Content and services

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).

Franchise-free Internet TV

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 09:32

While the 20th century telecom dinosaurs are fighting it out in places like Texas for 20th century legal rights to 20th century content distribution, the 'net is quietly solving the problem.

An Open Source effort (FOSS is becoming the accepted acronym--Free and Open Source Software) is building the 21st century video distribution system, called DTV. Participatory Culture is putting together a seamless, easy to use, end to end video distribution and viewing system that is completely free, requires no franchise fees, and can deliver any quality of video, up to and including HD TV. The software is currently in beta release, but the interface for the Mac version is excellent and easy to use. It supports downloading for later viewing, so you don't have to watch at any particular time. In other words, it is a personal Tivo-style system, but with a much wider range of material from many more sources.

SBC, Verizon, win in Texas

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/12/2005 - 09:12

Unlike a lot of other folks, I'm not greatly worried that SBC and Verizon spent millions to influence some new laws in Texas. The Texas legislature, after a lengthy fight, has agreed to give the phone companies a statewide franchise to offer television content in Texas. This saves them the trouble of going to every community in Texas and negotiating individual franchises.

But let me also be perfectly clear--I don't like this, but--but--I'm not greatly worried by it. Two different things.

Here's why I don't like it.

First, it takes authority away from local communities and gives it to the state. This actually has nothing to do with telecom per se; I am always troubled when communities lose decisionmaking power.

The death of TV, Part 2

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/04/2005 - 09:24

Yahoo! reports on a study that shows broadband users are watching less old-fashioned TV. The data is welcome, but this has been a trend since the early days of the Internet, more than ten years ago.

It's not hard to figure out why: you get to choose what you look at, instead of being forced into the ancient "channel" system where you have to watch something at a certain time (and Tivo, successful as it is, has a limited lifespan, since it just props up old-style TV). You also don't have to sit through 12 minutes of commercials to watch 18 minutes of tepid cable programming.

Blogs--the best is yet to come

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/03/2005 - 08:55

There is much conversation in the blogger world about the latest Technorati announcement that the blog-tracking service monitors 14 million blogs, or about double the number tracked at the beginning of the year.

Technorati has a built in incentive to promote the growth of blogs, since they are trying to build traffic to their site. What is more revealing is that only about half of the blogs have been updated in the past three months, and only 13% are updated more than once a week. So the "real" number of active blogs is something under 2 million, which is a more realistic figure.

Blogs have already begun to change the news world, and perhaps one of the very best uses of blogs is to disseminate news quickly during a crisis, like the tsunami or the London bombings. Blogs are also changing politics, with opinion writers of all parties using blogs to disseminate ideas that are not typicaly covered in the Mainstream Media (MSM).

But I think we have barely scratched the potential of blogs as an information organizing and work tool. Blogs are slowly finding their way into the business environment, and one frontier I am interested in is the use of blogs in K12 schools as a writing and publishing tool. I'm currently working on just such a project in a rural Louisiana town, where we have the grade school, middle school, high school, and the town government all using blog-style Web sites. It's too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but the town site (Vivian, Louisiana) has been so popular that a local church has begun using the same platform, and the local historical society is also planning to use it.

TV is dead, part 2

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/08/2005 - 10:27

Further proof that the old, channel-based, analog TV is crumbling before our eyes: the typically staid BBC is webcasting new shows before airing them on the old medium.

If I were in the TV industry, I'd be looking for a job. It will take a few years, but everyone in the middle of the television food chain is going to be out of work in less than ten years. In the U.S., we still only have about 30% of Internet users on broadband, meaning the market is not quite big enough yet. Based on what we saw in Blacksburg years ago and very similar trends for other kinds of online services, once you have about a 50% market penetration, things start to move very quickly.

The biggest bottleneck to the transition is the generally feeble services we call euphemistically call "broadband" in the United States. In most other countries, "broadband" means "reasonably priced fiber capable of handling several high quality video streams." Here, "broadband" means "twenty year old copper technologies that keep customers locked into sub-standard services."

Podcasts go mainstream

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/05/2005 - 15:07

Podcasts (audio files you download and play on your computer or MP3 player) have become mainstream, and it is, once again, Apple Computer that has led the way.

Although most people have not yet downloaded and listened to a podcast, the new medium has been growing rapidly, with thousands of podcasters and listeners estimated in the millions. Just as Apple, using the iPod and its iTunes software, singlehandly rewrote the rules of music publishing, Apple has once again, using the same combo of the iPod and iTunes to rewrite radio.

Apple has not added any new systems or technology to the podcast medium. Instead, the company has done what it always has done--made finding and listening to podcasts dead simple.

Prior to integrating podcasts into iTunes, potential listeners had to wander from Web site to Web site, or visit mostly hard to use (by comparison) podcast link directories. Using iTunes, it is easy to browse and sample the thousands of podcasts already offered by the iTunes store, and downloading them onto your computer is a one click operation, where they are seamlessly categorized and ready for listening. Plug your iPod into your computer, and you can squirt a podcast onto your MP3 player so that you can take the podcast with you....instant, customized radio.

