Media

Paradox of abundance, with DVRs and Netflix/Peerflix

An interesting article in the WSJ yesterday on the paradox of abundance describes how many Netflix customers are putting many “highbrow” or “serious” movies on their lists, then letting them sit for months, unwatched, even returning them unwatched.

This sounds great for Netflix, of course, though it would be bad for Peerflix.

It echoes something I have been observing in my own household with the combination of a MythTV PVR with lots of disk space and a Peerflix subscription. When the time pressure of the old system goes off, stuff doesn’t get watched.

This is a counter to one of the early phenomenon that people with PVRs like Tivo/MythTV experience, namely watching more TV because it’s so much more convenient and there’s much more to watch than you imagined. In particular, when you record a series on your PVR, you watch every episode of that series unless you deliberately try not to (as I do with my “abridged” series watching system where I delete episodes of shows if they get bad reviews.)

In the past, with live TV, you might be a fan of a series, but you were going to miss a few. They expected you to and included “Previously on…” snippets for you. For a few top series you set up the VCR, but even then it missed things. And only the most serious viewers had a VCR record every episode of every show they might have interest in. But that’s easy with the PVR.

We’ve found some of our series watching to be really delayed. Sometimes it’s deliberate — we won’t watch the cliffhanger final episode of a season until we know we have the conclusion at the start of the next season, though that has major spoiler risks. Sometimes there will be series fatigue, where too much of your viewing time has gone to a set of core series and you are keen for something else — anything else. Then the series languishes.

Now there is some time pressure in the DVR. Eventually it runs out of disk space and gets rid of old shows. Which is what makes the DVDs from Peerflix or Netflix in even more trouble. Some have indeed gone 6 months without watching.

As the WSJ article suggests, part of it relates to the style of show. One is always up for lighthearted shows, comedies etc. But sitting there for months is The Pianist. For some reason when we sit down in front of the TV and want to pick a show, Nazis never seem very appealing. Even though we know from recommendations that it’s a very good film.

When the cinema was the normal venue for films, the system of choice was different. First of all, if we decide we want to go out to a movie, we’ll consider the movies currently playing. Only a small handful will be movies we think worthwhile to go to. In that context, it’s much more likely we might pick a serious or depressing movie with Nazis in it. It could easily be the clear choice in our small list. In addition, we know that the movie will only be in cinemas for a short time, any given movie, especially serious ones, may be gone in a few weeks. That’s even more true in smaller markets.

I’ve also noticed a push for shorter programming. When you’ve rented a DVD, your plan for the evening is clear, you are going to watch a movie at home. When you just sit down to choose something from your library, the temptation is strong to watch shorter things instead of making a 2 hour committment to a longer thing.

These factors are even more true when there are 2 or more people to please, instead of just one. The reality seems to be when the choice is 2 hours of war or Nazis or a 22 minute TV comedy, the 22 minute comedy — even several of them in a row — is almost always the winner. Also popular are non-fiction shows, such as science and nature shows, which have no strict time contract since you can readily stop them in the middle to resume later with no suspense.

Anyway, as you can see the WJS article resonated with me. Since the phenomenon is common, the next question is what this means for the industry. Will the market for more serious movies be diminished? The public was already choosing lighter movies over serious ones, but now even those who do enjoy the serious movies may find themselves tending away from them.

Of course, if people take a DVD from Netflix and leave it on the shelf for months, that actually helps the market for the disk in the rental context, helps it quite a bit. Far more copies are needed to meet the demands of the viewers, even if there are fewer viewers. However, the real shift coming is to pay-per-view and downloading. If people look at the PPV menu and usually pick the light movie over the serious one, then the market for the serious ones is sunk.

End the accursed roving mic at conferences

These days a lot of conferences are being recorded and even live broadcast on the net. So they make a rule that people asking questions must wait for the microphone, causing long pauses that ruin the momentum of a debate or discussion.

I recommend conferences doing this get one of those small parabolic microphones if they can (mount it on the video camera if there is operator controlled video) or give it to an assistant. They can point it at the asker, and then they can talk until a better microphone arrives.

