Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Video quality of NBC's streaming of the Tour de France (good) and Olympics (bad)

I watched NBC's streaming of the Tour de France (TDF) and am now watching the Olympics. The TDF video quality was good and I watched a ton of it. That contrasts with the Web video of the Olympics, which is un-watchable on my laptop, passable on an iMac and fine on an iPad or iPhone. If you'd like some details, read on. Let's start with the TDF.

During the TDF, download speed was adjusted dynamically. The stream would begin immediately, at 360 Kbps. At that speed, the image was blurry, but, as the video buffer filled, the speed increased and the image cleared up.

The user could display the maximum and current speeds, as shown here.


While the current speed varied automatically (.350, .600, .950, 1.5, 2.1, 3.5 Mbps), the maximum seemed to be fixed during a session -- it was either 2.1 or 3.3 Mbps. Perhaps NBC set the maximum as a function of network load at the time the stream started. Note that the last mile connection at my home was not a constraint. As shown here, I was getting over 16 Mbps at the time.


I watched the Tour on a Dell laptop with 4 GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 CPU with a 3.06 Ghz clock speed and an Nvidia Quadro FX 770M display chip. The video on my 1,920 x 1,200 pixel display was clear and fluid when the speed was 960 Kbps or more even though, as you see below, I had other application open and the CPU usage was high.


Well, that is the good news, now for NBC's streaming of the Olympics -- the bad news.

Unlike the TDF, video quality was reported in horizontal resolution and the user could control the setting, which ran from 240 to 1040p. There was also an automatic setting, which NBC set at 480p.

I don't know how that automatic level of 480p was chosen, but it was overly optimistic. The video was jerky at that speed, with pauses and jumps. The quality was not good enough to watch a fast moving sport like basketball, and it was disconcerting when watching rowing, a less dynamic sport. At the higher speeds, the video was terrible.

To get fluid video, I had to step down to 360p, but, as you see below, the image is noticeably blurry at full screen. (Click the image to see full full screen size):

I found the video on my laptop unacceptable, so I tried it on my wife's iMac, which has a 2.8 Ghz dual core CPU, 2 GB memory and a Radeon HD2600 display chipset. The automatic quality setting was 480p, as for my laptop, but the video was smoother.

I went back to the laptop, killed all applications, and restarted the video stream. The perceived quality was no better than before. I started the task manager to compare it with the TDF run above. It was using less memory because I had killed other applications, but the CPU performance was more variable. Might that be due to Flash somehow?


I also installed the Olympic streaming apps on my wife's iPhone and iPad. There were no video quality controls, but it turned out that the video ran smoothly and looked good on both.


I suspect that that was due to a combination of fewer pixels to push, optimized hardware and no Flash.

The bottom line is that almost all of my Olympic viewing will be on over the air television, as limited as the coverage is. I won't be watching on the Web, but might watch a little on the iPad or iPhone.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Google unveils Gigabit network in Kansas City -- will they disrupt the ISP and mobile access industries? (and other questions)

Google has announced three pricing plans for gigabit networking in Kansas City:

Gigabit +, $120/month: You get 1 Gbps Internet access plus TV. You also get a 2TB cloud DVR with 8 virtual tuners and a Nexus 7 tablet that you can use as your remote control.

Gigabit Internet, $70 per month: You get 1 Gbps Internet access plus "advanced" WiFi and 1TB of cloud storage on Google Drive.

Free Internet, $0 per month: You get 5 Mbps, but there is a one time, $300 construction charge that can be paid in $25 installments.

Note that they are not even bothering with a telephone/TV/Internet "triple play" -- they assume you will do IP telephony and/or have a cell phone.
Google's rollout scheduling is innovative. Instead of doing purely speculative installation in various parts of the city, they are asking people to pay $10 to pre-register. Those pre-registrations will determine the scheduling of installation in various "fiberhoods." The fiberhoods with the highest pre-registration percentage during the next six weeks will get Google fiber first.

They urge people to encourage their neighbors to pre-register and they have sweetened the pot by promising to give community buildings like schools, libraries and hospitals in the fiberhood free Gigabit Internet.

Well, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Is the Internet service symmetric? How many fiberhoods will Kansas City be divided into? Local channels are included in the television coverage, but which other channels will be included? Will there be bandwidth caps? Will the subscriptions be month-to-month? How good a job will they do integrating the Nexus 7 controller with the TV set? What will be the uptake and response to the fiberhood rollout plan? What new applications will be developed to utilize the bandwidth? Will Google "seed" the Gigabit application market?

I wonder what Google's deal with Kansas City looks like. The City is gaining valuable infrastructure and Google is getting a pilot-test network. Is Google paying anything for access to City tunnels and conduit? Is the City paying anything to Google? (Remember that many cities wanted in on the program). Is there any sort of exclusivity? Time limits?

