Gear

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Outlet_to_go_4-plug_BlkMonster’s Outlets To Go power strip is the most useful many-purpose accessory I’ve ever thrown into a bag and plugged into a wall. Or a floor. It’s a light and compact four-outlet power strip with a short cord that wraps around it and plugs into one of the four outlets. It’s smaller than most remote controls and weighs remarkably little. And, while I believe it’s rated only for 110-volt outlets, I’ve used it with 220-volt ones in Europe and elsewhere.

I’m writing about it now because my last one, after many years of heavy use, finally failed. So I went to Fry’s, here in Palo Alto, assuming that, if anybody had it, they would. (It’s a legendarily huge place with lots of electronic stuff.) But they didn’t. Nor did Any of the Radio Shack stores I checked. It was at Radio Shack that I bought mine in the first place. But alas, Radio Shack seems to be mostly about cell phones and games these days. (They’ve seemed lost for many years now.)

Anyway, Monster still makes the things. Guess I’ll have to order one online. The list price is about $20, but I’ve seen it for half of that. I also see that Fry’s has a 3-outlet version for about $20 on its website. But get the four-outlet one.

Fuse is more than a device and a smartphone app to go with it. The world is full of those already.

Fuse is the first product in the digital age that can blow up every one of the silos built to trap personal data and limit personal independence.

Fuse does that by putting you — literally — in the driver’s seat of your life.

Fuse is also the first product to show how your own “Internet of things” can be fully yours — and truly integrated in ways that work for you — without requiring that you become a serf in some company’s castle.

Fuse is an invention of Phil Windley and his team at Kynetx, who are committed to the freedom,  independence and self-empowerment of individuals: to making you a driver of your own life and your own stuff, and not just a “user” of others’ products and services. And to letting you be “social” in your own ways, as you are in your everyday life outside the Web.

This is why Fuse is Net-native, not Web-native (though it uses the Web too). This matters because the Net was created as a decentralized World of Ends, where every node can be sovereign and independent, as well as zero functional distance from every other node. The Web could have been the same, but instead it grew on top of the Net, along lines defined by client-server architecture (aka calf-cow), which makes everything there centralized: you’re always a client, and always at the mercy of servers. This is why the browser, which started out as a vehicle on the Information Superhighway, turned into a shopping cart that gets re-skinned at every commercial site you visit, and carries tracking beacons so you can be a better target for advertising.

Fuse drives under and away from that model, which has become terribly corrupted, and toward what Bob Frankston (sitting next to me as I write this) calls the “boundary less” and “permissionless” world.

If Fuse succeeds, it will be a critical first step toward building the fully independent vehicle for the fully independent human being on that same old Information Superhighway. And it will do that that by starting with your own car.

There are only a few hours left for the Fuse Kickstarter campaign. The sum required is only $60,000, and contributions have passed $50,ooo already. So help put it over the top. It could be the most leveraged investment you’ll ever make in the future of personal independence in the networked world.

More background in my first post on Fuse.

[Later, same day...] Goal reached:

294 backers
$63,202 pledged of $60,000 goal
Looking forward to seeing Fuse’s pudding prove the headline above. :-)

car radio

Radio’s 1.x era is coming to an end. Signs and portents abound. The rise and decline of AM radio just ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, hometown paper for KDKA, the granddaddy of AM radio in the U.S. In AM/FM Radio Is Already Over, And No One Will Miss ItAdam Singer writes,

Radio advertisements are an awful, intrusive experience and universally despised

Most passionate music fans have held disdain for radio since the advent of portable music. It’s not just a dated medium, it tries to prop up a legacy generation “winner take all” of the most banal / manufactured “hits” as opposed to the meatier middle and tail of music where the quality content is (and where artists take chances and push the envelope creatively).

AM / FM radio djs and personalities are really the only thing left, and they should abandon radio now because they would benefit greatly by setting up shop online. Whether their own blog / podcast, app, or even experimenting with video (which is still a chance to be a pioneer). Even if they aren’t totally ready to abandon it yet, they should start to funnel their audiences to a digital community of some sort where they can grow over time in a platform agnostic way. This way they’re prepared for a digital future.

The notion of terrestrial analog content via AM/FM is quaint in a digital society and has reached an inevitable end. The technology itself is done. The good news is the personalities and content can not just survive, but thrive in a much higher quality environment. Further, digital provides a better experience for  audiences and sheds legacy baggage / a model that pushes aside quality and creativity for profit. Advertisers and technology providers will benefit here too: the modern device landscape provides a much better experience from a measurement, content serving, customization, and brand perspective (and so much more).

No doubt in our lifetime AM/FM will completely go away, perhaps only existing as emergency frequency. But everyone: consumers, advertisers, artists and personalities win by embracing digital. You’re fighting the future to ignore this and that’s never a way to succeed.

Yet people still listen to streams of audio, which is all radio ever was. Most of that audio is now digital, and comes to us over the Internet, even if some of it also still streams out over analog airwaves. Naturally, it’s all merging together, with predictable combinations of hand-wringing and huzzahs.

In How Tesla Changes Radio, B. Eric Rhoads reports on both:

Most in our industry are responding like any industry that’s challenged: defending the status quo and finding all the reasons consumers won’t change. And it might even be true, in radio’s case. But how likely is that? The questions all radio broadcasters need to be asking themselves now is how they can develop listener loyalty and cement their brands so deeply that listeners will seek out their favorite stations even when they have a choice of 75,000 stations from all around the world. Though you’ll still be available on the local AM FM dial, you need to assume people embracing online radio may only seek out stations in an online environment.

And, speaking of the status quo, dig “Fixing” AM Radio Broadcasting, Parts I, II and III, by Old Curmudgeon of LBA Group. There you will find perhaps the only useful way to bring a 1920′s-vintage transmission system into the next millennium. And it may well work, even though the result will still suffer from a bug what was once a feature. I explain what I mean by that in a comment under Part III:

Last year, after failing to find a useful radio at Radio Shack, my teenage son asked me a question that spoke straight to the obsolescence of radio as we know it: “What is the point of ‘range’?” In other words, why is losing a signal while driving away from town a feature and not a bug? When I explained some of the legacy technical and regulatory issues behind ‘range’, he asked, “What will it take to save radio?”

I like your answers.

In this series you frame the problems well and pose a good solution that I think will work by providing a technical and regulatory bridge from analog to digital and from 1925 to 2015. I hope regulators and broadcasters both take your proposals seriously.

Meanwhile, both the radio industry and the FCC are in denial of what’s actually happening with the “millenial” generation to which my son belongs. These people are Net-based. They assume connectivity, and zero functional distance between themselves and everyone and everything else in the networked world. They are also remarkably unconcerned with threats to the Net and therefore that model, from phone and cable companies, and captive regulators.