Another option (which might actually be good for coordinating questions) would be to tell question askers to phone a special number on their cell phone. When they are acknowledged to talk, they would press a key, and the sound mixer guy could unmute their channel. They could talk, at low fidelity until the wireless mic arrives. This could also be a way to line up for questions. The moderator could announce a the last few digits in the participant’s phone number (enough to be unique) and allow that phone into the sound system.

People with laptops could also use a voice app (perhaps even through the non-connected AP described in the prior blog post) if they had a microphone on their laptop!

I get, but mostly don't get, the slingbox

Jeff Pulver is a giant fan of the SlingBox, a small box you hook up to your TV devices and ethernet, so you can access your home TV from anywhere. It includes a hardware encoder, infrared controllers to control your cable box, Tivo or DVD player, and software for Windows to watch the stream. The creators decided to build it when they found they couldn’t watch their San Francisco Giants games while on business trips.

And I get that part. For those who spend a great deal of time on the road, the hotel TV systems are pretty sucky. They only have a few channels (and rarely Comedy Central, which has the only show I both watch on a daily basis and which needs to be watched sooner rather than later) as well as overpriced movies. But at the same time you have to be spending a lot of time on the road to want this. My travel itineraries are intense enough that watching TV is the last thing I want to do on them.

But at the same time it’s hard not to be reminded of the kludge this is, especially hooked to a Tivo. And if you have a Tivo or simliar device, you know it’s the only way you will watch TV, live TV is just too frustrating. I don’t have Tivo any more, I have MythTV. MythTV is open, which is to say it stores the recorded shows on disk in files like any other files. If I wanted to watch them somewhere else, I could just copy or stream them easily from the MythTV box, and that would be a far better experience than decoding them to video, re-encoding them with the SlingBox and sending them out. Because of bandwith limits, you can’t easily do this unless you were to insert a real-time transcoder to cut the bandwidth down, ideally one that adapts to bandwidth as the Slingbox does. And I don’t think anybody has written one of these, because I suspect the MythTV developers are not that too-much-time-on-the-road SlingBox customer.

(Admittedly the hardware transcode would be useful, but a 3GHZ class machine should be capable of doing it in software, and really, this should just be software.) For watching live TV, if you cared, you probably could do that in Myth TV. If you cared.

So the SlingBox…  read more »

Sudden web traffic not so great with Adsense

As I’ve written before, Google’s Adsense program is for many people bringing about the dream of having a profitable web publication. I have a link on the right of the blog for those who want to try it. I’ve been particularly impressed with the CPMs this blog earns, which can be as much as $15. The blog has about 1000 pageviews/day (I don’t post every day) and doesn’t make enough to be a big difference, but a not impossible 20-fold increase could provide a living wage for blogging. Yahoo publisher’s blog ads, which some of you are seeing in the RSS feed have been a miserable failure, and will be removed next software upgrade. They are poorly targetted and have earned me, literally, not even a dollar.

Recently however I noticed a way in which the Google targetting engine is too good, from my standpoint. From time to time my web sites or blog will get linked from a very high traffic site. This week the 4th amendment shipping tape was a popular stumble-upon, for example. I’ve also been featured from time to time in Slashdot, boingboing and various other popular sites.

When this happens, it’s not a money maker because the click-throughs and CPMs drop way down. This is not too surprising. The people following a quick link are less likely to be looking for the products Google picks to advertise. However, more recently I saw high traffic bringing down not just the CPM, but even the total dollars! I theorize that Google, seeing poor clickthrough, cycles out the normally lucrative ads to try others. So even the normal visitors, who have not gone away, are seeing more poorly chosen ads. Or it could just be randomness that I’m seeing a pattern in.

Solution: Consider the referer when placing ads. If the clickthrough is poor on a given referer (like slashdot or boingboing) then play with the ads to hunt for better clickthrough. For the more regular referers (which are typically internal, the result of searches and regular readers) stick to the ads that typically perform well with that group.

Give us TVoIP, not IPTV

A buzzword in the cable/ilec world is IPTV, a plan to deliver TV over IP. Microsoft and several other companies have built IPTV offerings, to give phone and cable companies what they like to call a “triple play” (voice, video and data) and be the one-stop communications company.

