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September 29, 2009

Broadband interview: Surveying users

At BroadbandStrategyWeek.com I’ve posted an interview with John Horrigan, the director of consumer research. He’s responsible for finding out why people adopt broadband and why they don’t.

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Herkko Hietanen: Network Recorders and Social Enrichment of Television

Herkko Hietanen, a Berkman Fellow, is giving a talk about TV. “Television is really broken.” It’s not providing what consumers want: programs when we want them, where we want them. It lacks interaction with other viewers and with broadcasters. It has ads. It’s geographically limited. If you had to pitch TV to a venture capitalist, it would have a hard time getting funding.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Herkko gives a brief history of the highlights. VCRs were an early attempt to fix tv. This frightened the broadcasters, who took it to court, where — in Sony vs. Betamax — they lost. The court said the manufacturers were not responsible for infringing uses because the devices had non-infringing uses, and personal use was declared a fair use. Satellites extend over-the-air (OTA) broadcast. Community antennas were first set up by stores selling TV sets. Now cable is dominant. But contracts limit core innovation. “If you’re afraid you’ll piss off your content provider, you’re not going to do something that’s good for the consumer.”

There has been some innovation in the core. On-demand video. Time-Warner “LookBack” lets you view any show on the day it’s broadcast at any time during that day. Cable also provides a whole lot of channels. But, “Intelligence in the middle stops innovation at the edge.” The industry has litigated against just about everything innovative. E.g., Cablevision want to launch a service that would centralize storage rather than putting it in the set-top boxes. Just about everyone sued Cablevision for copyright infringement. The court saw that every user would have their own copy of a saved show. The court decided it doesn’t matter where the copies are stored. Herkko says it’s too bad it didn’t go to the Supreme Court so we’d have a definitive decision.

The problem with mythtv, Herkko says, is that it’s not user-friendly. [I spent 1.5 yrs trying to get MythTV to work, and failed :( Wendy Seltzer, seated across the table, has been using MythTV for years.] Tivo is easy but not all that easily hackable. You can’t share TiVo’ed shows, you can modify the code in the box. ReplayTV got sued for having a skip commercials feature, and went bankrupt.

Herkko points to living room clutter as another problem with TV today.

Herkko looks forward to PVRs getting connected to the Internet, because connected users create social networks, and they start to innovate. “We want stupid networked records and intelligent open client-players.” We want connected and tagged shows. We’ll have interactive TV for real, including gambling. Social groups could recommend what to watch.

This all creates privacy problems. E.g., an MIT study discovered they could identify gays by analyzing their social networks, with a high degree of accuracy.

At some point, users will probably start sharing their resources, cluster their recorders. Why should everyone record the same show over and over? Why get it from a central recorder when your neighbors have a copy? Of course, this is what got Replay TV into trouble, Herkko notes. He thinks that the social interaction around shows will happen before and after the show, because people won’t sit with a keyboard in their laps. [Since I’m on the backchannel as I listen to him, I guess I disagree.]

What about ads? Adding social networks would mean that people could watch ads they actually want to watch.

Overall: TV can be fixed. Social networks. Socially-oriented recorders.

Q: This is a compelling vision of the opposite of the Net. The Net is smart at the edges and dumb in the middle. TV has been the opposite. You seem to hope that the future will invert so consumers can get what they want. But consumers have never gotten what they wanted. What will change it?
A: We need brave entrepreneurs to test it in the courts. Having network recorders isn’t that different from having a VCR.

Q: When you were talking about the keyboard in your lap, I think that’s wrong generationally.
A: Voice works while watching tv. But typing and sharing the screen doesn’t.

Q: You’re talking about what the cable companies will do. But then there’s the stuff in the IP world: mythTV, Boxee, etc. That’s where the exciting stuff is.
A: Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.

Q: If the Internet arises to bypass the core, will the quality decline? Will it be more like YouTube style?
A: That’s a real concern. If everyone skips the ads, then there won’t be profit in producing high quality shows. Although there are also premium channels. And in Finland we pay an annual fee and get 4 channels.

Q: There are a lot of forces driving the centralization of TV. With that comes control against innovation at the edges. Is TV going to change or be changed by people sharing content from the edges?
A: If we force a change on TV, the broadcast flag will be re-introduced. Big audiences still demand the lay-back experience.
Q: The sitting back phenomenon has persisted for 50 yrs. Why will it continue?

Q: What is your main research question?
A: When recorders get connected, what sort of innovation are we going to get?

Q: Don’t we need non-Net neutrality to ensure that the video experience over the Net is good enough to inspire innovation in that space?
A: It can be done in other ways. You don’t need immediate delivery of all packets if you’re downloading for viewing late. E.g., in Finland I have a box that records 2 weeks of all 10 channels.

