Content and services

The golden age of newspapers

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/07/2005 - 11:56

The media loves nothing better than stories about itself, so there is much handwringing in the media about the drop in newspaper circulation. I predicted this in 1994 at a meeting of newspaper folk who came to Blacksburg to hear about the newfangled Blacksburg Electronic Village thing.

What I told them then has not changed--newspapers have a golden future ahead of them if they would only stop thinking their job is to print the news on paper and toss those clumps of paper in people's driveways.

What papers have is an organization designed to edit and filter the news, and that is what is valuable, not the fact that they have a big machine designed to spread ink onto dead trees; the printing press is a byproduct of the news process, not the news process itself. But newspapers have trouble seeing that.

I talked to a newspaper person recently who asked, "How do we get young people to read the paper?" The short answer is, "You can't." They expect to get their news online, and so newspapers have to abandon paper and move to a new model of news distribution, using the Internet. And the paper has to do more than just stick articles designed for paper on the Web.

Why is it the golden age of newspapers? Because in a world awash in information, most of it suspect, an organization that does a good job of telling what the most important stuff is has nothing but opportunities ahead of it. But newspapers have to let go of paper, and dropping the word "paper" from their name would be a start.

Video iPod content set to explode

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 11/06/2005 - 12:01

Anyone who thinks that the new video iPod is strictly a novelty item for teens and twenty-somethings should probably think again.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video worth? Could it be ten thousand words (about twenty pages)?

That sounds about right to me. Zoom and Go, a popular travel site, is putting their entire library of travel videos in iPod format. According to the site, that is about ten thousand videos.

Travel and tourism is a huge business, and travelers are interested in the best places to go, to stay, and to eat. Watching a short video clip of a hotel, restaurant, or attraction is far more compelling that reading about it, or even browsing a few pictures on a Web site. Imagine, as you are getting ready to leave on a trip, downloading directions, hotel information, video maps, and restaurant information straight to your iPod, and having, essentially, an interactive tour guide every step of the way.

It's just an early example of what will be a flood of video-enabled information designed for portable devices. One of the advantages of the iPod, oddly enough, is that it does NOT require an Internet connection. The one-button downloads and fast synchronization of files from your desktop machine make it incredibly easy to download gigabytes of information and then use it anywhere, without the fuss of finding a hotspot or cellphone connection.

As I wrote recently, Step One of your region's revitalized economic development plan may be to buy all your leaders iPods, and then show them how to use them.

Sony hacks a computer near you

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/03/2005 - 13:43

This article talks about Sony's Digital Rights Management (DRM) software that comes on Sony music CDs. The DRM works in part by installing a bunch of secret software on your PC, without your permission! In other contexts we call that computer trespass and/or illegal behavior.

This is just one more example of a long term trend in the music industry to treat customers--all their customers--as thieves, even in the absence of evidence. It's no wonder CD sales are down--who wants a music CD that takes over your computer, installs secret software, and changes your working environment in unpublished ways?

VoIP blocking will kill economic development

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/25/2005 - 08:35

What I and others have been predicting for years is starting to come to pass. As the number of broadband providers has narrowed to a duopoly of the cable and phone company in most regions, these firms are starting to muscle out third party service providers. VoIP startups are the first target because both the phone and cable company want VoIP customers of their own, and the simplest way to do that is to simply block all VoIP data packets except their own. Evidence of this is clearly visible as hardware manufacturers begin to sell VoIP blocking appliances.

This is the strongest argument of all for community broadband infrastructure, which is offered as a level playing field for all service providers. Community leaders that simply hand over the economic development keys to a monopoloy broadband provider by doing nothing are consigning their communities to a slow death. Businesses will avoid regions where there is monopoly control of services (that is, all telecom costs will be higher there). New businesses will have a harder time starting, and entrepreneurs will pick up their families and move elsewhere.

The opening shots are being fired. The goal is to kill competition and create monopoloy markets where a private company decides what services your community and businesses get, and at what price. How will your region respond?

Google and book publishers prepare to battle

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/25/2005 - 08:21

CNet reports on the looming battle between Google and book publishers, who are outraged that the search company intends to scan millions of books and make them available to search online.

