Sunday, December 6, 2009

There's a Gadget for That

What's cool about iPhone Apps isn't that they add features to an already feature-rich phone. They transform that blank chunk of glass you carry in your pocket into another device. They are truly virtual gadgets.

With the demise of the CrunchPad this week, we are reminded of the vast difference between creating a web site and developing an actual hardware gadget.

We also see this difference every week with the release of each phone/camera/GPS with an impossible-to-use interface or ridiculous battery life.

Gadgets are HARD.

But the iPhone/iPod Touch and now the Android phones are truly little virtual gadgets that can be completely transformed with an App.

Sure, that's true for most programmable devices, but with these touch screen wonders, even the buttons themselves are created by software.

And these apps are pure software. The development process for these apps is much more familiar to most software developers than the embedded-systems type of work required by a regular physical gadget.

THAT'S the power of a touch screen device with an App store - it offers (and delivers) on the promise of a new gadget for pennies.

As these "generic" devices get more popular, I suspect we'll see more and more developers working on virtual devices rather than developing their own hardware.
The first salvo in this war has been fired: Google Maps with GPS and turn-by-turn navigation comes built-in with Android 2.0. Making life for the manufactures of standalone GPS devices very uncomfortable.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Betting on Your Customers v.s. Betting on Yourself

Last week, we had two very interesting examples of companies dealing with problematic customer behavior.

The much-rumored News Corp. plan to opt-out of Google indexing. And's new site just in time for the holiday shopping season.

News Corp is the parent company of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, IGN, and many popular online properties as well at Fox television, film, and sports.

The customer behavior:
Non-subscribers use Google to search for information and find Wall Street Journal articles. Google sells an ad on the search results before the user clicks over to the WSJ. The Wall Street Journal site is a subscription site, but they are smart enough to let users see that externally discovered article before blocking access to the rest of the site.
But since News Corp., isn't getting a cut of the search results income, that's not a desirable behavior - it would be more profitable if users started their search at a News Corp. property.

The rumored solution:
Don't allow Google to show search results to News Corp. sites without paying those sites.
Since Google won't do that, find a partner (Microsoft "Bing") who will. is a site which offers a new "deal" every day. They do an excellent job of reaching their customers through many channels. They offer entertainment value along with the products. They allow user to freely discuss the merits of the offer.

The customer behavior:
Seconds after a new offer is presented, users of the site scour the Internet for comparable offers and product reviews. They then rate the offer and offer "better" alternatives. Sometimes this shows the weakness of a particular offer or product and reduces sales.

The solution:
Woot built a new service allowing these users to post the "deals" they find and allow other community members to rate those offers.
They throw in a handful of clearly marked sponsored "deals" and advertise their other sites.

The Comparison:
We see News Corp. attempt to reject the existence of the Internet ecosystem. If the rumors are true, the management believes their web content is somehow exempt from the Link Economy. In monopoly situations like sports and exclusive commentary, this may be true. News Corp. is betting that their product is so unique and desirable that users will change their behavior to find it. on the other hand, took the problem behavior and embraced it. They figured out a way to make some income and encouraged the users to continue doing what they were already doing. They are betting their customers will reward them for offering this tool.

It will be interesting to see how these strategies play out in the coming months.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and the 800 Pound Gorilla

New Media Delivery:
In a recent tech news program, a journalist implied that the real competition to Blu Ray discs wasn't Netflix streaming, Hulu or even devices like Xbox or Roku. It's The Pirate Bay and other bittorrent sites.

At first blush, this seemed to be overstating the case.
But after further consideration, I believe the competition from non-sanctioned downloads is very real.

And not because of the price.

A Real-World Example:
I no longer have a regular TV so ALL of my video programming comes online or on-disc. After all these months, I can finally resist the compulsion to let the TV schedule control my evenings.

Well... almost.

Last week I really wanted to watch a comedy program I hadn't seen in over a year.
It's a "basic cable" sort of program. I don't think it has a particularly large following.

To the web!
First stop: Hulu.
Lots of clips from the program, but no full episodes.

Next stop: iTunes.
iTunes carries many tv programs. Some in HD.
Like I said, I really wanted to see the program and would gladly pay a little bit for the privilege.
But again, just the same clips found on Hulu.

To the Source: The network web site.
Won't identify the network, but not a lot of streaming content. It IS basic cable, after all.

End of the Line: Program web site.
Visiting the actual program web site got me the podcast feed, schedules and such. But streaming video was limited to most recent clip from the podcast.

Dancing with the Gorilla:
With all my legitimate sources exhausted, I just searched for a torrent.
Current episode in gorgeous HD was in my video player in 20 minutes.

And there's the problem: My experience using the "pirate" tools was vastly better than the experience presented by the publisher.

The Music Industry had a similar problem until iTunes came along and created a better user experience than the wooly-bully pirate networks.

It's Gonna Get Worse Before it Gets Better:
I think that video and movie producers are going to have a tougher time reaching this experience threshold than the music industry.

The television networks think they've already "gotten ahead of the situation" with Hulu and their own web sites, but they are locking their content to specific playback mechanisms and time frames. And these online versions are inferior to the broadcast versions - much less a good HD digital experience.

Meanwhile, the torrent trackers have been steadily improving their "product."

The music publishers were dragged kicking and screaming to a new delivery system by Apple.
For video content, it looks like the savior may be Netflix running on an Xbox or Roku.

I expect the gap between sanctioned online viewing and "pirate" video will get wider until the networks realize they need to compete on quality of experience.

And that doesn't look likely in the foreseeable future.