IPTV offerings have you remotely control an engine at the central office of your broadband provider which generates a TV stream which is fed to your TV set. Like having the super set-top box back at the cable office instead of in your house. Of course it requires enough dedicated bandwidth to deliver good quality TV video. That’s 1.5 to 2 megabits for regular TV, 5 to 10 for HDTV with MP4.

Many of the offerings look slick. Some are a basic “network PVR” (try to look like a Tivo that’s outsourced) and Microsoft’s includes the ability to do things you can’t do at your own house, like tune 20 channels at once and have them all be live in small boxes.

I’m at the pulver.com Von conference where people are pushing this, notably the BellSouth exec who just spoke.

But they’ve got it wrong. We don’t need IPTV. We want TVoIP or perhaps more accurately Vid-o-IP. That’s a box at your house that plays video, and uses the internet to suck it down. It may also tune and record regular TV signals (like MythTV or Windows Media Center.)

Now it turns out that’s more expensive. You have to have a box, and a hard drive and a powerful processor. The IPTV approach puts all that equipment at the central office where it’s shared, and gets economies of scale. How can that not be the winner?

Well for one, TVoIP doesn’t require quality bandwidth. You can even use it with less bandwidth than a live stream takes. That’s because after people get TVoIP/PVR, they don’t feel inclined to surf. IPTV is still too much in the “watch live TV” world with surfing. TVoIP is in the poor-man’s video on demand world (like NetFlix and Tivo) where you pick what you might want to see in advance, and later go to the TV to pick something from the list of what’s shown up. Tuns out that’s 95% as good as Video on Demand, but much cheaper.

But more importantly, it’s under your control. Time and time again, the public has picked a clunkier, more expensive, harder to maintain box that’s under their own control over a slick, cheap service that is under the control of some bureaucracy. PCs over mainframes. PCs over Network Computers and Timesharing and SunRays. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why they did this for economic reasons, or even for quality reasons.

They did it because of choice. The box in your own house is, ideally, a platform you own. One that you can add new things to because you want them, and 3rd party vendors can add things to because you demand them. Central control means central choice of what innovations are important. And that never works. Even when it’s cheaper.

If the set top box were to remain a set top box, a box you can’t control, then IPTV would make good sense. But we don’t want it to be that. It’s now time to make it more, and companies are starting to offer products to make it more. We want a platform. Few people want to program it themselves, but we all want great small companies innovating and coming up with the next new thing. Which TVoIP can give us and IPTV won’t. Of course, there are locked TVoIP boxes, like the Akimbo and others, but they won’t win. Indeed, some efforts, like the trusted computing one, seek to make the home box locked, instead of an open platform, when it comes to playing media (and thus locking linux out of the game.) A truly open platform would see the most innovation for the user.

Disclaimer, I am involved with BitTorrent, which makes the most popular software used for downloading video over the internet.

How web sites can do a much smarter 'pledge drive'

There is buzz about how Jason Kottke, of kottke.org, has abandoned his experiment of micropayment donations to support his full-time blogging. He pulled in $40,000 in the year, almost all of it during his 3 week pledge drive, but that's hardly enough. Now I think he should try adsense, but I doubt he hasn't heard that suggestion before.

However, PBS/NPR are able to get a large part of their budgets through pledge drives, so it's possible to make this happen. I think we should be able to do it better on the web.

For example, on PBS/NPR, when they start the pledge drive, they get into a pretty boring endless repeat of the basic message. They tell you that if they reach the goal, they can end the pledge drive early. But this rarely happens, and even when it does, if you pledge early, it doesn't stop the begging.

On the web it could. You could do a pledge drive here where, after a person donates, the drive is over for them. This is not the same as sites that simply charge a subscription fee to get past the ads (such as Salon and Slashdot). This would be an organized pledge drive which is over for everybody after a set period, but over even sooner for those who donate. (There's a touch of work to do for people who use multiple machines, of course.)

