Content and services

Broadcast flag yanked down

In a great victory for the rest of us, a Federal appellate court told the FCC to quit mucking with television receivers and to stop meddling in areas for which the Commission has no authorization. If that sounds harsh, it's mild compared to what the judge actually said:

You're out there in the whole world, regulating. Are washing machines next?" asked Judge Harry Edwards. Quipped Judge David Sentelle: "You can't regulate washing machines. You can't rule the world."

Knowledge Democracy:

New York Times to charge for access

The Wall Street Journal reports that the New York Times is considering a new approach to providing access to its news articles. Currently, you can view any article less than a week old. After that, you have to pay an absurd $2.95 to see the article.

Under the new scheme, you would pay $50/year to get access to any article in the past 365 days. They are apparently also considering an alternate scheme that would give you full access to the whole NYT archive.

With newspaper circulation in free fall, the Times is only one of numerous papers that must be trying to figure out what to do. While "the Internet" is often blamed for the general decline in newspaper circulation, I think the problem is more basic. I travel a lot, and try to read local papers wherever I go. What I see is a general lack of innovation, creativity, and news. I see this as the ClearChannel problem (ClearChannel owns 1000+ radion stations in the U.S.). As large chains have bought out more and more papers, those papers look more and more alike. Bean counters at the corporate level cut local staffs and budgets, force papers to use more syndicated content, and the result is dull newspapers with all the same (word for word) stories you can find on the Internet.

Newspapers don't look that different than they did one hundred years ago--the big innovation of the last twenty years is color pictures. I'm actually bullish on the future of newspapers; we still need someone to edit the news for us. In fact, I would argue that the role of newspapers--editing the news and providing quality control--is more important now with so many alternate sources available to us. Who has time to check dozens of Web sites daily? Papers condense many news sources and help us sort out the important issues. Newspapers and TV news will never again be primary sources of information, but I see the editorial function as still very relevant.

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Knowledge Democracy:

Downloadable radio

Wired reports that a San Francisco AM radio station is going to an all-podcast format. The station is inviting people to create their own content and send it to the station, which will screen it and then make it available for download.

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Knowledge Democracy:

Finding your way--backward maps

After I got horribly lost in rural New Hampshire (the day after a blizzard, with six inches of snow still on some roads), I swore off Mapquest forever. I've never been fond of their directions, which always have too many directions. You know the .1 miles and veer to the left...continue for .05 miles and bear left....and so on. It takes longer to read the directions than it does to travel a tenth of mile, and a more accurate instruction would be something like "take the left fork."

The straw that broke this camel's back in New Hampshire was when I found myself in some picturesque little New England town and stopped in the local quick stop for directions. I told them where I was going, and everyone in the store burst out laughing. I asked them what the joke was, and they said, "You must have Mapquest directions." I said, "Yea," and there was another round of laughter. They finally explained that for some reason, the Mapquest directions from Manchester to Conway (my destination) were backwards (left turns were right turns, and so on) for part of the trip, and everyone ended up at this store. I finally got where I was going, and discovered that Mapquest's 18 separate instructions could have been boiled down to three if written out by a human being.

But, like steak knives, there's more! I had to go to Reston last week to the Digital Cities conferences, and I'd never been to that particular hotel before. I did not want to use Mapquest, so I decided to use the new Google Maps feature (part of Google's quest to dominate the universe).

That also turned out to be a really bad idea. Google has much better maps on the screen than Mapquest, but they print out horribly fuzzy. Their directions were much like Mapquest's, but I gave it the old college try.

They were horribly wrong. They dumped me off the highway two exits before the correct one, and the last five or six instructions were, as I found out, quite garbled. Like my previous Mapquest adventure, a human would have produced instructions that were no more than three lines.

Technology News:

Business Week doesn't get it

Much is being made of Disney's reluctance to push its content out to viewers via Internet-based television (IPTV). The Business Week article is typical--full of handwringing and hysterical headlines like "IPTV revolution may be on hold."

Maybe not. Maybe the revolution will proceed very nicely, thank you, without Disney. Disney and all the other Hollywood content providers will likely be last to the party, while independents with fresh ideas and world class production software from Apple running on cheap Macs will create break out shows.

If anyone thinks you really need the big studios to produce content, look at the current spate of reality shows. Not only are most of them really awful, the production values are pretty low. That's one reason why they are so appealing to the studios and networks--they are cheap.

Who hasn't sat on the couch late one night watching this dreck and thought, "Gee, I could make a reality show a whole lot more interesting than this?" You can, and people already are. The fake ads circulating on the Internet are the tip of the iceberg. The Volkswagen spoof was extraordinarily well done, and there are many other examples of high quality content out there.

The entertainment industry is trying to hold back the tide by running like a bunch of crybabies to Congress to buy some new laws so they can prosecute a few more grandmothers and 14 year olds for illegal downloads. Meanwhile, they are forcing Apple to sell their songs for exactly the same price, more or less, as you'd pay for the songs on a CD, while their distribution cost, courtesy of Apple's iTunes store, is now zero.

Movies are next. Look at the Blair Witch project--a hugely successful movie that made tens of millions of dollars. The whole movie was shot with cheap handheld cameras and edited on Macs. Today, the next Blair Witch movie could be delivered via a paid download using BitTorrent, and the makers of the film would pocket even more money.

Technology News:

USA Today must use Windows

USA Today has an unintentionally funny article (page 3B) about Microsoft's "maniacally focused" effort to provide converged instant messaging, email, and voice communications on the Windows platform. The writer apparently fell hook, line, and sinker for Microsoft's PR flack about breakthroughs.

