Content and services

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."

Hulu: Watch all the TV you want for $8/month

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/17/2010 - 17:25

In what has to scare the heck out of the cable companies, Hulu has released an upgraded version of its premium subscription service and software while dropping the monthly cost from $9.99 to $7.99. Hulu Plus gives subscribers access to many of the most popular current season "TV" shows. I am going to start putting "TV" in quotes because broadband services like Hulu and Netflix are not the old analog TV, but they sure deliver the same content. The math on getting your "TV" over your broadband connection is pretty compelling. Hulu Plus for $8/month gives the popular current shows, and Netflix for $10/month gives you access to a huge back catalog of American and British shows, as well as lots of movies. Total cost? $18/month, compared to the average cable bill of $60.

What's missing? The news channels, but you can get an awful lots of news off the Web, with the exception of the live news and commentary programs. Expect them along any time. Own shares of cable TV companies? You might want to evaluate the long term potential of that stock.

Facebook takes aim at Gmail

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/16/2010 - 09:34

Facebook has announced a "modern" messaging system that will integrate email, text messaging, and Facebook messaging. Google's dominance, all of a sudden, is being challenged simultaneously on multiple fronts. And behind the scenes, it is often Microsoft that is leading the charge. Facebook's email service will draw some users away from Gmail, and Facebook has already announced a partnership with Microsoft to use Microsoft's Bing search engine for social search. And Yahoo! recently announced a plan to move to using Bing to power Yahoo!'s search services. Meanwhile, Apple is not standing still, with it's Ping music-oriented social network pushing both Google and Facebook. And Apple has some big plans that are still largely under wraps to challenge Google's Gdoc services.

If Apple and Facebook can provide better and more believable privacy policies than Google, which basically has the attitude that all your personal data belongs to them (check the EULA for Gdocs, which gives them a license for everything you create using Gdocs), the two firms will slowly chip away at Google's dominance.

Appitalism combines social media and shopping

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/04/2010 - 10:32 is an interesting new site that combines elements of the iTunes store, Amazon customer reviews, and tight links with social media. This might actually turn out to be a winner, as many of the "shopping" sites tend to lack enough traffic to produce reliable reviews, and in my experience, many listed products on those sites have no reviews. Finally, a lot of those shopping sites are basically just link farms for advertisers. Appitalism puts the control in the hands of users, rather than advertisers, and so I think it is likely the site will get more and better reviews overall.

Facebook security problems

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/19/2010 - 15:55

The Wall Street Journal has an article about issues with the way third party Facebook apps (e.g. FarmVille, HoldEm Poker, others) are grabbing personal information even though they are not supposed to be doing so. Facebook officials said they are clamping down to ensure that the 500 million Facebook users are protected.

New York Times available on the iPad

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2010 - 10:48

The New York Times can now be read on the iPad via an upgraded NY Times app. The full edition of the paper is available for free until sometime next year, when a subscription fee will be charged. If I was the owner of a struggling newspaper with declining circulation, I'd be not only going the app route for distribution, I'd put together some kind of deal to bundle in an iPad with something like a twelve month easy payment plan for the iPad. Like it or not, this is the future of newspapers and magazines.

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.

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