haven’t applied. The instructions require you to hook your PC’s serial port up to the thing with a custom cable (note: it’s not Mac compatible), run some software, etc, and you just don’t want to lug your machine downstairs, get out the cable, and go through the whole thing. What if you could just deliver the device firmware over Bluetooth through the iPhone? No portability problems, no cable, and a nice multi-touch experience that trounces whatever they created for the PC. Suddenly, all your devices can add features and fix problems by using the iPhone as the conduit to the Internet. Devices of tomorrow might come with some minimal additional hardware (Bluetooth, a dock connector cable, whatever) that leaves their future functionality a bit more open and flexible, just like the current flexibility of your computer or iPhone. They don’t now, but they will. And when they do, we’ll really start to see how things can change quickly. There’s no reason you can’t update your coffee maker or your toaster.

I understand these things were functionally possible before. But no one does them because it’s a pain and it’s hard. When Apple steps into these kinds of areas, industries change. Why do you think Congress only started to have opinions about locking cellphones to certain networks when the iPhone came out, when it was a practice that was many years old? Buzz is worth a lot, and the iPhone has it by the truckload.

Internet-connected, Highly-portable Barcode Scanner

Remember my old idea about using the iPhone to price compare? Well, the iPhone’s camera isn’t good enough to scan an average barcode in a store. Android has several apps out that do this now, but the iPhone requires that you enter the barcode digits in manually in order to provide similar functionality. Yuck. But that’s over now. Someone will definitely be making a barcode scanner that connects to the iPhone and talks to a specialized piece of software. If it’s cheap and small, it’ll be very interesting. Not because it hasn’t been done, but in part because it’s on a popular device.

Augmenting Standalone Devices

The Canon digital camera we use most around our house doesn’t have GPS built-in. It’s a bummer, because knowing where photos were taken is a powerful and useful feature (supported by iPhoto ’09, no less), but to me, it’s just not worth paying thousands of dollars for a new camera that has built-in GPS. So why not write the camera’s software to tether to the iPhone (wirelessly or not) and get that data from the phone while pictures are taken? I get GPS data on my photos without having to build the cost of GPS into the camera. Everybody wins! Except people who own cameras today. OK, no plan is perfect.

My iPhone on Anathem, and Vice Versa

Anathem and the iPhone

Tonight I decided to try reading a full-length book on my iPhone. I was about 20% of the way through Anathem, so I decided I would just continue it on the iPhone. I happened to have a 50% discount code in an email, so I bought the eReader version for $9.

So far, I’m really enjoying the experience. We’ll see how I feel when I’m done with the book, but I’m coming to understand that the iPhone and iPod Touch can now have the same shrinking effect on book libraries as the iPod has had on all our CD libraries. This may not have quite as big an effect on our personal lives as the iPod did since people tend to only read a small number of books simultaneously, but then again, no one used to carry 200 CDs worth of music with them everywhere either. Now, it seems every other pedestrian I pass on my way from the bus to the office has little white earbuds stuffed in their ears.

I’m not sure why, but in spite of the fact that I’ve seen this all before, I’m still amazed by the size contrast. Look at that photo. Anathem has been painful to shove in my backpack every day. It’s bigger than most Bibles. Anathem is about 900 pages long. Now it’s in my pocket and the font size hasn’t gotten any smaller.

I admit the Kindle has some advantages on the iPhone. More words per screen at the same font size would be one. The Kindle definitely doesn’t have a higher contrast ratio, text-to-background. I think the iPhone / iPod Touch’s biggest advantage is that it’s already in my pocket, thus making Anathem and all the other books I might purchase for the iPhone some day effectively weightless. It’s tough to beat that.

The iPhone, Location, and Product Pricing

A few years ago I had an idea for a website that would help its users to see which stores had a particular item in stock. I was tired of phone shopping for popular items, and I was even more tired of driving to a store only to find that they don’t have the one thing I’m looking for. It seemed simple: I want Item X for a reasonable price. I am located at these GPS coordinates. List the retailers that have Item X in order of ascending distance from me. However, it was pointed out that this idea would require the cooperation of each store’s inventory system, and it was likely that I wouldn’t ever get such deep cooperation from the biggest, most popular stores. So I ditched the idea.

