Content and services

Facebook: The Movie

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/24/2010 - 08:14

Every programmer knows it: the dreaded infinite loop. You have a little piece of code that gets the wrong input and starts repeating, over and over again. Computers being kind of fast, an innocuous few lines of code can execute millions of times an hour, sending the system of the network into "conniptions," which is the technical term used by all good programmers.

Such was the fate of Facebook for a few hours yesterday, which had a rogue piece of code bring down the entire system. While there is a movie already out about the start of the Facebook empire, it occurred to me what we need is a Facebook disaster movie. The script would be easy to pound out--start with a line up of aging, past their prime movie stars of the sort that were trotted out for classic disaster movies like Airplane, add in the pathos and horror of not being able to post that you just brushed your teeth or had a Hot Pockets burrito for breakfast, and do a lot of fast cuts to people whose entire lives were ruined because they could not post comments like "You go, girl" to Britney Spears' Facebook page, and you have some real movie magic. I predict it will go straight to DVD--but there would still be a one month delay before you watch it instantly on Netflix.

Blockbuster, Netflix, and Apple

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/24/2010 - 06:43

I still remember a conversation I had about a year ago when I told an business acquaintance that Blockbuster was toast, and that it was only going to be a year or two before the company would be gone. My acquaintance argued politely that that was not going to happen, we agreed to disagree, and we finished up our meeting. But for some reason, that particular conversation stuck with me, even though I have talked about this to hundreds of people.

What amazes me is how stuck some people get in a belief that business models never change, and that companies and markets can grow forever. Blockbuster was in the right place and the right time to enjoy dramatic growth, crush its business enemies, and become one of the most hated brands in America. The company's insistence on ridiculously punitive late fees was the first clue that the company's leaders were out of touch with customers and the market. How anyone thought that enhancing profits by punishing customers was a good idea still perplexes me, but a lot of people at Blockbuster thought so.

Netflix was really a response to that. The Netflix folks had two key ideas: one was that people tend to take a few days to get around to returning movies. The second was that some day, DVDs would be history and everyone would watch on demand via a broadband connection. Even though the company started out mailing DVDs back and forth, you will notice they did not call the company "PostalFlix."

I saw something the other day that made me think I might finally want an iPad--someone near me on an airplane was watching a movie on their iPad. The big screen was easy to see, and the iPad has enough battery life to watch a long movie without running out of power, which is a problem with many laptops. Air travel has become so unpleasant that being able to watch a movie of my own choice has some appeal. The seats are now so close together that on most flights, even on bigger planes, it is nearly impossible to work comfortably on a laptop. I was on a 757 the other day, and there was only 12 inches of space between the front edge of my seat and the back of the seat in front of me. When you dropped down the tray table, the edge was jutting into my chest--impossible to comfortably use a laptop keyboard or to get the screen at a comfortable angle. But my iPad seatmate was able to prop the iPad up easily and enjoy a movie.

As video has moved from the Blockbuster store to the Netflix postal model (which is also toast, but Netflix knows this) and is now rapidly moving to the on demand model, the iPad and similar tablets are going to take it the final step--true portability--watch whatever you want, whenever you want, pretty much wherever you are.

Crooks using location information to rob homes

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/13/2010 - 10:45

All these location-aware devices we have now with GPS capabilities are turning out to be a boon for crooks. Here is how it works: people go on vacation, take pictures with their location-aware iPhone or Android phone, and upload the picture to Facebook with the exact location conveniently added in. Crooks browse Facebook pages, find someone on vacation a long way from home, and then head over to your house for a leisurely romp through your belongings.

Other problems with indiscriminate use of location-aware information? Law enforcement officials can use that information to build a case against you in a criminal trial--it's a form of self-incrimination that you voluntarily offer to law enforcement and to trial lawyers in civil proceedings.

Voluntarily giving up your location in real time has more benign but still problematic privacy issues, as it allows Web sites and the ad/search engines behind them to add to your dossier--they know everywhere you go, and thus build ever more sophisticated targeted marketing. It's not that the ads are so bad in and of themselves, but once that location information is collected, it can be sold and re-sold to other parties for years.

I wish the iPhone had an opt-in or opt-out preference; many iPhone apps constantly ask if they can use location information, and I have to constantly answer, "No." It's a pain in the neck, and none of their business.

Many free apps for Android and the iPhone are free because they collect lots of information about you; that information is sold to third parties, and that's what keeps the app "free." Sometimes it might be better just to pay a few dollars to preserve a few shreds of your privacy.