Hollywood in particular has known since 1995 that all of broadcasting and content distribution is being absorbed by the Net. With phone and cable companies — with which Hollywood is increasingly integrated vertically — they are desperate to find ways to continue controlling that distribution — preferably on models just as old as AM radio. Billing especially is a key issue. Phone and cable companies are billing systems as well as communications ones. Terrestrial TV and radio are not, which is one reason they care little about saving them.

So, to me at least, the parallel challenge to saving AM (and FM) radio, is keeping incumbent giants and their captive regulators from from stuffing the Internet’s genie back in the bottles of Business as Usual.”

In You Must Be HD to Compete in the Dash, RadioINK interviews Bob Struble (@rjstruble), CEO of iBiquity, the company behind HD Radio, which I love because it cleans beat-up FM and AM signals, more than for its other virtues. An excerpt:

…take my new Sequoia as an example. It has one screen layout that is the same for all audio services — Sirius, Pandora, iHeart, iPod, and analog or digital AM/FM. The screen has all my presets, from any source, on one side, and the content screen on the other side. Like all the digital services, HD Radio technology allows a station to fill that screen. There is an album cover or station logo in the middle of the screen, there are indicators that there is an HD2, HD3, or HD4 station available, there is song and artist info, there is an iTunes Tagging button to store song info for later purchase. Overall, it looks and feels like an audio service should in the digital age.

Hmm: “audio service.” I think that’s Radio 2.0, which here I call the “holy grail.”

All this will be front & center at the Dash Conference next week in Detroit. I’ll be there in spirit while my butt is at IIW in Silicon Valley (which I co-organize). This means I’ll be watching Twitter and blogs for reports on progress. In other words, I’ll stay tuned.

We’re not watching any less TV. In fact, we’re watching more of it, on more different kinds of screens. Does this mean that TV absorbs the Net, or vice versa? Or neither? That’s what I’m exploring here. By “explore” I mean I’m not close to finished, and never will be. I’m just vetting some ideas and perspectives, and looking for help improving them.

TV 1.0: The Antenna Age

In the beginning, 100% of  TV went out over the air, radiated by contraptions atop towers or buildings, and picked up by rabbit ears on the backs of TV sets or by bird roosts on roofs. “Cable” was the wire that ran from the roof to the TV set. It helps to understand how this now-ancient system worked, because its main conceptual frame — the channel, or a collection of them —  is still with us, even though the technologies used are almost entirely different. So here goes.

tv antenna

Empire State Building antennas

On the left is a typical urban rooftop TV antenna. The different lengths of the antenna elements correspond roughly to the wavelengths of the signals. For reception, this mattered a lot.

In New York  City, for example, TV signals all came from the Empire State Building — and still do, at least until they move to the sleek new spire atop One World Trade Center, aka the Freedom Tower. (Many stations were on the North Tower of the old World Trade center, and perished with the rest of the building on 9/11/2001. After that, they moved back to their original homes on the Empire State Building.)

“Old” in the right photo refers to analog, and “new” to digital. (An aside: FM is still analog. Old and New here are just different generations of transmitting antennas. The old FM master antenna is two rings of sixteen T-shaped things protruding above and below the observation deck on the 102nd floor. It’s still in use as an auxiliary antenna. Here’s a similar photo from several decades back, showing the contraptual arrangement at the height of the Antenna Age.)

Channels 2-6 were created by the FCC in the 1940s (along with FM radio, which is in a band just above TV channel 6). Those weren’t enough channels, so 7-13 came along next, on higher frequencies — and therefore shorter wavelengths. Since the shorter waves don’t bend as well around buildings and terrain, stations on channels 7-13 needed higher power. So, while the maximum power for channels 2-6 was 100,000 watts, the “equivalent” on channels 7-13 was 316,000 watts. All those channels were in VHF bands, for Very High Frequency. Channels 14-83 — the UHF, or Ultra High Frequency band, was added in the 1950s, to make room for more stations in more places. Here the waves were much shorter, and the maximum transmitted power for “equivalent” coverage  to VHF was 5,000,000 watts. (All were ERP, or effective radiated power, toward the horizon.)

This was, and remains, a brute-force approach to what we now call “delivering content.” Equally brute approaches were required for reception as well. To watch TV, homes in outer suburban or rural areas needed rooftop antennas that looked like giant centipedes.

What they got — analog TV — didn’t have the resolution of today’s digital TV, but it was far more forgiving of bad reception conditions. You might get “ghosting” from reflected signals, or “snow” from a weak signal, but people put up with those problems just so they could see what was on.

More importantly, they got hooked.

TV 2.0: the Cable Age.

It began with CATV, or Community Antenna Television. For TV junkies who couldn’t get a good signal, CATV was a godsend. In the earliest ’70s I lived in McAfee, New Jersey, deep in a valley, where a rabbit-ears antenna got nothing, and even the biggest rooftop antenna couldn’t do much better. (We got a snowy signal on Channel 2 and nothing else.) So when CATV came through, giving us twelve clear channels of TV from New York and Philadelphia, we were happy to pay for it. A bit later, when we moved down Highway 94 to a high spot south of Newton, my rooftop antenna got all those channels and more, so there was  no need for CATV there. Then, after ’74, when we moved to North Carolina, we did without cable for a few years, because our rooftop antennas, which we could spin about with a rotator, could get everything from Roanoke, Virginia to Florence, South Carolina.

But then, in the early ’80s, we picked up on cable because it had Atlanta “superstation” WTCG (later WTBS and then just TBS) and HBO, which was great for watching old movies. WTCG, then still called Channel 17, also featured the great Bill Tush. (Sample here.) The transformation of WTCG into a satellite-distributed “superstation” meant that a TV station no longer needed to be local, or regional. For “super” stations on cable, “coverage” and “range” became bugs, not features.

Cable could also present viewers with more channels than they could ever get over the air. Technical improvements gradually raised the number of possible channels from dozens to hundreds. Satellite systems, which replicated cable in look and feel, could carry even more channels.

Today cable is post-peak. See here:

catv and cable tv

That’s because, in the ’90s, cable also turned out to be ideal for connecting homes to the Internet. We were still addicted to what cable gave us as “TV,” but we also had the option to watch a boundless variety of other stuff — and to produce our own. Today people are no less hooked on video than they were in 1955, but a declining percentage of their glowing-rectangle viewing is on cable-fed TV screens. The main thing still tying people to cable is the exclusive availability of high-quality and in-demand shows (including, especially, live sports) over cable and satellite alone.

