Content and services

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).

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.

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