The death of TV: Part XXIII

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2010 - 13:45

Apple has announced a new version of Apple TV. Apple has cut both the price and size of the device; it's now tiny compared to the old version, and costs only $99. The old version of the product was able to store movies and TV shows, but the new version only streams movies and TV, either from online sources or from content stored on a nearby Mac computer.

TV shows are going to typically rent for ninety-nine cents, and HD movies will go for $5. At a buck a TV show, a typical household could watch a lot of "must see" TV before you would spend more than the average $65/month cost of cable TV. And you can watch Netflix movies on demand for free if you are already a Netflix customer. The new device also retains the ability to stream and play music from a nearby iTunes music library; ditto with photos from a local iPhoto picture album. And Apple TV can be controlled with an iPhone or an iPod Touch. Apple has pretty much completed the transition to an all-digital, fully integrated music/TV/movies/pictures system.

It's always about the bandwidth (or lack of it)

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/13/2010 - 17:06

In this article that speculates about an Apple TV upgrade, there is an interesting tidbit that validates what I and others have been saying for a long time: HD content chews up bandwidth:

"...In turn, consumers would see a similar increase in streaming requirements. Xbox Live can stream 1080p video, but it requires 8-10meg broadband, which leaves an awful lot of people out in the cold. It has the option of downloading instead, but if you're out in the sticks on a 2meg stream you're looking at more than eight hours to download your film at 1080p. You'd best plan your Friday night viewing before leaving for work on Friday morning."

The discussion about the Apple TV is whether or not Apple will include the ability to show movies in HD 1080p format. The short answer is, "Not likely," because streaming 1080p movies and TV shows over the Internet requires a massive chunk of bandwidth--8-10 megabits. And that's REAL bandwidth, not the marketing happy-talk that always begins with "....up to..."

Notice that if you wanted to download that movie over your average 2 megabit connection, it would take more than 8 hours! And if you are on a cable modem connection with a few of your neighbors also trying to do the same, it would take a little longer, like never (ditto with a wireless connection).

The answer is simple: we need to switch to open fiber.

Why Bing is winning

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/16/2010 - 14:27

Bing has grabbed almost 13% of the search engine market share in the past year, and the Microsoft search engine appears to steadily getting more users. There are two or three reasons, I think. In my own experience, Bing returns fewer and better results, with less link farm clutter. The interface is better, and Bing is willing to send you other search engines, which suggests a certain confidence in their own results and/or a focus on helping you complete your search rather than stick as many ads as possible in your face.

Recent upgrades to two popular browsers, FireFox and Safari, also allow you to set the default search engine to Bing instead of Google. This simple one time change for users makes it much easier to hit Bing every time when you do a search.

Link farming: The perniciousness of Web ads

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/13/2010 - 08:54

I just spent a few minutes clicking around trying to find the Web site of a particular business. After four or five attempts to click through on links that I *thought* would go to the actual Web site of the business, I gave up. Every link took me to another link farm or worse, actually just clicked back through to the same page I left. Of course, each time I clicked, another list of Web ads got loaded into the page I landed on, and that's what much of the Web has become--just a snarled mess of link farms. The link farm sites don't have to be well-designed or particularly useful, because it costs almost nothing to build these sites, and even if only one person out of a hundred clicks on an ad, you can make money with it.

All those ads you hear on the radio and see on TV about making money on the Internet--there are really only two scams. One scam makes you a dealer for cheap, over-priced junk that you try to get friends and relatives to buy, and the other is building link farms.

And it is not just "I hope I get rich on the Internet" link farms that are part of the problem. There are a lot of well-financed commercial ventures that engage in this circular linking as well.

It had to happen: Facebook newbie phase is over

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/12/2010 - 12:42

Like all popular Internet services, Facebook has enjoyed rapid growth over the past three or four years, as the service added many hundreds of thousands of users a week (or more--millions in some past months). But that growth has finally stalled out, as everyone who wants to be on Facebook already is. Geometric growth is a wonderful thing, but there was always a finite limit to that growth. Even more telling, the amount of activity by registered users has also dropped.

Facebook is a handy tool for staying in contact with friends and family and for organizing groups for things as mundane as a family reunion or scout troop. The service also gets wide use for causes (Friends of Calico Cats, Save Lindsay Lohan from Herself, etc.). But I have observed this growth phenomena repeatedly with other services, dating back to the early nineties and the first "killer app," email. Eventually everyone that wanted one got an email account, and that was the end of the email boom.

Facebook is vulnerable to competitors and perhaps the biggest danger is not managing internal costs; the company must now trim costs and manage budgets closely, and this does not always happen in time following a rapid and prolonged growth phase.

