Friday, August 29, 2008

Comcast limits bandwidth

Comcast announced today that starting October 1st, it will limit bandwidth usage for its high-speed Internet customers to 250GB/month. The first time that a subscriber exceeds the limit, they'll get a warning; if they do it again within six months, their high-speed Internet service could be turned off for a year. That's right, a year.

It's no surprise that Comcast is implementing bandwidth caps. The company was penalized by the FCC for interfering with BitTorrent traffic, so it's looking for alternative ways of limiting its network load. However, its decision raises two issues: First, is 250GB/month an appropriate limit, and second, how will consumers measure their bandwidth use to make sure that they don't use more than the maximum?

Comcast's press release gives examples of what can fit into 250GB: 50 million emails or 124 standard-definition movies. The problem, of course, is that people don't use their Internet connections for only one purpose, such as email--they use them for many different things. Someone who uses an online backup and restore service for their hard disk could use up most of their monthly limit in one session. If you use Vonage, Skype or some other VoIP service, that's going to count against your monthly limit. (One assumes that you'll be able to use Comcast's own VoIP service as much as you want, however.) And, if you've got something like a Slingbox or AppleTV, you could use as much as 15MB per minute of video. So, 250GB could get used up very quickly.

That brings us to the second issue: Comcast is providing no way whatsoever for subscribers to see how much bandwidth they've used. They recommend that customers install bandwidth monitoring software on their computers. That's all well and good for PC applications, but it won't track usage by a TiVo, Squeezebox, Slingbox, Vonage VoIP adapter, or similar devices. Mobile phone companies can tell subscribers their phone usage down to the second--why can't Comcast provide a webpage that tracks subscribers' bandwidth usage? After all, they have to be measuring it in order to enforce their 250GB limit.

Perhaps Comcast thinks that so many people will complain about this limit that they'll get the FCC to agree to content-based throttling. I think that it's more likely that the reverse will happen--Comcast will tick so many people off that the FCC will once again intervene and force the company to adopt a much higher limit. When subscribers who are using their Internet connections for perfectly legitimate purposes start to see their service cut off, the feces will hit the fan.

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It does everything except wash your dishes

According to Gizmodo, Blaupunkt just introduced a new PND (Personal Navigation Device, or in-car GPS) for the European market, the Travel Pilot N700. This device has an amazing array of capabilities, centered around a camera built into the device that displays the road ahead. The N700 overlays driving instructions on the display, so you actually see them on the road's surface. It also reads traffic signs and overlays that information onto the display (the design of traffic signs is much more uniform in Europe than it is in the U.S., which makes recognition of European signs easier; this is one reason why this model is Europe-only for now.) It's also got voice recognition, live traffic information, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling and even a built-in DVB receiver for watching television when the car is stopped. The N700 will sell for around $740. Considering that built-in navigation systems typically cost $1,500 to $2,000, Blaupunkt's new model has to be considered a bargain. Here's a video of the unit in action.
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Are DVD "special features" doomed?

Once upon a time, there were VHS videocassettes, which could hold a movie, a few trailers, and nothing else. When DVDs hit the market in 1997, they could hold not only a movie and trailers, but subtitles in multiple languages, multiple soundtracks and menus for navigation. However, DVDs were initially much more expensive than videocassettes, and their usability features weren't always enough to justify the price difference. So, home video distributors hit on a strategy of adding value with commentaries and "the making of" documentaries. Before long, they learned that they could release the same movie title two or three times, each time adding more special features. A small but determined group of fans would buy every version, just to be sure that they got all the special features.

Today, we've become accustomed to getting a commentary and some documentaries on every DVD. In fact, many people won't buy a DVD if it doesn't have a sufficient number of special features; they'll either rent it or watch it on a Pay-per-View service. I used to be one of those people, but I recently took a look at a wall full of DVDs and realized that 1) I had never watched them more than once, and 2) I rarely watched any of the documentaries or listened to the commentaries.