This is why apps for CNN, ESPN, HBO and other cable channels require proof of a cable or satellite TV subscription. If cable content was á la carte, the industry would collapse. The industry knows this, of course, which makes it defensive.

That’s why Aereo freaks them out. Aereo is the new company that Fox and other broadcasters are now suing for giving people who can’t receive TV signals a way to do that over the Net. The potential served population is large, since the transition of U.S. television from analog to digital transmission (DTV) was, and remains, a great big fail.

Where the FCC estimated a 2% loss of analog viewers after the transition in June 2009, in fact 100% of the system changed, and post-transition digital coverage was not only a fraction of pre-transition analog coverage, but required an entirely new way to receive signals, as well as to view them. Here in New York, for example, I’m writing this in an apartment that could receive analog TV over rabbit ears in the old analog days. It looked bad, but at least it was there. With DTV there is nothing. For apartment dwellers without line-of-sight to the Empire State Building, the FCC’s reception maps are a fiction. Same goes for anybody out in the suburbs or in rural areas. If there isn’t a clear-enough path between the station’s transmitter and your TV’s antenna, you’re getting squat.

TV stations actually don’t give much of a damn about over-the-air any more, because 90+% of viewers are watching cable. But TV stations still make money from cable systems, thanks to re-transmission fees and “must carry” rules. These rules require cable systems to carry all the signals receivable in the area they serve. And the coverage areas are mostly defined by the old analog signal footprints, rather than the new smaller digital footprints, which are also much larger on the FCC’s maps than in the realities where people actually live.

Aereo gets around all that by giving each customer an antenna of their own, somewhere out where the signals can be received, and delivering each received station’s video to customers over the Net. In other words, it avoids being defined as cable, or even CATV. It’s just giving you, the customer, your own little antenna.

This is a clever technical and legal hack, and strong enough for Aereo towin in court. After that victory, Fox threatened to take its stations off the air entirely, becoming cable- and satellite-only. This exposed the low regard that broadcasters hold for their over-the-air signals, and for broadcasting’s legacy “public service” purpose.

The rest of the Aereo story is inside baseball, and far from over. (If you want a good rundown of the story so far, dig Aereo: Reinventing the cable TV model, by Tristan Louis.)

Complicating this even more is the matter of “white spaces.” Those are parts of the TV bands where there are no broadcast signals, or where broadcast signals are going away. These spaces are valuable because there are countless other purposes to which signals in those spaces could be put, including wireless Internet connections. Naturally, TV station owners want to hold on to those spaces, whether they broadcast in them or not. And, just as naturally, the U.S. government would like to auction the spaces off. (To see where the spaces are, check out Google’s “spectrum browser“. And note how few of them there are in urban areas, where there are the most remaining TV signals.)

Still, TV 2.0 through 2.9 is all about cable, and what cable can do. What’s happening with over-the-air is mostly about what the wonks call policy. From Aereo to white spaces, it’s all a lot of jockeying for position — and making hay where the regulatory sun shines.

Meanwhile, broadcasters and cable operators still hate the Net, even though cable operators are in the business of providing access to it. Both also remain in denial about the Net’s benefits beyond serving as Cable 2.x. They call distribution of content over the Net (e.g. through Hulu and Netflix) “over the top” or OTT, even though it’s beyond obvious that OTT is the new bottom.

FCC regulations regarding TV today are in desperate need of normalizing to the plain fact that the Net is the new bottom — and incumbent broadcasters aren’t the only ones operating there. But then, the feds don’t understand the Net either. The FCC’s world is radio, TV and telephony. To them, the Net is just a “service” provided by phone and cable companies.

TV 3.0: The IPTV age

IPTV is TV over the Internet Protocol — in other words, through the open Internet, rather than through cable’s own line-up of channels. One example is Netflix. By streaming movies over the Net, Netflix put a big dent in cable viewing. Adding insult to that injury, the vast majority of Netflix streamed movies are delivered over cable connections, and cable doesn’t get a piece of the action, because delivery is over OTT, via IPTV. And now, by producing its own high-quality shows, such as House of Cards, Netflix is competing with cable on the program front as well. To make the viewing experience as smooth as possible for its customers, Netflix also has its own equivalent of a TV transmitter. It’s called OpenConnect, and it’s one among a number of competing CDNs, or Content Delivery Networks. Basically they put up big server farms as close as possible to large volumes of demand, such as in cities.

So think of Netflix as a premium cable channel without the cable, or the channel, optimized for delivery over the Internet. It carries forward some of TV’s norms (such as showing old movies and new TV shows for a monthly subscription charge) while breaking new ground where cable and its sources either can’t or won’t go.

Bigger than Netflix, at least in terms of its catalog and global popularity, is Google’s YouTube. If you want your video to be seen by the world, YouTube is where you put it today, if you want maximum leverage. YouTube isn’t a monopoly for Google (the list of competitors is long), but it’s close. (According to Alexa, YouTube is accessed by a third of all Internet users worldwide. Its closest competitor (in the U.S., at least), is Vimeo, with a global reach of under 1%.) So, while Netflix looks a lot like cable, YouTube looks like the Web. It’s Net-native.

Bassem Youssef, “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” got his start on YouTube, and then expanded into regular TV. He’s still on YouTube, even though his show on TV got canceled when he was hauled off to jail for offending the regime. Here he tells NBC’s Today show, “there’s always YouTube.” [Later... Dig this bonus link.]

But is there? YouTube is a grace of Google, not the Web. And Google is a big advertising business that has lately been putting more and more ads, TV-like, in front of videos. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a proven system. The question, as we move from TV 3.0 to 3.9, is whether the Net and the Web will survive the inclusion of TV’s legacy methods and values in its midst. In The TV in the Snake of Time, written in July 2010, I examined that question at some length:

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

That meantime has  now lasted nearly three years — or much longer if you go back to 1998, when I wrote a chapter of a book by Microsoft, right after they bought WebTV. An excerpt:

The Web is about dialog. The fact that it supports entertainment, and does a great job of it, does nothing to change that fact. What the Web brings to the entertainment business (and every business), for the first time, is dialog like nobody has ever seen before. Now everybody can get into the entertainment conversation. Or the conversations that comprise any other market you can name. Embracing that is the safest bet in the world. Betting on the old illusion machine, however popular it may be at the moment, is risky to say the least…

TV is just chewing gum for the eyes. — Fred Allen

This may look like a long shot, but I’m going to bet that the first fifty years of TV will be the only fifty years. We’ll look back on it the way we now look back on radio’s golden age. It was something communal and friendly that brought the family together. It was a way we could be silent together. Something of complete unimportance we could all talk about.