Indeed you could even have a "turn off pledge drive I'm never going to give" button for the freeloaders as an experiment. Or it might turn it down a notch. Hard to say if this would work. Of course, people could also write filters for web begging if you make the drives too long. Of course, the drive could even be started at an individual time for the less frequent visitors, though that punishes those who disable cookies or switch machines.

Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Student annotated video of lectures

Today many universities are doing video of their lectures, and making it available on the campus LAN (or older campus cable TV.) In some cases students are not going to class, but many just find it a useful addition.

I suggest an application where students, while watching the lecture, could press keys on their computer synced in timestamp with the video. They don't need to be online, they just need a modestly good clock. Buttons like "This is important, review this for the final." Or even comments like "I already know this" and "I'm lost."

Students might use the timestamps themselves to build a "best of" video of the lectures, since you could not possibly watch all the lectures to review for the exam. The combined votes of students could be merged to produce a consensus vote on the best and worst parts of the lecture.

The professor could even review these things to see where the students are getting lost, what material they think is most valuable etc.

Of course this could also be done with plain audio of the classes but video would show the course materials and blackboards.

Perhaps one student in the class might take it upon herself to edit together a study video for others to use. They could even charge for it if it were really good.

Internet TV, I'm waiting for you

I’m an earlier adopter with my mythTV box and fast connection. But I’m really keen to see the move to getting TV shows over IP. Cable’s bulk pricing just isn’t doing it for me any more.

I get many shows now via broadcast digital TV, and while I think this is a giant waste of spectrum, while it’s there I will certainly use it. So I’ve started examining just how much I get from my cable. Of course your tastes will vary, but I find I’m starting to care about only 3 or 4 channels. And since I’m paying $45/month plus tax for expanded basic cable from Comcast, that’s a great deal of money per channel. Those channels would be wise to start becoming available over the net, because we early adopters will pay nice prices compared to what the cable companies are paying.

The key is that with the MythTV or other DVR, you stop channel surfing. You pick the programs you like, and it records all of them and you don’t watch random shows. (Except for Tivo-style “suggestions.”)

Even though you limit your TV to just a subset of shows, you quickly are surprised to change the “500 channels and nothing on” problem into “just a few shows and always something good ready to watch.” Surfing and deliberate watching are just that different.

So the shows on cable I’m watching are the Daily Show (and somtimes a few other Comedy Central programs), some SF shows on the Sci-Fi Channel, and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Then, during certain events, I will go to the 24 hour news channels, the only things I ever find myself watching live. (Read on…) Now news, as it turns out, is the one thing that makes sense to be broadcast. It’s the only thing (along with its cousin, sports) we all want to watch the moment it’s produced. For the rest the delayed gratification of TV over IP, or even DVD rental through the mail, is just fine.

And indeed, the SF shows and Mythbusters will all appear on DVD 1-2 years after airing. The Daily Show is making itself available via the non-linux streaming media formats in reduced resolution, so it’s not quite ready for me, and it, as a form of news, needs to get to me right away. (The Daily show is on over the air TV in Canada.)

The TV shows on DVD are much better quality than analog broadcast, and of course inherently commercial free. They’re not HD yet, though. And the pointless delay, even though they get more money from people who buy or even rent DVDs than they do from advertisers at broadcast time. There is a 24 hour news channel made by ABC available over the air here.

The point is, if I could get my Daily Show in good quality and a format I can play on my system, I think I would be ready to drop my cable. The rest of my non-network watching would be on DVDs and the other brave shows willing to deliver to me this way, at a fair price — $1/hour for two adults, commercial free, if I buy in bulk. That would leave me without CNN, though the web is mostly substituting for that now, breaking news even faster than it does.

Of course there are people who watch shows from large numbers of channels who love the big bundling. They will hate this idea. But I expect most DVR users are seeing the number of non-network channels they watch drop, and the economics are changing.

(There are some intermediate alternatives. Dish Network has a $27/month package with the channels I want. Sadly, satellite systems don’t interface nearly as well with digital video recorders as analog cable does. Starchoice has a $20 CDN package but it has few of the classic cable channels, though it does provide The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, a couple of 24 hour news and lots of Canadian shows. About $18 USD after taxes.)

