Content and services

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.

Finding your way--backward maps

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/27/2005 - 08:38

After I got horribly lost in rural New Hampshire (the day after a blizzard, with six inches of snow still on some roads), I swore off Mapquest forever. I've never been fond of their directions, which always have too many directions. You know the ones....drive .1 miles and veer to the left...continue for .05 miles and bear left....and so on. It takes longer to read the directions than it does to travel a tenth of mile, and a more accurate instruction would be something like "take the left fork."

The straw that broke this camel's back in New Hampshire was when I found myself in some picturesque little New England town and stopped in the local quick stop for directions. I told them where I was going, and everyone in the store burst out laughing. I asked them what the joke was, and they said, "You must have Mapquest directions." I said, "Yea," and there was another round of laughter. They finally explained that for some reason, the Mapquest directions from Manchester to Conway (my destination) were backwards (left turns were right turns, and so on) for part of the trip, and everyone ended up at this store. I finally got where I was going, and discovered that Mapquest's 18 separate instructions could have been boiled down to three if written out by a human being.

But, like steak knives, there's more! I had to go to Reston last week to the Digital Cities conferences, and I'd never been to that particular hotel before. I did not want to use Mapquest, so I decided to use the new Google Maps feature (part of Google's quest to dominate the universe).

That also turned out to be a really bad idea. Google has much better maps on the screen than Mapquest, but they print out horribly fuzzy. Their directions were much like Mapquest's, but I gave it the old college try.

They were horribly wrong. They dumped me off the highway two exits before the correct one, and the last five or six instructions were, as I found out, quite garbled. Like my previous Mapquest adventure, a human would have produced instructions that were no more than three lines.

Business Week doesn't get it

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/08/2005 - 08:21

Much is being made of Disney's reluctance to push its content out to viewers via Internet-based television (IPTV). The Business Week article is typical--full of handwringing and hysterical headlines like "IPTV revolution may be on hold."

Maybe not. Maybe the revolution will proceed very nicely, thank you, without Disney. Disney and all the other Hollywood content providers will likely be last to the party, while independents with fresh ideas and world class production software from Apple running on cheap Macs will create break out shows.

If anyone thinks you really need the big studios to produce content, look at the current spate of reality shows. Not only are most of them really awful, the production values are pretty low. That's one reason why they are so appealing to the studios and networks--they are cheap.

Who hasn't sat on the couch late one night watching this dreck and thought, "Gee, I could make a reality show a whole lot more interesting than this?" You can, and people already are. The fake ads circulating on the Internet are the tip of the iceberg. The Volkswagen spoof was extraordinarily well done, and there are many other examples of high quality content out there.

The entertainment industry is trying to hold back the tide by running like a bunch of crybabies to Congress to buy some new laws so they can prosecute a few more grandmothers and 14 year olds for illegal downloads. Meanwhile, they are forcing Apple to sell their songs for exactly the same price, more or less, as you'd pay for the songs on a CD, while their distribution cost, courtesy of Apple's iTunes store, is now zero.

Movies are next. Look at the Blair Witch project--a hugely successful movie that made tens of millions of dollars. The whole movie was shot with cheap handheld cameras and edited on Macs. Today, the next Blair Witch movie could be delivered via a paid download using BitTorrent, and the makers of the film would pocket even more money.

USA Today must use Windows

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/08/2005 - 07:02

USA Today has an unintentionally funny article (page 3B) about Microsoft's "maniacally focused" effort to provide converged instant messaging, email, and voice communications on the Windows platform. The writer apparently fell hook, line, and sinker for Microsoft's PR flack about breakthroughs.

Millions of people have been using converged IM, email, voice, AND video communications for more than a year--it's called iChatAV, and Apple provides it for free on every Mac.

The only thing that might have been maniacal about Microsoft's effort is their determination to catch up with Apple, which has been consistently leaving Microsoft in the dust.

One interesting tidbit in a sidebar to the article--by 2007, it's predicted that 45% of U.S. businesses will be using Voice over IP. Still think this is nothing important?

Another Empire strikes back

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/08/2005 - 06:54

The blogging community is abuzz with the latest threat to writing and journalism on the Web. There is a move afoot to extend the controversial 2002 Federal campaign laws to bloggers writing about politics. At this point, I don't know enough about the law itself to do much more than merely mention the controversy as an example of how the Law of Unintended Consequences continues to work in the age of the Internet.

It seems to be caught up in the age old (okay, about ten years old) controversy of linking. Some parties say you are campaigning if you simply put a link on your site to the Web site of a candidate running for office.