And, to be fair, TV has always had a very high quantity of Good Stuff. But it also had a much higher quantity of drugs. Fred Allen was being kind when he called it “chewing gum for the eyes.” It was much worse. It made us stupid. It started us on real drugs like cannabis and cocaine. It taught us that guns solve problems and that violence is ordinary. It disconnected us from our families and communities and plugged us into a system that treated us as a product to be fattened and led around blind, like cattle.

Convergence between the Web and TV is inevitable. But it will happen on the terms of the metaphors that make sense of it, such as publishing and retailing. There is plenty of room in these metaphors — especially retailing — for ordering and shipping entertainment freight. The Web is a perfect way to enable the direct-demand market for video goods that the television industry was never equipped to provide, because it could never embrace the concept. They were in the eyeballs-for-advertisers business. Their job was to give away entertainment, not to charge for it.

So what will we get? Gum on the computer screen, or choice on the tube?

It’ll be no contest, especially when the form starts funding itself.

Bet on Web/TV, not TV/Web.

I was recruited to write that chapter because I was the only guy Microsoft could find who thought the Web would eat TV rather than vice versa. And it does look like that’s finally happening, but only if you think Google is the Web. Or if you think Web sites are the new channels. In tech-speak, channels are silos.

When I wrote those pieces, I did not foresee the degree to which our use of the Net would be contained in silos that Bruce Schneier compares to feudal-age castles. Too much of the Web we know today is inside the walls governed by Lord Zuck, King Tim, Duke Jeff and the emperors Larry and Sergey. In some ways those rulers are kind and generous, but we are not free so long as we are native to their dominions rather than the boundless Networked world on which they sit.

The downside of depending on giants is that you can, and will, get screwed. Exhibit A (among too many for one alphabet) is Si Dawson’s goodbye post on Twitcleaner, a service to which he devoted his life, and countless people loved, that “was an engineering marvel built, as it were, atop a fail-whaling ship.”  When Twitter “upgraded” its API, it sank Twitcleaner and many other services built on Twitter. Writes Si, “Through all this I’ve learned so, so much.Perhaps the key thing? Never playfootball when someone else owns the field. So obvious in hindsight.”

Now I’m having the same misgivings about Dropbox, which works as what Anil Dash calls a POPS: Privately Owned Public Space. It’s a great service, but it’s also a private one. And therefore risky like Twitter is risky.

What has happened with all those companies was a morphing of mission from a way to the way:

  • Google was way to search, and became the way to search
  • Facebook was way to be social on the Web, and became the way to be social on the Web
  • Twitter was way to microblog, and became the way to microblog

I could go on, but you get the idea.

What makes the Net and the Web open and free are not its physical systems, or any legal system. What makes them free are their protocols, which are nothing more than agreements: the machine equivalents of handshakes. Protocols do not by their nature presume a centralized system, like TV — or like giant Web sites and services. Protocols are also also not corruptible, because they are each NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it.

Back in 2003, David Weinberger and I wrote about protocols and NEA in a site called World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It For Something Else. In it we said the Net was defined by its protocols, not by the companies providing the wiring and the airwaves over which we access the Net.

Yet, a decade later, we are still mistaking the Net for TV. Why? One reason is that there is so much more TV on the Net than ever before. Another is that we get billed for the Net by cable and phone companies. For cable and phone companies providing home service, it’s “broadband” or “high speed Internet.” For mobile phone companies, it’s a “data plan.” By whatever name, it’s one great big channel: a silo open at both ends, through which “content” gets piped to “consumers.” To its distributors — the ones we pay for access — it’s just another kind of cable TV.

The biggest player in cable is not Comcast or Time Warner. It’s ESPN. That’s because the most popular kind of live TV is sports, and ESPN runs that show. Today, ESPN is moving aggressively to mobile. In other words, from cable to the Net. Says Bloomberg Businessweek,

ESPN has been unique among traditional media businesses in that it has flourished on the Web and in the mobile space, where the number of users per minute, which is ESPN’s internal metric, reached 102,000 in June, an increase of 48 percent so far this year. Mobile is now ESPN’s fastest-growing platform.

Now, in ESPN Eyes Subsidizing Wireless-Data Plans, the Wall Street Journal reports, “Under one potential scenario, the company would pay a carrier to guarantee that people viewing ESPN mobile content wouldn’t have that usage counted toward their monthly data caps.” If this happens, it would clearly violate the principle of network neutrality: that the network itself should not favor one kind of data, or data producer, over another.Such a deal would instantly turn every competing data producer into a net neutrality activist, so it’s not likely to happen.

Meanwhile John McCain, no friend of net neutrality, has introduced the TV Consumer Freedom Act, which is even less friendly to cable. As Business Insider puts it, McCain wants to blow the sucker upSays McCain,

This legislation has three principal objectives: (1) encourage the wholesale and retail ‘unbundling’ of programming by distributors and programmers; (2) establish consequences if broadcasters choose to ‘downgrade’ their over-the-air service; and (3) eliminate the sports blackout rule for events held in publicly-financed stadiums.

For over 15 years I have supported giving consumers the ability to buy cable channels individually, also known as ‘a la carte’ – to provide consumers more control over viewing options in their home and, as a result, their monthly cable bill.

The video industry, principally cable companies and satellite companies and the programmers that sell channels, like NBC and Disney-ABC, continue to give consumers two options when buying TV programming: First, to purchase a package of channels whether you watch them all or not; or, second, not purchase any cable programming at all.

This is unfair and wrong – especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer.

Unbundle TV, make it á la carte, and you have nothing more than subscription video on the Net. And that is what TV will become. If McCain’s bill passes, we will still pay Time Warner and Comcast for connections to the Net; and they will continue to present a portfolio of á la carte and bundled subscription options. Many video sources will continue to be called “networks” and “channels.” But it won’t be TV 4.0 because TV 3.0 — TV over IP — will be the end of TV’s line.

Shows will live on. So will producers and artists and distributors. The old TV business to be as creative as ever, and will produce more good stuff than ever. Couch potatoes will live too, but there will be many more farmers, and the fertilizer will abound in variety.

What we’ll have won’t be TV because TV is channels, and channels are scarce. The Net has no channels, and isn’t about scarcity. It just has an endless number of ends, and no limit on the variety of sources pumping out “content” from those ends. Those sources include you, me, and everybody else who wants to produce and share video, whether for free or for pay.

The Net is an environment built for abundance. You can put all the scarcities you want on it, because an abundance-supporting environment allows that. An abundance system such as the Net gives business many more ways to bet than a scarcity system such as TV has been from the antenna age on through cable. As Jerry Michalski says (and tweets), “#abundance is pretty scary, isn’t it? Yet it’s the way forward.”