Slow RAID for the home network

Hard disk drives these days are cheap. Too cheap, in that while we love paying 30 cents/GB, the reliability is getting pretty poor. Doing backups, especially automatic backups is a must, but what about RAID?

One of the problems with RAID, at least RAID-5 is that you need to have 3, and ideally 4 or 5 drives in a machine. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of power, a lot of heat, a lot of noise. And many machines only have two IDE controllers so they can barely do 3 drives and can’t readily do more even if they had the slots and power for them.

So I propose a software RAID-5, done over a LAN with 3 to 5 drives scattered over several machines on the LAN.

Slow as hell, of course, having to read and write your data out over the LAN even at 100mbits. Gigabit would obviously be better. But what is it we have that’s taking up all this disk space — it’s video, music and photos. Things which, if just being played back, don’t need to be accessed very fast. If you’re not editing video or music, in particular, you can handle having it on a very slow device. (Photos are a bigger issue, as they do sometimes need fast access when building thumbnails etc.)

This could even be done among neighbours over 802.11g, with suitable encryption. In theory.

Not that there aren’t some major issues to overcome. The machines must be on most of the time. (A single disk can be taken out of a RAID temporarily, and thus a single machine hosting one disk can be turned off or rebooted, but not for long periods.) If you lose access to two disks (or your LAN) you can’t get access to the data. And it’s going to use a lot of your network capacity, though gigabit networking is starting to get cheap. And the idea gets better…  read more »

Tivo announces exciting new "file copy" feature

(You might want to see Tivo’s actual press release about being able to move programs from a Tivo to an iPod.)

ALVISO, CA — NOV 21, 2005 — TiVo Inc. (NASDAQ: TIVO ), creator of and a leader in television services for digital video recorders, today announced an enhancement to it’s system which actually allows the copying of files from one computer device to another, at least if its one of their partner devices.

The enhancement will include exclusive capabilities such as TiVo auto-sync that will allow subscribers to choose if they want new recordings of their favorite programs easily transferred to their portable devices via their PC. Every morning the devices can be loaded with new programs recorded the night before. This is similar to syncing technology available for decades on most computers, including the linux system Tivo is based on, but now in a revolutionary new feature, Tivo has put it back in.

“Sure, computers have always had the ability to copy and sync files, and we had to take all that stuff out of the Linux OS we built the Tivo on” said Tom Rogers , CEO of TiVo . “By enhancing our TiVo ToGo feature, we’re putting that back in, for our two specific partner devices, making it easy for consumers to enjoy the TV shows they want to watch though only if they have an iPod or PSP —whenever and wherever they want, unless it violates our other restrictions.”

TiVo said it will begin testing the feature in the coming weeks with a select group of TiVo Series2â„¢ subscribers who own the Apple Video iPod or PSP devices. TiVo said it plans to make the feature available to its entire standalone TiVo Series2 subscriber base as early as the first quarter of next year.

Last year, TiVo stopped disabling file copying for all its Series2 subscribers and called it the TiVoToGo feature. The TiVoToGo feature reducing the blocking of the normal ability to transfer TV shows from their DVR to a laptop or PC over their home network. From the PC, subscribers can watch the shows, or transfer them to devices compatible with Microsoft Portable Media Center format. Today’s announcement adds support for the Apple iPod and Sony PSP, as well as the ability to specify Season Passâ„¢ recordings to conveniently transfer to the portable device via the PC overnight. File copying is still blocked for all other devices.

Subscribers will need to purchase certain low-cost software to facilitate this revolutionary concept of copying files. To discourage abuse or unlawful use of this feature, TiVo intends to employ “watermark” technologies on programs transferred to a portable device using the TiVo ToGo feature that would disable the normal ability to have privacy over what programs you watch.

99 cents for a rerun with commercials?

I was amused to hear folks on PRI’s Marketplace radio program say that 99 cents for a rerun on the video iPod was a good price. Turns out that 99 cents includes commercials in that rerun, because people polled said they would rather pay 99 cents with commercials intead of $1.50 without them.

