Content and services

Online services are dying

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 11/30/2008 - 12:55

Enough poorly thought out and/or underfunded online services are dying that someone has started a death watch blog. This is a market where too many startups thought they were going to capture 10% of the market and make gazillions with their wizzy Web 2.0 service (file storage, online collaboration, etc.).

Many of these services are just quietly turning off the servers with little or no notification of their customers. So buyer beware if you are storing all your company documents or family baby pictures on one of these sites--your backups may just disappear one day.

Google tracks the flu

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/12/2008 - 14:37

It may be benign and even mildly useful, but SEEMS creepy. Google has announced it now tracking the flu by using searches for keywords like "flu," "fever," "thermometer," and so on. It uses information gleaned from your browser and computer (IP address, MAC address, service provider) to identify an approximate location. The data will then be passed on to the Center for Disease Control. A test last year was apparently good enough that they are doing it again this year.

Google swears the data is anonymized, but don't be surprised to see ads for pharmacies and Theraflu (TM) pop up as you search the Web for a flu remedy. Google and the CDC both announced, "...this is just the beginning." What's next? Google dispatches an order of chicken soup to your house? The Feds send you a quarantine order telling you to stay home for three days? Your data is sent to the TSA (Transportation Safety Agency) which then meets you at the airport and forbids you to fly because you might give others on the plane the flu?

Will Twitter really change your life?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/30/2008 - 10:34

It is a bit difficult to take any article seriously that claims in the title that "this technology will change your life." But Twitter, a strange cross between blogging and text messaging, may "a href="http://www.macworld.com/article/136443/2008/10/twitter.html">finally be growing up. Twitter may actually have some real value with respect to public safety, because you can have lots of people subscribed to a Twitter feed that can then quickly send a message to a lot of cellphones all at once. Twitter may also have some uses as an internal messaging systems for businesses and organizations, both for some kinds of routine messages ("the staff meeting starts in 5 minutes") and non-routine messages ("fire in the supply room, evacuate immediately).

Long term, it is hard to guess just how many different communications channels we A) want, and B) can manage. Most of us already suffer from email fatigue. It has taken nearly one hundred years for the automobile to evolve into the trouble-free, powerful transportation systems we take for granted today, and they are still changing and improving. We are barely out of the Model T era of computer and communications technology.

YouTube accelerates transition to IP-based TV

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/14/2008 - 08:26

YouTube has inked deals to start offering full length TV shows. The Google-backed company intends to go head to head with Hulu, which has several deals with networks to carry TV shows.

These kinds of alternatives are quickly making it quaint to sit down in front of the TV at a certain time on a certain day to watch a particular show. I'm a fan of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, but I could not tell you what network it is on, what day new shows air, or what time it plays. I simply go to the iTunes Store when I have a little extra time, pay $2, and watch the show at my convenience. For that $2, I enjoy it without commercial interruption.

Cable and satellite TV are rapidly becoming anachronisms.

Google has its own satellite

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 07:53

Google now has its own satellite, or at least exclusive access to one. The firm made a deal with the U.S. government to help finance a new image mapping satellite in return for exclusive commercial rights to the images. It was probably cheaper than paying for images from other commercial and government satellites.

AT&T and Verizon say "No" to customer tracking

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 08:34

Verizon and AT&T deserve congratulations for endorsing an opt-in approach to tracking online behavior. This means they won't try to build dossiers of where you go online unless they get your permission. The online dossier information can be valuable, as data can be mined and sold to advertisers.

Internet radio may finally take off

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/24/2008 - 08:36

Back in 1995, I foolishly proposed a project for the Blacksburg Electronic Village that would have us partner with the local public radio station to begin broadcasting over the new Internet thingy that was just beginning to take off. It was very modest, and involved streaming audio news reports over the Internet--5 to 10 minutes of mostly local news a day, but in four languages, because of the large international population in Blacksburg.

No one believed anyone would ever be interested in listening to audio over the Internet.

A few years later, streaming radio and podcasting took off in a big way. But streaming radio got knocked down almost immediately by huge increases in royalties that made it financially impossible for small start-up Internet radio stations to develop a market, and even for bigger operations, the cost of royalties was difficult.

