Monthly Archives: June 2007

Why downloadable movies will fail

There have been several video download services in the past; all have failed.

A few months ago, Amazon announced their Video Download service, which they dubbed “Amazon Unbox”. What is unusual about this offering is its “direct-to-TiVo” download option. This allows watching on TV (which most people do) instead of on a computer (which few will do).

I’ve had a TiVo for about eighteen months now, and I’m a big fan. Amazon kick-started the service by offering a $15 credit for new customers – which roughly translates as FREE MOVIES – so I was happy to give them a try.

I have downloaded three movies in this way. In spite of some teething troubles, I am very impressed at the service. However, I do not believe that Unbox will succeed. There are two reasons why.

First up is our old friend, DRM. Digital Rights Management is where content providers (movie studios, in this case) decide what consumers (you and me) can and cannot do with the content we legally purchased. While the TiVo has DRM, it is so seamless that it is hardly noticeable  – in my book, that is the only kind of DRM that works – but Unbox adds another couple of restrictions that make me want to take my custom elsewhere. When you purchase a download, you have thirty days to watch it before it will “softly and silently vanish away”. This is not unreasonable. The other restriction is a little more onerous: once you start watching the movie you have 24 hours before it, too, vanishes. This is a deal-breaker for me, as not everyone who wishes to watch a movie around at any given time. Extend this period to a week or get rid of this “feature” entirely.

The second reason is price. Or rather, value – what you pay for vs. what you get. Four bucks is not unreasonable for a video rental from a local store. For that you get a DVD with liner notes, subtitles (a big deal for me), audio streams, commentaries, extra goodies, etc, and the assistance of a salesperson. You also get a tangible item that you can hold in your hands that you can watch and re-watch as often as you like. You can even extend the rental period if you wish. When you rent a DVD, the store – a local business – gets a cut, as does their distribution network and the manufacturer, so you have the knowledge that you are helping out a local business. The publisher probably gets around $1 or $2. When you download a video you do not get any of those goodies, and the lack of human interaction means that the distributor makes a few pennies and the rest goes straight to the publisher. So with a movie download you pay more and get less, while the publisher does less and gets more. This is what the content industry is pushing hardest for – charging the same price to your customers while cutting out the middleman; Dire Straits said it so well – “Money fer nuthin and yer checks fer free…

I’m not saying that movie downloads are a bad idea; I am saying that they are overpriced. I’ll be using up my free credit; after that I will use it only occasionally.

So what does it take to change my mind? Simple. Halve the price – at $2 a movie I will probably watch one or two a week. Not likely, methinks, but I honestly believe that a little more flexibility from the movie industry will result in far greater profits. The same is true of music downloads, but that is another story.

Now Reading: Favorite Dog Stories, by James Herriot

Lies, damned lies and yellow tags

Not long ago, I went into a local Kroger’s to get some Over-the-counter (OTC) medicine. I saw an item on sale, or so it seemed, as there was a yellow tag.

In the past, Kroger’s has used the yellow tag to denote that an item is cheaper with their loyalty card… but this tag said “everyday low price”. Peeling back the yellow tag, I saw a ordinary white tag… with the same price!


It reminds me of Wal-Mart’s “endcap” trick, where they put an item on an endcap with a HUGE PRICE TAG, in an attempt to make people think that they are getting a bargain. But as bad as that is, this is more disingenuous.

I was content to let it lie… until last night, when I saw a Billboard boasting “When the Tag is up, the price is down”, with two yellow tags…


…one of which says “everyday low price”. Now I am only an ordinary customer, but from where I am sitting, you cannot claim that “the price is down” while offering the same price as usual.

So when the tag is up, the price is down… except when it isn’t.

I don’t know what disturbs me more; that Kroger’s thinking that this sort of behavior is ok… or that the rest of us are “rewarding” it with our purchases.

Kroger’s’ marketing boys and girls need to get new dictionaries and look up words like “dishonest”, “disingenuous” and “misrepresentation”.

Abe Lincoln once said “he has the right to criticize who has the heart to help“, so I am going to do my bit to help.