This also reminds me of Google's 2007 WiFi rollout in Mountain Veiw, California. I've not heard much about that recently, and looking at the project Web site, it does not seem like a lot has been happening.

The most important question is -- what will be the response of the cable and telephone companies in Kansas City? Google's high speed service is a direct competitor to cable companies (and FIOS where available) and the slow, free service competes with DSL. And, just maybe Google has provisioned enough fiber to eventually provide backhaul from cell towers. Is this the beginning of the end of the "gentleman's agreement" to divide up landline and mobile Internet access among the cable and telephone companies?

Regardless, my hat is off to Google for trying and I hope they succeed!

----

Google has answered the questions about their contract terms. After a year, you have paid your $300 construction fee in full. For TV customers, your first set top box (and Nexus 7) are free. You can rent ($5 per month) or buy ($120) more if you have multiple TVs.

They also adjusted some of the fiberhood thresholds to make it easier for poor neighborhoods to qualify.

-----

Timothy B. Lee provided answers to my questions about Google's deal with the city in a post entitled How Kansas City taxpayers support Google Fiber. Lee points out that the city offered Google many incentives and includes a link to the text of their agreement for those wishing to delve into the details. It turns out that Google is receiving power, office and equipment space and more.

The Olympics online -- first impressions


I've registered to watch NBC's Live Extra, live streaming of all 302 events in the 32 sports. I'll be able to see it in a Web browser on my laptop and using the apps I installed on my wife's iPhone and iPad.

I just visited the Live Extra site for the first time, and my first impression was "wow, a lot of ads." Here is a screen shot. What do you think?

Next, I went to the event listings. You can switch between the schedule of currently live events and events on any future day. You can also filter the listing by sport or live TV channel. (Over-the-air is not one of the channels, because one must have a cable subscription to access the live streaming). In the following screen shot, I have selected archery. Live archery events are available between 1/28 and 8/3. Two events will be streamed on the 28th and one will be a medal match. You can also sign up for email notification thirty minutes before an even begins.

This is pretty cool. I only had one small complaint regarding notifications. You have to sign up for notifications one at a time. It would save time and confusion if you could select several events at once and request notification on all of them.


Since there were no events streaming at the time, I clicked on I clicked on the viewer's guide and was treated to a 30 second auto insurance commercial followed by a 2:17 teaser for the days events, which included more advertising.
That was followed by a pause of about 30 seconds after which a second video loaded and played automatically. This one was a 4:16 recap of last year's women's soccer match, which was also preceded by a commercial. There were a bunch of similar videos queued up for viewing.

Well, those are my first impressions. The bottom line: a cool program schedule and a lot of advertising. I also wrote some posts on NBC's online coverage of the Tour de France, which cost $29, but had much less advertising.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Obama perpetuates an Internet urban legend ... not

In a recent campaign speech in Roanoke Virginia, President Obama defended government, pointing to its role in projects like building Hoover Dam, putting a man on the moon or creating the Internet. Regarding the Internet, he said:
The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
That remark led Wall Street Journal columnist and former publisher Gordon Crovitz to write an opinion article giving "full credit" for the invention of the Internet to the Xerox Corporation.

Crovitz' article ignores so much that it would be hard to know where to start in refuting him, but I don't need to do that. The LA Times, Wired Magazine, arstechnica and countless others have shot the article down. (For an in-depth, nuanced discussion of the invention of computer networks by the people who actually did it, subscribe to the Internet History list).

Let's switch gears and ask what might have motivated Mr. Crovitz to embarrass himself and the Wall Street Journal by writing the article. A cynic might think this was a deliberate attempt by the Wall Street Journal to deceive voters, but, jaded as I am, I can't imagine them explicitly deciding to do that.

I think it is an example of confabulation by Mr. Crovitz and his editors at the Wall Street Journal. We all confabulate to some extent. We are masters of subconscious rebuttal -- quick to explain away new information that undermines our beliefs. Without thinking, "yes, but ..." springs to mind.

I would be willing to bet that Mr. Crovitz is a Republican who opposes President Obama and believes that relative to private business, government is bureaucratic, inefficient, wasteful and perhaps even corrupt.

When The President said "Government research created the Internet," Mr. Crovitz internal confabulator immediately and subconsciously ginned up a response -- Xerox Corporation.

Maybe it is unfair to beat up on Mr. Crovitz. We all confabulate -- that is why newspapers and other news organizations have editors and editorial review. This article sounds more like The Onion than The Wall Street Journal. The editors blew it.