The Predicta Television pictured was built by Telstar Electronics.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How to Demonstrate You Don't Care

An encounter I had with the euphemistically named "Yahoo! Customer Care"

To summarize the exchange:
  1. I encountered a completely inexplicable problem using the most basic process on Yahoo Answers.
  2. I thoroughly investigated to make sure it wasn't my end, since I couldn't believe Answers would crash in a trivial case. And I mean thorough - multiple machines, networks, browsers - the works.
  3. I read the FAQ and help section (Which are repeated in the boilerplate email)
  4. Finding no help, posted to customer service. Which is run by another company and works fine, although according to Yahoo!, I'm somehow to blame.
  5. In response to my detailed reports, I get the (un)help parrotted back at me.
  6. I respond to the email (including ticket and incident numbers)
  7. Same blame-tossing boilerplate is sent to me.
My favorite line: "We hope this is resolved for you soon.."
"Hoping" isn't going to fix your broken software.

Flickr is good, but I think it's time to delete the Yahoo! accounts.

Can you imagine a non-tech-savvy person reading this?
If they actually knew what an ISP was, they might actually believe the poop Yahoo! is shoveling and call their ISP. And what would they tell them?

This blaming-the-customer stuff has to stop.
Even if there is something wrong on the user's end (and how could there be? They accessed both the web site and the customer service portal), it's up to the publisher to work around it.

Customer SERVICE. You're doing it wrong.


Thank you for contacting Yahoo! Customer Care.

We're sorry you've had difficulty accessing Yahoo!. The error you
received is typically caused by unusual activity from either your
computer or your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to Yahoo!. While this
type of problem is usually temporary, if you continue to experience this
error, we recommend that you try the following suggestions:

1) Contact your ISP and let them know you are experiencing connectivity
problems with Yahoo!. You may have difficulty accessing Yahoo! if we
detect unusual network traffic coming from your ISP. Only your ISP will
be able to address and resolve this abnormal activity.

2) Check that you are not using any third party software program or
application to access Yahoo! services. Please keep in mind that these
types of programs are not supported by Yahoo! and may violate our Terms
of Service, and therefore may contribute to your receiving this error.

3) If you have not scanned your computer for spyware and viruses, please
do so now. Some spyware programs and computer viruses will run separate
programs on your computer for a variety of purposes, sometimes slowing
your computer down in the process, and even preventing you from
accessing certain Internet sites such as Yahoo!.

For detailed information on virus protection, please visit:

For detailed information on spyware, please visit:

4) You may want to try accessing Yahoo! through a different computer or
through a different Internet connection.

We hope this is resolved for you soon so that you may continue to use


Yahoo! Customer Care


For assistance with all Yahoo! services please visit:

Original Message Follows:

I already did all the recommended things before contacting.
2 computers. 3 browsers.
2 ISPs.
No viruses or spyware.
No third-party silliness.

This sort of response attempts to put the blame on me or my systems.
An understandable response, but as a customer, I don't want to hear it.
Especially when I go to great lengths to confirm that there is no
problem on
my end.

YOUR third-party customer service system worked fine.
It's Answers that's broken.

I was simply trying to post a question to Answers.

I assure you, I will never attempt to do so again.

Good day.

"Great Artists Ship"
Lon Koenig

On Mon, Sep 21, 2009 at 8:03 PM, Yahoo! Customer Care <> wrote:

> Hello,
> Thank you for contacting Yahoo! Customer Care.
> We're sorry you've had difficulty accessing Yahoo!. The error you
> received is typically caused by unusual activity from either your
> computer or your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to Yahoo!. While this
> type of problem is usually temporary, if you continue to experience
> error, we recommend that you try the following suggestions:
> 1) Contact your ISP and let them know you are experiencing
> problems with Yahoo!. You may have difficulty accessing Yahoo! if we
> detect unusual network traffic coming from your ISP. Only your ISP
> be able to address and resolve this abnormal activity.
> 2) Check that you are not using any third party software program or
> application to access Yahoo! services. Please keep in mind that these
> types of programs are not supported by Yahoo! and may violate our
> of Service, and therefore may contribute to your receiving this error.
> 3) If you have not scanned your computer for spyware and viruses,
> do so now. Some spyware programs and computer viruses will run
> programs on your computer for a variety of purposes, sometimes slowing
> your computer down in the process, and even preventing you from
> accessing certain Internet sites such as Yahoo!.
> For detailed information on virus protection, please visit:
> For detailed information on spyware, please visit:
> 4) You may want to try accessing Yahoo! through a different computer
> through a different Internet connection.
> We hope this is resolved for you soon so that you may continue to use
> Yahoo!.
> Regards,
> Yahoo! Customer Care
> ********
> For assistance with all Yahoo! services please visit:

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Taking iTunes 9 for a spin

Yesterday, Apple released a new version of iTunes along with the iPhone 3.1 update.

I assumed the "Genius Mixes" would be a throw-away feature.
But it actually works very well. A sample screen:
iTunes has created a bunch of varied mixes based on the stuff in my library.
And... it did a good job!
All these mixes are very listenable.

The LP Album art thing still seems like a dumb idea though...

The iPhone syncing screen now has a bunch of new tabs and offers a high degree of granularity if you want it.
For example, you can sync just specific artists if you like.
(And they included a handy search box to help you find those artists more quickly.)

There's even an option to fill unallocated space on your iPod with music from your collection:

The ability to layout your iPhone screens is a very welcome addition to the Application management tab. However, I was unable to figure out how to completely delete an unwanted app.

All the interface elements have a little more polish than the previous version.

As expected, iTunes 9 once again prevents the Palm Pre from syncing with iTunes.

The iTunes Store got a larger visual makeover, but I'll save that for a later article.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

WiseStamp - HTML email signature for GMail, Yahoo! and More

I love Google Mail.
I'm thrilled to send Google $50 a year to manage my ridiculous email volume.
But the GMail web client doesn't support HTML signatures.

WiseStamp is a Firefox plug-in that adds rich HTML signatures to all popular web-based email clients.

In addition to the expected text color, font, size and style options, WiseStamp includes all the popular social networks and instant message systems.
You can include your own graphics, and even pull in RSS feeds.

It has more in common with the "sig generators" used on discussion boards than a traditional email signature generator.

Now I just need to design a better email signature!