Abundance also frees all of us personally. How we organize what we watch should be up to us, not up to cable systems compiling their own guides that look like spreadsheets, with rows of channels and columns of times. We can, and should, do better than that. We should also do better than what YouTube gives us, based on what its machines think we might want.

The new box to think outside of is Google’s. So let’s re-start there. TV is what it’s always been: dumb and terminal.

 

artifacty HD[Later (7 April)... The issue has been resolved, at least for now. We never did figure out what caused the poor video resolution in this case, but it looks better now. Still, it seems that compression artifacts are a mix of feature and bug for both cable and satellite television. One of these weeks or months I'll study it in more depth. My plan now is just to enjoy watching the national championship game tomorrow night, between Louisville and Michigan.]

What teams are playing here? Can you read the school names? Recognize any faces?  Is that a crowd in the stands or a vegetable garden? Is the floor made of wood or ice?

You should be able to tell at least some of those things on an HD picture from a broadcast network. But it ain’t easy. Not any more. At least not for me.

Used to be I could tell, at least on Dish Network, which is one reason I got it for our house in Santa Barbara. I compared Dish’s picture on HD channels with those of Cox, our cable company, and it was no contest. DirectTV was about the equal, but had a more complicated remote control and cost a bit more. So we went with Dish. Now I can’t imagine Cox — or anybody — delivering a worse HD picture.

The picture isn’t bad just on CBS, or just during games like this one. It sucks on pretty much all the HD channels. The quality varies, but generally speaking it has gone down hill since we first got our Sony Bravia 1080p “Full HD” screen in 2006. It was the top of the line model then and I suppose still looks good, even though it’s hard to tell, since Dish is our only TV source.

Over-the-air (OTA) TV looks better when we can get it; but hardly perfect. Here’s what the Rose Bowl looked like from KGTV in San Diego when I shot photos of it on New Years Day of 2007. Same screen. You can see some compression artifacts in this close-up here and this one here; but neither is as bad as what we see now. (Since I shot those, KGTV and the CBS affiliate in San Diego, KFMB, moved down from the UHF to the VHF band, so my UHF antenna no longer gets them. Other San Diego stations with UHF signals still come in sometimes and look much better than anything from Dish.)

So why does the picture look so bad? My assumption is that Dish, to compete with cable and DirectTV, maximizes the number of channels it carries by compressing away the image quality of each. But I could be wrong, so I invite readers (and Dish as well) to give me the real skinny on what’s up with this.

And, because I’m guessing some of you will ask: No, this isn’t standard-def that I’m mistaking for high-def. This really is the HD stream from the station.

[Later...] I heard right away from @Dish_Answers. That was quick. We’ll see how it goes.

Nearly all smartphones today are optimized to do three things for you:

  1. Run apps
  2. Speak to other people
  3. Make you dependent on a phone company

The first two are features. The third is a  bug. In time that bug will be exterminated. Meanwhile it helps to look forward to what will happen with #1 and #2 once they’re liberated from #3.

Both features are personal. That’s key. Our smartphones (or whatever we end up calling them) should be as personal as our clothing, wallets and purses. In other words, they should work as extensions of ourselves.

When this happens, they will have evolved into what Martin Kuppinger calls life management platforms, good for all these things —

— in addition to the stuff already made possible by the zillion apps already out there.

What kinds of smartphones are in the best position to evolve into Life Management Platforms? The short answer is: open ones. The longer answer is: open ones that are already evolving and have high levels of adoption.

Only one platform qualifies, and that’s Android. Here’s what Wikipedia says (as of today) about Android’s open-ended evolutionary position:

Historically, device manufacturers and mobile carriers have typically been unsupportive of third-party firmware development. Manufacturers express concern about improper functioning of devices running unofficial software and the support costs resulting from this.[81] Moreover, modified firmwares such as CyanogenMod sometimes offer features, such as tethering, for which carriers would otherwise charge a premium. As a result, technical obstacles including locked bootloaders and restricted access to root permissions are common in many devices. However, as community-developed software has grown more popular, and following a statement by the Librarian of Congress in the United States that permits the “jailbreaking” of mobile devices,[82] manufacturers and carriers have softened their position regarding third party development, with some, including HTC,[81] Motorola,[83] Samsung[84][85]and Sony Ericsson,[86] providing support and encouraging development. As a result of this, over time the need to circumventhardware restrictions to install unofficial firmware has lessened as an increasing number of devices are shipped with unlocked or unlockable bootloaders, similar to the Nexus series of phones, although usually requiring that users waive their devices’ warranties to do so.[81] However, despite manufacturer acceptance, some carriers in the US still require that phones are locked down.[87]

The unlocking and “hackability” of smartphones and tablets remains a source of tension between the community and industry, with the community arguing that unofficial development is increasingly important given the failure of industry to provide timely updates and/or continued support to their devices.[87]

But the community doesn’t just argue. It moves ahead with implementations. For example, Ubuntu for Android and custom ROMs for Google’s Nexus 7.

The reason there is an aftermarket for Nexus hardware is that Google intended for Android to be open and generative from the start, pointedly saying that Nexus is “unlocked and contract free.” This is why, even though Google does lots of business with mobile phone company operators, it is those operators’ friend only to the degree it helps lead those operators past current customer-entrapment business models and into a future thick with positive economic externalities. Amidst those externalities, phone companies will still enjoy huge built-out infrastructure and other first-mover advantages. They will wake up and smell the infinity.

While Apple deserves huge credit for modeling what a smartphone should do, and how it should work (Steve Jobs was right to see Android as something of a knock-off) the company’s walled-garden remains a monument of feudality. For a window on how that fails, read Barbara Lippert’s Samsung vs. Apple: Losing My Religion in MediaPost. Barbara is an admitted member of the “cult of Cupertino,” and is — along with droves of other Apple serfs — exiting the castle.

Samsung, however, just happens to be (deservedly) the maker of today’s most popular Androids. The Androids that win in the long run will be true life management platforms. Count on it.

For a window on that future, here are the opening paragraphs of  The Customer as a God, my essay in The Wall Street Journal last July:

It’s a Saturday morning in 2022, and you’re trying to decide what to wear to the dinner party you’re throwing that evening. All the clothes hanging in your closet are “smart”—that is, they can tell you when you last wore them, what else you wore them with, and where and when they were last cleaned. Some do this with microchips. Others have tiny printed tags that you can scan on your hand-held device.As you prepare for your guests, you discover that your espresso machine isn’t working and you need another one. So you pull the same hand-held device from your pocket, scan the little square code on the back of the machine, and tell your hand-held, by voice, that this one is broken and you need another one, to rent or buy. An “intentcast” goes out to the marketplace, revealing only what’s required to attract offers. No personal information is revealed, except to vendors with whom you already have a trusted relationship.

