Tuesday, November 29, 2011


And then there were three?

In the US, the four largest cell phone carriers in order of size (both customer count and revenue) are Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Together they account for a little more than 90% of the US market. 

Back in March 2011, AT&T announced its intent to acquire T-Mobile. The combined company would be larger than Verizon, and so would take over the number one spot. And consumers would be down to three practical choices when it comes to national-scale carrier networks. That was the theory, anyway; it has not been smooth sailing for the proposed merger since.

A detailed timeline is long (and boring), but here are the highlights:
  • March 20: AT&T announces intent to acquire T-Mobile for $39 billion. Within days, Sprint opposes the merger, saying that the deal would create an "AT&T/Verizon duopoly" in the marketplace.
  • Aug. 31: The U.S. DOJ files suit against the proposed merger, saying that it would result in “higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products.”
  • Nov. 22: FCC Chairman Julius Genochowski calls for a hearing, signaling that the FCC believes the merger to not be in the public interest.
  • Nov. 24: AT&T informs the FCC that it is withdrawing its request for a spectrum merge in order to focus on the DOJ suit. AT&T and T-Mobile say they intend to continue pursuing the merger.

Though AT&T now will propose a variety of asset sales to get regulators to view the merger more favorably, the merger/acquisition is clearly in serious jeopardy and AT&T will have to pay a charge of $4 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of this year to pay a "breakup fee" it owes Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile's parent company) if the deal falls apart.  

If only that $4 billion had been spent on AT&T network upgrades! More data and voice capacity, and a quicker 4G upgrade would benefit AT&T customers in a real and direct way, and would help to push Verizon and the other carriers to upgrade more quickly.

I can't say whether T-Mobile is viable long term without AT&T. A sale to AT&T now was probably a very good option for them. There might be other suitors, including cable companies like Comcast or perhaps other big players interested in the carrier space, such as Google.

It would have been better if AT&T didn't attempt this merger but now having done so, I think I'm hoping that they somehow succeed. I'm usually against consolidation that limits user choice, but this case might be different. With the merger AT&T would get some good spectrum and put it to good use to benefit consumers. Without the merger, they'll pay the $4B to Deutsche Telekom and probably delay the needed network upgrades, while T-Mobile could continue to shrink and slowly become less relevant as market competition for AT&T and Verizon. 

Do you agree? Please share your opinion in the comments below!


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

In the US, this coming Thursday is Thanksgiving. It's a favorite holiday of mine for a number of reasons – family, football and feast topping the list.

For me, Thanksgivings are either driving holidays or cooking holidays. Since I don't have local family, a Thanksgiving at the house of other family members involves a multi-hour drive (each way). Given that, I much prefer a cooking Thanksgiving. Family comes our way and we cook the feast, and we arrange the annual kids versus adults "Turkey Bowl" football game.

Family - We'll host as many members of my wife's family as will come our way. We'll have a great visit, with football and feasts playing a big role, but we'll go to the movies, play some music together, maybe play a few board games, and sit around and visit.

Football - We'll watch some football on TV, but one of our best traditions is that we play a real football game. We mark out a good-sized football field and play older generation against younger generation. Many years ago, the adults would work hard to keep the game close and then engineer a tie at the end so that the kids could feel good about their efforts. About four years ago the "kids" started winning outright. They are now teens and young adults, and we are, well, "older adults." They are fast and athletic and we are slow (and athletic!). But the game is always fun, always exciting, and there are always hot chocolates, beers and glasses of wine after.

Feast - Ours is an all-traditional American Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, root veggies, dinner rolls, red and white wine. A main table and a kids table. Many hours to cook, an hour or more to clean up, and 30 minutes at most in between prep and cleanup to actually eat the feast. Once around the table(s) for everyone to say a few words on what makes them thankful this year. Bliss.

Facebook friends can expect to see a few photos of the feast and the football game later this week.

I'm guessing that my Thanksgiving sounds a lot like yours. But I might be wrong about that. Whether it does or it doesn't, please share your plans/hopes, or if it's after the fact when you read this, please share your experience.

How will you spend your long Thanksgiving weekend? Do you have some wonderful Thanksgiving traditions? Post a comment here and share it with us all.

Most of all, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Google Music Arrives

A Real iTunes Competitor?