It has enormous potential for tourism, especially historical and music tourism. iTunes is free for both Windows and the Mac. Give it a try.

The Day TV Died

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/04/2005 - 10:32

The AP reports that the just completed worldwide Live Aid concert broke all records for live streaming. An arrangement with AOL allowed the concert organizers to stream all ten concert venues live over the Internet. It smashed every existing streaming broadcast record, and AOL reported that they have more than 150,000 simultanteos viewers.

The MTV broadcast was reported a complete dud by comparison. While AOL was able to provide all ten concert venues simultaneously, which let the viewer choose what they wanted to watch, MTV had to constantly switch from one location to another--an artifact of the old, analog-based channel system. MTV also apparently had as much ad time as concert viewing, another weakness of the old TV system. With a Internet-based, Web-enabled viewing mechanism, it's possible to view the content and ads simultaneously in the same window--a win-win situation in which the viewer has more control but the advertiser still gets the put the ad in front of them.

What is also interesting is that the technology to do video streaming is mature enough to do large, multi-site programs like the concert and support 100,000+ simultaneous viewers. And this was done on an Internet infrastructure that was not even designed to support this sort of thing. Ten years from now, this will be commonplace.

Who won? Content providers, advertisers, and viewers. Who lost? Hollywood and the old TV conglomerates have lost, and lost big.

Afgahnistan beats the US in TV

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/07/2005 - 08:44

Afghanistan has converted successfuly to a new countrywide all digital television system, while the FCC dithers in the U.S. with a myriad of mostly irrelevant and/or conflicting regulations on the U.S. television industry.

I wrote recently that Ethiopia has a countrywide plan for broadband, unlike the United States. Not only do we NOT have enough elected and appointed leaders taking this seriously, we actually have politicians introducing laws forbidding states and communities from dealing sensibly with this new public infrastructure. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has introduced a bill in Congress that would give the telcos the ability to shut down municipal projects nationwide. This would be exactly the same as introducing a bill in 1950 forbidding communities from investing in public water and sewer projects, with exactly the same devastating effect on economic development.

While the rest of the world, even places like Afghanistan and Ethiopia, "get" that technology investments are critical to their future, some of our leaders seem determined to cripple the future of communities.

Newspapers and the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/27/2005 - 07:11

Newspapers have been having a hard time with the Internet. Readership of the ink on dead trees editions decline year by year, and instead of taking any responsibility for the lack of appeal, they blame it solely on the Internet itself, although I see a few signs of change.

Our local paper, the Roanoke Times, has been adding new faces to the line up with writing that does not neatly fit the "news" model of olden times. The RT has a great weather column that I read regularly now, and they just did a week long story series on some high school students who went storm chasing in the Midwest--a kind of blogging on dead trees, but a lot more interesting than reprinted AP stories.

Meanwhile, as Internet advertising continues to be very profitable for many Web sites and ad brokers like Google, the New York Times has decided to charge for content with a $50/year subscription. Huh? It seems to me that the NYT has a wonderful opportunity to take a Google-like approach to ads and make a bundle--I suspect a lot of companies would pay to be able to place an ad on the pages of the New York Times. Instead, they have decided to choke off readership by making everyone pay in advance to see anything.

Another national paper I read regularly has just started requiring registration, so I've stopped reading it. The registration is annoying if not dangerous from a privacy issue, since you don't have any control over what they do with the information (yes, you can lie and put false information on the form, but that bothers me too).

I remain convinced that there is an important role for newspaper organizations in the future, but more change and more innovation is going to be needed, or we will start to see some papers fail.

How to cook a hog, Internet TV style

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/19/2005 - 10:46

This article about grass roots television programming illustrates the perfect storm developing that has the potential to wreck the Hollywood-based entertainment corporations. Since the days of Milton Berle's live broadcasts, television content has been generated largely by Hollywood. It's been a tight knit cartel of writers, directors, producers, and production companies that have kept video content locked up pretty tightly, in large part because of the cozy relationship with the broadcast networks. Cable has been chipping away at that, but innovation in cable has meant largely following the same old model, but just doing everything as cheaply as possible.

The limitation has always been the same, whether you were delivering a television program over the air, by cable, or by satellite--you have only twenty-four hours per day per channel, so everything is a trade-off of demand versus air time.

Like nearly everything else it touches, the Internet just plain breaks that apart. On the Internet, content is not bound by the delivery mechanism, so we are seeing the end of CDs, the end of DVDs, the end of radio "channels," and the end of TV "channels." Channels were a construct based on the scarcity of bandwidth, and there is no scarcity on the Internet.

So for $1.99, you can download and watch a 45 minute video on how to barbecue a whole pig. But that's not even the interesting part. DaveTV, which is offering the video service, has a BBQ "channel" with more than 1000 video segments, just on barbecuing. Try doing that using the traditional television programming system. You can't. But the Internet makes it simple.

