A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

There has been a long-running narrative in tech writing about the downfall of, or the necessity to bring about the downfall of, cable companies. Recently, I was discussing the merits and drawbacks of cable with a friend of mine, and ended up at an interesting predicament. We agreed that cable was expensive, yes; we also agreed that people who subscribed to the services that companies like Comcast provide walk a thin line between freedom (otherwise known as net neutrality) and tight, restrictive control; but, we ended up agreeing that, based on what we’re getting from the “evil empire” of Comcast, it’s not a bad deal.

The discussion started with HBO Go, a service that HBO provides its customers that allow them to stream HBO programming on demand to a large number of connected devices. It’s a great way for members of the same household to watch their favorite shows and movies without having to fight over the TV. The downside is that HBO Go is not purchased as a standalone service, it’s a part of HBO. While that seems ridiculous, someone recently asked me how much I’d be willing to pay for HBO service if it meant I could watch the shows anywhere. Considering what I was paying for Netflix and Hulu, I said I’d probably be ok with paying $8–10 a month. When I got home, I checked the price of HBO, and, to my surprise, it was only $10 a month (I was assuming that it would be much higher, since it’s a premium cable channel, and cable is controlled by “evil” media companies). It was then that I considered what I was getting for my monthly offering at the Altar of Comcast.

For my monthly fee, I get a whole heaping pantload of data, combined with a paltry offering of standard-definition TV channels. The most common narrative I hear is that people feel like they’re bullied into paying for channels they don’t need in order to get the ones they want. “Just let me pay for the channels I want!” everyone seems to say. And I agree with them! Why should someone be charged for something they don’t use and didn’t really ask for? After all, when you walk into a store and pick out the items you want, the store clerk doesn’t start shoveling unwanted merchandise into your basket. The same should go for programming and media, right?

Well, we’re actually a lot closer than we think, in my opinion. In addition to the base fee for my cable, I pay $8 per month each for Netflix and Hulu, which allows me to access a great deal of TV programming and movies for just under $20/month. I can add HBO to my cable package and get HBO go for “free” on my iPad and Apple TV, which accesses the content through…the same cable connection that I’m already paying for. So it’s…not really free, is it? In fact, it’s almost like I’m being charged double…and yes, that’s frustrating. But the same parallel can be drawn with merchandise. Sometimes you don’t want the “free” stuff that gets bundled with your popcorn, or the tchotchke that is shrink-wrapped your deodorant. In this case, I think of the stuff I don’t use as “bonus” features.

The structure I painted above makes sense when you look at it vis-à-vis the type of relationship that most people have with their cell phone carriers. Really, it’s very much the same – a person pays a monthly fee to be able to use that carrier’s network and pipe data to their device, the amount of which is allowed each month varying by user. Any other dues and subscriptions that the person pays are completely separate from the carrier. To carry the analogy even further, look at what’s happened to the precious airtime minutes and text messaging packages – they’ve all been ditched so that carriers can charge users for what they’re really hungry for: data. The airtime minutes and texting is almost a throw-in now.

The example of the carriers, however, should also serve as a cautionary tale. While most people are used to the fee structure now, there was a time when tiered data plans were met with hatred and anger because people realized they were being taken advantage of. Then, when the mighty marketing machines that drive these carriers went to work convincing people that they would save some money every month if they forfeit their right to an unlimited amount of data, people caved left and right…and they did this just as streaming media was entering the spotlight. It was the perfect one-two blow to the American consumer.

Now, the fear is that terrestrial data providers will repeat the same behavior that their wireless brethren got away with. That they’ll introduce tiered data plans, bandwidth caps, and heavy throttling to ensure that they can strangle every last nickel out of the American populace. This all assumes, of course, that net neutrality laws remain in place. While net neutrality laws are supposed to protect the Internet and the free flow of information around the globe, I have a feeling that terrestrial data providers will use net neutrality against consumers, making the argument that they can provide open pipes so long as consumers pay for the privilege.

At any rate, the current situation of à la carte channels and pricing is almost kinda not-really-but-sorta here…if you know where to look.