(Still, I would nominate Mr. Crovitz for the 2012 Ted Stevens memorial Internet Pipes Award).

Thumbs up for NBCs coverage of the Tour de France

I've watched the Tour de France for years on television, but earlier this year, I cut the cord -- gave up my cable TV subscription -- and started streaming my video entertainment online. Since I could no longer get live television coverage, I paid NBC $29 for ala carte access to their 21 day online coverage of The Tour.

The bottom line -- I loved it. Let me list some of the things I liked.

In past years, I had to get up around 5 AM to watch coverage. NBC streamed The Tour live, but they buffered it online, so, if I got up late, I could still watch from the start. As soon as a stage finished, they archived it, so I could watch it later in the day if I was unable to watch live.

Since the real time video coverage was buffered, I could pause, fast forward, etc. My favorite feature here was a single click button to back up 15 seconds. Want to replay the last minute? Four quick clicks do the trick.


Since NBC charged for access, they kept the advertising reasonable. There were some banner ads, but no traditional 30 or 60 second video spots like on television. In full-screen mode, there were no banner ads at all.

There were three viewing modes -- full screen and two windowed modes, expand and reveal.

Here we see the full screen mode, with only narrow logo across the top:


This is the expand windowed mode with banner ads at the top of the screen:


The reveal windowed mode adds extra information like running commentary and links to highlight videos:


The windowed modes had ads, but they did not really bother me. The greater distraction in a windowed mode is the temptation to click away and read your email or do some other work. While I did my share of that, full screen is the mode for sitting back and passively watching.

You could also switch to the NBC Web site to track live race progress and get information on the riders, teams, and standings as well as see interviews, video, news, photos and dynamic stage maps like the one shown here:


Dynamic information on the progress of the race also popped up from time to time, as shown below. The popup in this example conveys a lot of information -- there are 30.9 kilometers remaining in this stage and the race leader, in the yellow jersey, is 8 minutes and 21 seconds behind the leaders, who are shown. There is a pursuit group 53 seconds behind the leading group, and last year's winner, Cadel Evans, is 10 minutes 3 seconds behind the leaders. (Click the image to enlarge it).


These popups were not distracting, and, in fact, I would have liked to be able to display them on demand. (That would probably not be possible since they can only be computed when the riders pass fixed observation points on the road).

The race is over now, but an archive of 261 videos remains on the NBC Web site -- full stage replays, highlights of stages, pre and post stage analysis, interviews of riders, etc.


This video material, along with the other archived extras, is a treasure trove of material for sports historians, journalists, fans and re-mixers. I hope NBC leaves it there forever, but, when I asked them what they planned to do with the material, I got no answer.

I will finish where I started -- this was terrific coverage of a live sporting event -- a win for cord cutters.

Monday, July 23, 2012

If I lived in Riga, I would not bother to cut the cord

Triple play pricing from the top 15 ISPs
(Versions of this post appeared on aNewDomain and Slashdot. There is extensive discussion at Slashdot).

Living in the US, we can lose perspective, assuming that things are the same in other places as here. I am a cord cutter, but, if I lived in Riga or Paris or many other cities I would not have cut the cord.

Instead, I would be a "triple play" subscriber, receiving television, telephone and Internet connectivity from one service provider.

I cut the cord to save money. I live in Los Angeles and pay Time Warner $84.94 (plus $6.56 tax and fees) for telephone service and Internet connectivity at "up to" 20 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload speed. Adding digital TV to round out the triple play would cost me an additional $58.99 per month -- just about what I paid for my Roku box.

If I lived in Riga, I would simply get a triple play subscription with 20 Mbps up and 5 Mbps down from service provider Balti-Com for $25.43. That price was disclosed in the New America Foundation report The Cost of Connectivity, which compares prices charged by 885 ISPs in 22 cities worldwide.

Above, you see the triple play prices of the 15 cheapest ISPs in the comparison. My triple play would be about $150 per month in Los Angeles. Now, to be fair, I don't know how the TV content in Riga compares to what I would get in Los Angeles, speed measurements can be slippery and parts of the city may not be covered, but the price difference is dramatic.

A clue to the source of that difference is the fact that five of the top 15 ISPs are in Paris. That is what competition looks like in "socialist" France. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, the only alternative I have to Time Warner Cable for Internet service is Verizon DSL at 3.1 Mbps, a non-starter.

As study co-author Benjamin Lennett says, our telephone and cable companies have arranged a "negotiated truce" in which cable incumbents enjoy a de facto monopoly on high-speed broadband service, while Verizon and AT&T focus primarily on their wireless platforms.