From a certain angle, I could agree with that. But I always like to look at the practical side. How do you enforce such a thing? Will the Federal Election Commission create "Web Police" who will roam the Web looking for unauthorized links? Will they set up massive, Google-like back room 'bots that try to crawl every site on the Web for a stray link to Joe Fiddleray, who's running for Dogcatcher in Left Elbon, Montana?

I remember reading once that for a law to be a "good" law, it had to be enforceable. I don't think this one is.

Google has a problem

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/28/2005 - 20:59

Google has wads of cash, and has to spend it on something. So the company has been experimenting with Orkut, a "social software" platform similar to other services like LinkedIn. It has also started offering Google Maps, which now works with more browsers. Unlike Mapquest and some other similar services, Google Maps is fast and produces legible maps. I've always found Mapquest an exercise in frustration; not only are the maps fuzzy and hard to read, the zooming feature is extremely slow.

Google has also rolled out a Local feature that tries to compensate for the otherwise completely useless search for local information. It's nicely done, and seems to be borrowing from Snap and other search engines that actually return inbound link information, and of course, it's tied to Google's map feature. But it seems to aggregate from a rather large area, and many of the inbound links seem to come from link farms, meaning the value of the ranking is suspect. But my guess is that Google has larger fish to fry. By providing customized local searches, Google can continue to vacuum up ad dollars from smaller and smaller companies who know they will get better placement because of the local feature. Will it be worth it? Time will tell.

Another little know Google feature which is potentially a privacy problem is Google's phone number lookup. Type in your phone number on the Google search page, and Google will return your street address. Handy, or great for stalkers and psychopaths who want to find out where you live? Note that you can opt out that.

It will be interesting to see where Google will be in five years. Google is starting to look an awful lot like Microsoft--the market leader with a huge audience, and so much money it can offer virtually any online service quicker and better than competitors. But Microsoft's day has passed, and Google may wane much more quickly.

"Virtual" sales a big business

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/24/2005 - 11:06

In my talks to community leaders, I talk about the ability to sell goods and services that are, literally, weightless, via the Internet. I get a lot of blank stares, as some folks still have trouble understanding the revolution in business.

The latest news comes from Apple, which reports it sells more than one million songs PER DAY from its online music store, or nearly half a billion songs per year.

Remember that in the distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, music was pretty heavy. It came in the form of 12" LP records, then tape cassettes, and then CDs. The very same product that used to weigh nearly a pound, in the form of those old records, is now delivered to us as a stream of electrons, radio waves, and/or photons. Same music--better, actually, since the digital recordings don't wear out or suffer tape breakages.

It's a new world, and in every state and in many communities, some businesspeople and entrepreneurs have already made the switch. But what about the rest of your businesses? How are your economic development programs preparing them to boost their business by going online?

SMS and youth

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/10/2005 - 08:56

An article in the Roanoke Times yesterday (a NY Times reprint) discussed the phenomenal rise of SMS, or Short Message System. SMS, more often called "text messaging," is the cellphone service that lets you send short text messages on your cellphone.

The article was irritating because it implied that because most SMS users are twenty-something or younger, there must be something wrong with older people. The article, without any data to support the conclusion, said that older people were "more comfortable" with the telephone, implying we old geezers just could not get with the new technology.

I've seen a lot of dumb technology reporting, but this article was one of the dumbest. In conversations I've had with "youngsters" who are SMS fanatics, the only they could tell me they used it for was when they were bored. One twenty-something businessperson told me how great it was because when he was in meetings, he could send messages to his friends. The article also said that SMS was popular because you could use it when you were bored.

So here is the "old geezer," "not comfortable with technology" take on this: when I'm in a meeting, I'm trying to pay attention and contribute to the discussion, rather than text messaging about what I plan to have for lunch. That's not "uncomfortable with technology," that's called being mature and responsible.

The article implied that using the phone was somehow a quaint and old-fashioned mode of communication. No, it's fast and efficient. When I have something to say to someone, it's a lot quicker to pick up the phone than to try to type on a 12 button keyboard the size of my thumb. That's not old-fashioned, it's just sensible.

One unfortunate aspect of this technology revolution we are in is that there is this unsubstantiated belief that youth know more about technology than anyone else. I hear it almost every day. While it is true most young people have a higher comfort level with some of this stuff, the fact that a nineteen year old uses it does not inherently make it good or mean that everyone should use it. Let's not throw commonsense out the window with the crank telephones and VCRs.

More life without Google

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/07/2005 - 07:45

A colleague sent me a link to another up and coming search engine called Vivisimo. It's a bit different than Snap, which I wrote about yesterday, but like Snap, it handles search results in a way that is genuinely useful, as compared to the typical "jillions of hits" Google result.