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Singing in the Rain

When the MacBook Air came out last year with its super-sexy new design and blazing fast SSD, I knew I was in trouble. It’s hard for me to resist the siren call of a new Apple product, but it’s even harder when the thing looks and performs as well as that li’l guy. I was even looking to upgrade my Mac Mini, and saw that as the perfect opportunity to dive into something portable. Since that day, I’ve had to fight off the urge to buy one nearly every single day.

Then I realize that I have an amazing iPad 2, and I the conversation with myself ends. I don’t need a laptop, I already have an incredible machine. Sure, there are shortcomings, and there are certain incompatibilities here and there that make it difficult and/or frustrating, but by and large the experience is incredible, and very freeing. I have something with me at all times that I can use for *gasp* serious work (almost every blog post I’ve ever written has been with the help of an iPad, and all of my Grad school papers come from this tiny beast) as well as having fun and playing games. Truth be told, this is the best computer I’ve ever owned, and the reason is baked into the OS.

What a glorious feeling!

A while back, I went to the Apple store to ask some questions to the friendly folks there about the MacBook Air, to see if I should choose that over the Mac Mini. I came away with this realization: if you already have an iPad, skip the MacBook Air, and if you already have a MacBook Air, skip the iPad. They’re pretty close in form and function, anyway (despite one being a “laptop” and one being a tablet). The reason I say that is because of the use-case. People buy a MacBook Air because they need a computer that is:

  1. Portable
  2. Fast
  3. Long-lasting
  4. Simple
  5. With a full keyboard

The MacBook Air is that machine, among other things. So is the iPad, however, and I’ve found that the pseudo-multitasking of the iPad is far more preferable to me when I’m working because I know that the apps won’t crash, won’t interfere with anything else, and won’t start to bog down. The’re lean, simple, and engage me physically, why I need when I’m writing. The MacBook Air is essentially redundant…except that it runs the full MacOS, instead of iOS. This seems great, until you start trying to manage multiple media libraries, apps, save files, etc. Then it gets to be more of a pain to work with MacOS than an iOS device. But wait…the new version of MacOS, Lion, looks and behaves a LOT like iOS, doesn’t it? I mean…Apple expressly talked about the similarities in their “Back to the Mac” event. So then there’s this:

Most people had dismissed that rumor due to the compatibility issues that would be introduced with such a transition. Another major issue is that while ARM processors are more power efficient, they presently offer significantly lower performance than their Intel counterparts.

Sure, an ARM-based A5 wouldn’t make sense running MacOS…but what about iOS? Let’s even blow it up a bit and look further down the road a year or two. Let’s focus on a time in the not-too-distant future when iOS and MacOS start to merge, when the distinctions between the various Apple OSs start to become blurry. Then, ARM chips would make sense. They sip power, and (currently) iOS sings on those chips. It’s built for exactly that type of chipset. The two work in perfect synergy, and you can bet that Apple is spending a lot of time making sure that, when it’s time to make that jump, that they’ve gotten the whole machine tuned and tweaked so the transition is beautiful. If you look at it that way, it makes a whole lot more sense to be using ARM-based chips for your supermodel MacBook Air, while the MacBook Pros would still run Intel chips due to their more “Pro” nature. I’m willing to be dollars to donuts that most people are going to start shifting away from MacOS “Classic” and will absolutely love the new look and feel of Lion. Who knows, maybe the Mac OS “Classic” look and feel will persist, while everything else will run some new version of iOS that is fully scalable across any hardware, much like HP is planning to do with their new version of WebOS.

There’s also this little nugget:

Although not mentioned in the most recent rumor, one of the largest features may be over-the-air updates that would finally make iOS independent of a computer for all but backup and local media syncing.

So…like a “real” computer? Can you see it? Can you see how the walls are disintegrating? The distinction between a “mobile” OS and a “desktop” OS is not as clear now, and I think the lines will continue to blur.
And this, too:

Talk of Apple using Nuance voice commands in iOS was already supported recently by code mentions in Lion. Most also presume that Apple’s cloud music service may play an integral role in the new mobile software.

