Content and services

First NC, now Tennessee: Dumb Internet laws

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/09/2011 - 09:00

Tennessee legislators just passed a law making it illegal to transmit an image that could "..frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress" to someone who sees it." And the person who suffers "emotional distress" does not have to be the person you sent it to. Suppose you send out a picture of a cat hanging desperately from the branch of tree to a friend. That friend forwards it on. Twenty forwards later, some cat lover sees it and is emotionally distressed that the poor cat is in danger. They look at the original sender of the email, report it to Tennessee law enforcement, and bingo, you are put in jail for a year and fined $2500 (you would have to be a resident of Tennessee).

Who writes comes up with these laws? Did they even think to ask a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law for an opinion?

Facebook facial recognition: "Creepy..."

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/09/2011 - 08:46

PCWorld calls what Facebook is doing with facial recognition "creepy." The social networking site has rolled out facial recognition software that tries to tag photos with your face in them without asking permission.

How many times do we have to keep going through this? I think I'm going to start a list of "Nerds Gone Wild" where time and again, some nerd at one of these companies decides it is really cool to violate everyone's privacy just because they stayed up late, drank a lot of Red Bull, and whipped up some crappy code. If you are interested, here is how to turn the, uh, "feature" off.

Is Apple about to take on Amazon and Netflix?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/31/2011 - 16:58

Apple's annual WorldWide Developer's Conference (WWDC) starts on June 6th, just a few days from now, and speculation is building that Apple will finally tell the world just what it plans to do with the million square foot data center it has built in rural North Carolina. Among the fevered discussion is the idea that Apple intends to announce a TV and movie on demand service. If they do, it could change the whole playing field for on demand video streaming, which is largely owned by Netflix. TV shows and movies that are tightly integrated with the wildly popular iPad could very quickly cut into Netflix's business, and make Amazon's toehold in this area more tenuous.

Microsoft: Skype or hype?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 05/11/2011 - 09:27

So Microsoft has purchased Skype and will integrate voice communications into various MS hardware and software products. The company paid an enormous amount of money for Skype ($8.5 billion), which is a projected future value of the voice communications firm. Microsoft obviously hopes to monetize what they bought, but what did they really get? VoIP technology is hardly cutting edge, and Microsoft has plenty of smart software folks that could cough up equivalent software in short order. What Microsoft really bought is the Skype customer list (hundreds of millions of people) and a brand name.

The problem Microsoft faces is a lousy track record of overpaying for technology and then running it right into the ground. Anyone remember WebTV? I do. It was doing extremely well when Microsoft bought it, then the whole product line disappeared rather quickly--Microsoft lost the entire investment. During the heyday of the dot-com era, Microsoft bought dozens of firms and then failed to execute.

What Microsoft has never been able to understand is that not everyone wants to use Windows, for a whole variety of reasons. Instead of trying to create great products, Microsoft has stubbornly tried to create scheme after scheme to force everyone to use Windows. How's that working out for them? Not so well.

If Microsoft is smart, they will maintain Skype as a completely separate unit within the company, keep the Skype brand, and avoid spamming current Skype users with forced efforts to drive them to Internet Explorer and/or Windows. If they don't do that and use heavy-handed marketing strategies that annoy Skype users, that will be a market opportunity for some other VoIP company to grow very rapidly--now that hundreds of millions of people are comfortable using VoIP instead of the phone, it won't be hard for all those folks to switch to some other service.

Apple is not tracking your every move

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/27/2011 - 08:36

I have waited a bit to write about the hoo-ha surrounding the accusation that Apple and Google were tracking user locations via GPS information stored in iPhones and Android phones. I suspected there was more to the story than was being cited in the news. And I was right. Apple has released a Q&A that explains what is going on, and it is indeed benign. Note that this applies only to Apple--I have not seen a similar statement from Google, although it is likely to appear soon.

