Content and services

Maybe the music stinks?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/16/2005 - 15:25

The music industry has been complaining bitterly that online music has been cutting into the sale of CDs (legal and illegal downloads). But new data shows that online (legal) music sales have been flat for some months. This suggests what many people, including me, have been saying for some time--that the music industry has been serving up crummy music.

There is another explanation as well. Consumers are not stupid, and most people can figure out pretty quickly that it is better to pay an extra buck or two for the CD, which enables them to avoid all the protection schemes that come with legal digital downloads, which range from somewhat annoying to just plain awkward.

But CD sales are also down, which further suggests consumers think the music offerings are not that good. In the elusive quest to sell only gold and platinum groups, many good bands and musicians are being bypassed, and the irony is that with digital distribution, there is hardly any reason not to sign up lots of bands and see which ones become popular--distribution costs are virtually zero!

Meanwhile, there are lots of groups that seem to do reasonably well without any recording contracts at all, simply using live concerts and a Web site to promote their music.

GoogleBase launch

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/16/2005 - 11:55

Google has announced a new service called GoogleBase. The "base" part of the word is from "database," which Google appears to be trying to co-opt. They probably hope to create a new verb, as in, "Let's look in GoogleBase," or "Let's GoogleBase it."

The intro page on the new service sounds nice, but it is not really any different than setting up a Web site. GoogleBase, in effect, is a free Web site service that is document oriented rather than page oriented. Google claims it is different because you can attach attributes to your content, but you can already do that on any Web page, although it takes some extra effort.

What Google is really promising is that any material you give to Google will get indexed more quickly than a standalone Web site. And by making the attribute, or keyword tagging easier for content owners, Google is able to more precisely target and attach ads to the displayed pages.

It is quite clever, in that it offers an easy to use service that accrues huge benefits to Google at the same time. What I found disturbing is that on the two pages that describe the service and its rules, nowhere did it say what Google would or would not do with the information. Publishing on your own Web site guarantees that you retain control of your information. It is not at all apparent what control you have, if any, once you place it on GoogleBase.

Here are some questions I would want answered:

Make no mistake about it; Google is out to own all of the information in the world, and they are becoming less shy about saying so, although they cleverly use the words "searchable" and "indexed" to hide their intentions.

Cellular providers try radio

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/16/2005 - 07:43

In yet another "new media" development--they seem to come almost daily--Cingular is going to offer a $6.99/month radio service that works with certain cellphones. It is an interesting offering, since lots of people have cellphones (yes, most of them don't work with this service yet).

It is hard to triangulate how this might work out; broadcast radio could be affected, but satellite radio providers may be harder hit, where the higher price and the need for dedicated satellite radio devices make it a tougher sell. For me, I'd have to wonder about the quality, given that my cellphone often sounds awful even when standing in clear view of a tower.

In a larger context, this is part of the continuing Betamax-VHS battle between Internet wireless and the cellphone industry. Technically, Internet wireless is a better platform that can provide more and better quality now, and can grow substantially in quality and performance in the future. But the industry itself is deeply fragmented, with many under-capitalized providers and a lack of infrastructure.

On the cellphone side, the technology is mediocre at best, but there are only a few players with very deep pockets, who have already made massive infrastructure investments and have a revenue stream from phone service to help pay for new services. Who will win? I'd prefer wireless Internet, but today, I'm not optimistic.

Sony's sad saga

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/10/2005 - 14:22

Sony has really made a mess of things with their Digital Rights Management software. In a utterly misguided attempt to prevent copying of their music CDs, the company hid software on the CDs that secretly changes the core operating system on Windows.

Just today, Macintouch said they had information from a reader that found a similar Mac program hidden on a Sony CD. But wait--there's more. According to Slashdot, a class action lawsuit has been filed in California against Sony, claiming the company has violated three state laws that prohibit hacking and putting secret software on computers. And a boycott has been announced against Sony.

All of this is going to hurt the company badly at a time when Sony has not been able to compete well in the consumer electronics market. The unwritten story is about outsourcing. The company outsourced the DRM to third parties and then apparently stuck it on their music CDs with little or no internal review, legal or technical. Outsourcing is often touted as a less expensive way to acquire products and services, but the DRM Sony bought directly affected their core product. It is a perfect example of why indiscriminate outsourcing is so dangerous. It looks good on the financials, but if it damages the company the way this has, it is a false economy.

