Author's note: When you stop and think about how far computers and multimedia have come in just the last ten years, you can be forgiven for allowing your head to spin a little bit. Our computer hardware is getting so small, and so cheap, so quickly, that we can barely keep up.
What are the implications for a future where digitial photography and video are as everyday as sending email? How do we cope with that much media; store it, browse it, use it? Christian Lindholm, one of Nokia's chief professional thinkers, has been experimenting with a new kind of weblog that he says offers a first step toward better media management. There's a long way to go yet, but his 'lifeblogging' concept is as good a start as any.
Meet Christian Lindholm. This affable Finn has an enviable job. He spends his time thinking and speaking publicly about how Nokia, one of the largest and most innovative technology companies in the world, can put weblogs to practical use for the masses.
That's you and me, folks. Nokia--embodied by Lindholm--wants us to change the way we think about electronic media, especially the way we store and archive it all.
They have a point. With the cost-per-gigabyte of storage plummeting ever lower, there is less and less incentive to delete anything. It's the Gmail attitude; why delete when you can just keep? At the same time, search technologies are improving so that finding something specific in this teetering pile of data is getting easier to do.
Keep your life on disk. Search it when you need to. Welcome to the Lifeblog era.
As a brand name, it boils down to being a piece of software. It operates in several places, but the most important is your personal computer.
Lindholm explains why.
As mobile phones get more powerful and feature-rich, their potential for storage is increasing, too. But the fact that a phone is held in the hand limits its size, which in turn limits the size of its screen. You can only squeeze so much user interface into such a tiny space.
So even if you want to keep huge amounts of digital media on your phone, the task of browsing through them is going to be painful, simply because browsing through anything on a screen that small is going to be painful. It follows that most people will only want to keep a subset of digital media on their phones; the most important files, the ones they will refer to frequently.
The thinking of the Nokia team goes something like this:
Use your phone to record data (photo, audio, video) -> back up everything to PC-based archive -> use a PC app to synchronize important files back to the phone -> record more data with phone.
Why the phone as the principal recording device?
Well, you'd expect a phone manufacturer like Nokia to make a big deal about phones, but they have a point. Convergence of digital media devices has been a rocky and troublesome path over the last decade or so, but signs are that everything is converging into a phone-shaped object that is permanently and wirelessly networked. A phone with a computer in it. A phone with a camera in it.
In the last five years, says Lindholm, "Nokia has become the world's largest camera manufacturer." Bet no one at Kodak or Canon saw that coming five years ago.
At the same time as the Danish phone company has been subverting the world of photography, so too have personal computers been changing beyond all recognition. Only in the last couple of years have storage, bandwidth, and connectivity become so widespread and so cheap that we can almost have unlimited amounts of all of them. As a result, our collective passion for multimedia has exploded, witnessed by a similar explosion in consumer-level multimedia applications. Think iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD. It wasn't all that long ago that huge photo databases and huge movie files simply weren't practical because the storage cost was too high. But we've climbed that hill now.
And that's a problem, says Lindholm. Our computer hardware has evolved beyond our expectations. But the software we use to manage all this data has not. Dependent on the Finder or Windows Explorer, too many of us are floundering beneath an avalanche of stuff that we can't organize in a tidy manner, nor search effectively.
In short, our electronic lives are in a mess. We have the technology to store more stuff than we can reasonably handle. Or, as Christian Lindholm says, "Humanity has not solved the problem of electronic memory."
Electronic memory. Have you ever thought of your iPhoto or iView Media Pro databases in those terms? I suspect not. Most of us view our home snapshots as, well, just snapshots. We might consider some of them suitable for sharing online or via printing, but that's about it. And our work-based media are normally thought of as assets; things we own and store because they are worth something to us, in the financial sense. In neither case do people often declare: "I have an electronic memory of such and such an event or so-and-so person." It's not part of the language we use, but nor is it common thinking.
The Nokia guys have been thinking about it, though. They see the ubiquity of the phonecam (camphone? I can't decide which is best) as the primary driving force behind it becoming a tool for memory recording. After all, we see stuff all the time, and until now the common way of remembering what we see has been to write it down in a notebook. But can one make notes with pictures?
Of course. Thousands of photo bloggers and Flickr addicts do it all the time. Even I've been doing it, although with a standard camera (a Canon A95) rather than a camphone. My photo memories are snapped at moments when pulling out a notebook is too time consuming or difficult. (Usually, it's when I'm in the public library with my two-year-old son, and my eyes spot a book I'd like to borrow some day. I quickly snap a picture of the cover, so I can add it to my books-to-read list later.)