As I have written before, the public sure is misjuding this. TV CPMs are about $10, or 1 cent per ad shown to a viewer. So in a half hour program, with about 15 ads, the network and everybody below them would have made about 15 cents to show it to you. 30 cents for an hour long show. At full resolution too, and the ability to record it without DRM to watch later. Yes, Apple gets a cut, is it that huge?

So 99 cents is no deal, though they are actually sacrificing more to cut the price 50 cents and include ads, unless they can target the ads better and thus get more revenue from them. Will you be able to fast forward on the downloaded shows?

My main lament has been about what a bad deal TV advertising is. You get $1.20 worth of programming to watch a full hour of pure advertising. Way below minimum wage.

I want to see TV available for download, but I think instead of this system should give us shows at a similar cost to the advertising based one (plus a retail markup) at better resolution to boot.

Tagging, then and now

Yesterday I visited Tag Camp an impromptu weekend conference on tagging in the spirit of Foo Camp and the Bar Camp I wrote about earlier. User-applied tagging has become all the rage on sites like fickr and del.icio.us. I was pleased when one person at the conference saw my name and said, “hey you started all this.”

Well I didn’t really. Tagging is of course an ancient concept, espcially for personal use. And it’s been done formally by professionals like librarians in card catalogs and online databases.

However, back in 1983, in one of my many forays into fixing USENET’s newsgroup system, I drafted an RFC of sorts around the idea of a tag (or keyword) based USENET. I called it K News, or Keyword based News, and posted the KNews URFC

As today, people were of mixed opinions about tagging. You can see some of the discussion via Google Groups. It never went very far, but a standard “Keywords” header was added to the the USENET standard. Some used it but there was no critical mass. I wrote the newsclip filtering language which was able to filter on the tags. And for 18 years we have been tagging posts in rec.humor.funny with tags ranging from how funny the joke is, to whom it might be offensive to and so on. I don’t know how many people really use the tags to filter the group (it’s low volume) but I used them to build the web site for the newsgroup (which is of course netfunny.com.

Now, as noted tagging is the hot topic in online community and publishing. I lost faith in the concept, deciding users could not self-tag well enough. However, today the net is so big that even though users indeed do not self-tag well, you get enough people who do tag in ways you like to get useful stuff.

Of course, many of the people excited about tagging are in that state because they see it as a means to find even more cool stuff on the web. I’ve been moving to the camp that wants to find less stuff, higher quality stuff. There’s already too much good stuff to read, too much good stuff I have to discard. I can’t even read the blogs of my friends let alone all the truly interesting folks I don’t know. I hope that tags might help us along that path somehow, though it’s not the area of research right now.

But I thought a pointer to the history might be of use.

What's the deal with IPTV

IPTV is the new buzzword for video over IP, in particular as it relates to DSL/phone companies wanting to compete with cable companies and give you TV using your DSL. (The cable companies are hard at work at giving you phone service over your cable modem.)

I saw a demo of Microsoft’s IPTV product recently. They talked about how they had this slick interface that could show you live thumbnails of what was on several other channels while a bigger box showed your current channel. They said how doing it all at the central server (which could get access to all the live streams independently, unlike a typical tuner card or cable box) allowed this fancy multiplexing.

But then I asked them, “So, do you still watch live TV?” They admitted that, like everbody else who gets a Tivo, MythTV, Ultimate TV or other PVR that they almost never watch live TV. So why demo something that’s the wave of the past? Mostly because it looks cool.

The dream of video on demand has been with us for decades and it’s a cool dream but a silly one. Sure, it would be nice to be able to pull up anything from a giant catalog and watch it, but it turns out that watching delayed, even much delayed is fine. “Netflix is video on demand with a very high latency,” I explained.

So why don’t the cable companies get it? They are going all out to bring us 30 megabit aDSL to deliver this, and that’s great for a lot of other apps, but it turns out that with a PVR, a more modest 3 megabit (or even 1 megabit) can give you TV just fine, with some latency. They should focus there instead of trying to put it all in the central server, where it will surely die.

