Content and services

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.


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.

Shopping and the death of search

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 11:51

Some of my Christmas shopping included trying to evaluate some items via the Web. The purchases were just large enough to justify trying to read some reviews and pick the "best" rated item. But I found the effort trying at best.

We have all been bombarded with these "work from home" advertisements. Many of these schemes involve setting up link farms peppered with (mostly) Google ads and a few links to legitimate sites. Enough people have bought into this scam to the point that they are now cluttering up search engine results. And based on my experience, I actually think the search engines are promoting the rank of these sites precisely because they carry ads. So the effect is that legitimate sites that carry genuinely useful information are crowded out by link farm sites with useless information, a few mostly useless links, and lots of ads.

Search engines are not a free service. We pay by giving up some of our privacy, and we pay by clicking on ads. Search engines still deliver good value, but they may be debasing their own currency.

Digital magazine subscriptions: going up or going down?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2011 - 09:22

Here is a report that tablet devices like the iPad are not delivering the predicted online magazine subscriptions. I have been saying for some time that these new devices have the potential to save the ailing magazine and newspaper industries. But I think it is too soon to say that data from essentially just one or two publishers is a trend.

Note that I used the word "potential" when talking about this. The publishers could easily screw up this opportunity to save themselves. The article talks about the big drop in online sales of Wired magazine. But here is the problem. A lot of magazines have decided that declining attention spans means that a magazine should look like a Web site--filled with short, fluffy news items. You have to plow through dozens of pages of trivia before getting to two or three mildly interesting articles. Why pay for that?

A second problem is the cost of subscriptions. Publishers are still struggling with how to wean their operations off the relatively high revenue of ads plus subscriptions to a much lower revenue stream online (but note that distribution costs approach zero). So many digital magazine and newspaper subscriptions cost nearly as much as the paper version, which makes no sense at all.

I suspect the successful digital publishers of tomorrow will be start-ups--firms that start with a business model tailored for tablet devices. Many of the old line publishing firms are going to go the way of buggy whip manufacturers.

iPad killing and saving the newspaper

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/10/2010 - 16:44

Two stories in one: The iPad is cutting into traditional newspaper and magazine subscriptions while simultaneously increasing readership for the online versions of newspapers and magazines. The challenge for publishers of newspapers and magazines is to set the online subscription prices at the right price point. If they are greedy and try to keep the online price high, they will never achieve the economies of scale possible when distribution costs are nearly equal to zero. But don't count on this; many editors and their bean counter bosses are going to keep online subscription prices high "so we don't cannibalize our print version." Uh huh. Whether we like it or not, a lot of stuff is never going to be printed on dead trees again. Go with it, you guys, and get over the hand wringing.

I'm too lazy to do a search for it, but I've seen a diatribe by some early Greek bemoaning the newfangled business of writing things down on paper. He was citing the imminent ruination of the youth, who were going to lose the really important ability to memorize everything worth knowing. Uh huh. Nothing ever changes. Ever.

Skype busy destroying the phone company, melting down cable networks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 16:57

Skype has announced a new record of 25 million concurrent users, meaning 25 million voice and video calls simultaneously. It also means that all those Skype users are NOT using their cellphones or land lines to make voice calls. Skype video works extremely well if you have a good Web camera (good means you ought to spend at least $50-$75) and a decent Internet connection; if you have tried Skype video and found it fuzzy or blurry, it's probably your camera. The tiny cameras that come in laptop lids tend to have very poor quality compared to a good USB camera. But I digress. Those video calls that Skype users are making are stressing out the "entertainment" networks provided by the cable and phone companies. I put "entertainment" in quotes because years ago, when I was working out of the home and suffered a cable modem network outage, I was told that the cable modem service I was subscribed to was an "entertainment" service, not a business service, and it might take up to two weeks to repair the outage.

Today's cable and DSL networks were not designed to support symmetric bandwidth, which is what you need if you are going to do voice and video calls--especially if you are trying to do video calls.

But wait, I've saved the best for last. Think just a few geeks are using the Skype video service? You'd be wrong, because Skype says 40% of their calls in the first half of 2010 were video, not voice. Ruh-roh, as Scooby Doo would say, or perhaps the cable companies and phone companies are saying..."Ruh-roh...our networks are glowing cherry red, we can't supply the bandwidth, we have an antiquated network and a 1950s business model." This is going to become a national disaster before it is over, because the economic development plans of many communities are going to be disrupted over lack of decent bandwidth to run a business.