Apple collects the location of WiFi hotspots and cell towers near an iPhone user so that applications that want to do things like tag photos taken with the cameraphone can work quickly, as opposed to having to wait as much as a minute or two to get data from a GPS satellite. There is a file that is transmitted to Apple, but data is encrypted and anonymized so that individual user cannot be identified. It is true that if you take that file from your iPhone, you could develop a rough map of where you have been, but only the owner of the phone or someone who knows the owner of the phone would be able to say, "Okay, I know where you have been." Apple cannot do the same thing because of the anonymity.

Having said that, the existence of the file on your phone could be used by law enforcement and/or become the subject of a sub poena and that data could be used to incriminate you rightly or wrongly in some legal proceeding. Apple intends to provide an update for the iPhone that will give users more control over this data. And that's the right thing to do.

"Don't worry about the cloud..."

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/27/2011 - 08:25

Just last night, at the opening of the Broadband Properties conference in Dallas, I had a discussion about cloud computing with a gentleman who assured me in soothing tones that from a security perspective, there was "nothing to worry about" because IT folks would be very careful and make sure cloud-based data was secure from hackers.

So this morning I read via the InnerTubes that Sony's online Playstation database has been hacked. The hackers managed to swipe the personal information and credit card data of 77 million users, which is probably the entire Playstation user community.

I'm not really opposed to cloud computing; it's a great convenience and I already make use of several "cloud" services, but the industry hype about cloud computing is naive and dangerous to those who don't understand the risks. And as I've noted previously, mainly for the benefit of twenty-something "IT experts," cloud computing is nothing but a mainframe with a longer cord to the user. And many of the security problems that we will continue to see with poorly designed cloud applications and services will be the direct result of programmers who either did not pay attention in class or were poorly taught. Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it.

A primer on cloud storage services

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/29/2011 - 09:01

Here is a lengthy article, but if you are interested in cloud storage services, it is an excellent primer on the advantages and risks. Cloud services, in many ways, is no different than the old mainframe computing environment, gussied up with a snazzy interface. Here are my own thoughts on the topic.

Community-owned broadband networks have a bright future and will be the engines of economic development if they can weather the collapse of the incumbents. The fight in North Carolina is, at core, a rearguard action by the cable companies to prevent that collapse by making competition illegal at the economic expense of the communities they purportedly serve.

Is "Facebook depression" an actual problem?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/29/2011 - 08:40

Is "Facebook depression" really a problem? Or is just an excuse for media outlets to scrounge up some news on a slow news day? I'm reminded of all those teasers for the local 11 PM news: "Your local news at 11--The dangers of dryer lint! Could it be causing the heartbreak of psoriasis? Tune in to find out!"

Uh, huh.

I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over Facebook depression.

Death of TV, Part XXVII: ABC, NBC, CBS... and Netflix!

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 03/17/2011 - 10:15

The old TV empires are crumbling fast, and Netflix is speeding their demise. It just outbid all the other networks for a new original, uh, "TV" series called , which will star Kevin Spacey. Since you can watch Netflix on just about any device on the planet, there is even less reason to keep around one of those old timey television doohickeys. All they are really good for is as a large screen for your iPad 2, which does a great job of streaming live Netflix content in HD to them. More seriously, the big losers in all this are the cable companies. While Comcast furiously tries to close the barn door after the horses all bolted ages ago by trying to block Netflix, it will shortly become apparent even to cable TV execs that no one really needs them any more, unless the cable TV folks wake up and smell the coffee. And that rich aroma is open access. If the cable companies simply switched to being a massive pipe available to any service provider, including Netflix, they could quickly make enough money to pay off their massive debts. But I'm not betting that their olfactory senses are still working.

iPad users crash cable TV system

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/16/2011 - 18:25

Someone asked me just today if we really will need all the bandwidth that fiber offers, with the unspoken inference that DSL and cable modem service seems to be working just fine.

Uh-huh.

