NDN Blog

Netflix, Cable Companies, and the Evolution of Video

Last week, Wired ran a piece entitled "Netflix Everywhere: Sorry Cable, You're History." It makes a salient point about the contrast between cable's current content-delivery system and the general internet-age trend towards personalization and individualization:

It is odd, in an era when the Internet seems able to worm its way into every part of life, that nearly all of us still watch television the old-fashioned way, piped over cable or beamed in by satellite and available only in bloated packages of channels programmed by network executives.

The point is well-taken. However, I don't buy the underlying premise of the article - that Netflix is in direct competition with cable companies. Netflix is, first and foremost, an internet-based service for renting or watching movies - hence the name Netflix. Yes, Netflix also lets you watch plenty of TV shows, but only after they have been released on DVD. This is fundamentally different from what cable companies offer, which is access to a wide variety of live programming or "new" content.

Rather than framing this as a fight between Netflix and cable, it might be better to think of how cable companies can learn from Netflix's success. And indeed, it seems that they are learning most of the right lessons - several cable companies and Verizon are all launching pilot IPTV programs which will eventually offer much of the same functionality as Netflix, but for new television programming. These services, it seems to me, are likely to peacefully co-exist, and what little overlap there is seems unproblematic.

My hope is that the cable companies really push this effort to its logical conclusion. I recently canceled my cable TV subscription because I found I was wasting too much time watching things I didn't really care about - there were lots of channels, but not much on at any given time that held my interest. However, add a robust recommendation engine and the ability to choose when to watch - an interactive "Dan channel" that would likely consist of the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, the Wire, and sports - and I'd certainly reconsider my decision.

Show Your Support for DropDobbs.com - Wear the Badge!

Earlier this week, Simon explained the simple things you can do to help us get Lou Dobbs and his xenophibia-fueling vitriol off of CNN. But even if you've already signed the petition and shared it with your friends, there's still more that you can do! If you have a website or a blog, embed the Drop Dobbs badge to show your support for the campaign. Just paste in the following code where you want it to show up:

<a href="http://www.dropdobbs.com"><img src="http://www.dropdobbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/dobbsbadge.jpg"></a>

The result should look like this:

Thanks to all of you for the amazing response we've gotten so far, and let's keep up the pressure!

Friday New Tools Feature: Evolve, or Die

The digital age has brought us countless wonders of innovation, and dramatically changed the way we live our lives. Most of my friends can't imagine how people lived before cell phones and Google, and we barely remember life before iTunes. But this rapid and dramatic shift in the media and communications landscape has not been easy for everyone; whole industries are being forced to evolve or perish.

Probably the worst industry in this regard has been the music industry. Their reaction to change has been extremely reactionary and ugly, from the RIAA's ridiculous fines (most recently, a verdict resulting in a multi-million-dollar fine for two dozen songs downloaded from Kazaa, or $80,000 per song), to their new attempt to collect royalties for 30-second sample clips on iTunes (Gizmodo's expletive-laced reaction to this announcement was likely mirrored by most consumers). Unfortunately, fining file sharers is not a sustainable long-term business model. And that's not just a problem for the music industry; it's a problem for those of us who like music, because artists still need to be discovered, promoted, and yes, even paid. What Radiohead did with the release of In Rainbows, where it allowed fans to pay what they wanted for the album, was a brilliant idea, but not a workable solution for many lesser-known bands without Radiohead's status.

Another sector which has been hit hard is journalism. Different publications have taken different routes to maintain their viability; the New York Times, while keeping its site free, is experimenting in paid webinars and other unconventional strategies, while the Wall Street Journal is expanding its pay-wall strategy to include iPhone and BlackBerry apps. Different publications may not be able to adapt in the same ways and expect the same outcomes - what works for TIME may not be the same thing that works for "The Nation." But as Frank Rich pointed out, even with the rise of citizen journalism and blogs, in the end we will still get what we pay for. If we want to have a real democracy, we need much more good journalism, not less. I don't think that the press is doing an incredible job as a whole right now, and throwing money at that problem wouldn't necessarily fix it, but we will have even bigger problems if we allow professional journalism to die.

Finally, we have telecommunications and cable companies. Perhaps because they are so intimately tied in with the digital revolution, these industries are actually doing a pretty good job of evolving as everything coalesces towards one giant communications and entertainment network. Verizon's CEO just announced that instead of worrying about the increasing number of people canceling their land-line phone subscriptions, they will be focusing more on video telecommunications through their FiOS network:

Mr. Seidenberg said that his “thinking has matured” and that trying to predict when the company would stop losing voice landlines “is like the dog chasing the bus.”

Likewise, the cable industry has begun to focus on IPTV, and on making the viewing experience more personalized, interactive, and portable. And that's a good thing. Those accustomed to watching everything for free on the internet may take a little while to come around, but it looks like that model may also be unsustainable; even Hulu is now going to add subscription content and pay-per-view.