If you spend some time browsing around Lindholm's website, you notice he spends a fair amount of time indulging his passions; fine food, and quality clothes. As he travels around the world making a good impression on behalf of Nokia, he records his thoughts about restaurants he dines in, and shops he buys clothes in. In each case, he's demonstrating the lifeblog concept. This post about sampling some vintage wine (still fresh after being bottled in 1923!) is a perfect example.
Lifeblog (now at version 1.5) is not a blogging application. "It's a logging tool," Lindholm stresses, but the 'b' was added to the beginning of the word to indicated Nokia's long-term intentions (and perhaps, dare we suggest, to get the whole concept some linkage from other bloggers?). Nokia wants to foster connectivity of people, which Lindholm says "is what blogs do."
That said, Lifeblog does include an important blogging aspect. Nokia has teamed up with Six Apart, and is using the company's Typepad service as the backend for Lifeblog's online sharing system.
So when you want to share a photo from your PC-based Lifeblog software, it is posted on your Typepad blog (if you have one; you need to create and pay for a Typepad account separately).
What made Nokia team up with Six Apart? Largely, says Lindholm, it was a decision based on common sense and personalities. Forming a partnership with Google's Blogger service was certainly an option, but "Google wants to do a lot of the same things that Nokia wants to do." There might have been conflicting interests.
And anyway, "Ben and Mena (the husband-and-wife founders of Six Apart) are such an interesting pair. We have had lots of fun with them and their team. Barak (Six Apart CEO) is such a good addition because he brings experience and an international world view, and is something of a second father figure for Mena."
Lindholm adds: "Everybody told us that Typepad was the best; plus we got on so well with the team there. We looked at the different platforms and technologies and thought this was the best choice for what we wanted to do."
Clearly it's in Nokia's interest to get more people buying and using mobile phones. But as we noted earlier, the mobile phone form factor is increasingly becoming the standard for handheld computing devices (except, so far, the iPod; but that convergence can't be far away, can it?).
So, with increasing importance and ubiquity, small phone-shaped devices are going to be part of our lives whether we like it or not. The next generation of gadgeteers--today's toddlers, like my son who is hard to control in public libraries--will be connected as no one has been before them. They may well eschew permanent landline phone connections in favor of the always-mobile, always-roaming internet of the streets.
Ultimately, it boils down to building an environment for managing electronic memories, and separating them where necessary. There will always be memories you want to share, and memories you want to keep, but those are two different requirements. Shared memories need a platform (in this case, Typepad's weblogging space), which encourages and fosters sharing.
Memories, on the other hand, simply need to be stored somewhere convenient and need to be accessible. They must be searchable and browsable in a meaningful way. Recent versions of iPhoto on the Mac have brought about much better storage and browsing features for photos, as has iView Multimedia on Mac and Windows (see our recent article on Digital Shoeboxes).
Lifeblog has been a long-term project and has a long way to go before it reaches any sort of critical mass. And although it's been used as a baseline for this article, it is by no means the only service or application of its kind.
Flickr, recently purchased by Yahoo, offers solutions to many of the problems Lindholm described; storage, searching, and sharing. Personally, I think the Flickr solution is much easier to use and to navigate than the Lifeblog-generated timeline on Lindholm's own website. Flickr's sense of community is second to none, and despite being a commercial venture, it has an outward spirit of connecting with its users that no behemoth the size of Nokia is ever going to create, no matter how many evangelists like Lindholm are on its books.
Lindholm naturally talks up the features of Lifeblog, but he's also very quick to admit that it's still not the perfect solution.
He says: "All the services like Flickr, Ofoto, Typepad, and the rest are what I call 'multimedia banks'. There needs to be several of these banks around for people to use as long-term storage for their stuff. Even so, humanity has still not solved the problem of electronic memory and how to store it. At Nokia we are trying to make it as possible as we can for the time being."
Ultimately, Lindholm and his team are doing their best to think the future. They are real geeks, passionate about the problem they are trying to solve. This final, casual comment from Lindholm cements (for me, at any rate) the seriousness with which he treats both the problem, and Lifeblog, as a very early attempt at solving it:
"Think of the trends that have emerged: memories are becoming digitalized; there is an explosion of digital content; and for some time, there has been an innovation vacuum on the personal computer.
"This is a megatrend, a social transformation. We're now taking photos not just for sharing, but also for keeping. When this was a research project in the Nokia lab we called it a 'memory prosthesis'. Lifeblog is a commercial incarnation of the Memex."
Could your mobile phone become a node on the Memex, the quasi-mythical personal computer and memory storage device envisaged by Vannevar Bush back in the 1930s? When you stop to think just how far personal information, and the devices we use to manage it, have grown and developed in the last five years, the answer's clear: almost certainly yes.