But wait! There is still MORE! The Register reports that a virus has been found using the secret Sony software as a vector. The Sony software hides files that start with "$sys$", so a virus writer designed a little virus that comes attached to an email and is very difficult to find if the Sony software is installed. Murphy's Law is working overtime on this one.

CNN jumps to IP TV

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/09/2005 - 10:33

CNN has announced a beta TV news on demand service that will offer multiple news feeds and access to an archive of CNN video segments.

Why are so many players getting into this so quickly? For one, it is relatively simple. For the larger content providers like CNN and the other alphabet channels (CBS, ABC, NBC) they already have staff to throw at this. It is no big deal to digitize video (and much of it may already be recorded as digital) and stick it on a Web site. And they have enough server resources and bandwidth to support a pilot project.

But there is no free lunch. As more people start streaming and watching video via their feeble DSL and cable modem connections, those first mile networks are going to start glowing cherry red from the load and the end result will be chaos. The cable modem networks will show the strain first because of their architecture, but basically, performance will start to stink, all the time, just as it does now many evenings and when schools are out for snow.

The current connection-based fee structure for broadband simply does not work when everyone starts watching IP TV because the fee has no relationship to the actual cost of shipping bits across the network. The solution is to move toward a service-based fee structure where markets for content help set the cost of services. The current system treats all forms of services equally, and they are not. All this worked fine when the services were limited mostly to email and Web browsing. And even a little VoIP and some music downloads were too much of a problem except on college campuses, where file sharing crippled networks and forced drastic network changes.

But video uses hundreds and even thousands of times more bandwidth. The networks are jumping into this quickly in part because someone else has to pay for much of the cost of hauling their video across multiple networks to viewers. It is an unsustainable model.

IP TV is exploding

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/08/2005 - 10:45

Just weeks after Apple's video iPod was introduced to great skepticism (...who wants to download TV programs?), all the major studios are getting into this new business. The iPod was released with some primetime ABC shows available for download, but now CBS and NBC have announced plans to sell episodes of major shows for ninety-nine cents, bypassing the iTunes store and undercutting the ABC prices by half.

In the short term, this is a windfall for the studios. They get a one time revenue hit from the first airing of a show, and a bit more from reruns, but after that--nothing. Most shows never make it into syndication, and those that do don't always generate much additional cash.

So sticking the popular shows on a Web site and collecting a buck per download looks pretty good; you don't have to sell too many copies to start generating a significant stream of new "found" cash. Shows with a big fan base are going first, like "CSI" and "Law and Order."

I think a buck is a magic number. The shows are provided commercial-free, and the ability to watch it when you want, without commercials, is going to look pretty attractive to a lot of people. The studios win big with this, and they stand to make more, possibly, than from DVD sales.

Who are the losers? Advertisers have to be worried, as people suddenly have an alternative to "free" content. TV ads have become so long and so intrusive that paying a buck to watch your favorite show without ads could catch on quickly. And local TV stations that rely heavily on syndicated reruns may see ad revenue fizzle out as people decide to pay to watch instead.

Competition is a wonderful thing. Who would have predicted that a price war would break out this quickly over the cost of downloading TV shows? And who predicted even two years ago that all this would happen this quickly? It is another illustration of why it is dangerous to rely entirely on the past to predict where new economic development opportunities are coming from.

Updated 11/8/05:
Pixar Studios has announced that they have sold 125,000 short movies via the iTunes video store in the few weeks since it has opened. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Pixar, noted that the major obstacle to selling feature length movies is that "broadband is too slow in the United States." The emphasis is mine, but I find it interesting that Jobs qualified that statement; Pixar apparently does not see the same limitations in other countries.

Is Tivo dead or alive?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/07/2005 - 13:42

Over the long term, I don't think products like Tivo have a future, for two reasons. First is more philosophical: If you can get any content you want on demand (like some kind of video program) via broadband, you don't need a device to store it. Second is more practical: If you do need something to store it, I think a "media computer" with a Tivo-like software program will be cheaper and easier to use, and will not require that you give away all your personal information (what you watch and when you watch it), like Tivo requires now.

Having said all that, the Yahoo!-Tivo partnership makes sense in the short term (next 3-4 years) because we have very limited broadband connections, and so what will become popular is downloading IP video programs overnight, storing them on your Tivo-like device (or your media computer), and watching them later.

This partnership creates, in effect, a new distribution channel that short circuits the traditional Hollywood system--competition, in other words, which is always a good thing. And it may sell a few Tivos as well, which is a major concern for Tivo, since they can read the writing on the wall too. They need to sell as many Tivos as they can over the next several years, before the devices become obsolete.

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.

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