Tuesday, December 09, 2008

tech in africa (and mali specifically!)

very interesting article on linux in africa, which mentions mali specifically. i have been dealing with this on a very micro level since i helped facilitate a friend buying a OLPC laptop for his daughter. she was in mali, but had been having fun with my laptop when she was here. so he had me buy a OLPC laptop for her, and sent it over. it was fine, however, she was frustrated by the seeming limited nature of the computer. in fact, if she had access to someone who knew linux, she could do tons more with the machine and its long charge, indestructible nature, etc than she probably could do with a crashing windows machine. this article explains the contradictions in the windows/linux problem in much more macro detail.


When Linux fails

Posted by Jeremy Allison @ 11:59 am

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.]

Recently I was able to visit the Ontario Linux Fest. I love shows like Ontario, as they’re run by amateurs, not by professional show companies. Don’t get me wrong; the professional shows have their place too, but I don’t tend to listen to the other speakers at those shows as I’ve heard most of them before. I’m sure they’ve all heard my talks as well, so instead we tend to hang out in the speaker rooms trying to get the wireless network to work, and swapping airline travel horror stories.

I do listen to the talks at smaller shows. Amateur shows are a labor of love, and it shows. The line up of speakers at the Ontario show was fascinating. One talk in particular caught my eye, by Ian Howard, called “Free and Open Source Software in Africa - Emerging Opportunities for Linux”. The slides from his talk are available here. The talk itself didn’t disappoint, and it was quite shocking, at least to me. It was a positive and upbeat talk about his experiences in Africa promoting Linux and Open Source software. But what he was really teaching us was an understanding of how Linux can fail in places like Africa.

Ian had gone to Africa as part of an organization called Geekcorps, dedicated to promoting IT use in developing nations. He worked on a range of projects in Mali, a West African nation which, like most African nations, is very undeveloped as far as IT is concerned.

Nigerian students power up their laptopsAt first glance, Free and Open Source software should be perfect for places like Mali. The local economy is poor, and average salaries make proprietary software an unimaginable expense for most people there. Yet the place is overrun with copies of Microsoft Windows. This is the toxic effect of what is called software “piracy” of course, although it bears little resemblance to what occurs off the coast of Somalia and is better called copyright infringement, as that’s what it really is. Copyright infringement doesn’t sound as threatening or scary as “piracy” though, does it ? The outcome of this rampant illegal software copying is that Windows is seen as “the first world standard” and any attempt to push a cheaper alternative is strongly resisted. They consider it trying to cheat local people out of getting the same quality of software that is used in the developed world, even though it’s a legal way of getting quality software for free.

Ian’s group first worked on a custom Linux distribution called “Kunnafonix”, designed for local radio stations. Local radio stations are an incredibly important communication tool in Africa, and most of them run on proprietary systems imported from the West, ill-suited for the temperature extremes and power requirements found in rural Africa. Kunnafonix was designed to be easy to use, install and repair, could be run as a live CD, and contained copies of the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Audacity audio processing software. Many problems in operation could be fixed by doing a simple one-click reinstall to reset the system into a known good state.

However, installation of Kunnafonix was resisted by many of the local organizations they had to work with. The local “computer support person” resented a solution that was so easy to use that it undermined the power and prestige they received by being the person to consult when a Windows computer had problems. It’s amazing to see the myth that Linux is hard to use, install, and support still being propagated in much of the media here in the U.S., when in reality it is resented by Windows administrators due to its ease of use and lesser requirements for professional support.

More successful was their project to extend the Internet into communities by wireless networking, creating innovative ways to extend the range of wireless networks. In the wonderful talk “A New Way to look at Networking” Van Jacobson, one of the creators of the modern TCP protocol, said “the Internet reaches everywhere in the world, it’s just that sometimes the latencies are really, really high”. Everyone in the world has access to the Internet, it’s just sometimes they get to it by bicycling to the next village to view content that someone has delivered to them by burning it onto a CD-ROM. Extending wireless networking to remote villages can cut that latency to the point where Internet access can make a positive difference to people’s everyday lives. They can check the local commodity prices to discover if it’s worth it before undergoing a day long trip to the market for example. This time they were able to teach local technicians to make and repair the wireless network infrastructure they were creating, which made a great difference.

