Friday, September 30, 2011

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

On the Internet, the EFF fights the legal battles for privacy, transparency and free speech. They are a serious organization with a great track record, and their positions are well thought out. The EFF has consistently worked to protect the interests of individuals.

The EFF:
  • Promotes transparency in government through the use of the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Defends the free speech rights of bloggers, journalists, dissidents and ordinary people online.
  • Protects your right to privacy while using social network tools like Facebook & Twitter.

If these goals match your values, visit the EFF online and consider contributing.

One of their current initiatives is to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). The ECPA was written at a time when the Internet was very young. There were few users, and no web (and certainly no Facebook or Google!). In the 25 years since, our communications technologies have grown, our level of participation has skyrocketed, but the law has not evolved. EFF is organizing a coalition of privacy organizations and Internet companies to press Congress to upgrade the ECPA “to better protect our digital privacy in the 21st century.” You and I can add our individual voices to theirs to let Congress know that tracking cell phones and reading email and social network accounts should never be done lightly and should always require a warrant.

Support the EFF, and support the updating of the ECPA.


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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cord Cutting

Saying goodbye to cable TV and landline phone service

Triple Play

Ever hear Verizon, Comcast or Cablevision talk about “the triple play?” They want to sell you Phone, Cable TV and Internet services for your home as a package. They get more business, you get a combined bill. Everybody wins. In reality, of course, this is an approach that telephone companies and cable television companies, previously in separate businesses, use to fight each other for the same services to the same customers.

Some consumers prefer not to keep all three services, though. Those people are cord cutters.

Voice on the Internet

Many have figured out that the traditional landline telephone service may not be the necessity it once was. Some will gladly use their mobile phones when at home if they have strong signal and a carrier plan with plenty of minutes to use. Others replace home landline service with Internet based services like Skype (now owned by Microsoft). Skype allows users to communicate over the Internet to other computers for free, and to telephones for very competitive rates. For those who still want a standard telephone handset, there are services like Vonage and Magic Jack, both of which leverage the broadband Internet connection in a home but preserve the standard telephone handset experience.

Internet Television

Replacing your Cable TV service by leveraging your Internet connection is a little less straightforward but not because the technology is unavailable. Ask anyone who watches Netflix, or Hulu Plus. Great content can be sent over the Internet to your computer or your television. These services are simple and effective. But unlike voice communications, where the "content" is the voices of the two communicating parties, the content for television is tightly controlled. Controlled by movie studios, television program production and distribution companies, and cable television companies like Comcast and Cablevision. These companies have a complex ecosystem of content creation and distribution, and a well understood income model. To avoid breaking that ecosystem and risking their income, pressures are being applied at various points to prevent Netflix, Hulu and the like from having access to the broadest range of quality content. Not out of a fear that content will be stolen (although that's probably a concern as well), but out of a fear that all the business arrangements would need to be renegotiated, that there would be unexpected winners and losers, and that overall revenue would go way down.

The Future

I believe that the days of dedicated telephone networks and traditional landline telephone service are numbered. Good Internet access is finally reaching even the most rural areas. Internet access in every home – and in every mobile phone and tablet – is the death blow to traditional landline phone service. I predict that within a decade or less, traditional home telephone service will drop below 30% of US households.

Cable and satellite TV services are another matter. They could just as easily disappear and be subsumed by video entertainment services over the Internet. All the same content could be sent over the Internet, and monitization models exist already. Hulu Plus, Netflix, and iTunes are examples. But entrenched business models that work well for everyone in the supply chain (though not for the consumer) won't give way so easily. 

The lesson of the music industry, though, is that it really might not be possible to hold onto traditional business models when the public wants a change. If people want to access television and movie content over the Internet to watch on their computers, smartphones and tablets, if they want unbundling of television channels and the ability to buy shows or series or channels in an a la carte way – and they are willing to pay – the industry is better served by figuring out how to change than by how to hang on to the past.

How long until a fast and reliable Internet connection allows for consumers to make arrangements for voice and video services in the combinations and forms they wish? 