Within a minute offers come in, displayed on your device. You compare the offers and pick an espresso machine to rent from a reputable vendor who also can fix your old one. When the replacement arrives, the delivery service scans and picks up the broken machine and transports it to the vendor, who has agreed to your service conditions by committing not to share any of your data with other parties and not to put you on a list for promotional messages. The agreement happened automatically when your intentcast went out and your terms matched up with the vendor’s.

Your hand-held is descended from what they used to call smartphones, and it connects to the rest of the world by whatever ambient connection happens to be available. Providers of commercial Internet connections still make money but not by locking customers into “plans,” which proved, years ago, to be more trouble than they were worth.

The hand-held itself is also uncomplicated. New technologies and devices are still designed by creative inventors, and there are still trade secrets. But prototyping products and refining them now usually involves actual users at every stage, especially in new versions. Manufacturers welcome good feedback and put it to use. New technology not only evolves rapidly, but appropriately. Ease of use is now the rule, not the exception.

OK, now back to the present.

Everything that I just described can be made possible only by the full empowerment of individuals—that is, by making them both independent of controlling organizations and better able to engage with them. Work toward these goals is going on today, inside a new field called VRM, for vendor relationship management. VRM works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side.

It helps that Android is already huge. It will help more when makers of Android devices and apps squash the phone company dependency bug. It will also help that the “little square code” mentioned above already exists. For a pioneering example, see SquareTag.com. For examples of how individuals can program logical connections between other entities in the world, see Kynetx and Iffft. (Kynetx is for developers. Ifttt is for users.)

As for investors, startups and incumbent big companies, it will help to start looking at the world from the perspective of the individual that each of us happens to be. The future is about liberating us, and equipping us with means for managing our lives and our relationships with other entities in the open marketplace. Personal independence and empowerment is what the PC, the Internet and the smartphone have all provided from the start. Trying to rein in that independence and empowerment comes naturally to big companies, and even some startups. But vector of progress to the future has always been along the line of personal freedom and empowerment. Free customers will be more valuable than captive ones. Android’s success is already starting to prove that.

Mobile maps matter, and Apple now has the worst mapping you can get on a phone. The best, one would think (given the Apple vs. Google coverage) is Google’s. But maybe not, because Nokia has NAVTEQ, which rocks. Or so says Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic, in a fascinating piece that visits just some of what NAVTEQ has been doing since 1985. For example, providing most of the maps you see on Garmin, Magellan and other legacy GPS companies.

This should be tempting for Apple. Here’s Alexis:

…if a certain tech giant with a massive interest in mobile content (Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo) were looking to catch up or stay even with Google, the company’s Location & Commerce unit might look like a nice acquisition they could get on the cheap (especially given that the segment lost 1.5 billion euros last year). Microsoft and Yahoo are already thick as thieves with Nokia’s mapping crew, but Apple is the company that needs the most help.

Tristan Louis makes the case as well:

So maps are now essen­tial to one’s mobile strat­egy and Apple is behind. When you’re as far behind as they are, there are two ways you can get back to the table: you can either run like crazy and try to iter­ate your prod­uct at light speed or you can buy your way back at the table.

And what bet­ter com­pany than the mar­ket leader if you are to make the invest­ment? On top of it, Apple would get some inter­est­ing sup­port for its AppleTV product.

Apple would get Nokia’s huge mobile tech patent portfolio, which includes a license to Qualcomm’s impressive collection. Tristan suggests that Nokia’s idle patents on mobile TV tech would also help Apple. No doubt it would. Let’s also remember that Google bought Motorola Mobility a short while back pretty much for the same reason: to get an edge in the “nuclear showdown” that patent-based tech wars tend to be. And mobile, alas, is a patent-based game.

The downside would be owning a struggling giant with lots of baggage Apple surely does not want. But Apple has to do something.

Nokia and Microsoft are deeply in bed, however, and both are unlikely to consider selling out to Apple, an enemy in the marketplace. (One can easily imagine Steve Ballmer going nuclear at the very thought of it.)

Eric Bleeker at Motley Fool responds to Tristan while laying out a number of possibilities. His conclusion: “The simple reality is that Apple will probably continue taking smaller bets on emerging technologies.”

Such as? In Yandex to Power Apple Maps, Alexander Vostrov of Russia Beyond the Headlines writes,

Russian software fans are glowing with pride, while analysts make the most improbable assumptions: the Russian IT giant Yandex has entered into a partnership with Apple and will have its Yandex Maps location service integrated with Apple’s new iOS 6 operating system.

This piece from June in The Verge also points to an attribution list at Apple. The page is copy-proof, so just go look at it. The list of data sources is long.

So how about OpenStreetmap? I don’t see them in the above list, but this OpenStreeMap Foundation blog post by Harry Wood on 2 October offers confirming evidence. Says Harry,

Apple’s new maps for iOS6 make use of OpenStreetMap in some parts of the world. We’re not sure how extensive this use is, but it’s fair to say they are mostly using other sources. Apple have used TomTom as a key supplier of data for example. This means that inaccuracies in apple maps are probably not the fault of OpenStreetMap (contrary to some commentary!) However OpenStreetMap is mentioned in apple’s credits, and we have spotted some areas where we think we can see our data in use.

This means your contributions to OpenStreetMap at least have a chance of helping Apple, along with everybody else. But, if you want to go direct to Apple, here’s the trick:

  1. Open Maps on your iOS device
  2. Go to a map view with a problem in it
  3. Lift the lower right (turned up) corner of the map
  4. Look for the very small gray-on-gray text above the Print button that says “Report a problem.” Click on that.
  5. Fill out the short form

I just reported one of Apple’s absent subway stations, just to see how it works. (In fact, they’re all missing, and not just here in New York. I also saw none in London or Paris.)

Meanwhile, I continue to believe selling their own map apps on iOS would be good for Google, and Nokia as well.

[Later...] eWeek has what may be the best suggestion yet: get out of the maps business entirely. Let the Maps companies give away or sell a maps app on the phone. If Nokia and Google decided not to, that would hurt Apple, but it would make them (especially Google) look like silo-building schmucks playing passive-agressive games against a competitor.

Probably too late now. But maybe the open game is the only one for Apple to play now. Dunno though. Food for re-thought.

Having both iPhone and Android devices in the household, I’ve been struck for some time by the absence of two Google Maps features on the iPhone that appear on the Android. One is adaptive turn-by-turn directions (the “recalculating” thing that good GPSes, like those of Garmin, Magellan and Tom-Tom, have always done) when you go off the original course. The other is vocalization of directions (which, again, single-purpose GPS devices do). Android devices have those. The iPhone doesn’t.