The report attributes the French success to a regulatory decision in 2000 that forced the former state-owned monopoly, France Telecom, to open its network to rival operators. The US Congress tried to spur competition in a similar manner with the Telecommunication Act of 1996, but the incumbent operators defeated that attempt in courts and state houses.

William Kennard, who, as chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001, was charged with implementing the Telecommunications Act, stated near the end of his term that “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service.” He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition -- often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”

Along with many many others, I've been writing about this sort of thing for years, but the situation seems to get progressively worse. In 1996, when the Telecommunication act was passed, I could choose among many ISPs. Today, I have only one viable choice, and the price is about six times what I would be paying in Riga.
=====

Update 11/19/2013

Retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller has written a bill designed to save the US Internet by bringing competition to the ISP and video markets. Incumbents in both markets have succeeded in stifling competition, but maybe this bill has slim chance of doing what Congress tried to do with the Telecommunication Act of 1996. We can dream.



Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Apple simplicity myth -- iTunes/iOS upgrade is a kludge

The Macintosh was the first affordable personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI). Doug Engelbart invented the GUI and Xerox refined it at their Palo Alto Research Center, but they could not make an affordable machine with a GUI -- the Xerox Star failed. The first time Apple tried (the Lisa), they also failed, but the Macintosh succeeded. The Mac embodied creative hardware and software design and was a significant innovation. The early Macs were underpowered, but they were much simpler to use than DOS PCs and could run unique applications.

That innovation earned Apple their ease of use reputation, but the world has caught up. Today, Apple's ease of use advantage is a myth. Computers are complex devices and Apple is fully capable of building kludges. Let me give you an example.

Yesterday I installed the NBC Olympic Games app on my wife's iPad -- the tablet that is so simple your Mom could use it.

Maybe, if she had a degree in computer science.

I will give you the step by frustrating step account of the process below, but the bottom line is that it took about two hours, several nervous moments and several trips to Google because I had to upgrade iOS and install a new version of iTunes before installing the app.

I think my wife is a typical iPad user. She likes it, but has not upgraded anything since the day she got it. I can imagine thousands of folks just like her trying to install that Olympic app and either giving up or zapping their iPads.

As you see below, it is a daunting task and far from self-explanatory.

Perhaps the saddest part is that the process is obscure. Two computers are involved -- why? What is the data flow between them? What happens when I click a button? Dealing with technology you do not understand is alienating. It makes you nervous and forces you to rely on others.

Intented or not, the "simple" iPad/iTunes design seems to be a good way to keep customers paying for extended support contracts and making visits to the "geniuses" who work in Apple stores.

Well, enough of that. Here is the step by step account of my installation of the NBC Olympic games app:
  • I found the app in the App Store, but when I tried to install it, an alert box told me that it required iOS 5. I suspect that my wife is typical of iPad users -- she was using the verison of iOS that came with the machine.
  • No big deal, it just said to plug the iPad into a PC or Mac and follow the upgrade instructions. <snarky aside> I can upgrade my Windows PC without plugging into an iPad </snarky aside>.
  • I plugged it in and tried to upgrade, but then it told me I needed iTunes version 10.4 or better on my laptop to upgrade iOS on the iPad.
  • After a bit of hunting around, I found the iTunes upgrade button and clicked on it, but nothing happened. No user interface feedback.
  • So, I fired up a Web browser and downloaded iTunes from Apple.com. The file was huge and it took what seemed like about half an hour to download and install it.
  • Once that was done, I started the install, only to be told that my wife had purchases that would be lost if I did not move them to the library. Not being an iTunes user, I did not understand that, so had to go to Google to see what "library" they were talking about and how to move things to it.
  • I moved her purchases to the library, then started the update. Things went well for a while, but when I came back half an hour later to see what was up, I found this error message:
    An error occurred while backing up this iPad (-54). Would you like to continue to update this iPad? Continuing will result in the loss of all contents on this ipad.
  • That error message made me nostalgic -- it reminded me of the blue screen of death.
  • Another trip to Google ensued, and I learned from various threaded discussions that others had seen good old error 54 and there was no consensus on what it meant or what to do about it.
  • At that point, I did what any 17th century witch doctor would have done, I rebooted things and started the install again.
  • It worked!
  • But, wait, the iPad "bookshelf" was empty and the issues of the New Yorker and Economist my wife had downloaded for a trip were gone.
  • I plugged the iPad back into the PC and it tried to synch. Nothing much seemed to be happening, then it told me it could not find some file, so it could not synch photos. That was fine with me because I did not want her photos on my laptop.
  • But, when I went back to the iPad, the bookshelf was stocked once again. The New Yorker app asked me if I wanted to re-download the back issues, and the Economist app had developed amnesia and asked me if I would like to subscribe.
  • When I went back to my laptop, I discovered a lot of new cruft had been left there by iTunes -- tons of directories each containing a single file.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dragon Systems founders suing Goldman Sachs $1 billion

The Bakers, 1990, NYTimes
Dragon Systems was the voice recognition company in the 1980s and 1990s -- they brought speech recognition from the research lab to the PC. (Founders James and Janet Baker, shown here, came from MIT). I recall using and reviewing DragonDictate back in the day.