In a region with no software development experience, even Open Source software isn’t going to help bootstrap a computer support or software industry where there is nothing to start with. Even though you can see all of the source code inside a Linux distribution, without local expertise and knowledge to support and maintain it, it might as well be a closed source Windows installation. In fact, as knowledge of Windows is already widespread in such areas, even though it’s due to illicit software copying, Windows may be a better choice until you can break through the network effects keeping it dominant.

What shone though clearly in Ian’s talk was that unless you can partner with the local people, and most importantly help them make money with the new systems you’re trying to get them to use, then you’re just another well-meaning interloper, trying to sell them something that probably won’t work. Making money is the key. Without the opportunity of economic benefits, people in developing countries simply don’t have the time to learn about Free and Open Source software, no matter how much it seems to fit their needs from an external point of view.

Jon “Maddog” Hall’s keynote talk at the Ontario Linux Fest also made this point in a very powerful way. Jon is a wonderfully entertaining speaker, and not afraid of controversy. Showing a picture of a child in the African bush holding a “One Laptop per Child” laptop he said, “I don’t care about this kid.” The audience drew a shocked breath. “He’s screwed,” continued Jon. “Five hundred miles of bush behind him, five hundred miles of bush in front of him. There’s nothing I can do to help here”. Jon flipped the slide to show a Brazilian “favela”, or slum city, with an incredibly dense population, seeming to cling to the side of a nearby hill. He said, “This is where I can help. These kids have electricity. They can get a network connection. I can do something with Open Source and Free Software here”.

Jon isn’t a callous person. He’s just decided to focus his resources on somewhere he knows he can help today. It’s hard to find fault with him for that.

Ian aimed higher, and when you aim higher you have further to fall when you miss. He’s recently completed an MBA, and is concentrating more on the business side of things than the technical. I learned a very valuable lesson from his talk though. Something I, like many Free and Open Source software geeks, often forget whilst concentrating on the technical side of the software we love. Sometimes, technical excellence isn’t enough. Linux and Open Source software can fail badly in the real world not because of technical issues, but because of economic issues. We have to remember the lesson learned in the US election of 1992, and again in 2008. Sometimes, “It’s the economy, stupid !”

Thursday, December 04, 2008

long tail is dead

so i'm on this list serve (FA Worldmusic) where I occasionally weigh in. today i weighed in heftily - check it out.


Nothing like being called out to make one sit down and start writing. ;) Thanks Dmitri!

Mark, I think the simple answer is that no one is making money from digital sales yet - even the top overall sellers like Katy Perry are not seeing large percentages of their income come from digital sales. 

Now onto the long tail of my response - The first thing I think it is important to mention in a discussion of the Long Tail is that it is a theory, or a concept. For those who weren't all geeked out when the term came to common use, the idea of the Long Tail as it relates to music and digital content was put forward by Chris Anderson, WIRED editor. For the Wiki history of this check out  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Tail
His blog is now called The Long Tail (http://www.thelongtail.com/)
And the original article is here: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
You can also get the book from the retailers he has linked to in his blog.

The quick overview (cribbed from wikipedia) is that TLT (the long tail) describes the niche strategy of businesses that sell a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities. Given a large enough availability of choice, a large population of customers, and negligible stocking and distribution costs, the selection and buying pattern of the population results in a power law distribution curve. This suggests that a market with a high freedom of choice will create a certain degree of inequality by favoring the upper 20% of the items ("hits" or "head") against the other 80% ("non-hits" or "long tail"). The idea among those of us who live in the this long tail was that digital would free us from the oppression of major label domination and allow smaller labels and artists to make a living from sales within the long tail. 

From my own experience within a company entirely dependent on long tail sales (CalabashMusic.com), it was painfully apparent that the "negligible stocking & distribution costs" (along with other costs like licensing, marketing, software development, etc) were in fact major blocking points. To overcome these costs would require investment of outside money, which has (to my knowledge) not yet happened with this particular retailer. 

Others apparently have been seeing this and other flaws in the theory, and as Anderson noted on his blog, there has been a flurry of reappraisals of the Long Tail (http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2008/11/more-long-tail.html). These reappraisals I think are what caused Ian to originally post his note here.