Q: The picture you’re painting is not very TV-like. It’s not broadcast, not one-directional, the business model doesn’t work, we’ll be using our computers…So, it seems like you’re dissolving what TV is. Rather talking about the “social enrichment of TV” [the title of Herkko’s talk], we should be talking about the visual enrichment of the Internet. E.g., how do you see Hulu, which has some community features.
A: I defined TV at the outset: It’s geographically bounded, it’s broadcast, it’s scheduled, etc. And Hulu takes some of the edge approach, but it’s very much a core app. We’re going to see a big shift of control from the rights owners to consumers.

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September 28, 2009

Sidewiki: Google at the center

I agree with Jeff Jarvis’ critique of Google’s Sidewiki.

Sidewiki is ThirdVoice yet again. Both let you write and read comments on a site — actually on the site — so long as you have the proprietary client. ThirdVoice failed mainly because it couldn’t get enough people to install its client. (Of course, one could ask why enough people weren’t interested in this.) Sidewiki might succeed because it’s part of the vastly popular Google Toolbar. And, as Jeff says, that means it might succeed because Google is using its near ubiquity as a center of the Net. Which is troubling. For example, again as Jeff reports, insofar as the commentary on his site about his Sidewiki post occurs in Sidewiki, Google now owns the comments on his post. Troubling.

I think there are reasons to doubt Sidewiki’s success. As more people add comments, we need good ways to sort through them, to eliminate spam, to decide which types of comments are useful to us. Google is promising us algorithms. But algorithms won’t know that I don’t particularly want to read comments about my friend Jeff’s character, but I am particularly interested in what technologists are saying, or about Net politics, or what my friends are saying, or about how to hack Sidewiki.

Sidewiki has its uses. I’d rather see it connected to social networks, and I’d rather see it provided as an open source browser add-in. But I don’t know who should own the comments and what the control mechanisms should be. This is one of the edges of the Web that defies easy answers because it’sso hard to tell what is the center and what are the sides.

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September 27, 2009

Harold Feld responds to Richard Bennett

Here’s Harold’s response to Richard Bennett’s thorough-going critique of Net neutrality and the end-to-end principle it seeks to preserve. An excerpt:

Bennet’s essential argument, if I grasp it correctly, is that certain difficulties most agree are substantial problems would be far easier to solve if we gave the network operators greater freedom to manipulate traffic. While possibly true in the abstract, I am much less convinced it will play out that way in reality.

I am very interested in this debate and will likely post more pointers. My overall concern is the misalignment between the access providers’ interests — they are financially structured to want to sell us content — and our interest in preserving a Net as open to innovation and ideas as we can. I look forward to the discussion among those (like Richard and Harold) who know much much more about this than I do.

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September 26, 2009

Richard Bennett on why Net neutrality gets it wrong

I have only so far read the 5-page executive summary of Richard Bennett’s argument against Net neutrality, but this looks like a piece to be reckoned with by all in the Net neutrality debate.

Here, for flavor and substance, are two key paragraphs from the summary:

The legitimate concerns of network neutrality take place at the network edge, where the network interacts with the user; what goes on inside the network is largely beside the point, and has typically been misstated by network neutrality advocates in any case. The Internet is not a “level playing field” in which each packet gets equal treatment; the design of the Internet, the facilities that users purchase, and the location of servers all cause varying degrees of inequality. The Internet also discriminates by design for and against various uses; structural discrimination can only be mitigated by active management within the network.

It’s more productive to make a diligent effort to understand the Internet’s dynamics, its structure, the challenges it faces, and the tradeoffs that circumscribe the work of network engineers before trying to constrain the Internet’s ever-changing nature. If we do this, we can avoid creating a program of regulation that’s more likely to retard genuine innovation than to nurture it.

I look forward to learning from the discussion this look at the history of the architecture of the Net is going to engender…

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September 25, 2009

Cluetrain on Twitter

Tim Beyers at FastCompany has put together an article about Cluetrain‘s reaction to Twitter. After all, we’re the “markets are conversations” people, so how do we feel about Twitter and its conversations getting valued at a billion bucks?

It turns out that the four of us think different things about Twitter, as Tim indicates in this brief article. My own view is overall quite positive, but compound. I don’t think Twitter is “closer than anything we’ve seen before” to an ideal conversational medium. Twitter conversations are pretty weird because of the brevity of tweets, but mainly because of the asymmetry of the conversation: If the people you’re talking to respond, their responses go to people who may not be following you, and you may not see their responses.