Wireless protocol for transmission of powerpoint & other slides

At every conference I go to, with a few rare exceptions, we always see people wasting time fiddling with computers and projectors in order to show their presentation, which is (sadly) almost always in powerpoint. Many laptops won’t switch displays until they see a monitor on the VGA port, which makes things take longer.

So how about a wireless protocol for sending presentations from laptops to projectors or a computer connected to the projector. Over 802.11 or bluetooth, presumably.

Of course, if the presentation is powerpoint or other popular slideshow format, all this needs is a way to transmit the file, and then the control keystrokes. There are already protocols to do this for teleconferneces, where people in another city are watching the slides on their own computer, but I have not yet seen this used at a conference. There could also be a video protocol where the laptop screen is mirrored to the projector through an efficient screen transfer system. These already exist and are free (VNC, for example) but they could be improved by pre-sending the next slide, if it’s static, for instant transition. Fancy animations (which are a curse anywhere) and videos would be a bit slower but should be fine over a good network.

An authentication protocol would be needed, the speakers would get a passcode for access.

Of course, this can also be sped up if speakers are told to set up their laptop in advance, while the prior speaker is speaking, with a good video switch that simulates a monitor so the laptop can be put into external mode. With a wireless protocol, some advance setup would be needed but it need not be on the stage.

Adsense and the advertising/editorial wall

You are probably familiar with Google adsense, which is providing the ads you see on the right hand side of this page. Adsense code examines the text of pages, and tries to match Google adwords bids against it. The publisher of the page gets some undisclosed share of the Google revenue.

Recently adsense has been improving a lot for me, and my revenue from it per day has more than doubled, either due to better ad placement, better share or higher bids — it’s hard to say. It has gotten good enough that one can now readily see making a living as a good web writer through adsense. At an extreme example, my Copyright Myths article, which is admittedly very popular, is now generating over $250 per month in revenue. Just that one article. An author able to generate articles that popular (admittedly difficult, part of the popularity comes from having been around for decades and being linked to from many places) could make a living wage.

On one hand, Adsense seems like a great implementation of the wall that is supposed to exist between advertising and editorial. I have no idea what ads will appear, I don’t control it. I have no relationship with the advertisers, and there are so many advertisers that it would be hard for any one of them to hold sway over me as a writer.

However, there is an opposite factor. Clearly some topics are much more lucrative than others. My jokes and photos pay just a small fraction of what writing on copyright pays, because there are lots of copyright lawyers willing to bid high to advertise to people curious about that topic. My spam essays pay decently because of anti-spam companies. My DNS essays get little traffic, but when they do they get people selling domain names etc.

In the extreme, if you become the big expert on a disease like mesothelioma, the asbestos caused disorder, laywers hoping to sign up clients will pay many dollars for every click. (It was famously the most expensive word in a survey last year.)

So there is a strong push now, for a writer wanting to make a living (instead of one like me getting some extra change) to write about the very specific topics that get high adwords or overture bids.

Part of this is nothing new. In the past the way to make the most profitable magazine was to cover a topic that would attract readers that advertisers want to reach. Some general media, like newspapers, sought only to gain an audience, and advertisers would pay to reach the general audience.

But advertisers don’t want to reach a general audience, or only rarely do they wish to do so. Google has broken one of the great aphorisms of advertising, “90% of all advertising is wasted, the problem is figuring which 90%.” And from this they have a multi-billion dollar business. But how will this affect editorial down the road?

Editing down the funnies to those actually funny

Newspapers won’t like this idea, but the truth is that most of the funnies aren’t funny, certainly not every day. There are some talented people doing comic strips, but it’s hard to do on a 7 days a week schedule, so they are almost all inconsistent.

You can read most of the strips on the web, so the next step is to build a system where we do shared editorial on their quality. People would read the funnies and vote on them. Then, you could present a page which showed you only the ones that made a certain cut. You could tune the cut — “Show me the top 90% of Dilbert, only the top 10% of Blondie” as you like it.

And you could even ask for the top few percent of comics you don’t normally read, though of course some of the jokes only make sense to semi-regular readers, so this won’t always be a winner. But it should be often enough.