Google's argument is that what they are doing is no different than indexing Web pages, which is basically a full text "scan." But there is a difference. Web pages are inherently public in nature, even if a copyright notice is attached to the pages. A person or company that creates a Web site wants the public to be able to access it (if they did not, they would password protect it).

But books are different. Web pages are provided for free, and books are offered for sale for a fee. By scanning them, Google subverts the relationship between publisher and reader. The author is also left out, since he or she gets paid royalties from publisher sales.

It is outrageous, but Google is taking advantage of a peculiarity of copyright law which says it is up to the copyright holder to enforce copyright. In other words, Google can do whatever it likes until challenged specifically, book by book. It is a nightmare for publishers and authors, who must try to force Google to take a book out of the company's computers. And there is no protection against bootleg copies downloaded from Google and then distributed outside of the Google system (e.g. using Napster or some other filesharing program).

Google, of course, also plans to put ads on every book page coughed up by its search engines, further subverting the system by baldly trying to make a buck off someone else's work--and not paying for the privilege.

Meanwhile, Google's core product, it's search engine, is less and less effective. While the company is busy trying to capture every kind of content on the Internet for ad placement, they have done little to make their search engine better. My current favorite? It is Dogpile, a dumb name but provides surprisingly good results.

The Day TV Died, Part II

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/13/2005 - 10:45

Another nail was hammered in the coffin of analog TV yesterday with Apple's one-two hammer slam. The company rolled out a new version of the full size iPod that stores and plays video. They also rolled out a new version of iTunes (works on Windows and Macs) that allows you to store video on your Mac or Windows computer just the way you store music.

The online iTunes music store also has video for sale, and the selection includes music videos (predictable) and full length television shows. A deal with ABC Studios has several selections, including the hugely popular Lost. You will be able to download and watch these ABC shows the day after they air on broadcast TV.

But wait! There's more!

Apple also rolled out a new version of the popular all in one iMac computer. Sleeker and thinner than the old model, the new version has a video camera built into the case (for videoconferencing), and a remote control so that you can sit on the other side of the room and control your TV--oops, I mean iTunes--which will play video full screen on the iMac.

So we now know who won the "Is the TV a computer or is the computer a TV?" war. It was the computer. Apple has offered a seamless, end to end video experience--one click downloads of your favorite TV show while you sit on the couch, and one more click to play them full screen on your computer.

What's missing? No cable TV or satellite TV connection is required.

What's needed? A good broadband connection.

What's needed when everyone watches TV this way? Fiber to the home, because current DSL and cable systems can't handle the load.

Communities that don't have a technology master plan to get a fiber roadway installed that is free and open to all content providers will be left behind. Are you trying to attract entrepreneurs and high tech companies to your community? Do think they want to live in a town where they can't watch TV via broadband?

The short answer is, "No, no, and double no."

There is an interesting postscript to this "TV or the computer" issue. Microsoft bet a billion or more dollars that the TV would win this battle. It was a lot of money to find out no one wanted to surf the Web on a television. Their WebTV product is long forgotten.

Google + Sun = World Domination?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/06/2005 - 14:29

Google's new partnership with Sun is creating a lot of speculation, in part because the details of the agreement are quite vague. Sun has agreed to download the Google Toolbar with every copy of Sun's Java software. The Google Toolbar is unpopular with a lot of net folks (including me) because it actually inserts links into a Web document where there were none. In other words, the Toolbar changes the meaning of a Web page without the author's permission. And the links, of course, point to Google content.

As an example, if you have Google Toolbar running, as a page is being downloaded, the Toolbar scans it for text chunkls that look like addresses, and if it finds one, it creates a link on the page that takes you to a Google map. As Dave Winer points out, this is quite insidious, because the reader can't tell that Google has modified the page.

It's another example of how Google's actions are quite contrary to the company slogan, "Don't be evil." Changing Web pages to point to your company's content and ads is evil. Imagine if you found that Google was inserting links on your company Web site that pointed to your competitor. Hard to imagine? That's exactly what Barnes and Noble discovered earlier this year, when it found that the Google Toolbar was putting links to on the B&N Web site.

Universal will put movies online

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/06/2005 - 08:21

Universal Studios has announced that it will put its movies online by the end of next year. The link has very little detail, but the fact that a major studio has committed to this is very significant.