Vivisimo seems to do two things very well. First, it tries to identify the most likely results, rather than just returning all of them. Snap and Vivisimo both seem to give you about the same number results on a query, which is to say, many fewer than Google, and those returned are of higher quality.

Vivisimo also clusters results, which is really neat. A little expandable outline appears on the left, and clicking various branches of the tree returns subsets of the total set of results. It does this by looking at related words that do not appear in your query. You have to try it to appreciate it, but once you try it, I think you'll see what an improvement it is over Google.

Open Source software and the iPod

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/06/2005 - 11:56

In a brilliant marriage of a free Open Source piece of software and the iPod, medical radiologists around the world are using iPods to store the huge image files generated by CT and other kinds of scans and x-rays. Eweek has the story of a frustrated radiologist who helped develop the free OsiriX software that allows radiologists to store and manipulate the images on the iPod.

Life without Google

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/06/2005 - 11:03

Can anyone imagine life without Google? More than any other Internet service, with the possible exception of email, the availability of Google has become a kind of icon for the changes the Internet has brought over the past ten years. It's even become a verb.

But Google has not changed much since it's start. And over the past year, I've become frustrated with Google results. Too often, a query returns tens or even hundreds of thousands of results. After the second page, you realize most of them have nothing to do with your query. Many other queries return junk starting on the first page; enter the name and state of virtually any town in the U.S., and what you usually get on the first couple of pages is mostly junk--bargain basement hotel room resellers running link farms so that they show up first.

Google as a company, as far as I can tell, has done only two things: they developed a pretty good search engine about six years ago, and figured out how to make Internet ads work. But on the search engine side, they don't seem to have done much since the company started.

I've looked a a bunch of competitors, and as frustrating as Google is much of the time, it's always been better than most of the alternatives. Until now. You might want to bookmark this site and try it a few times:

www.snap.com

Snap is doing things entirely differently than Google. Snap queries that I've compared with Google results look very promising. Snap, in my limited trials, has typically returned many fewer results that are much more relevant. Snap also offers you easy ways to resort the results according to different criteria, including what other people have been looking at, which can be both interesting and useful.

Snap is the first search engine that I've thought could dethrone Google. And it could happen quickly. Give it a try.

Music sales up

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 01/05/2005 - 11:17

The NY Times (reg. required) has a short story on the music industry. Music sales are up 1.6% this past year, for the first time in four years.

What happened? Apple legitimized the online music market with it's highly successful iTunes Music Store, and a horde of competing online music services rushed in to give consumers a wide array of choices. Music sales went up.

The music industry, which fought online music sales for years, and still is, actually, has been dead wrong. The music conglomerates have claimed that illegal online music sales were ruining the business, and instead of innovating, the music business ran to Congress to halt innovation with awful legislation like the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act).

But Apple and other innovative companies weren't buying it, and found a way to give consumers what they wanted--affordable and convenient online music stores.

The music industry still has massive problems; artists still get too little of the royalty payments, and record companies are still charging the online stores the same fees they charged distributors for CDs, even though record company costs are now essentially zero.

But ordinary consumers have won, in a small way. Broadband (music downloads really don't work over dialup) brought music lovers increased choice in the marketplace, and allowed a host of new music companies to enter the marketplace and increase competition and choice.

Broadband is working.

AOL dumps broadband services

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 11:56

AOL has announced that it is dumping its broadband customers in nine states. AOL has been in decline for years, and this is one more indication that the company is completely adrift. AOL's foray into broadband service was a mystery to me in the first place, since they had to resell access purchased wholesale from other providers.

I don't think AOL has ever really understood what it is about. For too long, it thought it was an access company because people bought AOL accounts to get Internet access. But I could told them that was doomed in 1997, if they had wanted to listen. Dial-up is over--growth in dialup peaked at least two years ago, and the DSL, cable, and other broadband providers have been taking AOL's customers since then.

AOL, in my mind, has always been a content company, but I don't think AOL has ever really embraced that as a strategy. They had it too easy for too long, with the Internet build-up dumping buckets of cash into their coffers while the Internet was hot. The problem for AOL has always been that it never was and still is not an Internet access provider. They've always maintained their own personal coccoon for users that was designed and developed long before the Internet took off, and they've never figured out an exit strategy. AOL's Web browser used to drive Web designers nuts because it was so bad--bad because AOL squeezed Internet data through an AOL sieve and still does. No one else does that anymore.

For certain kinds of users, AOL provides a good environment. They've done a nice job of providing a family-friendly interface, as one example. But unless they can finally let go of their legacy systems and reinvent themselves, the company will slowly go out of business.