And so we come to Blu-Ray and digital downloads. Early Blu-Ray discs had far fewer special features than their DVD counterparts, although that gap is narrowing every day. Digital downloads generally don't have special features (except for subtitles in some cases). Is the presence or absence of special features going to drive user acceptance, as it did with DVD?

I don't think so. While Blu-Ray has been far from a big success, it's clear that consumers are buying it for image quality, not special features. Digital downloads are being rented and bought for convenience; the absence of special features is actually a benefit, because it keeps file sizes smaller and shortens download times.

The implication of all this is that commentaries and documentaries are on their way out. As a former DVD producer, I can tell you that special features cost a lot of money. As they're increasingly seen as "nice-to-haves" rather than "must-haves," producers will cut back. By and large, I don't think that viewers will miss them.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that you get to meet Jamie Lee Curtis! The bad news is that you have to talk to her about your irregularity.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Apples and Oranges, Comcast-Style

Okay, I admit it--I've been watching the Olympics on NBC in a Comcast market. Comcast is running a game-show style ad that purports to show that Comcast has more HD than DirecTV all the time, at any time. The problem is that Comcast is comparing apples and oranges: DirectTV has far more HD channels than Comcast does, but Comcast has several hundred hours of HD content in its Video-on-Demand systems. Thus, at any one time, you can watch approximately 100 hours of live HD content on DirecTV, or perhaps half that much on Comcast, with several hundred additional hours of recorded VOD content available. Further, a lot of Comcast's HD content is in the form of pay-per-view movies. So, who really has the most HD? If you're counting channels, DirecTV wins hands-down. If you're counting the number of hours of HD content available at any one time, Comcast wins. Personally, I'd be a lot happier if both companies spent less money tossing grenades at each other and more money improving their customer service.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Apple: Human, After All

Ever since the launch of the 3G iPhone, Apple has been showered with decidedly mixed news. One the one hand, iPhone sales took off much faster than sales of the original iPhone, but who can forget the lines, delays and frustration of buyers when Apple's iTunes-based authorization system failed? In the U.S., the 3G iPhone is still subject to inventory shortages and a long purchase and approval process.

Now, 3G iPhone users from around the world are complaining of poor 3G reception and speeds little better than the EDGE 2G service of the original iPhone. In the U.S., AT&T and Apple maintained a stony silence about the problems, but in other countries, service providers laid the problem at the feet of Apple. An industry analyst conjectured that the Infineon chipset that Apple used for the 3G iPhone was to blame, a Swedish engineering magazine confirmed the problem (though not necessarily the source), and a Business Week article appears to substantiate that conclusion.  While Richard Windsor, the Nomura Securities analyst who wrote the original report, believes that the problem is in hardware, the BusinessWeek article indicates that the parties involved think that the problem can be fixed in firmware. None of this matters to customers, who just want a phone that works as advertised.

The iTunes Application Store has been a grand success, generating a million dollars in sales a day for Apple and still growing. On the other hand, developers are complaining about Apple's slow (and seemingly capricious) approval process for adding their software to the Store--an approval process that nonetheless let through a program called "I Am Rich," which cost $999 and did nothing except flash a red icon on the iPhone's screen. According to reports, eight people actually bought the package before Apple took it down.

mobileMe, Apple's replacement for .mac, was launched well before it was ready, which caused millions of .mac users who were forced to switch over to mobileMe to lose access to their email and be unable to synchronize their devices for long stretches of time. The problems caused The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, who's usually an Apple champion, to warn users to stay away from mobileMe until the service matures.

Let's not forget AppleTV, which even in its second version has failed to gain market traction. Roku's Netflix Player sold out quickly, and the company has had a hard time catching up with demand, but AppleTVs gather dust on store shelves around the U.S.

These glitches indicate that there are some serious problems in Apple's product review and release process, as well as its online infrastructure. How Apple responds to these problems, and how long they persist, will indicate whether or not the company has gotten too big for its own good. In any event, Apple is human, after all.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Should You Get a DTV Converter Anyway?