I came back to my hotel after dinner and found this article: TimeWarner rolled out its new "watch TV on your iPad" service and it's network was promptly overwhelmed by people who thought, "Hey, what a great idea...just what I have been waiting for." The cable giant had to cut back the number of channels available to just fifteen (cut 50% from the original 30). So anyone who thinks 1950s-based copper networks are just fine, the second biggest cable company in the country had its network crashed by a very small number of iPad owners. What happens when everyone tries to watch TV on a tablet device? And no, DOCSIS 3.0 is not the answer to that question. Symmetric, active Ethernet fiber networks are the answer.

In the future, will everything cost 99 cents?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/14/2011 - 14:12

For about a week now, there has been a thread running around the InnerTubes about how the ebook readers are changing publishing. The Kindle is slowly taking hold, and though I was an early skeptic, there does indeed seem to be a place for a dedicated book reader. Amazon has made it so easy for authors to self-publish that many new authors are skipping the traditional New York publishing house route and simply putting their books on Amazon as an ebook. And money follows.

There are two sweet spots for pricing: 99 cents and a dollar and ninety-nine cents. At the former price, lots and lots of people will take a risk and try an unknown author. Amanda Hocking, in the past year, has sold almost a million ebooks--she doesn't make much on each sale, but she's made enough to quit her day job and work full time as a writer.

Apple started this with the ninety-nine cent music download, which was supposed to kill the music industry. What it killed was the record store. The book business has turned out a bit differently. The big box book stores (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books a Million) killed the independent book store, and the big box book stores are killing themselves (see the sad slide to bankruptcy by Borders).

What's next? Well, the death of TV is already well underway, with the traditional TV channel business dying a slow motion death. Look for cable TV companies to follow in their footsteps.

Death of TV: Part XXVI -- "The Confession" TV series won't be broadcast on TV

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 03/10/2011 - 16:17

Kiefer Sutherland of "24" fame is starring in a new series called "The Confession." It will debut on Hulu in March. I've been waiting for this to happen, and putting heavy hitters like Sutherland and John Hurt in the cast will draw the audience needed to make this a success. It will be interesting to see what happens in the first hours that this becomes available on Hulu. A lot of people trying to watch it right away could cause network congestion and slowdowns on a scale never seen before. Meanwhile, cable TV execs will be curled up in a fetal position calling for Mommy.

Death of TV: Part XXV -- Warner Bros. renting movies via Facebook

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/08/2011 - 14:54

Does anyone watch TV any more? Now that Charlie Sheen (...Winning!) has caused the cancellation of Two and a Half Men, the world as we know has come to an end. Just for the record, I have never watched a single minute of that show, but others obviously have. As I have noted in the past, content is king, so content owners will remain standing after content distributors and their analog world business models have collapsed (read TV channels here). The Internet and the iPod killed the music distribution business. The Internet and devices like the iPad and the Kindle are busy killing the book distribution business, and the Internet and the home computer are busy killing video stores and movie theaters.

Warner Brothers are now renting movies on Facebook for three bucks. That beats going to the movies. And it remains to be seen if this play will affect Netflix much. It really depends on what movies Warner Bros. offers (new releases, older movies, etc.) and whether they release some or all of them to Netflix.

Warner Bros. is probably trying to get more money directly from consumers rather than smaller amounts from the iTunes store and ventures like Netflix. But I'm inclined to think most of these "direct to the buyer" trials will fail, as competitors like iTunes and Netflix offer movie watchers a better browsing experience with more variety.

Will the Kindle end up being free?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/28/2011 - 14:51

Via Jason Kottke, a rumor that the Kindle book reader will eventually be free. Amazon is doing better than I expected with the Kindle, both because the price has dropped sharply, which I viewed as an obstacle, but also because the Kindle itself has been improved. If Amazon eventually gives the Kindle away, a lot of paperback and hardback books will only appear in digital format.