The communities that are building their own open access networks will have complete control of their economic future. If your community's essential infrastructure for attracting and retaining businesses depends on the cable and phone companies, you might want to practice saying, "Ruh-roh."

The beginning of the end for cable TV

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 14:07

Comcast and Level 3 are having a public fight. Level 3 is a long haul network provider; the company owns thousands of miles of inter-city fiber and hauls all kinds of data traffic, including Internet traffic, for a wide variety of customers. But Comcast is groaning under the weight of Netflix and other video traffic, and the cable company wants Level 3 to pay more to drop traffic onto the Comcast network for delivery.

Comcast execs must be scared out of their wits. Cable TV subscribers are canceling their subscriptions, and its not just because of the poor economy. Cable TV and its fabled "500 channels" does not deliver much value any more. Worse, video on demand ventures like Netflix are hugely popular and are using enormous amounts of bandwidth--Netflix customers are using 20% of the total U.S. bandwidth in the evening. And Comcast, which has been making a nice profit on their broadband service for years, is all of sudden facing a flood of demand for their data service which is killing their old-fashioned HFC (Hybrid Fiber Coax) networks. The cable companies guessed wrong ten years ago. They guessed that this Internet thing would never really catch on, and that they could do some tinkering with their existing copper-based network to deliver both TV and Internet, and they went off and borrowed billions to be able to deliver digital content over a fifty year old network design.

They have not paid that money back yet, not entirely, but the billions in upgrades have already run out of steam. The only answer is to build fiber all the way to the home, but they don't have the money to do that. And worse, their customers have decided that they don't really need the TV service if the Internet works okay. Except all of a sudden, the Internet is slowing down for cable TV subscribers, just when everyone wants more--a lot more.

If you are even slightly tempted to feel sorry for the cable companies, the big incumbent phone companies are in worse shape, as they thought they could string their customers along with 100 year old copper twisted pair networks, and the DSL services are running out of steam even faster than the cable networks.

Short story: Telecom in the U.S. is a horrible mess and will be getting much much worse very quickly. Unless you live in a community where there is a community-owned fiber network (think Chattanooga; Powell, Wyoming; Jackson, Mississippi; much of Utah; parts of Virginia, and a few other places).

Netflix raises prices, adds more streaming content

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/23/2010 - 09:51

Netflix has announced an increase in the price of monthly subscriptions, which is no surprise, given the popularity of the firm's video on demand service. With Netflix subscribers using 20% of the nation's bandwidth every evening, Netflix needs some way to pay for all that bandwidth. The company has also added a $7.99/month streaming only subscriptions--you can't get any DVDs.

That might be fine with some folks. Since we started using the streaming service, the number of DVDs we watch has fallen dramatically. Watch next for big changes from the content owners, who have been making a fortune on DVDs for the last fifteen years, but the DVD era is just about over. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth by the TV and movie studios, but in the end, they will make a lot more money by aggressively licensing everything they own for streaming. The truly awful new copyright law is a last ditch attempt by the RIAA and other big copyright advocates to prevent intellectual property theft (e.g. illegal file sharing). But the new law gives the Federal government the ability to shut down ANY Web site arbitrarily simply if an accusation of copyright infringement is made--in other words, without due process. This will inevitably lead to abuse.

I've maintained for many years that the supposed cost of pirated material is overblown by the industry. People that steal music and video recordings, for the most part, would never have actually paid for them in the first place, so the inflated loss of revenue reports are just that--inflated. It's easy to find someone bragging about all the music they have acquired illegally, but they never would have bought it all. And most people are honest; if a product or service is fairly priced, most people prefer to pay for it. The idea of an entire industry starting from the premise that "all are customers, every single one of them, is a crook" has struck me as a bit strange. It's much like the current approach to airport screening: the TSA starts from the assumption that everyone, including the elderly, the infirm, and three year olds, are terrorists. Surely we can do better. And in fact, the huge success of online digital media services like the iTunes store proves that a lot of people are happy to pay fair prices for digital media.

I'm in the living room reading the newspad

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 11/21/2010 - 11:41

If you have not yet heard about "The Daily," you will shortly. The new digital "newspaper" is a collaboration between Apple and News Corp., and it is designed expressly for tablet devices like the iPad. There will be no Web or paper edition. Hence, we need a new term for this, and I think "newspad" is just right, as it is derived directly from its predecessor, the "newspaper."

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