It's impossible to watch television in the U.S. lately without seeing ads reminding viewers that analog transmissions will end on February 17, 2009 (except for low-power stations.) Like most viewers, I've ignored these messages, because I'm a cable subscriber, and over-the-air service is lousy in my area. However, there's potentially a good reason to get a coupon and buy a converter, if you have one or more sets with analog tuners: Over-the-air broadcasters will be able to multicast--send multiple subchannels of programming within a single digital channel. In my market, there are three stations that are already multicasting, and I receive their multicast channels on Comcast cable. However, there is no FCC rule that requires cable or satellite operators to multicast every channel put on the air by broadcasters.

In my market (San Francisco/San Jose), the subchannels of commercial broadcasters are being used for weather services and news rebroadcasts--nothing astounding. Nevertheless, broadcasters are being offered a plethora of programming to fill these new subchannels, and some of it might be interesting. In any event, if you've got some analog sets and you're not planning to toss them out anytime soon, you might consider getting some of them digital converter coupons, and then purchasing a converter box.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Seismic Change

Whether we like it or not, the U.S. is going through the biggest period of change--economically, socially and technologically--since the end of the Second World War. At the end of WWII, hundreds of thousands of servicemen returned from overseas, got married and started families. These families needed homes, cars, appliances, furniture, and so on, bringing the true end of the Great Depression and the launch of the greatest economic growth ever seen. Demand for housing led to the birth and growth of the suburbs, and the Interstate Highway system, originally launched by President Eisenhower, enabled Americans to move into every nook and cranny of the country by car.

I just watched a story on a local television newscast, discussing the potential "slummification" of suburbs around Sacramento, CA, as residents abandon them to be closer to their jobs and public transit. The story quoted one forecast of more than 22 million excess homes in suburbia nationwide by 2025. These "McMansions" are generally woefully energy inefficient and well away from major public transit corridors, so their owners get hit by energy costs when they're at home, as well as when they're driving to and from work. The pendulum is swinging back to high-density, in-city housing.

I've often believed that we would eventually rue the day that we gutted our passenger rail and street car systems, and that day has come. Now, cities around the country are trying to build or extend their public transportation systems, at enormous cost.

This radical relocation of people is just one element of the change. Automobile preferences have changed almost overnight from trucks and SUVs to high-mileage passenger cars. Some SUVs coming off of three-year leases can't be sold, for almost any price. The future of the American car companies lies in their European and Asian operations; the salvation of GM is likely to say Opel, Vauxhall, Holden or GM Shanghai somewhere on it.

These are only a taste of the changes underway. The U.S. that we're becoming will increasingly look like a 21st Century version of the country in the early 20th century.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

A Huge Win for Cablevision (and for consumers)

Earlier today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District reversed a previous ruling that Cablevision's network PVR service infringed the rights of content owners. In 2006, Cablevision announced its network PVR service, called RS-DVR, which was based on technology from Arroyo Video Solutions, a company that was subsequently acquired by Cisco. The big advantage of a centralized PVR system is that conventional set-top boxes can provide video recording capabilities; in-home PVRs, with their cost and complexity, aren't needed. Network PVRs are the standard in China, India and other countries where subscriber income precludes the cost of in-home PVRs.

Almost immediately after Cablevision's announcement, a flock of content companies, including CBS, Viacom, News Corp., Time Warner, Disney and NBC Universal, filed suit to stop deployment of RS-DVR. In the initial court case, the media companies prevailed and won an injunction that precluded Cablevision from offering RS-DVR. Today's decision by a three-judge panel overturned the lower court's ruling and lifted the injunction. These articles provide more details about the ruling itself.

This is not the last word in the case, of course. The media companies can request that the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District rehear the case. No matter how that turns out, the losing side can appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which can (but isn't obligated to) hear the appeal. However, we're a giant step closer to legal network PVR service in the United States, which will likely mean lower costs for consumers.
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