I had always thought that this difference was due to one of two things:

  1. Apple didn’t want those features
  2. Google didn’t want Apple devices to have those features, presumably to favor Android in user comparisons with iPhone

The second one makes more sense to me, especially since Apple dropped Google’s maps and added those missing features to its own maps.

But I don’t know. In fact, without an Android with me here in France I can’t compare the two. (Back in the U.S., where I’m headed today, I can.)

I’m not even sure I have the facts right on Android vs. Apple navigation.

What I am sure about is that coverage of the change so far is mostly missing the possibility of numbers one or two above. Anybody got the facts on that? Specifically, did Google intentionally cripple its maps on Apple devices to favor Androids? I haven’t seen that question asked yet. [Later... The answer, according to comments below, and also on Twitter, is no. Apparently #1 is the case.]

Meanwhile, Apple’s new maps are a fail for us here in Paris. I upgraded to iOS 6 and my wife didn’t, on our pair of iPhones. Her Google map shows Metro stops. My Apple map does not. Lacking those stops is a deal-killer for her, and she won’t be upgrading until it’s clear to me on my phone that the Apple maps have parity. I’ve got a feeling that will be awhile.

Huge bonus link.

netscape-navigator-icon-199x300Back in 1995, one of my wife’s sisters became one of the first executives at a hot new startup called Netscape. We wore Netscape t-shirts, used Netscape’s browser, and paid close attention to what was happening in Netscape’s space, which was the entire Web.

One of the first things to happen on that Web was e-commerce: Amazon, eBay, and the rest of them. All of them had their own shopping carts, and systems for managing sales and service. Which was fine, except for one dysfunctional pre-Web retail default assumption that my wife spotted one day. She wasn’t meaning to spot it, but rather exposed it with a naive but deeply profound question:

Why can’t I take my shopping cart from one site to another?

What she saw was that the shopping cart should be the customer’s, and not each retailer’s alone.

She wanted to drive, and not just be driven. That was what the first browsers were promised. That’s why the steering wheel was the emblem for Netscape’s browser.

Nineteen years later, that hasn’t happened. You no longer drive your browser. On the commercial side of the Web, you are driven as a passenger, with little control over what the driver does, even if the driver (actually a robotic process — an algorithm) wants to help.

Take, for example, the matter of location. The Internet has no location, and that’s one of its graces. But many sites and services go out of their way to notice what IP address you appear to be arriving from, and customize their pages for you, based on that location. While that might sound innocent enough, and well-intended, it also fails to know the driver’s true intentions — or even that they wish to drive.

Our intentions — our will to drive — matters far more to each of us than whatever a website guesses about us, especially if the guessing is wrong, which it is, a great deal of the time.

Last week I happened to be in New York when a friend in Toronto and I were both looking up the same thing on Google while we talked over Skype. We were unable to see the same thing, or anything close, on Google, because the engine insisted on giving us both localized results, which neither of us wanted. We could change our locations, but not to no location at all. In other words, it wouldn’t let us drive. We could only be driven.

Right now I’m in Paris, and cannot get Google to let me look at Google.com (presumably google.us), Google.uk or Google.anywhere other than France. At least not on its Web page. (If I use the location bar as a place to search, it gives me google.com results, for some non-obvious reason.)

After reading Larry Magid’s latest in Huffpo, about the iPhone 5, which says this…

Gazelle.com is paying $240 for an iPhone 4s in good condition, which is $41 more than the cost of a subsidized iPhone 5. If you buy a new iPhone from Sprint they’ll buy back your iPhone 4s for $235. Trouble is, if you bought a 4s it’s probably still under contract. Sprint is paying $125 for an 8 GB iPhone 4 and Gazelle is paying $145 for a 16 GB iPhone 4 which means that it you can get the $199 upgrade price, your out of pocket could be as little as $54.

… I wondered what BestBuy might give me for my 16GB iPhone 4. But when I go to http://bestbuy.com, the company gives me a page in French. I guess that’s okay, but it’s still annoying. (So is seeing that I can’t get a trade-in price without visiting a store.)

Back in the search world, I’ve been looking for a prepaid wireless internet access strategy to get data at sane prices in the next few countries I visit. A search for “prepaid wireless internet access” on google.fr gets me lots of ads in French, some of which might be more interesting if I knew French as well as I know English, but I doubt it. The “I’m feeling lucky” result is a faux-useful SEO-elevated page with the same title as the search query. The rest of the first page results are useless as well. (I did eventually find a useful site for my UK visit the week after next, but I’ll save that for another post.)

To describe what the Web has become, two metaphors come to mind.

The first is a train system that mostly runs between commercial destinations. In a surreal way, you are transported from one destination to another near-instantly (or at the speed of a page loading ads and cookies along with whatever it was you went there for), and are trapped at every destination in a cabin with a view only of what the destination wants you to see. The cabin is co-occupied by dozens or hundreds of conductors at any given time, all competing for your attention and telling you something they hope will make you buy something or visit other sites. In the parlance of professionals on the supply side of this system, what you get here is an “experience” that they “deliver.” To an increasing degree this experience is personalized, and for every person it’s different. If you looked at pants a few sites back, you might see ads for pants, or whatever it is that the system thinks you might want to buy, whether you’re in a buying mood or not at the time. (And most of the time you’re not, but they don’t care about that.)

Google once aspired to give us access to “all the world’s information”, which suggests a library. But the library-building job is now up to Archive.org. Instead, Google now personalizes the living shit out of its search results. One reason, of course, is to give us better search results. But the other is to maximize the likelihood that we’ll click on an ad. But neither is served well by whatever it is that Google thinks it knows about us. Nor will it ever be, so long as we are driven, rather than driving.

I think what’s happened in recent years is that users searching for stuff have been stampeded by sellers searching for users. I know Googlers will bristle at that characterization, but that’s what it appears to have become, way too much of the time.

But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that browsers are antique vehicles.

See, we need to drive, and browsers aren’t cars. They’re shopping carts that shape-shift with every site we visit. They are optimized for being inside websites, not for driving outside them, or between them. In fact, we can hardly imagine the Net or the Web as a space that’s larger than the sites in it. But we need to do that if we’re going to start designing means of self-transport that transcend the limitations of browsing and browsers.

Think about what it means to drive.  The cabin, steering wheel, pedals, controls, engine, tires and chassis of a car are all controlled by you. The world through which you move is outside, not inside. Even in malls, you park outside the stores. The stores do not intrude inside your personal space. Driving is no less personal and no less masterfully yours when you ride a bike or a motorcycle, or pilot a plane. Those are all personal vehicles too. A browser should have been like one of those, and that was kind of the idea back in the early days when we talked about “surfing” and the “information highway.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead browsers became shopping carts that get fresh skins at every website.