Of course, some people have to read the comics before they have been graded. And there are fans willing to do that, but if there aren’t, you can make a trading system that says to make use of the ratings you have to contribute some. (Though if you get too hardnosed about it, people would start to introduce fake ratings to game this.)

User’s ratings would not be absolute, but rather based on their past history, and where in their own spectrum of ratings for that comic a particular rating falls. So it doesn’t help that you rank every Dilbert a 10 out of 10, such scoring would be discarded. Nor can individual comic publishers bump their own ratings on an absolute level, since again it’s a percentile result — they can only promote a personal favourite at the expense of others.

This would not be so hard to code, who wants to code it?

Car stereos interfacing with MP3 players

I wrote before on the ideal car dock for an MP3 player but the truth is we could use something even simpler sooner. On my recent trip, we brought the cassette adapter but there was no tape player in the rental car. We forgot the FM transmitter, but that’s not as good anyway.

So right away let’s see a small headphone plug on the car stereos to do a nice aux input, especially if you are taking away the tape. Duh.

But we can go beyond that with a USB jack, since all music players can plug into that though with different results. A few of them will be clever enough to draw power and recharge from it — indeed, it is time for cars to have USB jacks just for power since now my cell phones and PDA can all charge from that, and use a cigarette lighter plug with USB jack to do so — but we want something with the data.

With some music players, plug into USB and they look like a hard drive with music files on it. The stereo could be an MP3 player, but might have trouble with the DRMed music. We could also leave the MP3 player in control, but develop a protocol for it to stream digital audio to the stereo, and for the stereo to send back commands (FF/Rew, Pause, skip track etc.) to the player. Yeah, you could also do this over bluetooth but why wouldn’t you want power when in the car, so wires remain the right choice.

Perhaps down the road we might see music players splitting into two halves — drive and UI electronics/power. The drive unit, be it flash stick or hard disk, holds your music and files, and the UI unit does the rest, and can be mated with any drive, as can the computer and as can the car stereo.

Peerflix falls down

I’ve written a few times about Peerflix the P2P DVD trading system similar to some of my own ideas. After trying it for a few months, I have to report trouble.

As I feared, as a DVD drops in popularity, it means somebody will be stuck with it. I feel it should be the original contributor but in Peerflix, it’s whoever happens to have traded for it most recently. Back in April, I got in 4 DVD trades for high quality movies 1-2 years in age. In particular for Momento, Mystic River, School of Rock and A Mighty Wind. I have been slow to getting to watch these, so I’ve gotten to see just how many chances there have been to return them.

In 2 months, we’ve seen just a couple of requests for Momento and Mystic River. In all those cases, if I didn’t respond to the request within a short time, a few hours at most, somebody else would send off their copy of the disk and I would remain stuck with it. Of course since I have not yet watched Mystic River, I may have just not been motivated enough to say yes. Today I got my first request to send off A Mighty Wind and did not agree in time. I have not ever gotten a chance to send off School of Rock.

Now for “new releases” this is not the case. The DVDs I contributed that were recent and in high demand did get requested quite quickly. But the lesson quickly learned is that if you want to watch a slightly older DVD, you truly are buying it rather than borrowing it. If rapid watching is your goal, trading off a recent DVD for an older one will leave you in the lurch.

Now it’s true that at video stores, they say that only new releases really draw the volume, so this perhaps is no surprise. But it’s also not a very workable system. I was debating recommending my family in Canada join up, but with the smaller membership group there, I fear it could be even worse. The cheaper plans from Netflix or other competitors make more sense.

Update: I don’t watch DVDs very often due to my MythTV always having good HD shows in it (once you have HD it’s hard to go back to regular TV or even DVD) so I’ve seen frightening patterns. Peerflix put out a recommendation for Memento on their blog, so I now get requests for it moderately often. However, in the past 8 months, I have barely seen any requests for Mystic River, School of Rock or A Mighty Wind, all top-rated films if a few years old. And none of the couple of requests I have seen for these films have come when I was around — and I’ve only been away perhaps 15% of the time at most.

Update2: School of Rock was finally requested in December, I got the Pianist in exchange. Probably another long-term camper.

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