Of course, things can change very quickly, and the landscape will likely look quite different in five years, as more and more of these functions migrate to mobile. And those that are unable to adapt will fail: as NOFX said a number of years ago about the record industry, "dinosaurs will die." But if we as consumers value things like music and journalism, we also have to be willing to accept that these things do cost some money to produce, and if we want something better to step in and fill the vacuum, we need to be ready to support good ideas and models by putting our money where our mouths are.

Huffington Post Features DropDobbs Campaign

Yesterday, Simon announced our partnership in a new campaign to get CNN to drop Lou Dobbs. Today, the Huffington Post featured the campaign in their Media section:

This campaign is just getting started, but we're excited that people have already begun to take notice. Please help us keep up the pressure by visiting www.dropdobbs.com.

A Week of Disruption and Interruption

First Joe Wilson, then Serena Williams, and now Kanye. They should go on tour together - Joe Wilson, after all, does like signing autographs (CNN reported he was signing pictures of himself shouting down the President). Here's a video of how that tour might go:

Then we had the 9/12ers. "You have redefined gridlock in Washington, D.C.," Rep. Marsha Blackburn told the crowd. And indeed, a crowd of 1.5 million, as Blackburn said, or 2 million, as estimated by Michelle Malkin and attributed to ABC News, would have been quite disruptive in a city of 600,000. Only problem was, the 9/12ers' "estimates" of the crowd size were off by at least 30x - credible sources had the size of the crowd in the tens of thousands (40 to 60k), and ABC news had never reported any such figure. In a way, it was a nice metaphor for the movement itself - a protest completely divorced from normal reality, a protest literally about nothing. Nothing, that is, other than angry white people shouting non-sequiturs about Fascism and Marxism, upset that their country had been "taken away" by an African-American in a "coup," their terminology for a democratic election.

Wilson and the 9/12ers would be totally comical, if they weren't taken seriously in the media and by the right, as though this sound and fury actually signified something - Joe Wilson, saying he "won't be muzzled," has raised more than a million dollars off the stunt.

Another reason it's not so funny - there are people with real problems out there. This weekend, I watched the video of Neda from Iran being shot again, and it made me incredibly angry at these people - the 9/12ers and Joe Wilsons of the world - protesting about nothing except the decline of white privilege, kicking and screaming and interrupting the adults to make us listen to their pretend problems.

Friday New Tools Feature: The Melding of Man, Machine, and Media

I've been writing a fair bit recently about augmented reality, which I believe has the potential to revolutionize the way we consume media and information, particularly on mobile devices. However, as has been pointed out, one of the main limitations of augmented reality technology is that you have to be looking "through" your phone for it to work.

So, while reading an article in Wired about flexible OLED screens (like the one pictured at left), this particular passage sparked my interest: 

Ultimately, OLED has potential applications far beyond HDTV. OLED displays can be printed on a flexible plastic substrate, and foldable screens with the thickness of a credit card have already been demonstrated at CES 2009. Clear OLED screens will also eventually be possible, so that a window in your house could double as a TV screen.

We've seen these screens before, but with AR on my mind, I wondered if this tech could be used to create augmented reality glasses or contact lenses, which could work as a secondary display for a mobile device. As it turns out, the folks at Wired seemed to be thinking the same thing - they had articles today about BOTH of these technologies. While the prospect of AR glasses is tantalizing (and likely not all that far off), the contact lens piece in particular caught my attention, because it represents a real blurring of the line between the biological and the technological with respect to perception and cognition. As the article explains, it also has interesting implications for mHealth, something we're excited to be working on here at NDN.  From the piece:

Scientists, eye surgeons, professors and students at the University of Washington have been developing a contact lens containing one built-in LED, powered wirelessly with radio frequency waves.

Eventually, more advanced versions of the lens could be used to provide a wealth of information, such as virtual captions scrolling beneath every person or object you see. Significantly, it could also be used to monitor your own vital signs, such as body temperature and blood glucose level.

Why a contact lens? The surface of the eye contains enough data about the body to perform personal health monitoring, according to Babak Parvis, a University of Washington professor of bionanotechnology, who is working on the project.

The augmented reality people are on board, too, and thinking even bigger. The CEO of Layar, the pre-eminent emerging augmented reality platform for mobile devices, believes that "a consumer-oriented, multipurpose lens is just one example of where augmented-reality technology will take form in the near future. [We should] expect these applications to move beyond augmenting vision and expand to other parts of the body."

The potential applications for mHealth are exciting - as one of the researchers developing these lenses explains,

A contact lens with augmented-reality powers would take personal health monitoring several steps further, Parvis said, because the surface of the eye can be used to measure much of the data you would read from your blood tests, including cholesterol, sodium, potassium and glucose levels.