We need a new vehicle. One that’s ours.

The smartphone would be ideal if it wasn’t also a phone. But that’s what it is. With few exceptions, we rent smartphones from phone companies and equipment makers, which collude to sentence us to “plans” that last for two years at a run.

I had some hope for Android., but that hope is fading now. Although supporting general purpose hardware and software was one of Google’s basic ideas behind Android, that’s not how it’s turning out. Android in most cases is an embedded operating system on a special purpose device. In the most familiar U.S. cases (AT&T’s, Sprint’s, T-Mobile’s and Verizon’s) the most special purpose of that device is locking you to a plan and soaking you for some quantity of minutes, texts and GB of data, whether you use the full amounts or not, and then punishing you for going over. They play an asymmetrical knowledge game with you, where they can monitor your every move, and all your usage, while you can barely do the same, if at all.

So we have a long way to go before mobile phones become the equivalent of a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle or a small plane. I don’t think there is an evolutionary path to the Net’s equivalent of a car that starts with a smartphone. Unless it’s not a phone first and a computing/communication device second.

The personal computing and communications revolution is thirty years old now, if we date it from the first IBM PC.  And right now we’re stuck, mostly because we think having the Web “personalized” is the same thing as having a personal vehicle. And because we think having a smartphone makes us independent. Neither is true. That’s why we won’t make progress past those problems until we start thinking and inventing outside their old boxes.

Apple TV (whatever it ends up being called) will kill cable. It will also give TV new life in a new form.

manhole coverIt won’t kill the cable companies, which will still carry data to your house, and which will still get a cut of the content action, somehow. But the division between cable content and other forms you pay for will be exposed for the arbitrary thing it is, in an interactive world defined by the protocols of the Internet, rather than by the protocols of television. It will also contain whatever deals Apple does for content distribution.

These deals will be motivated by a shared sense that Something Must Be Done, and by knowing that Apple will make TV look and work better than anybody else ever could. The carriers have seen this movie before, and they’d rather have a part in it than outside of it. For a view of the latter, witness the fallen giants called Sony and Nokia. (A friend who worked with the latter called them “a tree laying on the ground,” adding “They put out leaves every year. But that doesn’t mean they’re standing up.”)

I don’t know anything about Apple’s plans. But I know a lot about Apple, as do most of us. Here are the operative facts as they now stand (or at least as I see them):

  1. Apple likes to blow up categories that are stuck. They did it with PCs, laptops, printers, mp3 players, smartphones, music distribution and retailing. To name a few.
  2. TV display today is stuck in 1993. That’s when the ATSC (which defined HDTV standards) settled on the 16:9 format, with 1080 pixels (then called “lines”) of vertical resolution, and with picture clarity and sound quality contained within the data carrying capacity of a TV channel 6MHz wide. This is why all “Full HD” screens remain stuck at 1080 pixels high, no matter how physically large those screens might be. It’s also why more and more stand-alone computer screens are now 1920 x 1080. They’re made for TV. Would Steve Jobs settle for that? No way.
  3. Want a window into the future where Apple makes a TV screen that’s prettier than all others sold? Look no farther than what Apple says about the new iPad‘s resolution:
  4. Cable, satellite and over-the-air channels are still stuck at 6MHz of bandwidth (in the original spectrum-based meaning of that word). They’re also stuck with a need to maximize the number of channels within a finite overall bandwidth. This has resulted in lowered image quality on most channels, even though the images are still, technically, “HD”. That’s another limitation that surely vexed Steve.
  5. The TV set makers (Sony, Visio, Samsung, Panasonic, all of them) have made operating a simple thing woefully complicated, with controls (especially remotes) that defy comprehension. The set-top-box makers have all been nearly as bad for the duration. Same goes for the makers of VCR, DVD, PVR and other media players. Home audio-video system makers too. It’s a freaking mess, and has been since the ’80s.
  6. Steve at AllThingsD on 2 June 2010: “The only way that’s ever going to change is if you can really go back to square one and tear up the set-top-box and redesign it from scratch with a consistent UI, withall these different functions, and get it to the consumer in a way they are willing to pay for. We decided, what product do you want most? A better tv or a better phone? A better TV or a tablet? … The TV will lose until there is a viable go-to-market strategy. That’s the fundamental problem.” He also called Apple TV (as it then stood) a “hobby”, for that reason. But Apple is bigger now, and has far more market reach and clout. In some categories it’s nearly a monopoly already, with at least as much leverage as Microsoft ever had. And you know that Apple hasn’t been idle here.
  7. Steve Jobs was the largest stockholder in Disney. He’s gone, but the leverage isn’t. Disney owns ABC and ESPN.
  8. The main thing that keeps cable in charge of TV content is not the carriers, but ESPN, which represents up to 40% of your cable bill, whether you like sports or not. ESPN isn’t going to bypass cable — they’ve got that distribution system locked in, and vice versa. The whole pro sports system, right down to those overpaid athletes in baseball and the NBA, depend on TV revenues, which in turn rest on advertising to eyeballs over a system made to hold those eyeballs still in real time. “There are a lot of entrenched interests,” says Peter Kafka in this On the Media segment. The only thing that will de-entrench them is serious leverage from somebody who can make go-to-market, UI, quality, and money-flow work. Can Apple do that without Steve? Maybe not. But it’s still the way to bet.

Cable folks have a term for video distribution on the net Net. They call it “over the top“. Of them, that is, and their old piped content system.

That’s actually what many — perhaps most — viewers would prefer: an à la carte choice of “content” (as we have now all come to say). Clearly the end state is one in which you’ll pay for some stuff while other stuff is free. Some of it will be live, and some of it recorded. That much won’t be different. The cable companies will also still make money for keeping you plugged in. That is, you’ll pay for data in any case. You’ll just pay more for some content. Much of that content will be what we now pay for on cable: HBO, ESPN and the rest. We’ll just do away with the whole bottom/top thing because there will be no need for a bottom other than a pipe to carry the content. We might still call some  sources “channels”; and surfing through those might still have a TV-like UI. But only if Apple decides to stick with the convention. Which they won’t, if they come up with a better way to organize things, and make selections easy to make and pay for.

This is why the non-persuasiveness of Take My Money, HBO doesn’t matter. Not in the long run. The ghost of Steve is out there, waiting. You’ll be watching TV his way. Count on it.

We’ll still call it TV, because we’ll still have big screens by that name in our living rooms. But what we watch and listen to won’t be contained by standards set in 1993, or by carriers and other “stakeholders” who never could think outside the box.

Of course, I could be wrong. But no more wrong than the system we have now.

Bonus link.

Another.

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