So here's the thing--Hollywood no longer has an edge--none at all. What about your region? Do you have some of the pieces in place to start some Internet TV video production companies? Is your town on a major fiber backbone that could be used to pump video to the rest of the country? Do you have some program assets that could be the basis of a channel like the BBQ channel?

Apple quietly gets into the video business

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/10/2005 - 11:27

Apple quietly edged closer to a full-fledged video download strategy yesterday with a free upgrade to the company's iTunes software, which works on both Windows and the Mac. EnGadget and other sites are discussing the upgrade, which now allows users to store videos in the iTunes library along with music.

Apple is not saying much about the new feature, which means they aren't ready to lay all their cards on the table. But selling movies is the next logical step after the hugely successful iTunes music business.

What Apple is likely to pioneer is a video distribution system, which will really be more interesting than the content, and will open up all kinds of opportunities for independent producers of video content. While it is still a stretch to download a 2 hour movie using the twenty year old, copper-based DSL and cable modem broadband, the average 22 minute TV program is a different matter.

Instead of having to set up the VCR or the TiVo to record a program at a certain time, imagine if you could go to the iTunes store and just pay ninety-nine cents to buy a copy. And imagine if you could browse an archive of every television show from the last forty years, and you could buy programs in bulk for under fifty cents?

If I was looking for content to test the waters of the iTunes video store, I'd be looking at back episodes of The Simpsons. There would be huge demand, I'd bet, and with it we would come closer to the death of television as we know it.

Broadcast flag yanked down

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/09/2005 - 07:01

In a great victory for the rest of us, a Federal appellate court told the FCC to quit mucking with television receivers and to stop meddling in areas for which the Commission has no authorization. If that sounds harsh, it's mild compared to what the judge actually said:

You're out there in the whole world, regulating. Are washing machines next?" asked Judge Harry Edwards. Quipped Judge David Sentelle: "You can't regulate washing machines. You can't rule the world."

Back in 2003, the FCC had declared that all television tuners and receivers sold in the U.S. after July 1st, 2005, had to respect the "broadcast flag," which is a gimmick dreamed up by Hollywood (the Motion Picture Association) to control content unfairly and to force everyone in the country to eventually buy a new TV, among other problems. The broadcast flag, a digital code that would be included on every television broadcast, would tell VCRs, Tivo-type devices, computers, and anything else capable of recording video that the material could NOT be recorded, or if it could, under very limited circumstances.

The FCC rules flew in the face of decades of court rulings that generally said consumers had the right to make recordings for their own use and certain other uses (in libraries, as one example). The "fair use" doctrine has consistently been supported and extended by the courts, even for related technologies like photocopying.

The court ruling will keep some manufacturers from having to drop whole product lines because the cost to add the complicated broadcast flag circuitry was prohibitive.

New York Times to charge for access

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 05/04/2005 - 08:59

The Wall Street Journal reports that the New York Times is considering a new approach to providing access to its news articles. Currently, you can view any article less than a week old. After that, you have to pay an absurd $2.95 to see the article.

Under the new scheme, you would pay $50/year to get access to any article in the past 365 days. They are apparently also considering an alternate scheme that would give you full access to the whole NYT archive.

With newspaper circulation in free fall, the Times is only one of numerous papers that must be trying to figure out what to do. While "the Internet" is often blamed for the general decline in newspaper circulation, I think the problem is more basic. I travel a lot, and try to read local papers wherever I go. What I see is a general lack of innovation, creativity, and news. I see this as the ClearChannel problem (ClearChannel owns 1000+ radion stations in the U.S.). As large chains have bought out more and more papers, those papers look more and more alike. Bean counters at the corporate level cut local staffs and budgets, force papers to use more syndicated content, and the result is dull newspapers with all the same (word for word) stories you can find on the Internet.

Newspapers don't look that different than they did one hundred years ago--the big innovation of the last twenty years is color pictures. I'm actually bullish on the future of newspapers; we still need someone to edit the news for us. In fact, I would argue that the role of newspapers--editing the news and providing quality control--is more important now with so many alternate sources available to us. Who has time to check dozens of Web sites daily? Papers condense many news sources and help us sort out the important issues. Newspapers and TV news will never again be primary sources of information, but I see the editorial function as still very relevant.

Downloadable radio

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/28/2005 - 10:49

Wired reports that a San Francisco AM radio station is going to an all-podcast format. The station is inviting people to create their own content and send it to the station, which will screen it and then make it available for download.

Wired's cover story in its print magazine was about the sea change in radio being brought about by MP3 players, and the only surprise is that a station has gone over to the other side this quickly. You don't need an iPod to listen--any MP3 player will do--but Apple's software (iTunes) makes it quick and easy. iTunes is available for both Windows and the Mac, and all iPods work with both Macs and Windows.

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