What is not mentioned but important is that you will only be able to download movies if you have a broadband connection. Those that worry about investing in community broadband infrastructure on the theory that people won't use it should rest easy. Everybody (or at least a very high percentage) watches movies.

IP TV doubling every six months

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/04/2005 - 06:17

USA Today reports that IP TV is booming, just as I have been saying. IP TV shows have been attracting audiences of half a million people, which many cable TV channels would kill to have. And advertisers are pouring billions into the new medium--they love it because their ads can be much more narrowly focused for specific audiences, and someone interested can click right through to the advertiser's site. This means the advertisers get real time data while the show is actually being watched; that's something TV can't do.

What does this mean for communities? It means that entertainment and economic development are converging, in the sense that it may be difficult to justify broadband investments built on a narrow base of business users, but if everyone in the community wants broadband to watch TV, the dollars are there to support a community digital road system. When World Wresting Entertainment can put on WWEHeat and attract 500,000 viewers without any advertising, the debate about broadband is over. It's here, and the broad base of users is ready for it.


Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/29/2005 - 08:23

With movie attendance down this year, it has apparently forced the studios to think outside the box a bit. Universal Studios has been offering free previews of the movie Serenity to bloggers around the country. The idea is that the bloggers, will, um, blog about it, and create buzz.

It appears to be working. Serenity is a science fiction film based on an obscure cable TV show called Firefly that lasted only seven episodes. But tech-oriented Web sites and blogs are abuzz with discussions of the movie, most of them positive.

While the film will probably not be a monster hit, the strategy of consciously using the 'net in a new way to market a traditional product like a movie is a good thing.

I work mostly with small towns and cities on broadband and economic development issues, and one of the things that comes up over and over again is, basically, fear of the future. No one ever comes right out and says, "I'm afraid of the future." Instead, concerns are telegraphed in other ways, like "We've never done that before," or "Prove that it works and then we might try it." And of course, it is difficult to "prove" something works if it is new and untried.

Life does change. History is one long story of change, and I often think we simply don't study history enough. We all seem to long for some mtyhical "good old days" about thirty or forty years ago that did not really ever exist. Was life really better without community water and sewer systems? Was the community a better place without rec centers, libraries, and public parks?

And even newfangled inventions like cars, which have had a mixed history of positive and negative impacts have enabled lots of things families half a century ago were not able to do, like drive to the beach in half a day or less for a family vacation. Or visit relatives and friends more often.

The marketing of Serenity is an example of the new blending with the old in interesting ways, and hints at the kinds of opportunities the 'net offers for civic life and economic development.

IP TV meets Chris Rock

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 08:46

IP TV may break out even sooner than I expected. We may now have an answer for what Google plans to do with its nationwide fiber network and a huge colocation facility it just bought in Manhattan--TV.

Google Video is showing the entire premier episode (22 mins) of the new TV show "Everybody Hates Chris," the autobiographic story of Chris Rock's childhood, when he was the only black kid in an all white school in New York City.

When you open the browser window, there is a nice chunk of white space on the right--a fine spot for Google ads.

The video is occasionally a little blocky, and at one point, the audio got out of sync with the video for a moment, but it was eminently watchable. And it was terrific without ads, although they may well show up as this catches on.

Who are the losers in the IP TV world? The old-fashioned TV networks and Tivo. Who are the winners? We are, and advertisers. We both get more choice (of what to watch and where to advertise).

Truveo video search engine

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 11:17

I still get massive skepticism when I tell people traditional TV is dead. But every day, there is more and more activity in the IP TV world. Everything that is wrong with traditional TV (lack of variety, repetition, lack of viewpoints, mediocrity) will be offset (but not eliminated) in the emerging IP TV universe, where anyone can be in the television business, and many already are.

Here are some interesting projects and links:

A sure sign of the emerging IP TV dominance is the Truveo video search engine, which takes your keyword search and returns video clips. And my perfunctory trial suggests it works pretty well.

Too much information

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 09:03

As access to content, data, and information becomes ubiquitous, we are beginning to see some uncomfortable anomalies.

The landing of the Jet Blue plane with the crippled nose landing gear is a disquieting example. Jet Blue has always provided satellite TV access on its flights. While the crippled plane flew in circles for three hours, there was plenty of time for the news networks to provide live coverage (People may die a horrible death! Stay tuned!) of the event.

