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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Storing Sentience

When Siri was unveiled with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, there were a lot of very intrigued, very happy people. Already, in my usage of Siri with my new iPhone 4S, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the things I’m able to do, and how easy Siri makes so many of the things I’m used to doing. Naturally, there are some shortcomings. Since I use an unlocked 4S with the T-Mobile network, I’m relegated to EDGE when not on wi-fi (how was this speed ever acceptable?), and communication with Siri is woefully slow. I wish I had the scratch to pull off an AT&T subscription, but I just don’t right now.

This got me thinking, however. Since the 4S relies on a persistent, high-speed network to deliver results to the user, what happens when a person has a slow connection, or is in a wireless dead zone? The ability for Siri to function as an interface diminishes dramatically, leaving a person only able to interact with the data that is already on his or her phone. While this normally would not be a problem, anyone looking for Siri functionality in a wireless dead zone is going to be frustrated, period. Naturally, the last thing Apple wants is unhappy customers, so what can Apple do to circumvent this situation?

I found the answer in the iPod Shuffle.

This little device, as many know, is what one might call one of Apple’s lesser-loved projects. At the time of its inception, it filled a necessary void–that of a low-cost music player bearing the iconic Apple logo and “iPod” name. It was my first iPod, and, I’d wager, the first iPod for many others, as well. The problem with the iPod Shuffle, now, is it lacks features. It isn’t relevant anymore. When the shuffle was introduced, MP3 players, including the iPod Classic, were large and relatively bulky, and their battery life left something to be desired. The Shuffle had long battery life, was capable of syncing with iTunes, and offered people an interesting alternative to the blue-hued screens and click wheels of their larger cousins. The storage was all flash, which meant that it wasn’t prone to hard drive failures in the same way the iPod Classic was, and that it could play all day on a single charge.

Since the Shuffle lacked a screen, however, there was no way for a user to really know what was about to play. Apple solved this with their “VoiceOver” feature, which was able to announce the name of the playing track or playlist, or the remaining battery life. In order to do this, however, the user needs to give up some storage space on their device to make room for the VoiceOver data. For some, this is an easy tradeoff, since it adds a sense of depth to the diminutive device. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a moment.

It was recently discovered that the iPhone 4S contains a dedicated sound-processing chip that enables it to better separate your voice from background noise, which increases its ability to recognize what you’re saying before sending that data off to Siri for processing and language recognition. All this data being sent to Siri means that there are a great deal of sound snippets that Apple has at its disposal to refine and improve its voice-recognition and accuracy. The more people use Siri, the better it gets, and the better it gets, the more people use it. Eventually, I believe, Apple will be able to “distill” certain Siri queries down to their core components, picking out speech patterns and pull user voices away from background noises more easily. Furthermore, Apple will be able to condense certain components of Siri down to include that functionality on devices that don’t have a persistent wireless connection, and significantly speed up Siri queries on devices that do. Naturally, looking up restaurants on Yelp or finding out data from Wolfram is going to require a connection to the internet, but things like setting reminders, calendar appointments, taking notes, and playing music can all (theoretically) be done locally, without a persistent data connection. This would allow Apple to install Siri on all of its devices. When the device has a wireless connection, it would be able to upload usage statistics, and download changes to the onboard Siri database while doing its nightly iCloud backup.

Naturally, the user might have to sacrifice some storage space, but it would allow even the iPod shuffle to become a “personal computer”, with the ability to store notes, read emails, and access a user’s information in the cloud when a connection becomes available. Who knows? Apple may even negotiate a wireless deal with service providers that allow all its devices to connect to a Kindle WhisperNet-style “SiriNet” for free, for the purposes of communicating with the Siri servers.

Until we have ubiquitous worldwide wireless coverage, we can talk to the little Siri in our Shuffle.


AT&T is wrong.

As an avid iPhone user, I have had to put up with AT&T and their relatively lousy service for about a year now. My first iPhone was jailbroken and unlocked on the T-Mobile network, and it worked really well, despite the workarounds I had to implement to get it to full functionality. The iPhone really is a wonderful device, and even the first version handled the network switch like a champ. Furthermore, T-Mobile would consistently go the extra mile and support a phone that wasn’t even exclusive to them. They were awesome.

Now that I’ve had to deal with AT&T for a year, I realize how bad their service really is. There are so many points during my travels through dense urban environments at which I lose service or drop calls that I’ve resorted to communicating almost exclusively through text messages when I’m in those situations. Data is almost impossible. I’m upset by that. I have a premium device and I’m paying premium dollars for service that is *SURPRISE* not premium.

This latest move by AT&T? Completely asinine. Apparently, AT&T hates their customers. This is purely, PURELY motivated by greed. That’s it. Their decision is made on history. HISTORY. Not innovation, imagination, or forward-thinking. History. Hey, Randall. Try driving down the street only looking in the rear-view mirror. You’re going to crash. You know why? Because you’re making stupid decisions for the FUTURE based on what’s behind you. But wait…for YOU, this is a GREAT decision, because it happens on the verge of the introduction of a brand-new device with a brand-new operating system that could allow said device to, in theory, slurp up data 24/7.

I bet you started drooling when you started imagining all the brand-new yachts you were going to buy with all that money you were going to make, you turd. This is a statement that says, “Our customer satisfaction doesn’t matter to us. We want money, plain and simple.”

Let’s do an experiment, though. Let’s assume that you’re actually making this decision based on data usage history, and that it’s better for the customer. I’m going to clarify a few things just so we’re on the same page.

People with unlimited data plans are not using that much data, and most use less than 200MB each month, right? Even people who do use a lot of data are using less than 2GB, from what I understand. So they’re not really taxing the network. They’re not. I mean…that’s basically what you’re saying, right? Just because someone has access to “unlimited” data doesn’t mean they’re using it. Again, they’re not taxing the network. So why cap the data? There’s almost no reason…unless you’re a greedy pig.

You know what I’d wager? I’d wager that Netflix and Hulu both magically release their apps to coincide with the 4.0 OS release. And I’d wager that AT&T signs a bunch of people up with capped data. I’d also bet that people start streaming the bejeezus out of Pandora and last.fm and Slacker Radio. I think they’ll start using things like Air Video twice as much, and AT&T will be laughing all the way to the bank.

AT&T knows that people are using more and more data every day, and they see that as an opportunity to hold a gun to your face and rob you blind. They WILL take advantage of people.

June 7th will be a sad day for the wireless marketplace in the US.