Google Music, in beta since May and the topic of a RapidGroove Blog post back on May 18, came out of beta earlier this week to become a production service. The service is still free and allows for storage of up to 20,000 songs, but the big change is that it moved beyond a cloud storage and streaming service – now Google Music is selling music directly. 

Google Music users can make use of Google+ to share information on the music they purchase. Those in your Google+ circles can even try out your tracks with limited play. 

Google surprised many by the breadth of the initial offering, securing deals with three of the four major labels - EMI, Sony, and Universal. Only Warner Music is not at the party, and they’ll likely show up soon if Google Music sales are strong enough. There are currently over 8 million songs in the store, with more coming soon.

Google also has something for indie bands and fans of indie music. The service has most of the major indie labels in the store, but the service also provides a way for independent musicians who own rights to their music to upload and sell it through the store, and to keep 70 percent of that sales revenue.

Google obviously hopes that Google Music will be a legitimate competitor for Apple iTunes, which has become the giant of music retail and playback. iTunes achieved that by redefining the way people acquire and then organize, access and play their music. Is the Google offering on the right track to compete? Are its differences appealing, and not just to those who want any alternative to the Apple experience?

Leave a comment and let us know what you think!


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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Last Fishing Trip of 2011

This past weekend I got a chance to fish with D & R, two of my college friends from way long ago. It was a great way to finish out the 2011 fishing season. My boats are already out of the water for the winter, so we chartered the Peace of Mind for 5 hours of Striped Bass fishing. Though it was a chilly and windy day, and the ocean was rough at times, the fish were biting and we had a great time.

We got to the docks at 6:15am and were underway by 6:30am.  Our captain knew that the winds would be picking up as the hours passed, so he suggested an hour and a half in the ocean while the tide was coming in, then a short break back at the docks while the tide turned, then 3-4 hours fishing the inlet rips during the outgoing.

R sees whose mouth is bigger
D with the best fish of the day
The ocean fishing was rough, and the bite was slow. D landed a short, and I missed a fish. We were bouncing around like crazy and not doing much, so we got back to the docks for the turn of the tide. A quick breakfast and coffee at a nearby deli, and we were back underway. The wind was strong and the currents pushed our 28' Rampage sport fish boat around something fierce. Conditions were bad enough that we saw only one other boat fishing the entire day and it turned out to be my friend and neighbor K, who also took a shot at some fall Striped Bass. But every time Captain Jim got the boat heading squarly into the inlet rips and presented the baits (live "spots" on circle hooks, fishfinder rigs with 5 ounce sinkers) we got a bite. And many of those bites resulted in fish -- at least for D & R. I didn't quite have the touch that day! R landed 3 keepers, D got 2 keepers and 2 shorts, and I got just one fish but was glad it was a keeper. 

A couple of keepers

Back at the dock, Captain Jim took a photo of three happy guys and six fish to use on his web site (I'll be looking to see if he uses it), then he cleaned the fish for us and sent us home with fresh fish filets. We threw two big filets right on the grill (salt, pepper, orange/ginger) and had them for lunch. Striped Bass that fresh is really something special. I enjoyed my fish with a cold beer and two good friends.

On the grill!
We had enough fish to all take home a large bag of fresh filets even after that lunch. I gave some to friends and family and got two dinners and two lunches for my entire family from what was left.

Now I'm counting the days until the 2012 fishing season starts for me in April!

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Your Robotic Stand-In

Does this Robot Avatar make me look nerdy?

What if we could safely send experts in to a damaged nuclear plant after a disaster to quickly assess the situation and respond? What if we could safely recover wounded soldiers from an active, dangerous battlefield? Doing what needs to be done often takes specific expertise, but the danger of the situation can make it difficult to choose to risk more human life.

This week, Wired reported on work being done at Keio University in Tokyo to create robotic avatars that are not only motion-controlled by a human, but also allow a level of human interaction with the environment that up until now has not been possible. Sight, sound and touch are all transmitted back to the human controlling the robotic avatar. Imagine controlling a robot's arms, legs, wrists and fingers, seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears, even when very remote.

This isn't quite the sci-fi world of Surrogates yet, though every article on this telexistance robot is followed by many comments making that connection. This prototype moves slowly and without much subtlety, and it doesn't pretend to achieve lifelike beauty. It doesn't even walk yet – though other robots do, and there's no reason those technologies couldn't be combined.