Death of TV, Part XXII: Hulu Plus

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/29/2010 - 13:58

Hulu has announced a new subscription and ad-based service called Hulu Plus for $9.99 per month that will provide access to the full season of many "TV" shows. That's a heck of a lot less than the Apple iTunes Store, which sells shows for one or two dollars. Think of Hulu Plus as an alternative to paying for a cable or satellite subscription.

Is the age of blogs over?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/07/2010 - 08:16

Lately, visiting some of my regular "regular read" blogs, I'm finding not only fewer posts but notes from the bloggers that after five or six years, they are turning the blog off or just posting a lot less. The comments all seem to run in the same direction: "I've said everything I have wanted to say." And regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I am posting a lot less than I was three or four years ago. Part of the change is due the the growth in Design Nine; we're planning and building more networks in more places around the country than we were three or four years ago. But the technology of broadband has also matured, and there is less to write about. But I'm not turning the blog off yet. There is plenty of broadband news, and lots of other interesting technology. Nor do I think the age of blogs is over, but I think the "newbie" phenomenon of blogs has peaked. As I have written in the past, good bloggers are good writers, and there are few good writers. Anyone can post a few odd items to a blog, but only a love of writing will sustain a blog over a longer period of time. The fact that some blogs are slowing or shutting down is a sign that this particular medium is maturing. Fewer, higher quality blogs are, all in all, a good thing.

More evidence TV is dead

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/02/2010 - 07:50

Here is an article that says the median age of traditional TV viewers has moved up to nearly 51 years old. For an industry that covets the 25-44 year old demographic, that has to be bad news. It explains why you see so many laxative,Viagra, and arthritis ads on TV--nothing but creaky and cranky old folks watching. A massive wave of tablet computers, optimized for video, are going to accelerate the trend away from sitting in front of the "TV." Indeed, the term "TV" is rapidly becoming an anachronism, as more and more people are going to be saying, "What's on the pad?"

Newspaper sells out iPad ad space

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/24/2010 - 13:48

The Australian, a major paper in Australia, has sold out the ad space on its iPad version of the newspaper. At least one paper intends to stay ahead of the news game and make the new medium work for its business. Good for them.

Google Music Store kicks Apple iTunes Store in the teeth

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/21/2010 - 12:53

Google has announced that the next version of its Android operating system will have something much like the Apple iTunes software and a companion music store.

Google TV kicks Apple TV in the teeth

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/21/2010 - 12:49

Google has announced the fall, 2010 availability of Google TV, which is a set top box but may also be built in to some new TVs. The little video that is embedded in the linked article shows an interface that looks remarkably similar to the interface used by the Apple TV appliance, which is also a set top box. Either Apple nailed the interface design for this kind of device, or Google could not come up with anything better, or both.

The problem I suspect I will have with Google TV is that I"m pretty sure the Google TV device will send everything I watch or anyone in my family watches to Google, where they will add it to the massive dossier they have already collected on me and everyone else in the country. Google TV will also conveniently, I'm sure, provide handy connections to other Google services like Google Docs. Google is going to take over your life, one little "free" service at a time, until you can't do anything on the Web without touching some kind of Google service. Google could easily build in an "opt in" feature that only allows them to collect personal information if you expressly agree, but their general tendency for other products and services is to collect first and ask later, or worse, include a requirement to let them have all your personal information in return for the "free" service. It's a Faustian bargain.

Microsoft sides with Apple, supports HTML5 and H.264

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/04/2010 - 08:11

Microsoft has announced that for Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), the company has a preference for HTML5 and the H.264 video codec. Flash plug-ins will continue to be supported, but IE9 will only have native support for H.264. This follows on the path blazed by Apple, which decided a while back not support Flash at all on the iPhone and iPod. The controversy has heated up with the release of the iPad, which continues the Apple strategy of no Flash support at all. With both Apple and Microsoft coming out against Flash, Flash is essentially dead, and Adobe has lost this battle. Some years ago, Adobe elected to "win" by buying up competitors and killing off their products rather than competing on price. As a result, professional graphics designers and Web designers have fewer pro-level tools to choose from and much higher prices. Adobe is now beginning to pay the price for its monopoly-style attempt to control the marketplace.

Will the iPad save the publishing industry?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/05/2010 - 13:27

This article from Cory Doctorow is similar to a couple of other contrarian articles that have come out in the past week--they all complain about the perceived "closed" nature of the iPad and/or say that the iPad is not going to save the publishing business.

Doctorow complains that there is little opportunity to hack the iPad; he is coming at this criticism from a hardware perspective. He wants to be able to open it up and do stuff with innards, and talks about how great the Apple II was because you hack that to your hearts content. But I remember those days, and did a fair amount of hacking myself. While it was fun, hackers back then were still a minority, and they still are today. It is pretty hard to make something that weighs a pound and a half that you can hold in your lap AND take apart and mess around with. If Doctorow wants to hack stuff, well, that's what the Arduino is for. I would have killed for an Arduino back in the Apple II days. I don't really get his complaint here, as there is plenty of stuff that can be nicely hacked, but that's not the market Apple is going after.