MPAA to sue movie downloaders

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/05/2004 - 08:46

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has decided to sue grandmothers and fourteen year old kids who are allegedly downloading bootleg copies of movies.

Like the music industry attempts at litigation, it accomplished little except prove the stupidity of these movie execs. When "millions" of people are trying to watch your movies, that's called a market opportunity, not a field day for lawyers.

If you haven't heard much about the evils of music sharing lately, it's because Apple (not a music company) is making the music industry millions of dollars through Apple's online music store. Competitors with similar legal music download services are also stuffing millions into the pockets of music company execs.

On the artist side, some bands and musicians now don't bother to even sign a recording contract. Instead, they market their music online, burn their own CDs and sell them online and at concerts, and are free of the tyranny of the music industry.

The movie industry is going through the same convolutions. The Blair Witch Project, an enormously profitable movie, was shot with cheap cameras and edited and produced on some Macintosh computers--no expensive movie industry post-production needed. Apple's Final Cut Pro is now being used to edit and produce big screen movies--changing the entire post production process that used to be dominated by high-priced Hollywood firms. The new technologies are putting much more control in the hands of musicians, directors, and writers--a good thing, unless you are an exec at one of the old Manufacturing Economy businesses that thinking sueing customers is great public relations.

Earthlink adds VoIP services

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:23

Earthlink faces the same problem AOL is already struggling with--a shrinking market for dial access to the Internet. Earthlink has been staying in the black by slashing customer support and by providing barebones access, as opposed to AOL's tedious, ad-laden interface.

Earthlink has a lot of customers like me, who need occasional dial access from the road, and don't want the dreck AOL ladles out along with it. But I find I need to dial through Earthlink less and less as hotspots, especially in hotels, become more common. As I've written previously, I and many other travelers now pick hotels based on the availability of broadband, not on the kind of shampoo you find in the bathroom.

AOL has tried to keep its customers by extortion--for example, you can't forward your AOL email to another account, which makes it much more difficult to quit AOL if you have used your AOL email address for a long time. AOL is basically saying to customers, "Leave us and your life will be miserable while all your email goes missing for a while." Most other email account providers let you forward your mail.

But back to Earthlink, which is now providing limited VoIP services if you have an Earthlink broadband account. It's a clever move, because the appeal of free calling (at least to some of your friends and family) will help sell the access part.

We're going to see more bundling of services--the phone companies are trying to win back some broadband customers by bundling local, long distance, and broadband, and the appeal, aside from saving a little money, is that you potentially go to one bill from three. In theory, you should also be able to get better service and customer support (in theory).

The changing shape of the news

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/24/2004 - 08:51

Andrew Sullivan, in Time magazine, illustrates perfectly the changing landscape of writing, journalism, and more generally, the power of the Web that we now all have in our hands. Here is the most instructive quote from the article.

"Ten years ago I edited a money-losing magazine, The New Republic, which had 100,000 subscribers. Two weeks ago on my four-year-old blog, AndrewSullivan.com, I had 100,000 readers in one day alone. After four years of blogging, I haven't lost a cent and have eked out a small salary. And I don't even have an editor! Technology did this. And it's a big deal most people have yet to understand."

Not all of us are going to be bloggers. The really successful ones have a passion for something and are also great writers. But we are all users of content, and these new information channels, applied on a community level, will get good and useful information to us about our communities quickly and easily.

We also need to make sure that our children continue to learn the difference between truth and falsehoods, the difference between sarcasm and thoughtful commentary, and the difference between typing and writing (hat tip to Truman Capote). These are exciting times, and we still have much to do, but the technology, used appropriately, can make our communities truly great places.

Record companies making a fortune

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/23/2004 - 14:23

According to this article in the UK Independent, the record companies are making a killing from online music sales. The paper says that of the average ninety-nine cent cost of a downloaded song, the record companies are taking sixty-two cents, or apparently almost double what they made on a CD. Not only that, their distribution costs have fallen to virtually zero.

Meanwhile, the same record companies have been prosecuting grandmothers and 14 year olds, claiming online music was killing the business.

The online stores are making a paltry four cents, which will cause most of them to go out of business, says the paper. And the artists? Well, apparently the artists, who actually create the product, aren't making a penny more. That's why many artists, like this one, don't even bother to sigh with a record company. They cut their own CDs, make a lot of live appearances, and sell their CDs online and at their concerts. It's a living, apparently. Jah Works has been around since at least '96.

For music lovers, as more bands forgo the record scene, it's likely more music with more variety will be available over the long term.

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