So I guess the question for us in the theoretical Long Tail (if it exists), the question remains, where is the Long Tail as a theory today and how can we (if applicable) put it to use for our artists, our market, our companies? From what I'm reading and seeing, the general consensus is that TLT (the long tail) is dead, or that the theory has been disproven. 

Currently, I'm working inside a recommendations company (a key part of Anderson's original thesis), and what I see troubles me in terms of looking at "world music" and other related independent music. As has been well documented, overall music sales are declining (with the growth in digital not nearly enough to offset losses in physical sales, in which non-top100 sales are even more depressed), and has been amply stated, discussed, and anecdotally shown on this list, independent artists now do NOT make a living off selling recorded music (not sure if they ever did, but that's a different story). The existing modes of distribution don't work horribly well for long tail artists, and future modes (mobile phones) certainly don't. For most mobile services I've seen from the inside, only 1-3% of the catalog ever sells, and maybe only 5% gets looked at. These numbers just don't work for "long tail artists". We did just start working with a retailer focused on independent music, so it'll be very interesting to see how/if recommendations can drive customers down the long tail to more unknown content.

I am in agreement with a line in the original article "With cheap production tools and the internet as a new distribution channel, some costs of production are indeed lowered, and some artists can indeed cut out (or "disintermediate") the middle man. But those old rules still make a significant difference to your business strategy. "In particular, the division of labour and economies of scale still have tremendous relevance to understanding today’s market”, Page notes. The division of labour means it can benefit you to employ a specialist intermediary, while economies of scale mean the bigger you are, the better terms you can negotiate."

In laymans terms, I think the biggest blocking point to accessing new audiences, or to accessing an audience that cares are marketing (dollars & strategies) and filters. Megan discussed filters, and I concur with her - we should be cultivating sites that feature only certain types of music, developing good and interesting writers, cultivating fan writers/promoters, etc - creating & loving filters (Mondomix, Calabash, AfroPop, etc etc etc). 

That's the easy part.

The hard part is from that piece I quoted above and has to do with marketing & access. Small artists can't get the same terms as major labels. And even small labels can't get those same terms. And the kicker - major labels are not sharing their well negotiated terms with individual artists on their rosters. Also, majors have much more money to experiment with strategies of marketing & distribution to find their fanbase, or develop a fan base. 

Folks who are way smarter than I are saying that things are in general shifting the other way of positive (Google's Eric Schmidt says we're in a 90/10 economy - worse than the traditional 80/20 model for us in the smaller piece - http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2008/11/does-the-long-t.html).

And I think that Dmitri's comment "What I take from the Long Tail model is that artists who in the old model did not have access or ability to sell music or make a living, now can" is a misreading of the long tail and emergent technologies. Sure new technologies make artists available and accessible to the world in new ways. However, those technologies existence does not guarantee (or even offer in many cases) any financial return. 

Dmitri can place his clients all he wants on NPR, in the NYTimes, and in every other conceivable news outlet. But if those artists don't actually make money through sales, or aren't available (or easily available) in a sales outlet, then they don't have money to hire him again. More important than album sales, if those artists can't develop a fan network through touring or social network outreach, they won't have money to record again, to tour again, to hire marketers again. In short, most artists are in the same boat as before. Lowered costs of hosting, recording, etc don't change the demand equation, only the supply side equation. We have to be in the business of developing demand, not supply. Supply will always be there. But we have to be develop demand. 

Artists have to follow Megan's advice and build a career, build a fanbase, not just put out a digital release and expect to get rich due to the long tail. They DO have to know about digital technology, and how to use it. They do have to know that things are interconnected. For example, do you (or your artist) know what is on their wiki page? Or know that this page is then shot off to Last.fm for use on their pages? Or used in Songbird's music player implant mashTape? If that page is blank, your artist is a nothing to users of those services. 

Again, back to developing demand. This is our job - create audiences, find audiences, get them interested in the music we love. And we're not alone, which is great. This means we can work and share models and actual festivals/venues/etc with folk musicians, indy rockers, jazz artists, etc. These I think are the topics to discuss at APAP. How to collaborate, share knowledge, share resources, and build audiences. 

Anyway, that is more than enough from me at this point. If you want some more contrarian points of view, check out Will Page's critique of the 1000 fans model - http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/28/will_page_1000_fans/