But I would argue that the iPad is very open--from a software perspective, and one only need look at the three thousand plus applications that already run on the iPad. Most of these apps are being written by small, wrote it in my bedroom, software outfits--the very kind of "hacker" types that Doctorow claims are locked out by Apple. Before the end of 2010, there will be tens of thousands of apps for the iPad, because Apple has created great software development tools that make it really easy to write software for the iPad.

Doctorow, like Jose Vargas and many others, also insists that the iPad is not going to save "traditional" magazine and newspaper publishers. I agree, but I think they are missing the point. The iPad is not going to help magazines like Time and Newsweek. But Apple's end to end publishing model that includes the iPad and the iTunes Store makes it possible for almost anyone to go into the publishing business. And so the big traditional media rags like Time and Newsweek and many newspapers will continue their slow decline toward irrelevance. But in their place, a host of new publications, with new pricing models, new editorial and writing models, and more relevant content will take their place.

The iPad is not going to save traditional media, unless traditional media wants to change to adapt to the times. Instead, the iPad is going to be a boon to new media, in many forms--the written word, the drawn image, the video, the TV program, the game. We will not know the full extent of the iPad's influence for at least a couple of years, but I think its effects will be more far-reaching than the iPod.

Apple forces Amazon to change pricing

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/01/2010 - 14:01

Earlier this week, I wrote how Apple is forcing publishers to move away from Adobe's buggy Flash plug-in, which is used for multimedia content display. Today, this article comes out about how Apple's pricing for books in the new iPad bookstore has forced Amazon to change its pricing model. Amazon was telling book publishers what they could charge for ebooks using the Kindle distribution system. Publishers didn't like that, and Apple took a different approach, giving publishers more flexibility in setting the price of a book, and taking a straight revenue percentage for distributing.

Apple gets criticized for using its muscle to make deals, but the deals it makes usually end up benefiting both buyers and sellers. And the overall lesson is that Apple's general approach--open access to markets achieves success--is lesson that is slowly gaining headway in the broadband world.

iPad Content Ready to Roll

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/29/2010 - 15:45

MacRumors reports that National Public Radio (NPR) and The Wall Street Journal are already getting ready to roll out Web sites designed specifically for the Apple iPad. Expect many more newpapers and magazines to announce iPad versions of their content over the next several months, with the iPad set to ship to buyers in the next 30 days. One of the interesting side effects--Adobe may have lost the Flash war. The content providers are beginning to report that they are creating "Flash free" sites. Apple has long contended that Flash, used for many kinds of multimedia content on the Web, is buggy and slow compared to using Java and some other video protocols.

Is pay for content doomed?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/23/2010 - 09:07

This article suggests that pay for play is doomed, because no one (according to the data) wants to pay for content.

The problem I see is not paying for content, but pricing. Newspapers and magazines have not adjusted their cost/pricing models to adequately reflect the new distribution costs, which are effectively zero. The Apple revenue share model that is being delivered with the iPad is going to fix this, as it provides a worldwide distribution network for news and magazine startups.

For example, which is better? A million subscribers paying $5/year for an iPad delivered monthly magazine, or 50,000 subscribers paying $20/year? I think it is the former, because the barrier to making the next sale is 75% lower. I'm pretty sure I could produce a pretty nice magazine with a lot of original content on an editorial and writing budget of $5 million/year. Online music took off when Apple changed the pricing structure by creating a low cost distribution system that let the little guys compete with the big guys. The same is about to happen with print, but the big winners will be start-ups.

Community perspective: Guess what? Magazines delivering their content via the Apple Store don't have to be produced in New York any more. Writers and editors can live anywhere in the country with good broadband on Main Street and good broadband at home. But work from home writers, editors, and graphic artists will want business class services, with symmetric bandwidth. That means DSL and cable modem services won't draw these kinds of knowledge workers to your community. Open access fiber, designed right, will attract them.

What a surprise: Higher prices dampens sales

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/09/2010 - 14:55

In a shocking discovery, music publishers have found that the law of supply and demand works. Apple loosened up pricing rules for music on the iTunes Store last year. Record companies immediately raised prices. Buyers immediately bought less music. The record companies are shocked, shocked that buyers don't want to pay more. What could have gone wrong? Higher prices signal less supply, and in turn, demand tends to drop. Record companies might want to send a few of their high paid execs back to high school to retake an economics class.

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