The Bakers sold Dragon to Lernout & Hauspie for $580 million in stock, which sounds good at first, but L & H turned out to be a fraud and collapsed, leaving the Bakers with nothing.

The Bakers are now suing Goldman Sachs for one billion dollars.

The sale to L&H was brokered by Goldman Sachs, which collected millions of dollars in fees, and, it turns out that Goldman Sachs had previously considered investing in L & H, but had walked away after some digging into the company.

Does that sound familiar? A Wall Street firm making a commission by selling something that they themselves would not buy? This story grosses me out.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Aereo local TV case -- new patents and conflicting experts

I've been watching Aereo's effort to stream local TV online since they launched and were immediately sued. They've just won a legal round -- a temporary injunction against them was denied -- but the case may continue.

I'm rooting for Aereo because I want to see all local TV online one day.

I'm a cord cutter, but I'm happy to pay for selected video content. I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and just paid a one time charge to stream the Tour de France. Fortunately, I can watch local TV over the air with a rabbit ears antenna. All my local stations transmit from the same mountain top, Mount Wilson, so I don't even have to play around with the antenna.

If I lived a long way from Mount Wilson or was surrounded by tall buildings in a city like New York, I would be out of luck with my rabbit ears, but I would be willing to pay Aereo or anyone else a reasonable fee for local channels -- either all of them or ala carte.

The law suit against Aereo claims they are rebroadcasting copyrighted material. Aereo counters that they've developed technology enabling them to assign each user his or her own dime-sized antenna, either permanently or dynamically when they log in. It is as if the user had mounted their antenna at Aereo's location instead of on their own rooftop.

Yesterday, Judge Alison Nathan of the United States District Court in Manhattan denied a request for a temporary injunction stopping Aereo from offering their service.

Aereo won a battle, but not yet the war. Their case still hinges upon the claim that those dime-sized antennas are independent of each other and each is rented to a different user.

When I wrote about Aereo earlier, I expressed some skepticism about their technology. Take a look at your rabbit ears or rooftop antenna -- it's a lot bigger than a dime. That's because optimal antenna size is determined by signal wavelength, and the optimal length of a rabbit ears antenna would be roughly one to eight feet, depending on which channel you were watching. The antenna would also have to be oriented correctly for best reception.

I'm not qualified to say that a dime-sized TV antenna is not possible with enough design and signal processing smarts, but it would be quite an engineering feat.

I was also skeptical of Aereo PR. When Aereo was launched, they stated that CEO Chaitanya Kanojia held 12 patents, but a quick check showed that none were related to antenna design. When I asked Aereo about patents at the time, they would not comment.

What have we learned since then?

I am happy to say that Aereo has now filed for four patents:
  • 20120127363 - Antenna system with individually addressable elements in dense array
  • 20120127374 - System and method for providing network access to antenna feeds
  • 20120129479 - Method and system for processing antenna feeds using separate processing pipelines
  • 20120131621 - System and method for providing network access to individually recorded content
I skimmed over the applications and noted considerable overlap. For example, three of the four applications have identical abstracts and the fourth abstract only differs by the addition of four words. The diagram shown above is also included in each application. Still, they have filed patent applications, which hopefully disclose a successful design for a very small TV antenna. The court has also had roughly eleven weeks for expedited discovery and briefing on the preliminary injunction motion. The focus was on the antennas. As Judge Nathan states in her opinion:
The only significant factual dispute concerns the operation of Aereo's antennas. Aereo contends that each of its antennas functions separately to receive the incoming broadcast signals. Plaintiffs assert that Aereo's antennas function collectively as a single antenna, aided by a shared metallic substructure.
Each side presented expert testimony, and the experts disagreed. The plaintiff's expert was Dr. John Volakis. In her ruling the judge summarized Dr. Volakis' finding that
the antennas do not function independently. Instead, according to Dr. Volakis, the antennas are packed on the board so close together that the incoming signal "does not see the loops as separate elements, but rather as one continuous piece of metal," the function of which is further aided by a common metal substructure formed by the circuit boards and the metal rails.
It's no surprise that the defendents experts, Dr. Pozar and Dr. Horowitz, disagreed. The judge wrote that
Dr. Pozar and Dr. Horowitz maintain that the construction of the antenna system requires the antennas to function independently, and Dr. Horowitz has observed numerous (if small) differences in recordings of the same program created by two different antennas. ... Moreover, tests performed at the Aereo site demonstrate that the signal received by Aereo's antennas is 1,000 times stronger than that needed for reliable reception.
Is it an array of small antennas or one big antenna? The judge concluded the discussion of the antennas by stating:
Based on the evidence at this stage of the proceedings, the Court finds that Aereo's antennas function independently. That is to say, each antenna separately receives the incoming broadcast signal, rather than functioning collectively with the other antennas or with the assistance of the shared metal substructure.
That had to make Aereo fans smile, but it is only based on evidence "at this stage of the proceedings."