So we can infer here that iOS and Lion are very closely related (doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, Apple said so), but that they share code is telling of Apple’s long-term strategy, and the strategies of several major players out there (Google, Microsoft, natch).

The jump from what we see in our hands and on our laps and desks and what we will be seeing over the next few years will be immense, and will change what every single person recognizes as a computer.

Mind the gap.


Back and Forth

For a while now, I’ve been using an app called Audiogalaxy to get back to my music library at home and essentially have access to my library with over 100 gigs of music to supplement whatever tracks I have synced to my iPhone/iPad. It’s fantastic, mostly because I know two things:

  1. I have music on my iPhone that I can listen to anywhere, regardless of whether I have a data connection or not.
  2. I can, with a data connection, get access to my huge music library.

The recently-uncovered Apple patent application is simultaneously awesome and horrific for a few reasons, all of which have to do with #2.

One of the most explosive and formative things to happen to America recently is the widespread adoption of mobile data and internet usage. As I’ve discussed before, the mobile telecom providers have used this to push their agendas and create an awful dystopian future that the American wireless subscriber is going to end up paying dearly for. It’s going to be ugly, folks. Get ready for a future based on as-yet-unwritten disgusting rates based on AT&T’s greed.

If you think this reaction is a bit overblown, let’s dissect the groundwork that needs to be in place for a person to listen to music with Apple’s new system. A person would need:

  1. A computer running iTunes (for syncing purposes). This is pretty much standard, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
  2. An iOS device with a data connection. Not everyone wants to or can run a persistent data connection. iPod touch devices are reliant on wifi, and people with the lower-tier AT&T or Verizon data plan (250 MB for $15.00/month, in AT&T’s case) may not be comfortable with a service that sucks up data every time they wan to listen to a song.
  3. Possibly: the above computer with a persistent connection to the internet. This is a variable, and the future is hazy here. Depending on how the whole “Music Locker” thing will work, or how MacOS Lion home server is structured, this may or may not be necessary. We’ll see.

Let’s assume that a person has an iPhone, is using AT&T, and is using the $15.00/month data plan for 250 MB of data per month. We don’t know how much of each song will be synced to the iOS device, but let’s assume it’s about 30% of each song to allow ample buffering time. We can then “fit” three times the number of songs on the iOS device due to the reduced footprint of each song on the device’s memory. The remaining amount of each song would then be pulled from a cloud. I say “a” cloud because it’s unclear if that cloud will be the individual’s computer or this “Music Locker” service. Let’s assume it will be from this person’s computer, so as not to incur any additional fees (yet). The computer will have to be on in order to access the library data, which means an extra power demand and a load on the person’s internet usage (we’re also assuming that internet usage is capped, which, despite some companies claiming their data is “unlimited,” is most likely the case). Most likely, the data usage through a home internet connection is insignificant (especially relative to a theoretical cap of 50-250 GB). The proposed data usage relative to mobile internet connection with a 250 MB cap is significant, however, and listening to a day’s worth of music can potentially eat up all of a person’s monthly data before they have to pony up another $25.00 for the higher 2 GB plan.

Did you catch that? Let’s look at it again.

The folks who want to use this feature will be streaming data every single time they listen to music. The amount of data that will be used is unclear, but I predict that listening to music for a prolonged period of time (even a few hours a day) will cut deeply into or completely use up a person’s data for the month (again, assuming usage of a cheaper $15.00/month, 250 MB plan). Even on a 2 GB plan, monthly data usage can quickly skyrocket, shooting people dangerously close to the ceiling or their plan. I use about 1.5 GB/month right now with occasional usage of my Audiogalaxy service to get at my home library. If I were to switch over to a model that used data every single time I played a song, I’d find myself breaking that 2 GB barrier on a monthly basis, which would cost me more money.

AT&T and Verizon made a long-term move here, and we’re staring it in the face right now. Back when AT&T first introduced tiered data pricing, I could see the act as predatory. More and more services are being pushed online, to the cloud, and so forth. What AT&T did was squeeze the pipes before the water started flowing. Netflix is growing in popularity and capability, and their long-term dominance in the mobile media marketplace (I love alliteration!), while not guaranteed, is just shy of that. How are we going to watch movies on our mobile devices if we’re being pinched to do so? How will companies innovate if they know they’re going to be dealing with hamstrung devices? People are going to be paying for subscription services and the bandwidth it takes to use them, a double whammy. The outlook doesn’t look good.