However, the most radical part of this technology may not be its health applications - we've seen artificial organs employed to help sick people - but the way that it is being employed to expand the capacaties of healthy people in exciting ways, adding new capabilities that no human ordinarily possesses.

Joe Wilson Lies

After his embarassingly infantile display last night, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson apologized, but maintained that he still disagreed with President Obama. Problem is, he's still wrong. As Rob explained on CNBC recently (see video below), the bill does not confer any benefits upon undocumenteds that they do not already have. In fact, as this Salon article points out, the bill actually puts undocumented immigrants at a pretty serious disadvantage:

The real irony is that, for all the talk about illegal immigrants benefiting from Americans' tax dollars, if the House bill passed in its current form, it would be just one more way in which they're actually disadvantaged when it comes to entitlements. Because of a loophole in existing federal law, illegal immigrants would be subject to the mandate that everyone buy health insurance -- the same way states require drivers to have car insurance. But they wouldn't get the tax credit everyone else will get to help them comply with that mandate. Similarly, when it comes to Social Security and taxes, illegal immigrants often pay in to the system without any hope of seeing a return, whether in the form of benefits or tax refunds.

Joe Wilson, it seems to me, exemplefies a recent trend in GOP behavior; still flat-out wrong, but in a more petulant, defiant manner. They don't just ignore the facts, they give them the proverbial finger. As our President once said, "It's like they're proud of their ignorance."

Friday New Tools Feature: Mobile Internet Narrows the Digital Divide Domestically

My colleague Sam duPont has been doing excellent work writing about how mobile technology is helping to provide information services and access in deveoping countries. As a recent Pew Internet and American Life survey helps to illustrate, the same is true within our own country, where socio-economic conditions have traditionally prevented many from accessing the internet, and thus put the less fortunate at an even more profound disadvantage in today's data-centric world.

Here are some of the most important findings of the study:

  • 48% of Africans Americans have at one time used their mobile device to access the internet for information, emailing, or instant-messaging, half again the national average of 32%.
  • 29% of African Americans use the internet on their handheld on an average day, also about half again the national average of 19%.
  • Compared with 2007, when 12% of African Americans used the internet on their mobile on the average day, use of the mobile internet is up by 141%.

The high level of activity among African Americans on mobile devices helps offset lower levels of access tools that have been traditional onramps to the internet, namely desktop computers, laptops, and home broadband connections.

The study found that, "by a 59% to 45% margin, white Americans are more likely to go online using a computer on a typical day than African Americans." However, "when mobile devices are included in the mix, the gap is cut in half; 61% of whites go online on the average day when mobile access is included while 54% of African Americans do."

Of course, even with high-end mobile devices like the iPhone, there are still very significant differences in functionality between your typical internet-enabled mobile device and a notebook or desktop. And, especially if data is being accessed over carrier networks instead of WiFi, there is a pretty big difference speed. There were several columns this week, including two in the New York Times (1 | 2), about how iPhone users (particularly those in dense cities, where bandwidth issues are the most glaring) are angry about how slow their download speeds are. Indeed, in explaining why they're so far behind schedule in allowing iPhone users to use MMS, AT&T admitted that their network was struggling to keep up with the demand for data:

We're riding the leading edge of smartphone growth that's resulted in an explosion of traffic over the AT&T network. Wireless use on our network has grown an average of 350 percent year-over-year for the past two years, and is projected to continue at a rapid pace in 2009 and beyond. The volume of smartphone data traffic the AT&T network is handling is unmatched in the wireless industry.

It is true that at this point mobile internet alone cannot totally bridge the digital divide (it's still pretty hard to apply for many jobs, or do word processing or website work, without a real computer). However, with the implementation of 4G networks over the next few years, and the exponential increase in smartphone sophistication we're likely to see - in particular, the app ecosystem is still in its infancy, and is likely to explode in utility much as the internet did - this report should still be read as an essentially positive sign.

Politico on the 2012 Presidential Field

With the circus side-show that has been passing for an opposition these days, it's easy to feel that President Obama won't face any serious challenge for reelection in 2012. But today, Politico ran this as their top story:

It's unlikely that either of these guys would be a moose-hunting mess of a candidate, and it should serve as a reminder to the Dems that, regardless of how ridiculous the right may seem right now, they still need to get their own act together.

Random Site of the Week

One of the things I actually like about Twitter is that it tends to help you find random gems on the internet. Take, for instance, the site angrytownhall.com, which cleverly lampoons the arguments against government involvement in healthcare and the American fetish for privitization. Their stated goal is to ensure that "by 2012, all fire services will be provided and funded through private fire companies, including but not limited to: Blackwater (XE), Halliburton, Monsanto, Lockheed, and China."

Well-executed satire with a poignant message. Check it out.

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