We will see whether the case continues and, if it does, how it turns out.

As I said at the start, I am pulling for Aereo or anyone else who can get local TV streamed online. Let's assume Aereo's technology claims are indeed true and they prevail in this case. What then?

As much as I hope Aereo wins, they have created a kludge to work around the copyright laws. It would be simpler for local stations to stream their content themselves, eliminating the need for Aereo.

What might Aereo do if the local stations were to do that? For a start they might give up their antennas and do the streaming for the local stations. Their patents cover transcoding and indexing content -- they could provide streaming service to local stations.

Furthermore, if those antennas can really pull in a signal 1,000 time stronger than that needed for reliable reception, I want one. In fact I want more than one. Again, it would be a lot less kludgy to just sell the antennas to end users who cannot get local stations with a rabbit ears antenna, but could with an Aereo antenna. If the antenna works well, it could take over the indoor antenna market.

If the technology works, Aereo can pivot and win even if they don't make it as a streaming company.

YATS 16 afterthoughts

This is the second experiment with jotting down thoughts that come to mind after we finish our podcast.

We talked about the various media stores on episode 16 of YATS, and I came across this article comparing the Amazon, Google and Apple online stores this morning.

The story is so complicated that it makes my head hurt. There are so many dimensions — the media type (movie, TV show, song, podcast, etc.), rental and purchase prices, rental terms, supported devices, available titles, etc. etc. If we could find a way to summarize all of this in charts or whatever, it would be a great service to mankind.

The bad news is that the market is a mess, but the good news is that no one has “won” yet — there is room for competition. Note that the article ignores Microsoft.

We talked about their lack of innovation last night. Here is a happy dream — Microsoft comes out with a terrific set-top x-box and opens a great store that kicks everyone’s butt. We also need to be able to move seamlessly from one “store” to another the way Roku lets us move between Amazon and Netflix.

I checked out the Ouya game machine that Mat talked about. I would worry that it might be a paper tiger if I were planning to send them some $$. It also seems to me to be oriented exclusively toward gaming. While there are a lot of gamers, I bet there are a lot more media consumers, who want to connect a single smart, programmable box to their dumb TV display and audio system. I started to write “and a DVR,” but, on second thought, that belongs in the cloud in a neutral place that the user owns and controls.

Or, if that doesn’t save Microsoft, how about your car as a MS platform?

Do you guys know anything about Microsoft's automotive platform? Ford is pushing electronics hard, with the car as an open platform for developers. Does Msoft power Ford?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tour de France -- toward historical archives

Today is a rest day for the Tour de France riders, but what about fans? If you are watching the Tour online, you now have access to over 100 videos -- full stage replays, interviews, commentary, highlights, crash reels, etc.

At this rate, there will be over 200 videos by the end of the race. I do not know how long NBC will leave them online or whether someone will archive them (legally or illegally), but this is the sort of archive documentation future sports fans can look forward to. (I assume the footage is all copyrighted, which is fair even if the duration of the copyright is unreasonable).

NBC will also be streaming the upcoming Olympic Games. If this stuff remains available, it will be a treasure trove for fans, journalists, researchers, data miners and re-mixers. We are at the start of a new historical archiving era, and that includes sporting events as well as political and cultural events. (For an early example of the archiving of historical political data, see this account of the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt and its traffic archive).

During the Tour, the online coverage is only available in the US and the Olympic coverage will only be available to those who already subscribe to a cable, satellite or telco video tier that includes CNBC and MSNBC. After the events, the archive could be opened to all, with the cost covered by a reasonable access fee. Well, I hope that happens, but am not optimistic. Maybe NBC will surprise me.

While there is plenty of archive material to keep Tour de France fans busy on this rest day, one thing is missing -- Bob Roll and his commentaries. As you see above, he is still commenting during the broadcast coverage, but I have not seen him online. NBC -- let's get Bob Roll on the video site!

CERN's greatest hits

CERN made the news big time last week for the Higgs boson discovery, but what do those CERN folks do in their spare time?