That’s not a criticism. It’s simply to say that Twitter conversations are weird, and not the closest to some Platonic ideal of conversation. It all depends on what you’re trying to do. Twitter is fantastic at some things, but not at everything. And it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways: as a social system, as a news propagation system, as a recommendation engine, as a reputational ecology…

In fact, one of the aspects of Twitter I most admire is its ability to work at multiple scales. As Chris Locke points out in the article, at Oprah-scale Twitter functions just like another broadcast, star-based system. But Twitter also works 1:1, 1:2, 1:100, and so on, functioning differently at each scale. That’s true of the Internet over all, but is not true of any (?) other medium.

So, I find myself both more positive about Twitter than a casual reader of the FastCompany article might think, but also less enthusiastic than one might take it as saying.

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Broadband. Trust them.

At last, that brave band of oppressed companies who have been granted near-monopolies to deliver over-priced, under-performing broadband to the entire USA (exempting the parts they don’t find particularly profitable) have managed to scrape together an organization to give voice to their position. BroadbandForAmerica.com is finally going to air their views about why de-regulated near monopolies are the best and only way to bring affordable, open Internet to everyone in the country — views that until now have gone unheard, except from their hundreds and hundreds of lobbyists. Why, the industry could barely put together a mere $765,000 to send to John McCain’s campaign!

The site itself seems innocuous. Their history of the Internet nods in some appropriate directions, including to Al Gore and to students who have innovated on the Net. (It oddly leaves out Tim Berners-Lee.) Of course, it’s actually a paean to private industry that cleverly equates the role of creative individuals who have contributed mightily for free and the incumbent infrastructure providers whose financial incentives lead them to prefer to tilt the field against cash-starved start-ups. The closest the organization comes to stating its actual intent is in the wording of the print ad they’re running. Hmm. On the open medium of the Internet the organization hides its purpose, but in the controlled medium of print, they come close to stating it. How unexpected!

So, welcome to the Web, BroadbandForAmerica. Now — after your long list of rules of discussion, followed by a forum that is only soliciting happy stories — how about engaging in some honest, forthright discussion?


[Later that day:] Here’s a New Yorker interview with Julius Genachowski about Net Neutrality.

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News is a river is a blog…

WLEX-TV in Lexington, Kentucky, an NBC affiliate, has turned its news site into a blog. It actually contains news produced independently of what goes out on broadcast. Very very interesting. It’s a different way of slicing the news, with much debt to Dave Winer’s river of news idea, and it’ll be fascinating to see how and in what ways it’s useful and how it changes our idea of what news should be.

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September 24, 2009

This just in…to Twitter.

CNN’s breaking news service on Twitter (cnnbrk) has 2.7M followers. Here are all of its posts since August 24, a month’s worth:

Legally insane killer who escaped in Washington state has been captured, authorities say http://bit.ly/tEJTU7:03 PM Sep 20th
Man in terror probe charged with making false statements http://bit.ly/q1Cc01:03 AM Sep 20th

FBI agents raid the home of Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado resident, questioned in an alleged terrorist plot in the U.S. http://bit.ly/GYX4310:37 PM Sep 19th

Source: Man at center of terror probe admits al Qaeda ties http://bit.ly/BmGqB #terror6:11 PM Sep 18th

Lab tech arrested in killing of Yale graduate student, police say http://bit.ly/65bPt7:31 AM Sep 17th

Arrest imminent in Yale student killing, authorities say http://bit.ly/PKZTI5:54 AM Sep 17th

More resources being brought to New York in connection with terror probe that triggered raids this week – http://bit.ly/Kh47I1:13 PM Sep 16th

Election board: Karzai has more than 50 percent of Afghan presidential vote; irregularities still being examined – http://bit.ly/SdjnP9:33 AM Sep 16th

Iraqi man who threw his shoes at then-President Bush released from jail on good behavior http://bit.ly/10AmVr #Iraq3:51 AM Sep 15th

Police: Missing Yale student case is a homicide http://bit.ly/38zdz38:27 PM Sep 13th

Mayor: Blagojevich fundraiser told police he overdosed before death http://bit.ly/MED8U3:34 PM Sep 13th

FBI source: Serial bank robbery suspect arrested http://bit.ly/Nbght9:20 AM Sep 13th

Key Blagojevich player is dead, ex-governor says http://bit.ly/ntZnr5:11 PM Sep 12th

Shuttle lands in California http://bit.ly/DbsDg #shuttle #nasa #discovery7:56 PM Sep 11th

Anti-abortion activist shot dead, Michigan officials say – http://bit.ly/td8lF10:44 AM Sep 11th

Sources: Coast Guard incident a ‘training exercise’ http://bit.ly/1NvjKr9:39 AM Sep 11th

Coast Guard confronts boat as Obama visits Pentagon, police scanner reports say shots fired http://bit.ly/Qh9AO9:13 AM Sep 11th

Former Taiwan president convicted on corruption charges http://bit.ly/FAAhn #Taiwan3:17 AM Sep 11th

Mexican hijacking has ended peacefully; all passengers, crew safe, Mexican authorities say. http://bit.ly/2Stkq3 #mexicocity3:19 PM Sep 9th

At least 5 suspects taken into custody after hijacked plane lands at Mexico City airport – http://bit.ly/2Stkq3 #mexicocity3:09 PM Sep 9th

Crew held in hijacked commercial jet at Mexico City airport; passengers freed – http://bit.ly/LZWxM #mexicocity3:02 PM Sep 9th

Source: Key Senate Democrat proposes dropping public option from heath-care reform http://bit.ly/JJ0eo10:10 AM Sep 7th

3 found guility of plotting to blow up planes on flights between Britain, U.S. and Canada. http://bit.ly/JgZmt9:32 AM Sep 7th

Sudanese woman who wore pants escapes lashes, but faces fine http://bit.ly/gVysu6:55 AM Sep 7th

Suspect arrested in Georgia killings http://bit.ly/2Qgdn6:52 PM Sep 4th

Indonesia quake death toll at 25, could rise, agency says http://bit.ly/1bPSiF9:00 AM Sep 2nd

6 dead in #Indonesia after 7.0 magnitude #earthquake http://bit.ly/dyTYB5:03 AM Sep 2nd

Pres. Obama remembers Ted Kennedy as “champion for those who had none; soul of Democratic Party; lion of U.S. Senate.” http://bit.ly/3FmLyq11:42 AM Aug 29th

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s body arrives at Boston church for his funeral, with President Obama set to deliver the eulogy. http://bit.ly/2zWSWv9:52 AM Aug 29th

The Los Angeles County coroner rules Michael Jackson’s death a homicide – http://bit.ly/1xVyAH #michaeljackson1:45 PM Aug 28th

August deadliest month for U.S. military in Afghanistan since 2001 invasion — 46 dead http://bit.ly/3Cvzor8:50 AM Aug 28th

Author Dominick Dunne dies http://bit.ly/9BmES #dominickdunne4:00 PM Aug 26th

Kennedy to be buried at Arlington Cemetery, Defense Dept. official says – http://bit.ly/XCurP #kennedy11:10 AM Aug 26th

Sen. Edward Kennedy died Tuesday night after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He was 77. http://bit.ly/WiZXA12:25 AM Aug 26th

Chris Brown sentenced to 5 years probation in Rihanna assault #rihanna http://bit.ly/jpJ8w4:21 PM Aug 25th

33 die in Afghan car bomb incident http://bit.ly/snREp11:38 AM Aug 25th

Justice Department asks prosecutor to examine legality of CIA interrogations http://bit.ly/N3Eql #cia #torture2:07 PM Aug 24th

Breakdown:

Total: 38
terrorism: 9
death: 20
Countries mentioned: US, Afghanistan (3), Taiwan, Mexico, Britain, Indonesia, Canada
Plain old crime (non-terrorist): 11
Percentage of tweets that contain actual news: 28.95%

I grant that there’s some subjectivity (=total subjectivity) in deciding what’s actual news. Nevertheless, Google News Timeline will show you at least some of the other events that happened during this month. And this query at Google News will list the 6,600 articles CNN.com posted during the past month, of which these 38 are not the most important, except by some radical redefinition of importance, of news, and of CNN’s dignity.

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September 23, 2009

Interview with Blair Levin kicks off new FCC series

I’ve started a series of interviews with FCC folks and others about the progress of the Broadband Strategy initiative. The site is BroadbandStrategyWeek.com. The first interview is with Blair Levin, who’s in charge of the efforts.

The site is in beta, and I screwed up a few things about the video: I sat too close to the camera, etc. But, I’m in beta, too.

The project came about because I volunteered to do whatever I could to help the Broadband Strategy initiative move forward. I’d met Blair at a get-together. He suggested that I do this series and promised access to his team. He also agreed that this series is completely independent (except, of course, for the fact that it depends on access!) and that I have complete editorial control. I got the Supernova conference to agree to pick up some of the production costs, all of which go directly to Sean Fitzroy, the producer of it.

Most of the interviews will go up unedited. I reserve the right to edit, but will not edit out material because it’s controversial. I may well want to edit out some questions that go nowhere, or stumbles that require a re-do of some sort. In the Blair Levin interview, the only edit (besides the splicing together of my camera’s output with the FCC’s, of course) was to move a joke Blair told at the end to the section to which it referred.

All of the videos are in the public domain (CC0), so you don’t have to ask permission to reuse them, mash them up, etc.

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