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Audiobook Builder - Clean Up Your Audiobook CD Files

Audiobook Builder for Mac lets you take a bunch of audio files and repackage them as a proper audiobook with all the bells-and-whistles you want for your iPod.

I buy most of my music on CD. I get a permanent, non-copy-protected version that I can store away.
I haven't actually listened to a CD directly in years. I "rip" the CD into iTune or onto my Linux-based media center and listen there.

I've wanted to get into audiobooks for the iPod, but they are ridiculously expensive ($40+).
I can find a lot of good audiobook CDs on eBay or Craig's List for under $10.

Unfortunately, audiobook CDs usually have one chapter per track. Or worse, just arbitrary tracks breaks.
Trying to play these with the iPod is a hassle: You have to note which file was playing when you take a break, and there's a ton of files that need to get transferred around.

Audiobook Builder for MacOS fixes all that.
You can rip the CD directly in the program (which I haven't tried yet), or you can take all those tracks you've already ripped and make them into a regular audiobook file.

You can drag-and-drop cover art and organize the chapters.

It even puts the finished product directly in your iTunes library - ready to roll.

The single user license is only $9.95. I'll save three times that the first time I rip a "previously owned" CD.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Unison - Two-way file synchronizer

I've found a great tool to keep my laptop work files in sync with my desktop(s).

For my day-to-day work, I use a Mac laptop with multiple operating systems installed, and 3 desktop machines. This way I have both a laptop and a desktop version of MacOS, Windows, and Linux.
My web work often involves all three systems, and my desktop application development usually includes both the Mac and Windows systems.
I used to run Retrospect and backup everything to tape, but now, I just put most projects in version control and replicate everything on all the boxes.

Not really a backup system, but since the boxes live in different facilities, I'm covered against catastrophic loss.

Here's the catch: I manually do these updates every day.
Every day.
For years.

I've used a number of sync tools in the past, but something would fail, and I would find myself back to the manual system.

On a current project, I found myself needing to synchronize many hundreds of gigabytes of media files. I messed up the first pass, and started researching alternative sync tools.

Enter Unison.
Similar to rsync and other tools, Unison has the added ability to "mirror both ways" and runs fine on Mac, Windows, and *nix.

It has a high degree of safety, since it marks file that conflict and lets you interactively choose what to do with them.

For those concerned with such things (and you know who you are), it runs as a user-level application.

There are graphical versions available, but I'm just running the command-line version on all platforms.

The very first version of Unison was written in a research language called Pict, in 1995. There was a Java version in 2007. Trevor Jim and Jérôme Vouillon joined Benjamin Pierce on the project when the codebase moved to Objective Caml in 1998.

So far, I've just synced my Mac and Linux boxes.
I didn't want all the mac-specific invisible files cluttering up the other machines so I added some filters to the Unison preferences.
You can do this with command-line options, but I just add the filters to my Unison Profile.

Here's my ~/.unison/default.prf file:

# Unison preferences
fastcheck = true
ignore = Name *.tmp

ignore = Name Thumbs.db

ignore = Name .DS_Store

ignore = Name .Trash

ignore = Name Icon

I've set up a "canonical" copy of my work folder on a server in the cloud.
Each of the machines is now running Unison over ssh to sync to that central server.
So far, so good...

Like Ophcrack, Unison is an open source project that just works.
My favorite kind of software!

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Ophcrack Live CD - Windows Recovery Disk

Recently, I had to restore a corrupted Windows XP machine.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten the administrator password.
(Actually, I wasn't the one set up the machine, so I never actually had the password.)

I had heard great things about the open-source project, Ophcrack, and this was my chance to try it out.
I downloaded the ISO for the Live CD and burned a CD using my Mac.
Popped it in the PC's drive, booted it up and let it run the the automated tests.
When I got back from lunch, I had working passwords for all the accounts.
In addition to the password tools, you get a pretty complete shell with many useful utilities.

The Ophcrack Live CD now has a permanent spot in my utility bag.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 5 "Live TV"

I was listening to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Public Radio, but wanted to actually see some of it.
The last time I watched a live political event (the Presidential Inauguration) I did so on Hulu using my laptop.
This time, I wanted to watch from the living room using the xbmc box.
Unfortunately, the Hulu stand-alone application isn't available for linux, and I haven't figured out how to control the web version using the remote.

So we'll see what can be done using xbmc.
I've been using Navi-X for a few weeks to watch podcasts, and I knew they had streaming sources, so I poked around in their directory.

Turns out, there's quite a few streaming video sources in the Navi-X directory. I was surprised to see rtsp streams from so many broadcasters. Turns out they just have unprotected streams and someone posted links on a forum. I have no idea if the broadcasters approve the direct viewing of these streams.

Here's my results for the news broadcasts:
Low-res, bad audio: C-SPAN.
VHS-quality viewing:BBC World News Service, MSNBC.
Great image, good audio: CNN Live, Fox News Channel.

My crappy box was able to play all of these streams just fine.

Fox had the best presentation, but had a tendency to break for commercial or commentary whenever a Democrat had the floor.

There is one serious downside to Navi-X for me. It does not use the xbmc "skin" system. The monitor I use as a TV is pretty small for the job, so I use a large font to make it readable across the room. Navi-X uses a smaller font and is very hard for me read.

XBMC with Navi-X isn't as slick as slick as Boxee (which is based on XMBC), but it's been a lot more stable for me.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hurray! Advertising is Dead! Long Live Advertising!

Yesterday's article about paying content producers assumed that distributed and "cloud" media transmission is inevitable.

But I also believe that advertising is one of the ways content producers will get paid. So what does advertising look like in a world where traditional metrics don't exist?

Who doesn't get it?
First, a little bomb-throwing: Current advertising metrics are a big lie. Traditional TV and Radio advertising gets your message in front of millions of people. But the metrics used in the decisions to run these ads are just bad science. I'm a big proponent of TV and Radio. I just think that the pricing model has no relation to ROI.
Similar metrics are being used to decide the fate of your favorite TV shows.