Some of them make music. The CERN Music Club Web site lists 16 bands, the first of which was Les Horribles Cernettes, formed 22 years ago. This photo of the Cernettes was the first image published on the World Wide Web, which was developed at CERN.

In spite of their name, the Cernettes are not all that horible. They sing well and the lyrics are clever. Check out their song Collider:



If you like that, there is plenty more on their Web site and on YouTube. The Cernettes are going to disband after a July 21 concert that, I bet, will be posted on YouTube.

The Cernettes were the first CERN group to hit the Web, but they were not the biggest. That honor goes to Katherine McAlpine's Large Hadron Rap. LHR is the coolest science rap song ever. (Admittedly, that's not a wildly popular genre). It's been viewed 7,397,628 times.



One more -- if you worry about the mad scientists at CERN creating a black hole that sucks in The Earth, McAlpine's Black Hole Rap will calm you down:

Monday, July 09, 2012

Podcast Afterthoughts -- brain inertia

If you are thinking about something or working on a problem and take a break, your brain keeps at it subconsicously. We all come up with ideas and solutions to problems while showering, sleeping, running, etc. Your brain has inertia.

Similarly, ideas pop into our heads after a good conversation. I have been having weekly conversations about tech topics with my colleagues on the podcast, Yet Another Tech Show (YATS), and, as with any good conversation, I think about it afterwards.

Podcast comments allow us to continue the conversation after it has been recorded, but they are mostly driven by users and are often superficial. Maybe the podcast show-note format should include links to afterthoughts by the participants.

To play with the idea, I jotted down some afterthoughts from our last podcast (YATS 15).

YATS 15 afterthoughts

During YATS 15, we spent a lot of time talking about the features of different phones and tablets, but I think that is only of interest in the short term. In the long term, phones and tablets will be commodities like PCs. I don't care whether I have a Dell or HP laptop because the software I use runs equally well on comparable configurations of either.

Today we fuss over phone and tablet features, but we are headed for a future in which much of our software and data is in the cloud, leading us to worry less about the features of our phones and tablets and more about the offerings of our cloud service vendors and about vendor lock-in.

We only touched briefly on services and lock-in during YATS 15, after noting that Microsoft had announced free Office 365 accounts for educational institutions. Schools now have two free cloud service choices -- Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365. Students will learn to use one or the other and be somewhat locked in after graduation -- like a free sample of a drug.

The first level of lock-in will be familiarity with the programs and user interface. The differences between Google Apps and Office 365 will diminish over time, but user familiarity will remain important. (Although the user interface gap between Mac OS and Windows has diminished since 1984, many users are reluctant to switch).

Program features and file formats also lock users in. Let's consider word processing for example.

I did my first word processing with unit record equipment. You punched your document into 80-column cards and ran the deck through an accounting machine that was wired to print them. If you made an error, you removed the bad card, re-keyed it, and ran it back through the accounting machine.

When PCs came out, I got a copy of Electric Pencil, the first word processing program for the Altair. Next it was Magic Wand then WordStar. WordStar was fast and did everything I needed. I was satisfied with WordStar, but reluctantly switched to Microsoft Word when a client told me I had to deliver a report as a Word document. I still use Word because nearly everyone else does.

But, like WordStar and Word, the Google Docs and Office 365 word processors create incompatible files and both are incompatible with Word -- Déjà vu all over again. (I still have the manuscripts of two books and a ton of reports and articles stored in the venerable WordStar format).

There are two general ways out of this kind of lock-in -- file conversion and standards. I wish I had a program to convert my old WordStar files to Word files (or that Word could import/save WordStar files), but I don't. Word for Office 365 and Google Docs word processor could be built to import/save each other's files, but different and evolving feature sets would make that tough to maintain and the companies probably would not see it as good for their business.

Standards may be de-facto, created by a dominant player, or open. In this example, we have three important file formats -- desktop Word, Google Docs word processor and Word for Office 365. Desktop Word is a de-facto standard today, but its dominance will decline over time as we create more and more cloud documents. Open standards are good for interoperability and fostering competition, but they may retard progress if adopted too early and companies (like Apple) might ignore them for business reasons.

Well, enough about word processing. I don't know how akk this will all shake out, but I do think that cloud features and interoperability will be more important than device features in the long run. (Don't forget, I am only using word processing as an example -- the same goes for other applications).

One last point -- during our YATS 15 conversation, it was suggested that today's phones with multicore processors and maybe 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB storage might be powerful enough for anything we want to do with them, but I don't buy that. It reminds me of a consulting job I did for WordStar. They were about to introduce a new version (WordStar 2000) and I could not convince them to build it for 64 MB of memory -- they were sure that 32 MB machines would be around forever. While I believe that device differentiation will become less important in the future, the power of our phones and tablets will continue to grow as we invent new applications.