Do you have an opinion on this? Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.


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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rock and Roll Band

I’m about to admit my age. I have a group of friends from back in 1979-1980 who together were the greatest basement rock and roll band of our time. At least we thought so. I was the keyboard (piano, organ, synthesizer) player in a cover band playing AC/DC, Cars, Foreigner, Judas Priest, Bad Company, Kansas, ELO and more. We spent a lot of time practicing and getting our sound the way we wanted it. We played some gigs, we spent a little time in a recording studio. We were even friends with other bands from around the region. We never made much money, but we had a lot of friends and a lot of fun. And we were all of 17 or 18 years old at the time.

A few close friends know that lately we have been talking about getting the band back together. Now you know, too.

Let’s think about this for a moment. A few guys who had a band together for maybe a year, about 32 years ago when they were 17 or 18 years old, are going to “get the band back together.” None of us lives in the same city. One of us lives over 1,000 miles away. Most of us haven’t played seriously in years. Ideas this dumb don’t come along too often. But it was my idea and I’m sticking with it.

We do have a few things going for us. First, we really are friends. We always got along back in the day and we seem to still get along now. Second, one of our group is a working professional musician with perfect pitch. So at least we know we won’t all be awful. And third, we do have a small practice studio outfitted well enough to make this happen. So I like our odds.

Our goals are modest. We agreed on about a dozen songs to learn, including a few from back in the day, and even agreed on who gets to (has to?) sing which of them. If we can get together and eventually play even a few of them and have some laughs, we will be happy. We don’t plan to perform for an audience, though a few friends have volunteered to be a cozy audience if and when we are ready.

Next time I blog about this crazy project, I’ll talk about playing keyboards in a rock and roll band. It isn’t very much like playing piano in your living room or organ in your church. I’m being reminded of what it’s really like as I learn my parts in those songs, and I’ll share it with you sometime this fall or winter.

If you are rooting for my old band-mates and me to make this happen, leave a comment and let us know.


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Friday, September 16, 2011

Amazon Tablet

Another Android tablet? This one may be different.

Amazon has an outstanding inventory of books – not only in physical form, but also e-book form for it’s Kindle device, and audio form from the #1 spoken word source on the Internet, Amazon has music to sell and movies to sell. Amazon defines shopping on the web for many of us, with diverse inventory of their own as well as independent storefronts, selling clothing and gadgets and just about everything else. Amazon even owns Zappos, the online shoe store that has taken customer service to new heights.

In a very savvy business and marketing move, Amazon introduced “Prime,” a service in which for an annual fixed price consumers get unlimited 2-day shipping of Amazon products they purchase. So of course that drives still more sales.

An Amazon Tablet

Back on May 25 I wrote about a tablet market that was clearly still evolving and the role that Amazon and B&N were playing. Not much has changed over the last four months. The iPad still dominates and other tablets are still trying to find the formula for success. 

Rumors are strong that Amazon will release a tablet this fall. It will almost certainly run the Android operating system and leverage a good collection of apps, good design learned from a few years of Kindle development, and a great web experience.

MG Siegler of TechCrunch claims to have played with an early version of the Amazon Tablet (he says that it'll be called Amazon Kindle) and compares it visually to a Blackberry Playbook.

What could really make an Amazon Tablet a huge winner is the existence of the Amazon shopping experience. Picture a tablet with a media-buying experience that rivals or surpasses Apple’s iOS devices and iTunes. But this tablet will go the next step and make shopping for all that Amazon sells just as easy. Releasing a tablet is brilliant business for Amazon. It’ll open up new sales opportunities for mobile buyers.