Boy am I glad I got that unlimited Clear iSpot subscription while it was still around.


the bottleneck

so i had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day regarding all this hullabaloo with google’s forays into the fiber market and how they’d like to bring superfast 1000 Mbit/s data into the home.  i think that’s a great idea…but there are some shortcomings to that plan (which i’m sure google is thinking about).

even if they’re thinking about it, i’m still gonna talk about it.

so google said something recently about how it wants to make the web faster.  i think that’s a great idea.  now, they’ve moved beyond the theoretical “let’s try real hard to make stuff more efficient” into the “let’s just GO FAST” realm.  i’m not sure if i think that’s the best way for them to be using their might.

the internet is a vast sea of stuff, right?  getting access to this stuff takes bandwidth, and having all this data served up to your eyeballs and earholes is what so many telcos make their money off of.  doing the same thing is what makes google a ton of money, as well.  this leads them to the interesting position of having a distinct interest in making sure lots and lots and lots of data gets into your head as quickly as possible.  basically every time you use the internet, you’re making google some money, so it makes sense that they’d want you to use it MOAR.

they also have the right idea in serving up data instead of creating more programs and applications.  we’ve had fast computers for a while, and they keep getting faster.  the problem is that they always feel slow, since the code that is being written to run on them is trying to take advantage of the new horsepower.  you get more complex code, more operations occurring per second, and the overall experience doesn’t change, despite shelling out tons of cash for a new rig to browse the internet.  this is really bad.  we get locked into this cycle of buying new stuff, just so we can run an upgraded version of the same program we had last week, only now it does more, so it needs more power.

at what point do we hit saturation?

google says now.

really, we don’t need more powerful programs and applications, we need more data.  this is important, since the applications we have now can do everything we need them to do if we can just get them the data fast enough.  you can also leverage the power of supercomputing clusters around the country to take care of calculations and operations that would make your dream machine at home cry since you can pass them huge chunks of raw data and tell them “here do something with this,” and they’ll say, “ok!”

all that is so awesome!  but…it’s sorta limited in the same way the current internet is sorta limited.  currently, the state of the internet (true broadband) is basically limited to phone booth-style execution.  you go home, or to work, or to a coffee shop, and your internet is fast in these places because they have landline connections to the ISPs.  if you want mobile internet, you need to suffer through “3g” service provided by your mobile provider, or go with someone like clear or sprint for 4g.  in most cases, both of these “solutions” are really stopgap measures, since they don’t provide the sort of coverage that a truly mobile solution does.  sure, i could walk into a clear store and walk out with the ability to log onto my gmail from anywhere in chicago…but what if i wanted to visit some friends in wisconsin?  what if i had to drive to southern illinois for work?  i’d be out of luck.  not truly mobile, and not truly broadband, but somewhere in between, really.

this is where google should be focusing.  the current state of this data fetching is unreliable because our infrastructure lacks consistency.  i may be able to get great reception when i’m at home, but i’d rather have great reception when i go to my doctor’s office on the fourth floor of a small office building.  is that too much to ask?  how about if i’m on the subway?  at a mall?

this is where the future needs to be.  it’s one thing to have a person at home, browsing at lightning fast speeds, but it’s another to be able to have a similar experience while walking down the street checking stocks or watching a movie.  at some point, a person hits their limit of how much data they can absorb simultaneously.  even right now, i’m not trying to load 20+ pages simultaneously.  loading one or two as i think of new ideas is pretty common, but by the time i’m done typing in the query for the second page, the first has already loaded.  granted, my usage may not be typical, but it’s not so far out of left field that one could call me a “power user.”

so google, if you’re listening, focus on the mobile space (like you said you would).  forget fiber, give me the ability to access your pages from everywhere, and i think we’ll have a mutually beneficial relationship.