The passengers on the plane were able to watch their own crisis unfold in real time--what I would call "way too much information." If I'm about to die in a plane crash, I really don't want to watch a CNN anchorperson interviewing my wife and friends about how they think they will feel to watch my plane crash and burn. Or something like that.

The video was turned off just before landing, so the passengers did not have to watch the flames shoot out from the landing gear. Thankfully, no one was hurt, due to an incredibly skillful landing by the pilots.

Hurricane Rita is another example of too much information. It is apparent that the massive traffic jams are being created in part by a news media that is providing 24/7 semi-hysterical coverage: Biggest Storm Ever! End of World to Follow! Stay Tuned!

Let's hope that the storm does not create widespread damage and that few are injured or killed. At the same time, we need to learn how to better distribute, absorb, and react to "too much information." And we need to teach our kids to be more critical. If these storms are teaching us anything, it is that ultimately, we need to take responsibility for own safety--there is only so much government can do. And that includes not over-reacting to hysterical and/or misleading information. And sometimes, we just need to turn the news feed off and trust our own instincts. News channels, third parties, and the government can't think for us.

Google tramples on authors

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/21/2005 - 09:26

Google is coming under increasing fire for its controversial book scanning project. The company is scanning hundreds of thousands of books from several major university libraries, with the intention of making the searchable and viewable on the Web. Each viewed page will, of course, have Google ads.

Why would prestigious universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford agree to participate in such a bald assault on copyrights? Most likely, Google is giving these libraries a big chunk of money.

Google's feeble excuse is that authors who don't want to participate can opt out. The company is abusing copyright law, which says the copyright owner is responsible for enforcing copyright. But what Google is doing is ethically odious, and the law was never intended to give projects like this free rain to trample copyright.

Music industry struggles with the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 07:09

The music industry continues to anger both customers and bands. The RIAA inexplicably continues to sue users for downloading music. Even though there is little evidence that downloading copyrighted music has contributed to the decline in sales, the industry takes a baffling approach to the lawsuits by apparently picking names out of a hat. The suits seem to lack even basic information or investigations that would support wrongdoing, and the defendants seem to be picked mostly on the basis of whether or not they have the resources to fight back. This is a long article, and is written by a group of people that have been sued, but it is an interesting read if even half of it is true.

In an even more bizarre development, a band called Switchfoot has posted instructions on how to bypass copy protection that Sony put on the band's latest CD. Even stranger is that the information is posted on a Sony message board. Note that if the link does not work, it is probably because Sony has removed the information.

So the record industry is attacking their own customers, and has made the source of their products (the bands) angry. There is a lesson here for businesses trying to adapt to the changes wrought by the Internet: you can try to hold on to the old ways, but it is not likely to work. Distribution and marketing have changed irrevocably, and the only thoughtful option (in my opinion) is to look for new ways and new opportunities that take advantage of the medium, rather than trying to fight it.

Music players make you deaf

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/14/2005 - 08:57

Wired follows up on an AP report that more and more young people (an estimated 25%) have already sustained hearing loss that is not normally seen until decades later in life.

According to the article, too many people are listening to portable music players at ear-damaging volume levels. Particularly bad are the "ear buds" that are inserted directly into the ear canal, rather than external headphones that cover some or all of the outer ear.

Google searches blogs

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/14/2005 - 08:40

Google has released a beta version of a new blog search tool.

Just a little playing around with it suggests they got it right: it is fast, and was able to find a lot of good stuff quickly. The advanced search is particularly useful, as you can search by author, by topic, by date, and by a bunch of other criteria unique to blogs.

The other refreshing thing is that so far, the results of completely free of commercial dreck--no phony link farms and the related tricks that try to get you click on results that are not really relevant. It will be interesting to see if Google can keep the results "pure." Unfortunately, what we are likely to see is a sudden rise in phony blogs written just to get into Google search results. But right now, it works great.

Google World Domination, Part 3

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/24/2005 - 16:07

Internet discussion forums and techie news sites are filled with talk about Google's latest attempt to take over the world. The search company has launched an instant messenger service (Google Talk) that is interoperable with other common IM systems like Apple's iChat, and AOL's system.