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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Apple iPhone 5 Details

Just some wild guesses

The announcement of the iPhone 5 may now be only days away, so it’s time for me to extend on what I wrote back on September 6 with some specifics. Here are my predictions on a few of the key aspects:

  1. Look, shape, size: Slightly thinner and lighter, but with an increased usable screen size. Home button slightly moved and reshaped to accommodate larger screen.
  2. Screen resolution: Unchanged "Retina" display
  3. Camera: 8 megapixel
  4. Carriers and Network Support: A new versatile chipset that allows a single iPhone device to operate on either GSM or CDMA networks. Availability on all of the big 4 US carriers: Sprint and T-Mobile in addition to today’s carriers, AT&T and Verizon.
  5. 3G only or 3G+4G: I’m betting 3G only. Wait until the 2012 iPhone for a 4G iPhone. That’ll allow time for greater deployment of 4G networks, and maturity of the new versatile chipset. It will also allow differing 4G offerings of the carriers to shake out.
  6. Storage Still 16 and 32 MB GB models.  No move to 64 MB GB at the top end. A move to 64 would have driven cost up a little too much, at a time when increased cost of versatile wireless chipset had to be accommodated.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Future of the US Postal Service

Neither rain nor sleet nor the Internet Protocol nor bankruptcy...

(I frequently write about emerging technology topics. Today, I'm writing about the impact of modern communications technology on more traditional national communications infrastructure)

When I was growing up a postage stamp sold for 8 cents and there was a post office quite literally a stone’s throw from my house. The daily mail often contained actual hand written letters from people we knew and liked. When I was a little older, I can remember occasionally getting a letter from a girlfriend and the envelope would sometimes have the scent of her perfume. The mail connected us and mattered to us.

If you are old enough to remember a time when the US Mail was key to personal communications, and the Internet didn’t figure so heavily in the ways in which we communicate, you know that over time the role of the US Postal Service has really changed. Back then, correspondence we very much wanted, such as letters and maybe certain important financial correspondence, came through the US Mail. Now personal communications are often email or text messages, and financial transactions are very often handled through bank web-sites. What we call junkmail (what businesses call advertising) is sent through the US Mail with the cost benefits of bulk rates.  Is it any surprise that we feel differently about the mail? Is it any surprise that we’re using it less often, and that the US Postal Service has financial troubles today?

Early this week, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told a Senate panel about a dire situation for the Postal Service, which now appears to be on the verge of financial failure with an $8.5B loss in 2010 and an anticipated $10B loss at the end of the current fiscal year. Plans for dealing with these problems, announced earlier this summer, included possibilities such as layoffs, branch office closures (perhaps 10% or more), and discontinuation of Saturday delivery.

The key questions now are about finding the right role for the US Postal Service for the future. What business models have the best chances to work well for them?
  1. Should the Postal Service make some straightforward moves (eliminate Saturday delivery, close some branches, perhaps raise the stamp cost)?
  2. Should the Postal Service more fundamentally change it’s businesses, exiting some (bulk rate mail? parcel delivery?) and entering others (online services of some types)?
  3. Could they leverage their 32,000 locations around the country, entering a partnership with an office supply store (like Staples or Office Depot) to enable document prep and then fax, email or overnight delivery?
  4. Could they partner effectively with package delivery services like FedEx or UPS?

It seems clear that things will continue to change for the US Postal Service, perhaps dramatically, or they may cease to exist entirely. My own sons may never receive a perfumed letter in the US Mail, but their sons may not know paper mail delivery at all.


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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Apple iPhone 5

Apple will very soon release a new iPhone model. This really isn’t in doubt. The questions are simply “What will the phone’s features be?” and “When exactly will it be available in the US?” If you want a third question, it would be “Which carriers will have the iPhone in the US?” since the iPhone is already on AT&T and Verizon, and could easily be made available on T-Mobile and/or Sprint.

In my earlier blog on the subject (Bobbing for Apple iPhones, April 13, 2011), I discussed reasons why Apple wouldn’t stay true to form and release an iPhone in June. Only Apple knows which if any of those reasons might account for the decision to delay, but I’m inclined to believe that a combination of them were in play. But a new iPhone this fall is a sure thing.