Who can't sell it?
If there's anyone who DOESN'T know how to sell ads in a new model, it's the TV sales force.

This can be demonstrated by recent comments in two different podcasts.

This Week in Tech is a weekly "tech" podcast that features a roundtable of journalists commenting on the week's news.
Buzz Out Loud is a daily "tech" podcast that features a roundtable of journalists commenting on the day's news.
Both podcasts are wonderfully produced, have interesting and opinionated personalities and are highly influential.
They both reach an incredibly desirable demographic of well-rounded, educated, tech-savvy professionals
Both programs are freely distributed on the internet.

Leo Laporte, the man behind This Week in Tech, implied that he get paid a much higher CPM (Cost per Thousand) for his ads than even primetime broadcast television.

The hosts of Buzz Out Loud were recently taunting their sales team because they had no sponsors. Right after they celebrated their 1000th episode.

So what's the difference?
This Week in Tech is a very small organization. It's basically just Leo and a few staff. Very "internet startup."
Buzz Out Loud is a c|net production. Owned by CBS.
Obviously, I'm not privy to the details of their sales system, but it seems ridiculous that CBS can't leverage any of their advertisers into Buzz Out Loud.
In fact, if you look at the online programming being produced by c|net, you'll rarely see a sponsor - most of the ads are for other cnet programs.

Traditional Commercials
If we could get past the Union agreements and music license problems, we could put traditional commercials in peer-to-peer or cloud distributed programs. One of my favorite shows, Make: Television is available via bittorrent. It has a traditional sponsor: Best Buy's Geek Squad.

NBC's Meet the Press podcast usually comes with commercials.

Integrated Sponsorships
This has to be the largest category for shows designed for online distribution. Most podcasts have sponsorship messages presented by the show hosts.
These are lust like a commercial radio sponsorship messages. Because it's integrated into the show, it's not likely to be skipped with the fast-forward button. If the host does her job right, the audience doesn't mind the commercial message.

Product Placement
Scripted programs can effectively use Product Placement in lieu of traditional commercials.
This has amazing implications for the non-broadcast shows.
I watch most of my TV on DVD nowadays. I rarely see commercials. But I see product placements every night.

Last season, we witnessed true genius in product placement with TNT's Trust Me. The show takes place in a fictional Chicago-based advertising agency. But the campaigns the agency works on are for real products. The viewer is exposed to multiple campaigns and extended discussions of these products. When it comes out on DVD it will still be brilliant advertising without the commercials.

Destination Advertising
We already see this with Superbowl ads. Something like one-half of the viewers are there for the commercials.

The elusive "viral" video or website is the holy grail of Destination Advertising.

Revision3's Film Riot is another program freely distributed with commercials. (Revision3 no longer maintains it's it's own bittorrent trackers, but their servers have plenty of bandwidth for direct download.)

Film Riot is about making movies. In most episodes, they will show a scene then talk about what went into making that scene.

But what makes Film Riot interesting from an advertising point-of-view is that most of their advertisers have the Film Riot crew create the ads.

We end up with truly creative stuff that doesn't completely support the brand message, but is always fun.

Squarespace features the ads on their blog.

So it's possible to advertise in an online world. Now how do we get the ad agencies and potential advertisers on board?

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"As Seen on TV" image courtesy of Mathew Burpee

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Compensating Content Producers

As I explained in Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Dark Side", there's a whole new media distribution system emerging on the Internet.

The BitTorrent + RSS recipe promises democratization of television distribution. But it also enables rampant pirating of copyrighted works.

Obviously, this isn't fair to the content producers. No system will succeed where the content producers aren't compensated for their effort. So let's look what's currently working, and how producers might get paid in the future.

The primary revenue stream for television network is advertising. There's well-established methods for quantifying audiences and selling advertising.

Programs that "stream" from a server can be tracked and counted. That's why and the new network sites are showing streaming video. They have a quantifiable number of impressions they can take to advertisers.

But digital files distributed via peer-to-peer or cloud networks don't have such tracking. It's nearly impossible to count how many times a particular file is downloaded, much less viewed.

I believe many publishers would be willing to including some sort of tracking/advertising mechanism in their files, but that would mean an change to media players to support such a mechanism. I think many media player authors would be willing to include such tracking as well, but I suspect privacy concerns will prevent wide adoption of such a system.

So "eyeballs" are out. There's no way I can see to count eyeballs or impressions or exposures. Of course, the ratings system used by broadcast television can't accurately count viewers either, but advertisers seem to be comfortable with that.
This could mean that the advertising-supported model is out for now. Let's come back to that in a moment.

We DO know that it is viable for consumers to directly support their content producers in this system. There's been a number of successful "shareware" style projects in the last year that demonstrate this.
The musician, Jonathan Coulton, writes in his blog that he no longer tries to analyze the numbers. That, "Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money - I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars.."

The Guild and Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog are both turning a profit. The top podcasters are making a good living.

I personally purchased DVDs and CDs from these people to encourage the creation of more programming that I like.
I can afford to do this because I'm not paying a Cable bill for a thousand programs I don't want.

If I could have paid the producers of "Chuck" $40 to compensate them...
Oh wait.
I did.
I pre-ordered a DVD on Amazon for a program I already watched. I'll probably just loan out the DVD to help grow the fan base for Chuck.
Would it be possible for a bigger budget show like Chuck to exist purely on direct user payments and product placements?
Not with Internet-only distribution at this time.

But we'll see an Internet-connected video player in the living room within a few years and then the numbers will shift.

But this article is about compensating those who produce the content.
And that includes the music.
Right now, the music industry uses a convoluted and mind-boggling-ly error-prone system of performance royalties to compensate the creators of the music.
In the broadcast world that we're looking at here, every show submits a Cue Sheet that calls out how many minutes a piece of music plays.
The broadcasters pay a general fee and the royalty management groups divvy up that pie and eventually the creators get a bit of something.

If we remove the broadcasters from the picture and the producers are distributing directly to audience, then this model would have to change.