A tentative agreement has been reached between the RIAA, which controls music royalty, and the radio industry. For Internet radio operations, they will pay 10.5% of annual revenue instead of a per song fee. This makes perfect sense, as it will allow small niche Internet radio operations grow without high royalty fees that are not linked to actual income. And musicians and songwriters will still get compensated in some indirect proportion to the number of people actually listening (radio stations with a large audience will have more revenue, and will so the royalty revenue will be higher).

This approach is identical to the revenue sharing models adopted by broadband projects like nDanville and The Wired Road. Revenue share models allow many new and innovative services to start up inexpensively because the fees to content owners or the network are paid in proportion to success.

Colleges check MySpace and FaceBook

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/22/2008 - 07:28

FaceBook and MySpace have been interesting experiments in the social uses of the Internet. As the use of these social networking sites evolves, a better understanding of the effects of those uses also evolves. Not only are employers using the sites to evaluate potential employees, it turns out that a significant number of colleges are also using the sites to evaluate potential students. So if you have a child in high school who is beginning to apply for admission to college, it might be worth taking a few minutes to check their FaceBook and MySpace pages to see just what they have posted.

As the world becomes less and less private through the widespread use of online services and applications, privacy is going to become more and more valuable. The good news is that we still have some control--we can choose to be prudent about what we post about ourselves online, and we can be prudent about using "free" online services that give the service provider the right to use whatever we create, write, or email with those services.

Google owns your pictures

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/09/2008 - 08:40

The debate over the terms of Google End User License Agreements (EULAs) continues. Last week there was much discussion online about the EULA for Chrome, the new Google Web browser, which resulted in a change to the EULA that no longer gave Google the right to use anything you uploaded with the browser.

However, the broadly worded license terms still remain in other Google products, including Picasa (Google has the right to all your photos), Google Docs (Google has the right to use all your word processing and spreadsheet documents), and Blogger (Google can use all your blog posts).

I suspect that at the current time, Google is doing something relatively benign--using the license terms to build advertising dossiers about users of their services. But the license terms give Google very broad rights to their customer-created content.

NBC upset that people use on demand video

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/11/2008 - 08:15

NBC, which has exclusive rights to broadcast the 2008 Olympics in the United States, is apparently upset that people are simply not bothering to wait for prime time to watch NBC's repackaged broadcasts. Instead, viewers are simply going to the Internet and watching the Olympics on the Web sites of media outlets in other countries.

The Olympics is a long and complex series of events that has never fit neatly into a two hour evening broadcast, but in olden days (say four years ago), that was about all we had. The much wider availability of broadband connections and the widespread use of online video sites like YouTube provides people with alternatives to broadcast and cable TV. Right now, the video folks are watching is of generally low quality, but demand for HD online video is going to increase rapidly, and more and more people are going to want to watch live events in real time, not NBC time, and will want those broadcasts in HD format. And the current DSL and cable modem systems simply don't have the horsepower to deliver it.

How cool is Cuil?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/28/2008 - 08:27

The new search engine Cuil (pronounced 'cool') aims to take on Google, like a bunch of other search engines that have tried and failed to dislodge Google. But Cuil is designed and owned by a former Google staffer and her husband who just may pull it off if they have the financial staying power to slug it out over the next couple of years.

Cuil promises better search results by not just counting inbound links but by actually trying to parse whether or not the contents of a Web page are a good fit for the search terms. Cuil also promises a more usable format for results, which wouldn't take much, given that Google has not bothered to give itself a face-lift since the company started. Finally, the Cuil founders promise not to snoop around and store everyone's search results, a refreshing change from Google's policy of developing dossiers on everything you have ever searched for.

Are Internet ads about to collapse?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 07:58

This analysis of the current state of Internet ads suggests that some of the big ad brokers on the Internet (e.g. Google, among others) may be near an inflection point with respect to ad demand. Lookery, a firm that sells ads on sites like FaceBook and MySpace, just lowered the cost of its ads by 40%, suggesting very soft demand. And Google's AdWord system, according to the article, seems to be propped up financially by Google's practice of setting very high minimum cost per click fees.

I have always maintained that Google is making a lot of money from businesses that are willing to pay modest amounts month after month for a few ads. When times are good, it does not look like a lot of money. But when the cost of other business necessities like fuel and shipping go up, unproductive ads producing few results may be the first to go.