Telegeography's 2012 undersea cable map

Telegeography's 2012 interactive undersea cable map is out. (Maps like this depict the Earth's nervous system. You and I and the servers are the synapses).

This version is missing the direct interaction of the previous version, in which you could click on a cable or landing point to see its characteristics, but it is accompanied by informative figures showing landing stations, pricing trends, construction cost, used international bandwidth, lit capacity, capacity growth and latency.

For example, the lit capacity figure is shown here. Global lit capacity (grey) is 16,020 Gb/s, of which only 7,863 is used (red). Most of that, 6,189 Gb/s is used for Internet traffic. Private networks use another 1,658 Gb/s and switched voice only 15.

I love maps like this -- they show us the big picture. For perspective, compare today's map with that of the US National Science Foundation network in 1986. (Those are 64kbs links).

Friday, July 06, 2012

Yet another way to advertise online

This may be old hat, but it was new to me. I wanted to test the video streaming application at Playon.tv. When I clicked to download the two-week free trial, I was told that all I had to do to get the program was tell my Facebook friends that I was testing it.

I clicked the download button and installed the program. As you see here, it did indeed post news of the test on my Facebook account.
That seems like a fair trade -- I get to try their software and they get some publicity. (They didn't get much publicity because I barely use Facebook). They were honest in telling me what they were going to do and I could have said "no."

Many people are bothered by the way we are tracked and advertised to on the Internet, but, in this case, it seems like a fair, transparent deal.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Is the intellectual property situation improving?

Computing device: US patent D558,753
Common sense has prevailed in three recent intellectual property rulings, and the judges are being blunt.

Last month, in a case where Oracle was suing Google, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has a degree in math, ruled that application programming interfaces cannot be copyrighted, stating that "So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API."

One of Oracle's claims was that Google had used a nine-line range checking function in order to bring Android phones to the market faster. In court, Alsup said he had written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times befor and there was no way that was "speeding them along to the marketplace." Speaking to Oracle's lawyer, he said "You're one of the best lawyers in America, how could you even make that kind of argument?"

In another case, highly respected US appeal court judge Richard Posner has finally said the unsayable: that Apple's and other tech firms' patent battles are a ridiculous abuse of intellectual property law.  Posner referred to Apple's patent on unlocking a phone by swiping the screen as "silly."

And yesterday, a high court judge in London said Apple's slide-to-unlock feature was an "obvious" development in the light of a similar function on an earlier Swedish handset.

Every company does it, but it seems Apple files a lot of silly and obvious patents.  Did you know that Steve Jobs held 313 patents? (Most of them are design patents that cover the look and feel of a product rather than utility patents, which may cover a technical innovation). Check the interactive graphic accompanying the article and see which ones you consider to be unique designs.  (The ornamental design illustrated above was patented on January 1, 2008).

The human side of the Higgs boson search

I can't really understand the Higgs boson -- the "God particle" that is evidence of the Higgs field, which evokes mass in our universe.  But the human side of the endeavor -- joy, song, humor, beauty and awe -- is tangible.  Here are some examples:

Watch the joyful applause at yesterday's announcement of the discovery at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research:



Peter Higgs tears up at the announcement of a five standard deviation level of significance of the discovery:


Here is a PBS Nova interview/dramatization of Peter Higgs' trepidation at the time he advanced his theory. (The first paper he submitted was rejected):

Watch The Higgs Particle Matters on PBS. See more from NOVA.


(For reactions at the time of the announcement, check out the Guardian's live blog).

Large Hadron Rap (LHR), is perhaps the coolest science rap song ever:



LHR is not the first parody music from CERN. That honor belongs to Les Horribles Cernettes. They were funny and not all that horrible -- check out their song Collider. The Cernettes posed for the first inline image published on the World Wide Web:


Boston.com has assembled dramatic photographic images illustrating the scale and complexity of the CERN collider. Here is one of them:


Peter McCready has created a collection of naviagable, 3-D panoramic photographs of the collider. This is the "table of contents" page, and the images are spectacular:

Last, and, yes, perhaps least, we have the earlier siting of the Higgs bison:

dancewithshadows.com 
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Update 4/14/2014

Last month researchers announced that a 10-meter telescope at the South Pole had detected gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, a discovery that supports the cosmic inflation theory of how the universe began. I cannot comprehend that, but one of principle investigators summed it up as a "smoking gun" in support of the Big Bang. While I can't follow their reasoning, I do appreciate the human side and magnitude of the quest. For that, check out this video of professor Andrei Linde -- one of the theoreticians behind it -- being told of the (5 standard deviation) result: