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July 29, 2010

GE pushes ahead with software-defined radio … good news for civilians, too?

In a press release that is barely comprehensible (or, quite possible, totally incomprehensible) to one such as I, GE has announced a new generation of components that can be used for, among other things, software-defined radios. It is unclear to me whether this technology is designed for anything except military use, but …

Software-defined radios (SDRs) are not the next generation of transistor radios or boomboxes (ask your parents, kids). They are radios in the more primordial sense of being devices that can receive radio-wave signals. The radios you and I are used to are hard-wired to do one thing: Tune into specific frequencies and translate the radio signals into toe-tapping tunes or the blather of infuriating talk show hosts. SDRs can be programmed to do anything they want with any type of signal they can receive. For example, they might treat messages as, say, maps, or signals to turn on the porch light … or as Internet packets.

SDRs matter a lot if only because they promise an alternative to the current broadcast medium. The way it works now, the FCC divvies up spectrum (i.e., frequencies) for particular uses and sells much of it to particular broadcasters. So, your hard-wired radio responds to particular frequencies as carriers of acoustic information sent by known, assigned providers: 106.7 on your radio dial, or whatever. This is a highly inefficient use of spectrum, like dedicating particular lanes of a multi-lane highway to a specific trucking companies. It’d be far more efficient if transmitters and receivers could intelligently negotiate, in real time, which frequencies they’re communicating on, switching to frequencies that are under-trafficked when a particular “lane” is jammed. If our radio receivers — not just our in-dash radios, but all devices that receive radio wave transmissions — were smart devices (SDRs), we could minimize the amount of spectrum we assign to a handful of highly-capitalized broadcasters. We would have more bandwidth than we could eat.

So, I think it’s good news that GE is pushing ahead with this and is commercializing it … unless I’m misunderstanding their announcement, the technology’s uses, and GE’s intentions to commercialize it.

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September 29, 2009

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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June 10, 2009

[2b2k] Chapter 4 – inappropriately concrete?

Chapter 3 left readers with a problem without resolution. If facts don’t provide as firm a bedrock as we’d thought, then are we left to believe whatever we want? Is there no hope? [Spoiler: No, we're not free to believe whatever we want.]

Because Chapter 3 was pretty abstract, I want to be sure to address its question in some concrete ways. So, Chapter 4 opens with a brief scene-setter that says that we all love diversity, but when there’s too much, we can’t get anything done. I’m now at the beginning of a section that will give maybe four general rules for “scoping” diversity so that a group has enough internal difference to be smarter than the smartest individual, but not so much that they can’t get past bickering. I plan on following that with a more abstract section that asks whether the Net is making us more open or closed to other people’s ideas. At the moment, I like the idea of beginning with the concrete and moving to the abstract, in large part because I think the abstract question is pretty much impossible to answer.

I can’t tell yet if the chapter structure is going to work. There is so much to say about this topic. And I have a concern that the reader is not expecting the book to take this turn. But I won’t be able to tell that until I have enough distance on the prior chapters to be able to read them with some degree of freshness.

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