Millions of people have been using converged IM, email, voice, AND video communications for more than a year--it's called iChatAV, and Apple provides it for free on every Mac.

Technology News:

Another Empire strikes back

The blogging community is abuzz with the latest threat to writing and journalism on the Web. There is a move afoot to extend the controversial 2002 Federal campaign laws to bloggers writing about politics. At this point, I don't know enough about the law itself to do much more than merely mention the controversy as an example of how the Law of Unintended Consequences continues to work in the age of the Internet.

Technology News:

Google has a problem

Google has wads of cash, and has to spend it on something. So the company has been experimenting with Orkut, a "social software" platform similar to other services like LinkedIn. It has also started offering Google Maps, which now works with more browsers. Unlike Mapquest and some other similar services, Google Maps is fast and produces legible maps. I've always found Mapquest an exercise in frustration; not only are the maps fuzzy and hard to read, the zooming feature is extremely slow.

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"Virtual" sales a big business

In my talks to community leaders, I talk about the ability to sell goods and services that are, literally, weightless, via the Internet. I get a lot of blank stares, as some folks still have trouble understanding the revolution in business.

The latest news comes from Apple, which reports it sells more than one million songs PER DAY from its online music store, or nearly half a billion songs per year.

SMS and youth

An article in the Roanoke Times yesterday (a NY Times reprint) discussed the phenomenal rise of SMS, or Short Message System. SMS, more often called "text messaging," is the cellphone service that lets you send short text messages on your cellphone.

The article was irritating because it implied that because most SMS users are twenty-something or younger, there must be something wrong with older people. The article, without any data to support the conclusion, said that older people were "more comfortable" with the telephone, implying we old geezers just could not get with the new technology.

I've seen a lot of dumb technology reporting, but this article was one of the dumbest. In conversations I've had with "youngsters" who are SMS fanatics, the only they could tell me they used it for was when they were bored. One twenty-something businessperson told me how great it was because when he was in meetings, he could send messages to his friends. The article also said that SMS was popular because you could use it when you were bored.

So here is the "old geezer," "not comfortable with technology" take on this: when I'm in a meeting, I'm trying to pay attention and contribute to the discussion, rather than text messaging about what I plan to have for lunch. That's not "uncomfortable with technology," that's called being mature and responsible.

The article implied that using the phone was somehow a quaint and old-fashioned mode of communication. No, it's fast and efficient. When I have something to say to someone, it's a lot quicker to pick up the phone than to try to type on a 12 button keyboard the size of my thumb. That's not old-fashioned, it's just sensible.

One unfortunate aspect of this technology revolution we are in is that there is this unsubstantiated belief that youth know more about technology than anyone else. I hear it almost every day. While it is true most young people have a higher comfort level with some of this stuff, the fact that a nineteen year old uses it does not inherently make it good or mean that everyone should use it. Let's not throw commonsense out the window with the crank telephones and VCRs.

Technology News:

More life without Google

A colleague sent me a link to another up and coming search engine called Vivisimo. It's a bit different than Snap, which I wrote about yesterday, but like Snap, it handles search results in a way that is genuinely useful, as compared to the typical "jillions of hits" Google result.

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Open Source software and the iPod

In a brilliant marriage of a free Open Source piece of software and the iPod, medical radiologists around the world are using iPods to store the huge image files generated by CT and other kinds of scans and x-rays. Eweek has the story of a frustrated radiologist who helped develop the free OsiriX software that allows radiologists to store and manipulate the images on the iPod.

Life without Google

Can anyone imagine life without Google? More than any other Internet service, with the possible exception of email, the availability of Google has become a kind of icon for the changes the Internet has brought over the past ten years. It's even become a verb.

Technology News:

Music sales up

The NY Times (reg. required) has a short story on the music industry. Music sales are up 1.6% this past year, for the first time in four years.

What happened? Apple legitimized the online music market with it's highly successful iTunes Music Store, and a horde of competing online music services rushed in to give consumers a wide array of choices. Music sales went up.

Technology News:

AOL dumps broadband services

AOL has announced that it is dumping its broadband customers in nine states. AOL has been in decline for years, and this is one more indication that the company is completely adrift. AOL's foray into broadband service was a mystery to me in the first place, since they had to resell access purchased wholesale from other providers.

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MPAA to sue movie downloaders

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has decided to sue grandmothers and fourteen year old kids who are allegedly downloading bootleg copies of movies.

Like the music industry attempts at litigation, it accomplished little except prove the stupidity of these movie execs. When "millions" of people are trying to watch your movies, that's called a market opportunity, not a field day for lawyers.

Technology News:

Earthlink adds VoIP services

Earthlink faces the same problem AOL is already struggling with--a shrinking market for dial access to the Internet. Earthlink has been staying in the black by slashing customer support and by providing barebones access, as opposed to AOL's tedious, ad-laden interface.

The changing shape of the news

Andrew Sullivan, in Time magazine, illustrates perfectly the changing landscape of writing, journalism, and more generally, the power of the Web that we now all have in our hands. Here is the most instructive quote from the article.

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Record companies making a fortune

According to this article in the UK Independent, the record companies are making a killing from online music sales. The paper says that of the average ninety-nine cent cost of a downloaded song, the record companies are taking sixty-two cents, or apparently almost double what they made on a CD. Not only that, their distribution costs have fallen to virtually zero.

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MIT invents community network

Apparently at least one faculty member at MIT has been off the 'net entirely for the past twenty years. This story discusses Professor Keith Hampton's iNeighbor network.

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