But most of the speculation centers around the voice capabilities of the software. Like Apple's iChat, the software lets you talk to the other party, but although the text messaging works with other software, the voice service does not, even though it would have been simple to do so. Apple's iChat uses standard (SIP) protocols, as one example.

The prevailing conspiracy theory is that Google plans to kill all the other VoIP services by using the company's immense pile of cash to finance better software than anyone else can afford, and give the software away for free longer. Skype, one of the best known free/fee VoIP services, lets users talk to other Skype users for free, but charges a fee if you want to place a voice call to someone on the old phone network.

Google has bundled the new service to their GMail email service: you have to register for a Google email account in order to use Google Talk. I've written before about the problem I have with GMail, in which Google gives you a free email account but reserves the right to search, index, and classify every email you send or receive.

Google is using the Microsoft model, which is to buy its way into markets, and crushing the competition by cross-linking products (e.g Google search and Google email), and by providing only limited interoperability with other software and systems.

The biggest loser, potentially, could be Microsoft. Several years ago, Microsoft announced big plans to capture online transactions with services like .Net and Passport. Neither has performed well, and Google, as it offers more and more net-centric services rather than desktop/Windows-centric services, may capture some of Microsoft's marketshare.

But I'm not betting big on Google to win. They've already stumbled several times with new service rollouts, showing that a lot of money does not necessarily produce great marketing or services. If there is a bright side to Google's attempt at world domination, it is that at least we now have two giants battling, rather than just one. It evens the playing field a little.

TV is dead, part 3

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/17/2005 - 09:53

USA Today has an interesting article about telco giant SBC and the company's plans to deploy IP TV to 18 million households.

In the article, SBC COO Randall Stephenson shrugs off the $4 billion cost of the effort as "not much money for us to burn." That statement ought to make FCC officials sit up and take notice, since recent FCC decisions, we are told, have been designed to help the telcos fight off competition.

If SBC can blithely shrug off a $4 billion gamble, I would say the company does not have enough competition, rather than too much.

But don't be mislead by the article. SBC's IP TV is not the kind of freewheeling and open IP TV envisioned by groups like Participatory Culture are already rolling out.

Instead, it's a completely closed system closer in concept and execution to today's cable TV. You'll need a special set top box designed by Microsoft and available only from SBC, and you'll only get to watch what SBC offers--just like current cable TV.

If relying on Microsoft to make it work doesn't give you a big, queasy knot in your stomach (can you spell "virus," "malware," and "Internet worms?"), how about relying on the phone company for service?

SBC's vision of the future is one in which the Internet access they provide is a "walled garden," where they control everything we see or do.

There are two meta-issues at play with the future of TV.

One is control of the distribution network. If you buy your Internet access from SBC or one of the cable companies, they can control the way data flows over their network to discourage accessing free or alternative video content from sources outside the company. It is critically important for communities and regions to build telecom infrastructure so that citizens and businesses have choice in Internet services.

The second meta-issue is content development. The SBC model, which they are disingenuously calling IPTV, is really the old cable/satellite TV distribution model, using a more efficient transport system. What's already in play are systems like Bit Torrent, RSS, and software from groups like Participatory Culture that enable any individual, group, or company to get into the content creation and distribution business.

SBC's model is evolutionary; it uses new technology to increase the efficiency of a fifty year old business model. The Open Source systems are revolutionary; they are using new technology to enable entirely new business models.

It's easy to throw rocks at the FCC, but recent rulings have clarified the lines of battle. It's the economic future of communities against the telecom cartel. It need not be a long or ugly battle; communities that choose to invest in the future will force the cartel to play fair and offer competitive services.

Communities that don't invest are giving their future away, and may shut out economic development.

More thinking different

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/15/2005 - 13:17

While the music industry plays the fiddle as their 20th century distribution model burns down, some bands are not waiting around. A band called Sexohol from Los Angeles has come up with some pretty interesting ideas.

If you go to their Web site, you can buy an Apple iPod Shuffle for just $10 more than what Apple charges. It comes pre-loaded with an album of songs from the band that you can load right into iTunes (Mac and Windows) or into other digital music systems.

Want to hear what the band sounds like before buying? You can download a free Dashboard widget for Macs that streams one of the band songs right onto your computer. This is especially clever because the widget (just a small piece of software) allows the band to distribute a "click to play" version of their song without actually distributing the song itself (because it is streamed from a server).

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