The Mac Observer has been providing live coverage of Apple keynotes, quarterly conferences, media events, and other happenings for more than 7 years. Many of you have asked us how we do it, and we thought it was a tale worth the telling. Looking back, a lot has changed since those early days, but providing live action details to folks who cannot attend is still just as interesting, fun, frustrating, and (perhaps most of all) tiring as it ever was.
On July 21st, 1999, John F. Braun and I sat in the Javits center in Manhattan and — along with Bryan Chaffin back in Austin, Texas — proceeded to pull off the technological feat of providing live coverage of Steve Jobsi keynote to TMO readers for the first time.
That first day John and I both had Palm PDAs. Johnis was a Palm VII — one of the first that had the capability to communicate wirelessly over a packet-switched network. Mine was a simple little Palm III, but both had IR ports on them.
The process went something like this: While watching the keynote, I wrote everything into a note on my Palm using the stylus and Palmis “Graffitti” implementation. Then, when there was a lull in the action, I would beam that note to John. As soon as I did that, I was free to resume note-taking. Once John got the note, he would copy and paste the text and send it off in an e-mail to Bryan Chaffin at TMO’s main office in Austin. When Bryan received the e-mail, he would take it and post it to a document on the site that our readers were continually reloading in their browsers. Though difficult to pull-off, it worked, and we managed to put something on the site that our readers found compelling. The response was so positive, in fact, that we decided to do it again the following Macworld.
Back then, our readers also had the opportunity to view the keynote live on the web via Appleis QuickTime Streaming technology. It, too, wasn’t quite perfect, and the capacity was limited. Some folks saw it, some folks didn’t, and others got half and half. Others still were forced to only view our live coverage if they were in a place that didn’t permit them the luxury of actually watching (and listening to) the video stream. This meant the articles received a ton of traffic, both during the events, and afterwards from folks just looking for a quick recap without spending two hours to watch the archived video footage.
The next keynote, the following January, we did things a little differently. Taking advantage of Appleis QuickTime Stream of the event, I sat in the home office (while the rest of the crew was at Macworld Expo), and simply typed up the live coverage from there. This was, of course, much simpler than the previous plan, though was susceptible to the occasional bandwidth/streaming outage. To account for that, John F. Braun again used his Palm VII to e-mail important bits and pieces back to me to help flesh out the coverage.
That plan worked until everyone on our staff wanted to actually be at the keynote. We tried using cell phones to dial-in and FTP files directly to the server but quickly realized that this was not the way to go, since FTP-ing a file (even a small one) over a cell-phone dial-up line took far longer than it should have.
For the summer of 2001, we took advantage of a new technology from Blogger.com. We simply posted line items in their web interface, and their servers took care of FTP-ing the resulting file to ours. Readers were likely not aware of the change, though it certainly made things smoother for all involved. This also had a few added advantages: all of our writers attending the keynote could submit items simultaneously, and someone (perhaps in a calmer environment) could go through and edit the previously-published comments for clarity.
This, in a nutshell, is the system we still use today (almost 6 years later!). Of course, our paid-for Blogger.com account is now made available free to us, ever since Google purchased their assets, but the technology works the same. This also allows us to use third party submission tools like Ecto, MarsEdit, and others, making things even easier. [Edit 2010: We’ve moved past this solution now and are on a completely custom engine of our own design]
We’ve even experimented a bit with AIM/iChat- and email-to-Blogger gateways (one year we even IM’ed posts to someone at their office, who then posted them live!), though none of that has worked as well as the direct approach, either on the web or using one of the many clients available.
The other significant change through all of this came about four years back when Apple simply stopped providing a live QuickTime stream of the keynotes. To be sure, they offer it a few hours after the event, but for those who want their info right away, TMO’s live coverage is the only way to get it. That caused traffic to increase substantially, to the point where we now keep a dedicated server (at a separate, multi-tiered farm) just for live coverage of this kind. Still, there have been a few technological glitches throughout, but this solution has allowed us to scale almost instantaneously as the need arises.
One of the things that people seem to enjoy the most is our team’s ability to offer commentary alongside the descriptive coverage. This allows our readers to see, first-hand, the gut reaction from TMO’s staff of seasoned industry veterans. Keeping pace with the flow of information and offering a bit of opinion along with it isn’t always a walk in the park, but it can be fun for the staffers and readers alike.
Things will be no different this time around. Weill be connected from the Moscone center, PowerBooks and MacBooks-to-cell-phones through our various interfaces, presented to you clean and simple. We hope you enjoy!
Macworld Expo Steve Jobs Keynotes Covered:
- New York, NY - July 21, 1999
- San Franciso, CA - January 5, 2000
- New York, NY - July 19, 2000
- San Francisco, CA - January 9, 2001
- New York, NY - July 18, 2001
- San Francisco, CA - January 7, 2002
- New York, NY - July 17, 2002 - Last New York Macworld
- San Franciso, CA - January 7, 2003
- San Francisco, CA - January 6, 2004
- Paris, France - August 31, 2004
- San Francisco, CA - January 7, 2005
- San Francisco, CA - January 10, 2006
- Coming soon: San Francisco, CA - January 9, 2007
Dave Hamilton is TMO’s co-founder and President, and is extremely thankful that he now has a great staff helping to cover the keynotes each year so he can actually sit and enjoy!