Will it ever become common to use robots as our avatar surrogates in dangerous situations or to experience remote locations? Is there some role for them in giving a kind of mobility to the disabled? Do you think the Surrogates future is around the corner? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!


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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Anytime Anywhere Access to Movies

UltraViolet to the rescue?

Access to music anywhere, on any device, is pretty nearly a solved problem. Various approaches exist: ripping CDs and syncing the MP3 files among computers and smartphones, storing audio files in a cloud service for real time streaming, and use of  services like Spotify and Pandora (see the RapidGroove Blog Music Gets Social) that approach this problem in other ways.

Easy access to movies is not as neat and simple, at least for those of us who want to keep it legal. Some of the same approaches as are used for music can be used, but the heavier DRM commonly used and the sheer size of the movie media files present some challenges. Apple, Google and Amazon all have cloud streaming services that can play a role, and mobile devices with massive storage may, over time, change the nature of the problem. But for now, anytime anywhere access to movies is still a little… clunky.

UltraViolet is an idea and business model that’s designed to allow consumers to buy access to movies and to get both physical media such as DVDs plus cloud-based streaming access for that same content from their "locker". Your single movie purchase could entitle you to instantly play it on all your devices.

There are several dozen member-organizations in the UltraViolet Alliance.

Notably missing from that list is Amazon, who could easily provide a service like this for movies, books and music since they are both in the business of selling physical media and providing cloud storage and streaming access. Maybe they will, independent of UltraViolet.

Do you get anytime, anywhere access to movies? What's your approach? Leave a comment here and share it with us.


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Friday, November 4, 2011

Leaking Personal Data Through Social Networks

Do you "friend" the friends of your friends on social networks? 

How do you decide whether to accept a "friend" request? Do you stick to those you actually know, or do you accept requests from friends of friends, even when you don't know them at all? How many Facebook friends of yours have you never met?

Earlier this week The Register reported on an interesting experiment in social network behavior

Researchers at University of British Columbia created 100 "Socialbots". These were Facebook profiles with fake names and photos. 5,000 randomly selected Facebook users were contacted by these socialbots and sent friend requests. About 20% of that 5000 accepted, and then their friends were contacted by the socialbots. About 60% of those users accepted. At that point, a very large number of users had friended fake accounts. More importantly, information that users had protected from public disclosure but made available to friends was exposed to the socialbots. In fact, during the course of this eight week experiment, 250 gigabytes of personal data was collected!

Every user must make their own decisions on data that they make available on social networks, who they "friend" and what applications have access to their data. How do you make those decisions?  Please leave a comment and let us know.


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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Will Streaming Movies Survive?

Hey Netflix: I'm a little worried about you. You've had a few mis-steps lately in pricing and marketing. Some of the big kids didn't want to play any more. Starz took their ball and went home. The press has declared you dead or dying. That may be premature, but as I said, I'm still a little worried.

Let me be clear. I'm not even a Netflix subscriber and I don't really care how well Netflix does or even whether it survives. My interest is a little broader than that. I want there to be some evolution in entertainment content delivery because I want a future with a greater diversity of content, more choices in how I pay (a la carte, big packages, smaller custom packages, etc), and more choice in how I consume – I want to watch on a big screen television, a laptop computer, a handheld mobile device, and whatever comes next, and I want interactive possibilities.

Right now, the most desirable content comes from a small number of big media content creators. These big movie studios and television production companies know that they have a stable and favorable financial model with the major US cable television distribution companies, and they appear to be skittish about the Internet generally. More than that, they are wary about allowing the creation of powerful new players in distribution who could become too powerful too fast and forever change the balance of power and flow of dollars. They don't want any one or two companies to dominate (Apple, Netflix, I'm looking at you). But though they may be old dogs, the content creators and rights holders can learn new tricks. They understand the value in having a few good partners for distribution of content to hundreds of millions of viewers. They have that right now. They need to maintain a viable market for their content and if that market is one that a few years from now is predominantly Internet distribution (with appropriate access control) rather than traditional cable television networks, so be it.

Starz and Disney wouldn't want just one bidder for their content in the cable television world. Why would they accept just one in the Internet world? But if Netflix, Apple, Amazon and two or three others all want their content, there could be a vibrant, competitive market.

What do you think? Will Starz, Disney, HBO, and all the rest embrace Internet distribution if sufficient competition exists? Leave a comment and let us know what you'd like to see happen, and what you think will happen.

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