Combine this with the silly contracts the AFTRA, Screen Actors Guild, and Writer's Guild impose and the current models simply don't work in a new medium.

I suspect we're looking at the end of royalties for performance.

So what sort of model could work?
Already, most large projects (movies, TV series, etc.) form a corporation or other legal entity to manage and collect the payment for the project.
Just make this standard operating procedure for most projects.
If a performer is contributing in a way that merits more compensation than a simple work-for-hire agreement, then give them shares in the LLC.
That way, everyone gets paid if the project gets paid.

How to license music in this model?
I think the same way: either a one-time payment for a perpetual synchronization right, or give them a slice of the pie.

Does Advertising have a place in this sort of model?
I believe it does.
Advertisers can pay the producing corporation and everyone gets paid.
Currently most advertisers aren't willing to support programs with this sort of distribution, but that appears to be changing.

This doesn't solve the dilemma of mashups and remixes, but that's another topic.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Just Sell the Damn Soap!

It appears that the broadcast networks have forgotten what business they are in.
Dancing with Hulu and Boxee.
Limiting content to their own branded web sites.
Delaying web streams of their shows until the day after a show has aired.

What's with all this Network branding and control? Just sell the damn soap!

Broadcast networks are in the business of selling ads.
Limiting when or how a potential viewer can see those ads is... Well, even my considerable vocabulary can't come up an adjective strong enough to indicate what a Bad Idea that is.

The Networks are foolishly attempting to force viewers to watch shows at air time instead of online, since their sales force knows how to get paid for over-the-air broadcasts.

But it's a false choice: Users aren't going to play by the rules the Networks set up. They are going to get the content how they want it and when they want it. And if they get the content via illegal download, it won't be delivered with ANY advertising.
Heck, even if the programming is just time-shifted with a computer or TiVo-type device, the viewers are going to skip commercials.

Personally, since I've stopped watching live TV, I see very few commercials.

So who's getting my advertising eyeballs?
It's not the TV-on-DVD shows. I love these because there are no ads , "bugs," or "lower third" promos. Selling ads on subsidized DVDs is an interesting idea, but because they are inherently time-shifted, it limits the sorts of campaigns which could take advantage of this format.

It's not the time-shifted broadcasts. I have a button on my remote that skips forward in 30 second increments. But I am seeing advertising on some of these shows - just not commercials. Trust Me is the most brilliant concept in product placement ever. Mythbusters is now doing segments promoting a Volkswagen diesel. I happily watch these non-commercials.

Where I DO see commercials and sponsorship messages is podcasts and online streamed programming.

Make:Television is sponsored by Geek Squad (Best Buy). Meet the Press usually has a big-name sponsor. (Although I usually skip the MSNBC promos.) DiggNation had Coors Light sponsoring this week. The Guild is now sponsored exclusively by Microsoft. Go Daddy sponsors dozens of the programs I watch/listen to.
For those few shows where I can't wait for the DVD, I'm watching on Hulu where I'm presented with commercials I can't skip. I've tried to watch programs on the Network home sites, but it's a universally bad experience.

So the bottom line: I see NO commercials with my "broadcast" programming, but lots of ads with my IPTV and podcasts.

Advertisers need to learn that Nielsen doesn't have a clue about the current state of affairs, and the Networks need to remember what business they're in and just sell the ads.

The days of the big-budget TV campaign are nearly over and everyone needs to adjust to this new reality if they want to stay relevant.

Bar of Soap Photo courtesy of "net_efekt."

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nice Capsule/Chemical Brothers Remix

I find most of the Capsule "remixes" on YouTube to be annoying. People just layering crap on the beautiful beats.

But Moonbug has pulled off a remix that I think is better than the original.

Capsule's "You are the One," The Chemical Brothers' "Galvanize," and Digitalism's "Moonlight."

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Twitter Might Change the World

Twitter has the potential to change how many people relate to information technologies.

But, let's be clear: Twitter is dumb.
For those of us who live in the world of online games and tech development, Twitter is a super-dumbed-down version of existing communications tools.

Messages are not categorized.
Relationships have no nuance. (You "follow" or don't.)
It has the most rudimentary privacy controls.
And that's why it's great.

The vast majority of Twitter messages are visible in the public timeline. Most people posting to Twitter have no expectations of privacy.
According to Alexa, comScore, and Quantcast, Twitter users trend female and 35-ish. This is a group that historically has been very concerned about privacy.

The under-30 crowd doesn't really have privacy concerns. They are already on Facebook and comfortable with the "status update."
But I've wondered if belief in the illusion of privacy amongst older people is slowing the movement to a more transparent society.

I think that Twitter could move about ten year's worth of population from the group that is concerned about privacy to the group that isn't.
Even if the Twitter fad leaves no other legacy, that would be huge.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

11 Minutes to Productive

I'm a single guy who lives alone.
That declaration should tell you all you need to know about the condition of my apartment.

I have over 30 uncompleted projects (household, computer, personal work) lurking.

But, in the last few weeks, I've made more progress on my personal projects than in the previous three years combined.

It started when I attempted to power-watch all of Battlestar Galactica so that I could watch the finale the same weekend it aired.
A couple episodes each weeknight meant I would still have over 12 hours per day of BSG on the weekends.

So the strategy I developed for TV-watching marathon:

Step 0:
I wrote up massive list of tasks to be completed.
I did NOT prioritize the list.

Step 1:
Watch TV!

Step 2:
After each show ended, I set a timer for 11 minutes.
I would then spend that 11 minutes working on a task with no expectation of completing it.

Step 3:
When the timer goes off, grab a drink, hit the head, fix a snack, or whatever non-productive thing I need to do.

Step 4:
Watch more TV. Repeat.

By the end of the week, I had seen years worth of BSG, and finished some projects that had been floating since before BSG started.
I even had a guest over during this time. I just explained what I was doing. They made phone calls and such during my 11 minute breaks.

But why was the experiment so successful?
Between Battlestar and a few other shows, I watched about 96 episodes of various TV shows.
Multiply by 11 minutes and you get 17.6 hours.
That's a lot of time, but certainly not orders of magnitude more than I would spend otherwise.
But every single minute of this time was focused and efficient. No sitting around. No planning. No breaks. Just executing.

By flipping the work/break ratio I got a ton more done.
I plan to try this a few more weekends and see if the pattern continues.
I suspect the rate of actual project "completions" will slow, but it will be exciting if it doesn't.

Starting this weekend, I'll be adding workout tasks to the list.
But that implies a priority, since at least one will have to happen every day.

I believe NOT prioritizing has been a big part of the success so far, but perhaps I've already made whatever mental adjustment was needed and this will continue to work.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What I Miss About Cable

Today, I actually feel like I'm missing out because I no longer have Cable.

So far, the great de-cabling experiment has occurred in the absence of Mythbusters.

But tonight they return, and I'm going to miss it.

Giving up the Daily Show and the Colbert Report was tough, but if I really need a fix, I can watch those online.

But Mythbusters might be the toughest challenge yet.

My fallback plan was iTunes. But at $50 for a season pass, that's hard to justify.
And I don't see any season 6 content on iTunes... Is Discovery even still offering episodes? and the Discovery Channel websites only show clips - no full episodes.

Why can't Discovery find an appropriate sponsor and distribute this via Miro/bittorrent like Make TV?

Guess I'll just have to play World of Warcraft tonight...

If you have a TiVo, expect me to invite myself over for dinner one of these Wednesdays!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The New "Cupid"

Rob Thomas (Creator of "Veronica Mars," "Cupid") has two new shows out. "Party Down," and a new version of "Cupid."

Now, I'm a huge fan of the original "Cupid." I still watch it on blurry MPEG-1 captures of multi-generation VHS tapes.

This new "Cupid" is not a sequel or spin-off; it's a retelling of the original story.
And there's a lot to like in this new version.

It's an hour program this time. That gives a bit more room to explore the Trevor and Claire characters while keeping the Couple of the Week format.

Digital TV looks a whole lot better than blurry VHS tapes.

The bar environment is much richer. Physically, it's larger and with an actual stage for performances. The bar staff is still related to Trevor's housing, but instead of rooming with Champ, it seems that Trevor rents from the bar owners.

Like the original, the new "Cupid" is filled with music. This can be a double-edged sword since I'm pretty sure music licensing is what keeps the original show from appearing on DVD.

Cupid's personal story is the same as the original (at least so far.) I loved that the show never answered the question of whether Trevor was insane or actually a god.

I also thought Trevor's cherub-inspired hair style was clever.

But the casting of the principals falls far short of the original.
Bobby Cannavale is a truly fun actor. But his portrayal of Cupid lacks Jeremy Piven's libidinous glee. His earthiness comes off more as blue-collar. Cannavale just doesn't seem as crazy. And in a show where the premise is "this guy might be crazy," that seems important.

Sarah Paulson's Claire just didn't work for me at all. I know she's supposed to maintain a professional distance from those she's helping, but she's also a published author. Passionate about her belief that true love is possible and that infatuation hinders the quest for true love.
The words were there, but I just never bought it. I don't know if it's the character's "look," or the acting or the direction. Somehow, I just didn't feel like there was an emotional being there.

I'm not saying this isn't a darned charming show. It just lacks a bit of sizzle of the original, and it's being launched in an environment with lots of other Moonlighting-esque shows.
Perhaps this is the right time for a slightly safer version of Cupid. But after Desperate Housewives, Mad Men, and Sex and the City it seems like a good environment for an edgier version.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Dark Side"

The Dark Side
Yesterday, we looked at legal sources for digitally-distributed TV shows.

Now we'll get into the controversial stuff: That demon drink known as "Peer to peer file sharing."

Peer-to-peer means that individual users are sharing files with other users on the network.
There are many cases where this is a good thing (World of Warcraft updates, Make TV), but these networks are often used to "share" copyrighted materials.

Let's be clear.
If you download or "share" programming that you don't have a legal right to own or distribute, you are violating the law.

Peer-2-Peer Technologies:

Gnutella is one of the peer-to-peer file sharing networks. It has good search capabilities, but is rarely used for legitimate purposes. Because of this, it isn't really pertinent to this discussion.

BitTorrent is a method for downloading large files. It's different than getting a file from a web site or an ftp site in that it is a shared operation.

I'll cover BitTorrent in depth in a future article. But, basically, it distributes the process of transferring a file. Increasing demand does not slow down the server; it actually speeds up the download.
BitTorrent is often used for "sharing" copyrighted materials. If you plan to cross the line from Fair Use into copyright infringement, you'll probably do it with BitTorrent.

Since BitTorrent is basically just a file transfer system, it doesn't really support searching. To find new files, people use regular web search engines like Google or Yahoo! or BitTorrent-specific search sites like The Pirate Bay or ISO Hunt.

Some popular tools for downloading individual files via bittorrent:
  • bittorrent The original BitTorrent tool. Rudimentary interface, but extremely simple and reliable. It has been replaced by µTorrent.
  • µTorrent Very slick and lightweight. It's the "official" BitTorrent client. Good bandwidth controls. Nice progress display. (µTorrent is not available for PPC Macs.)
  • X-Torrent (Mac only) Built-in search functions. Very granular control over bandwidth use and excellent display of download progress. Very "Mac." This was my torrent client of choice until I started using Miro.
  • Transmission Cross-platform. Default Ubuntu torrent client. Easy to use.

For TV shows or other epdisodic content, you can combine BitTorrent downloading with RSS broadcasting to get continually updated lists of available downloads.
This is often called "broadcatching," "torrentcasts" or "torrent rss."

This is the model used by Make:Television, Revision 3, and others. It provides viewers with a simple way to find new episodes, gives a very fast download, and minimizes the load on the publisher's servers.

Miro can read and download these torrentcasts just like regular podcasts.
Just add a new feed to your sidebar.

But, as always, there's a "dark" use this technology as well.

The TVRSS web site publishes RSS feeds of publicly available bittorrents for regular television shows.
These files are usually (illegally) published by a shadowy network known as "The Scene" who capture and compress TV shows and post them on these file sharing networks.

Here's how easy it is get an illegal subscription to a TV show.
1) Go to TVRSS and find a show.
2) Click on the show's title
3) On the "show" page, right-click on the "Search-based Results" link and Copy it.
4) Open Miro and select Add Feed from the Sidebar menu. Miro will automatically paste the feed in.
5) Click Create Feed.

Acquiring illegal files used to be a convoluted and technical process. Now it's trivial for anyone.
What should publishers and producers do about this?

Many people feel that programs that were broadcast over the airwaves are fair game. Even if that were true, the versions of these programs you'll find on torrent feeds don't contain commercials. So the publisher is not benefiting at all from these illegal torrents.

Some publishers are taking advantage of this new technology. Make TV and Revision 3 publish their own torrent feeds. Their programs include commercials and sponsorship messages. NBC puts out Meet the Press as a free download, and it contains ads.

Of course, some are choosing to fight these illegal downloads. The MPAA and it's related institutions are pushing legislation in many countries to criminalize peer-to-peer technologies.

While legally sound, I believe that's the wrong direction.
Prosecuting the users of these networks isn't going to create any revenue for the publishers. But we need to find a model where content producers and publishers can directly benefit from the distribution of their work.

Stay tuned for a discussion of how those models might look.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Light Side"

In a previous article, I talked about watching digital video files on your Mac.
And I'm currently running a multi-part series on building a dedicated Media Center.

So now, even without an actual TV, I find myself refreshing that dent on the living room couch.
It's all just "research." Really!

Now that we have a way to easily watch video on the computer.
Let's get some files!

First, here's the crazy part: According to the MPAA and our bought-and-paid-for Congress, pretty much anything you may want to do with a movie or TV show is illegal.
Even things that unquestionably fall under the Fair Use doctrine.

The most obvious method to get a show into your computer is to "rip" your existing DVDs.
For this, I use Handbrake.

I've had the best experience with Mac 10.5 version, but it works pretty well on all platforms. If you have 10.4 Mac, check the "older versions" link.
The built-in compression profiles are pretty good nowadays. The "Film" setting will usually produce a reasonably sized file to add to your library.

In addition to creating files for viewing in the living room, I often use Handbrake for creating iPhone/iPod Touch versions of TV shows I have on DVD.
I carry the complete season of Firefly in my pocket at all times! You can't stop the signal...

PODCAST/RSS (Episodic Programming)
"Podcasts"are just like RSS news feeds you might subscribe to, except they contain links to audio or video files. Most of the episodic "internet shows" being produced are distributed in this fashion.
You can view these feeds through a web page or use special programs. The two most popular programs are iTunes and Miro. You can also subscribe to podcasts directly from within XBMC.

Most podcasts are free. Some are big network-produced shows, and some are just one person putting out a video blog. Here's what's currently on my play list:

Program Notes Feed Link
The Guild Sitcom about online gamers RSS
Geek Brief TV "Shiny Happy Tech News" RSS (HD)
Command-N Weekly tech roundup RSS
Diggnation Kevin Rose. Alex Albrecht. Beer. Couch. (Weekly) RSS (HD)
Make TV Make Magazine presents inventors, artists and geeks RSS (HD)
G4TV Daily Feed Today's top headlines and tech news RSS
TED Talks Best of the TED Conference RSS
Meet the Press The full NBC program RSS
Morning Joe The first segment of each day's show RSS
Reliable Sources The full CNN program RSS
Tiki Bar TV "Forbidden Cocktails in a Swank Pad" RSS (HD)

All the major television networks put out regular news podcasts.
I also subscribe to many audio podcasts, but today we're just talking about video.

Anyone with an iPod already has iTunes.
iTunes, in conjunction with the iTunes Store, is one of the simplest ways to find and subscribe to Podcasts. You can subscribe to any of the shows in the above list directly from iTunes.
On the down side, iTunes doesn't support every type of video floating out in the internet. On the up side, iTunes carries shows which aren't available as a free download, like Children's Hospital and Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog.

There's a lot of completely free content out there. Fortunately, there's a program that will allow you download almost any sort of video distribution.

Miro is available for pretty much any computer. It has a very simple method for subscribing to podcasts.
Like the iTunes Store, Miro has featured channels and top rated programs.

You can't get "paid" content using Miro because there is no accounting mechanism.
But Miro does have an advantage over iTunes in that it can download large files using BitTorrent technology if the publisher supports it. I'll talk more about BitTorrent later.

If you're running XBMC or one of it's children (Plex, Boxee), you can subscribe to many podcasts using Scripts. Instructions for installing scripts will vary by platform. If your version of XBMC didn't come with pre-installed scripts, check it's web site for instructions on installing the standard Scripts.

Broadcast TV
Of course, it would be nice to record regular over-the-air broadcasts as well.
Here are three popular ways to record broadcast video into your computer:
  • ATI TV Wonder HD 650 This full-featured external USB-2 box contains the tuner and connectors. Records up to 1080i in MPEG-2 format.
  • Elagato EyeTV This USB-2 "stick" also supports recording up tp 1080i. Elagato also has other popular products for analog TV. (There's also a Pinnacle/Avid HDTV stick. This deviced is "Powered by Elagato," so I don't know why you'd want this instead of the original Elagato product.)
  • TiVo Transfer Use the DVR abilities of a TiVo and use their software to transfer files to your computer.
These solutions will work on all platforms, but the linux methods are a bit more involved.

On my laptop, I use iTunes to pull down a number of podcasts for viewing on my iPhone.
At home, Miro pulls downs shows for viewing on the Media Center.

Using these sources, I have hours of good (and legal!) programming every day.