I expect modest, incremental improvements to the iPhone 4 in the next Apple iPhone. The new phone will again have the retina display first introduced with the iPhone 4, but will have an improved camera (perhaps 8MP), and a wireless chip set that will allow for operation on a range of carrier networks including both US networks and other networks worldwide. This is a convenience for traveling iPhone users, as well as for iPhone users who may wish to change carriers.  But it’s perhaps an even bigger win for Apple as they can build one device and have it operate on many networks. 

While the new phone may have a shape and size very similar to today's iPhone 4 (remember how the iPhone 3GS looked just like the iPhone 3G?), it would be more Apple's style to have a slick new design developed by Apple's world-renowned designer, Jony Ive.

Release Date

I predict a late September announcement of the new phone, including its name (Probably iPhone 5 but perhaps something like iPhone 4S or iPhone 4W), its features, and its availability dates. I’ll predict US availability on or about October 14th and simultaneous launch in several European and Asia-Pacific countries on that same date, with other countries to follow in subsequent weeks.

I believe that Apple will want to ramp up demand (and supply) in the final quarter of the calendar year to make the new iPhone the must-have gadget of late 2011.

Everything else

The rumor of a lost iPhone 5 prototype in a bar was quickly followed by some reports of a possible hoax. Beyond that, it seems way too deja vu to me. If I'm being really suspicious, I say Apple is fanning those flames (and maybe even started the fire) in the interest of keeping iPhone interest as high as possible at all times.

Another rumor is the introduction of a new, low-end iPhone. My guess is that the current iPhone 4 could become the new low-cost iPhone, the way the iPhone 3GS fills that position today. Rumors of a new cheaper and/or smaller iPhone to fill that slot don’t seem believable to me.

Get ready to stand in line

The later than usual launch (remember, previous iPhones launched in early summer) might mean that there are a larger number of upgrade-eligible users for the new iPhone, which will only increase the early lines at Apple stores and make online ordering that much more busy and difficult. But by the end-of-year holidays, Apple will surely have successfully delivered huge numbers of new iPhones.


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Friday, September 2, 2011

Apple After Jobs

Steve Jobs has had an amazing career. Apple, Pixar, NeXT, Apple. Eric Schmidt recently called Jobs the best CEO in the last 50 years. It’s hard to argue with that.

Jobs not only co-founded Apple, he brought the company back from death’s door – where Apple found themselves after a few years of Gil Amelio leadership in the mid 1990s.  Jobs did more than just turn Apple around, he turned Apple into arguably the most influential and important technology company in existence today. Only Google and Facebook are even in the same league. Amazon may be close. Microsoft no longer is.

But Jobs did more than just lead a tech company successfully. He reshaped industries. Jobs convinced record companies and movie companies to take the leaps to digital distribution that they were afraid to take until that moment. You think the move to digital media was inevitable? Maybe. But it didn’t actually happen in a big way until Jobs put the pieces (iPods, iPhones, iTunes) together in a way that worked for consumers and forced industries to adjust. He knew we needed not just the right devices, but the content to go on them. Will someone other than Steve Jobs at Apple be able to make that sort of sea change happen again?

When Jobs stepped down at the end of August, people began to wonder what would become of Apple.  Could the company remain as vibrant without him?

One thing gives me hope. Make that three things: Cook, Ive, and Schiller.  Jobs assembled a very strong senior management team and infused that team with his perspective and winning approaches.

Tim Cook as the new CEO by all accounts brings exceptional business and logistics skill.  He’s been with Apple for over 10 years and has run the company in the past with skill and clear success.

Jony Ive has been the primary industrial design leader at Apple, and a favorite of Steve Jobs, these past few years. His designs make key Apple products like the iPhone and the iPad what they are.

Phil Schiller knows how to market Apple in a way that consistently keeps Apple’s products – which are never the least expensive – at the top of people’s lists. If you’ve ever seen an iPhone or iPad advertisement, you know what I mean.

The Apple product pipeline is well stocked with upcoming iPhones, iPads and more, and those products already have the Steve Jobs influence. But I have a good feeling about Apple’s future if the likes of Cook, Ive and Schiller stay on board and work well together.

Next week I’ll speculate on the upcoming iPhone 5, including release dates and features.


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