When the software for what Apple calls iPhone 2.0 was introduced on March 6th, Apple spoke of a framework they were adding to the device called Core Location (optionally see the Core Location documentation on Apple’s Developer Center, registration required). The framework, according to Apple’s documentation, “lets you determine the current latitude and longitude of a device.” That data can then be used in applications on that device. (It is my strong opinion that locational awareness will be the defining feature of killer iPhone applications, just as connectedness and participation were the defining features of all killer desktop computer applications of the last 15 years, just as cheap desktop publishing was the defining feature of the 15 years of computing before that.)

Let me tell you about the iPhone application idea I had in the evening on March 6th. I’ve kept it under wraps until now, but I know now it’s pointless to stay silent for personal reasons I’ll go into later.

Let’s say you’re at the store. You’re going to buy a product. But you want to know if there is a better deal on that product at another nearby store, or somewhere else in town. So you get your iPhone out, open this application, and point the camera at the product’s barcode. It scans the barcode, talks to “the cloud” to see what the product is, and talks to Core Location to figure out approximately where the user is currently standing. If there is more than one store in the reasonable proximity of the user, it asks them which store in the list they are at, and asks them to either enter or confirm the price (if someone else has already entered it) of that particular product at that particular store. The user can then see other stores in the area (perhaps within a preferentially-set distance radius) and the prices they are charging for that product, with a quick click over to Google Maps to call the store and check to see if it’s still in stock, and to get driving directions to the store. The application would pay for itself after a few smart uses, and in this economy, I’d rather be selling aspirin software than vitamin software. This application is definitely an aspirin.

I think stores would start to scan their own stuff, or talk with the owner of the aforementioned “cloud” database for a way to quickly upload their entire inventory with up-to-date prices every so many hours. Users would initially power the system, and eventually help to fill in the gaps. (Don’t tell me relying on users to provide useful information doesn’t work. Look at Wikipedia.) The application has a great sense of participation and anti-“The Man” that I think people would really get into. Another boon: the search and matching algorithms could be updated to match products that are very similar to the one scanned (say, if they scan something purely functional and commoditized like bread or windshield cleanser) so that users wouldn’t have to make extra effort to search outside the brand they’re currently scanning. Perhaps it would eventually expand to items that were difficult to scan, like gasoline prices, and encompass everything a person would buy.

In late March I informally pitched this idea to Wil Shipley for reasons that will be obvious to users of Delicious Library. He liked the idea, but passed on the offer to take almost all of the profits from it if he developed it. I don’t blame him; ideas these days are a dime a dozen, but makers are hard to find. Moreover, talented makers are extremely rare and valuable. That’s why after thinking it through, I decided not to try to pitch the idea to more people on the hopes that I could make a profit from it without doing any work. That’s cheap. I know I can’t create this alone because I’m a “web guy” and I just don’t have the 40+ hours per week of free time this would require of me if the application was going to come out in 2008. I’d have APIs to learn. My Obj-C is extremely rusty. I’ve never really used Xcode seriously. All these things start to sound like cheap excuses though, don’t they? Maybe that’s what they are. I can’t tell.

So, if I want to use this application badly enough, I’ll round up a group of people and we’ll make it happen. Maybe it’ll be open-source and free. I don’t know how one would go about wisely leading such an effort, so if anyone would like to lend me a hand or give me advice, I’m wide open and willing to listen. All that I ask is that I be able to steer this idea from a very high level, and have a lot of input on the user interface and feature list. I think that’s where I could add the most value. I feel like I’ve already used this application I’ve thought about it so much. The only thing I don’t have is a name. I’ve heard many; they all suck. (Sorry, peeps who made suggestions.) Price Finder is too obvious (and probably too taken), and please kill me if I call it “Scannr.”

On a personal note, one of my defining struggles in life over the last few years has been to become the kind of person who would rather make than consume. To be a creator of culture rather than a consumer of it. To be a shaper of the world rather than allowing the world to shape me. I’m far from that goal, but I intend to continue pursuing it. Maybe by the time I’m 50 or 60 I’ll be there. That’s plenty of time to learn about more than just web development.