Airlines eye mobile phones for income, saving money

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/24/2008 - 08:30

According to The Register, the airlines are planning to use mobile phones to cut costs and to sell ad revenue. As you book a flight, you will give your mobile phone number to the airline. They will use this to push information on the flight to you (not so bad), and once you get to the airport, they may even check you in electronically via your phone, which is already underway in Japan. What could get ugly is the the notion that they could also push ads to your phone once you get in the airport, so the idea is that you'll pay a fortune for a a cramped seat and then get spammed at the same time. If you have flown recently, you may have noticed some airlines have put ads on the seat back trays, so as you "enjoy" your free beverage (snacks seem to be out completely now on some airlines) you get to read the ad on the surface of the tray.

Comcast invests in P2P

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 07:47

Comcast, which has been criticized of late for apparently trying to throttle peer to peer (P2P) file sharing traffic, seems to be shifting focus by investing in a P2P business start up. This is a good sign. As I and others have argued for a long time, we need to shift away from the "bucket of bits" model of broadband and move toward a service-oriented business and network model. P2P file sharing is just another service. It is not inherently bad, and in fact, can be used very efficiently to move large files (like TV programs and movies) around various parts of the Internet.

While some of the content providers simply want to outlaw P2P software because it is sometimes mis-used, that's also silly. It would be equivalent to outlawing cars because they are sometimes used to commit bank robberies. P2P, as a service, has real value, and if used to deliver licensed and legitimate content, it can be a service that people are willing to pay for. But the key is to have networks designed to deliver services, not just a bucket of bits. And that means changing not just the technology that manages network (relatively straightforward), but also changing the business models of broadband companies--that is also straightforward, if the company culture is willing to change--that is the tougher challenge.

Broadband Properties '08: IP TV is is ready to go

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/29/2008 - 10:57

At the Broadband Properties Summit, there was a case study on IP TV (TV delivered via broadband). DirecTV and an apartment owner in Alexandria, Virginia teamed up to provide competitive TV services in a large, 350 unit apartment building. Some of the highlights of the experiment:

Prior to the introduction of the new service, the biggest tenant complaint was about the incumbent TV provider service. The number one tenant demand was for more choice in selecting a TV provider.

After introducing the competitive DirecTV service, complaints are down and compliments are up.

The case study confirmed my longstanding bandwidth calculations about future network planning. A single channel of HD TV on the system requires 10+ megabits of bandwidth on the system, and live HD events (e.g. sports, racing, etc.) requires 15+ megabits of capacity per channel. This demonstrates the inadequacy of DSL, wireless, cable, and even FiOS to deliver next generation services.

Cat5e or Cat6 cable is needed from a distribution closet to each apartment, where a set top box converts the signal and sends it to the TV. The system performed so well that most residents did not realize it was IP TV. There have been claims that "IP TV doesn't work well compared to satellite and cable." We can put those to rest.

The take away for the talk was really about making sure that new homes and apartments are broadband ready. Most communities still do nothing to encourage builders and developers to build "broadband ready" homes and commercial buildings, which is a missed economic development opportunity, especially given the ease and low cost of doing this.

BitTorrent use up 24%

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/18/2008 - 10:25

The use of BitTorrent, a peer to peer file sharing service, is up 24% in the past four months. Like the big jump in YouTube traffic in December, some it may be related to the writer's strike. The lack of anything new on that old-fashioned TV thingy in the rec room apparently had people headed in droves to the Internet for some mindless entertainment. And of course, the Internet has plenty of mindless entertainment. Sadly, almost any random 2 minute video clip on YouTube is funnier than most half hour TV comedies.

What's coming? I think it is now safe to say that TV is over. It will be a long slow decline, but the writer's strike created the tipping point that economists always look for. The Internet access providers can monkey around with traffic management to try to discourage the use of services like BitTorrent, but that's just silly over the long term. Imagine any other business saying, in effect, "We're glad you love our product. Please stop using it." That's what the Internet providers and the entertainment industry are doing with their lawsuits, "Internet toll booths," and traffic manipulation.

The solution is to start building networks that are focused on delivering services--any services, including things like BitTorrent--rather than just blindly delivering bandwidth by the bucket. That model doesn't work. If it did, we'd all have a fiber connection by now.

Is YouTube the new TV?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/01/2008 - 10:01

Recently, when we have had people over to house for dinner or when at someone else's home, I notice that a common topic of discussion is what is showing on YouTube. Everyone has a story about some usually goofy thing they saw recently on the video site. Anecdotally, several people have shared that they often just spend a little time in the evening goofing off on YouTube. This is usually followed by the admission they don't turn on the TV much anymore.

Communities who think that DSL and wireless services are adequate with respect to bandwidth are going to be very disappointed, as neither technology is capable of delivering large amounts of video to thousands or ten of thousands of residential customers, no matter what you read about the amazing abilities of WiMax to bring world peace, solve human aging, and deliver massive bandwidth to everyone at the same time. WiMax is a terrific technology that is much better than WiFi, but the amount of actual bandwidth that WiMax will actually be able to deliver to residential and business users is not going to support heavy IP-TV use (i.e. YouTube, movies on demand, TV show downloads, etc.). WiMax has the capability of reaching more premises by virtue of being able to get a signal over longer distances than WiFi. But as you extend the reach of a wireless signal, you also spread the amount of usable bandwidth over a larger number of subscribers, in most cases. This means the amount of per subscriber bandwidth may not increase significantly.

Wireless is part of a complete solution, but fiber is needed alongside it to meet the fast-growing video demands of residences and businesses.

Google search within a search steals customers

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/24/2008 - 08:29

Google has announced a new "search within a search" option that has online retailers worried that the search behemoth will steal customers. The new option lets you use Google to search only pages that are part of a single site. So if you want to buy a digital camera and go to Google to start the search, you get the usual search results page. If you click on a Best Buy site, as an example, Google will now do an extended search only on the Best Buy site.

Sounds handy, right? Except that the search results are likely to include ads from Best Buy competitors. So the pages that Google returns from the customized search may be larded with ads from Circuit City.

For Google, this is a good thing, as it will likely increase ad revenue from click-throughs. And you could argue it is good for the person trying to buy something, as Google gives you more information about prices and competition.

But there is a certain "goose and the golden egg" situation here. While in my example it appears that Circuit City may be the winner, it could just as easily go the other way on the next search, where Circuit City came up first, and subsequent search results are plastered with Best Buy ads. Circuit City and Best Buy both end up paying Google while Google tries to push potential customers somewhere else. This is also known as "wanting your cake and trying to eat it too."

At some point, some big Google advertisers are going to say, "Enough is enough," and take their ad dollars elsewhere.

The perfect storm for satellite radio

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 09:17

According to this report, the merger of XM and Sirius has stalled, a year after the deal was first announced. It is a perfect storm because you have a combination of FCC confusion, Congressional confusion, silly prices paid for on-air talent, and a bad business model.

It is a lesson for terrestrial broadband and communities as well, because most of the same problems and lessons apply in community telecom, where we also have the wrong business models, lack of clarity at the Federal level about what to do, and prices for services that are out of whack.

In the satellite market, it is hard to understand how Sirius would ink a $500 million dollar five year deal for foul-mouthed Howard Stern when the company is only getting about $35 million a year in ad revenue, along with anemic subscription sales.

What would make sense, as part of the merger, would be for XM and Sirius to go to an open content model, in which they become just the carrier, and let anyone with the money buy channel space on their satellites. Right now, the two companies are flogging the same old, tired business model used by the cable companies, which is to bundle hundreds of channels together, most of which no one listens to.

It would make more sense to charge $1 a month per channel and let subscribers pick which channels they want to listen to, with something like a ten or fifteen channel minimum.

The FCC and Congress could help out by promoting this as an option, just as they could help out communities by promoting open, multi-service networks like nDanville, which is the country's first municipal open, multi-service network. Service providers from all over the country are starting to call the City to find out how to put their services on the network.

Satellite radio has a bright future, but only if the old business models are tossed and a new, "open" model is adopted.

Blu-Ray wins

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/18/2008 - 08:41

There are reports that Toshiba has decided to cut its losses and discontinue manufacturing HD-DVD equipment. Microsoft is the other loser in this battle, as the company had been a backer of the HD-DVD format. Christmas 2008 will be a good time to invest in the high def players and recorders, as by that time there will be plenty of competition and lower prices.

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