Don't trust the cloud

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/28/2011 - 14:48

The "cloud" took a hit over the weekend, when a problem with Gmail accounts apparently wiped out tens of thousands of email accounts. Google is vague about how many were affected, but some estimates suggest several hundred thousand account were affected. Here's the worrisome part: news reports are saying the accounts were "permanently" deleted, meaning the affected users can't get their data back. Cloud services are popular, and demand for all kinds of cloud services is growing rapidly, but it is a buyer beware market. Don't put anything in the cloud without checking on backup and recovery policies offered.

Death of TV: Part XXIV--Amazon offers unlimited movies for $79/year

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/22/2011 - 12:03

Amazon has jumped into the movie streaming game big-time with a new offer to Amazon Prime customers, who pay $79/year for free shipping. Now included in that Prime subscription is unlimited access to on-demand 5,000+ movies.

Is Facebook taking over the world?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 02/17/2011 - 15:50

I'm only a light user of Facebook, and reserve it for family and close friends. It is interesting to watch the evolution of other social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, which month by month continually add features and interface tweaks to bring them closer to a Facebook look and feel. This is neither good nor bad, and makes a certain sense since what we are seeing is the evolution of a certain approach to interface design, in the context of social connectivity. But what is likely to start appearing is Facebook-style interfaces tacked onto other kinds of services and Web sites, and some of those interfaces won't actually work very well.

Is the cloud a force for political empowerment

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 02/06/2011 - 11:45

SandMonkey, a prominent Egyptian blogger who was briefly detained by Egyptian security forces, advocates that opponents of repressive regimes should store all their documents, writing, and information (e.g. email addresses and data on compatriots) on a cloud-based service located in a different country. That way, if a laptop is confiscated, there are no incriminating documents on it.

It's a fascinating view of an emerging technology, and of course, terrorists can do the same thing. As always, technology is politically neutral. But there is no doubt that bloggers and the technology of the Internet is changing politics, mostly for the good, by making it harder to hide graft, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence.

Private search: An idea whose time has come

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 02/05/2011 - 08:30

It was inevitable that someone would see a business opportunity by providing private search. Starting Page is a search engine that promises to keep your searches private, unlike Google, Bing, and others that build dossiers on what you search for. The search data is sold to third parties and is also used to target ads. I've written recently about how an hour of searching for camping items resulted in weeks of ads about camping stuff.

We are still in the Model T era of the Internet, with lots of evolution and innovation still to come. Starting Page is not the first search engine to challenge Google, and it won't be the last. But Internet time passes quickly, and if people decide they have had enough of Google, "enough is enough" will come quickly.

A few experiments with search phrases seems to deliver just a couple of pages of very relevant results, and those results are refreshingly free of link farms and "shopping" sites, which Google now seems to favor. That's my beef with the bigger search engines (Bing also favors link farms, although not quite to the extent of Google, in my experience). Most of these "make money on the Internet" schemes are focused on building sites on specialized topics that have a broad interest (e.g. "camping and hiking"), adding a thin veneer of content (frequently stolen from legitimate sites), and then larding up the site with ads and links to bigger shopping sites. In theory, you could make some money with this approach and provide some useful content, but most of the sites are rubbish. Nonetheless, since they are hawking ads, the search engines happily put them right at the top of the search results. What gets lost are the legitimate blogs and topical sites, which end up far down in the search results. So good luck to StartingPage; I hope it does well. We need it.

The Daily will sell for $1 per week

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/25/2011 - 15:19

The Daily is the new online newspaper that will be designed expressly for the iPad and other tablet devices. Developed by The News Corporation, the weekly subscription will be priced at 99 cents, or about $4 per month. By comparison, many newspaper subscriptions are closer to a dollar per day. I have long maintained that the extremely low cost of online distribution of content, even for video, should drive subscription prices down, but most newspapers and magazines have stubbornly kept their online subscriptions close to the cost of the dead trees subscription out of fear of cannibalizing the old media version. But The Daily has no old media version to worry about, and I expect it will be very popular. And with its success, we will see lots of other start ups jump in with similarly low cost online-only subscriptions. And perhaps we will finally see some of the old media adjust to the new reality.

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