In part 2, I'll explain how the more "questionable" program sources work.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 4 "DVD"

A quick update on yesterday's troubles:
  • After the re-install the Wifi manager correctly requested authentication when setting the WEP key. Now it reconnects flawlessly.
  • Finding an optical S/PDIF bracket has proven very difficult. There's someone in Australia selling them on eBay. There's a slightly overpriced Asus one on Amazon. I purchased it in a bundle with a cable to make it more reasonable. See the link to the left. Full report when it arrives.

The bulk of my "TV" watching has been TV-on-DVD. I get good programming without the big Cable bill.

Up to now, all the DVD content for the media center was ripped to the hard drive using Handbrake on the Mac. A Folder Action watches for the compressed files and moves them to the media center.
While I (and presumably most media consumers) consider this a Fair Use, it violates the "anti-circumvention" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA").
So you're breaking the law if you copy a DVD program to your computer.
Silly? Yes.
But then again, our current copyright and patent system is so broken and corrupt...
I'll save the complete rant for later. Back to the project!

There's a number of DVDs that I don't want to add to the library. I want a way to watch those using the computer like a normal DVD player. Heck, I've got the remote!

So in goes the LiteOn DVD drive I purchased at General Nanosystems. (Raising the build total by another $22.)

But since this box is running mostly Open Source software, there's no way to legally decode the copy-protection used on most commercial DVDs.
So once again, we're going to have to defy our friend, the DMCA in order to use a product we already paid for.

Fortunately for those willing to ignore the DMCA, there are people outside the jurisdiction of the United States willing to provide the needed tools.
Of course, if the maintainers of Ubuntu provided you with these tools, they'd be in legal trouble. So they don't directly include them. We're going to have to leave the comfort of the GUI to make the DVD drive work, but it's all just cut-and-paste into the Terminal window.

I just followed the instructions at
Afterwards, XBMC was able to play a DVD complete with menus.
Here's a screenshot showing the MediaStream transport controls.

Mystery Men
Mystery Men (c) Universal Studios 1999

Total cost of upgrades so far:
Hard Drive$60
DVD Drive$22
A bit more than the "zero dollars" I had intended, but still affordable.

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A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 3 "One Step Back"

This week, I'm trying to fix the non-critical issues I mentioned in the last post.
  • I need to re-enter the wifi password whenever I reboot the system
  • Haven't figured out how to turn off the video signal so the monitor will "sleep"
  • vnc is slow. With no keyboard/mouse attached, I need good vnc performance
  • Volume level on the analog audio is lower than other components on the stereo
  • Need to auto-launch XMBC
Researching the wifi issue led me to Widc. Widc appears to be a greatly improved Network Manager and is, in fact, included in the next version of Ubuntu.
I added the Widc repository, installed the package, and my system became unbootable.
There's plenty of room for error here, but I was very careful.
When setting the repository, they provide the example "deb hardy extras" but you need to manually change "hardy" to your distribution. "intrepid" in my case.
The line for setting the key is very nice:
wget -q -O- | sudo apt-key add -
Everything I read about this makes it sound like the way to go. Unfortunately for me, it meant booting from CD and reinstalling.

Now the good news here is that the next release of Ubuntu ("Jaunty Jackelope") is scheduled for late April. But if you're reading this, you probably want answers now!

After reinstalling, I installed the "tightvnc" package to try and improve the vnc performance. I did not see a GUI configuration tool, and I have not been able to connect via vnc since the "upgrade."

This board has a S/PDIF header, but doesn't have a connector on the back plane.
So, I stopped by my favorite spot for computer parts, General Nanosystems, to pick up a S/PDIF bracket for the case and a DVD drive. Looks like I'll have to order the S/PDIF connector online.
I got the DVD drive installed but haven't been able to test it yet.

Stay tuned for more exciting action!
Part 2: "Local and Remote"Part 4: "DVD"

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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 2 "Local and Remote"

In Part 1, I successfully assembled a PC for the living room that can browse and play video.
In this phase, I'll add a "real" remote control, and add more storage.

The iPhone xbmc remote app works well enough but the phone often takes a few seconds to find the wifi when waking up. And of course, it's hard on the batteries. Logitech's Harmony remotes are very full-featured but can cost more than this entire machine.

Newegg had a basic Anyware MCE Remote for under $23. It looks like that model has already been replaced (did I buy the last one?) with newer, more rounded model.

Just for fun, I tried to get the remote working on a number of machines:
MacBook Pro: Nothing. Not even recognized by USB Overdrive.
Windows XP: It tried to download drivers but failed.
Windows Vista Ultimate: Worked perfectly.
and on our Ubuntu box: I had to install "lirc" using Synaptic Package Manager. Then it Just Worked.

I also installed a 1/2 TB IDE drive. Obviously, with a newer motherboard, you could opt for even larger SATA drives. By storing the media files locally on this machine, we will get the smoothest playback.

After the physical installation, we have to format and mount the drive. I caught myself bringing up the terminal before remembering that one of the goals of this project wast to everything with the GUI.

I used Synaptic Package Manager to install "gparted" and "pysdm." These packages provide graphic tools for formatting and mounting the hard drive. (You'll find them on the System::Administration menu.)

At this point, I veered off the "anyone can do it" path and set up remote volume synchronization and some streaming media services on my media server machine. This basically just mirrors the video files on my media server to the XBMC box so I don't need to stream them over the wifi. Most people won't need to anything like that...
Just rip or download your files directly to your media center.

Now, with these upgrades, I can sit on the couch, remote in hand, and watch any of the hundred of individual episodes I've ripped on my media server.

Issues with the current setup:
  • I need to re-enter the wifi password whenever I reboot the system
  • Haven't figured out how to turn off the video signal so the monitor will "sleep"
  • vnc is slow. With no keyboard/mouse attached, I need good vnc performance
  • Volume level on the analog audio is lower than other components on the stereo
  • Need to auto-launch XMBC
We will work through these issues in the Part 3.

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