Naturally, I will draw Kroger’s’ Customer Service to this post. I will be happy to take it down if and when they change their ways in this matter. However, since most Customer Service Departments are bloody useless (since they essentially exist to tell the customer “no”), and I have little hope of changing a retailing behemoth, I will also offer the following valuable service at no cost to Kroger’s:

If I see a “pointless” yellow tag (same price underneath), I will remove it.
The price will not change.
All I will do is remove the deception.
No Charge.

Patently Ridiculous

An interesting story from the New York Times, in which the writer compares the Microsoft of 16 years ago with the Microsoft of today.

In 1991, Bill Gates said “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today… some large company will patent some obvious thing [and use the patent to] take as much of our profits as they want.”

That was then, but this is now. Microsoft now holds 6000+ patents and is not afraid to use them to bludgeon the competition.

I make a living writing software, and I have done for over twenty years. In that time I have never felt the need to use a software patent, neither have I ever advised an employer or client to do so.

Why? Because it is wrong. Software is copyrightable. It is not patentable. Software is a creation – not an invention. There are perhaps, what look like a few notable exceptions – encryption algorithms, for instance – but it is the mechanism, not the implementation, that is patentable. So even when software is patentable, it isn’t.

Since inventions are patentable and “works” are copyrightable, it follows that nothing can be both. Perhaps one way to discourage this would be to revoke the copyright when the patent runs out. I suspect that Microsoft et al would change their minds if faced with that particular dilemma…

But then I think that all source code should be escrowed and released to the public domain after about ten years. Not because I subscribe to some kind of neo-communist ideology – I don’t – but because the ability to “build a better mousetrap” is the heart of innovation – and you can’t do that when some megacorp has patented and copyrighted the design of the mousetrap.

In a supreme twist of irony, the New York Times OP-Ed piece was written by one Tim B Lee. For those watching in black-and-white, that would be Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented hyperlinks and fathered the world-wide web. Where do you think we would be today if he had patented the idea?

Patents are the enemy of innovation. Some might disagree; ask who is paying their salary.

Now Reading: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

When Cops Go Fishing

Story Here. And here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here

Sam Peterson is a man in a hurry. So during his busy day he takes time out to park next to a coffee shop offering free wi-fi, open up his laptop and grab his e-mail before going off on his merry way.

Unfortunately, he lives in Sparta, Michigan, where the police seem to have little grasp of technology and even less of a sense of humor.

Here’s how it went down. One day, he is checking his e-mail when the local Police Chief spots him in the parking lot. Concerned that he might be stalking a local hairdresser the cop asks him what he is doing. Sam tells him. Cop says “ok” and lets him go.

Later, the cop had a change of heart. He later said “I had a feeling a law was being broken, but I didn’t know exactly what

**Ahem**A cop didn’t know what law was being broken? So what was he arrested for – thoughtcrime? Did he feel something in his water? Was there a grave disturbance in the force?

This has “fishing expedition” written all over it – without a bass boat or even the obligatory six-pack of beer.

This is wrong on so many levels.

They charged him under Michigan’s “Fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks” law. That’s right: They used an anti-hacking law to prosecute someone for checking his e-mail in the parking lot. Sam was the first person to be charged under that law, which dates back to 1979 and was revised in 2000.

He could have fought the charge – and would probably have won – but the legal fees would have been more than he could afford, and the penalty had he been found guilty would have been severe.

And don’t even think of using the “theft of services” defense;  the monetary value of the “theft” was less than a discarded sandwich-wrapper in the parking lot. And if there was a theft, it is a civil matter, not a criminal one – and the coffee-shop should sue, which is a completely different legal process.

The “crime” was not what he did, but where he was sitting when he did it. He could have been sending porn span while downloading movies, but if he had been in the coffee shop while he did it, that would have been ok.

Over the past few years, there have been several cases where people who have been piggybacking on someone else’s wi-fi – even for innocent purposes – have been subjected to similar draconian treatment.

The two best analogies that I can think of are reading a newspaper by someone else’s porch-light, and reading over someone else’s shoulder. Both are easily preventable. Neither are criminal offense – at least in places other than Sparta, Michigan.

The prosecution stands on the premise that Sam “did not have permission to use the network“. From an engineering standpoint that’s simply not true. A client’s laptop sends out a request for wireless service, and the Access Point (AP) grants it. It is also not always possible to determine which AP you have connected to. In an airport, your laptop might connect to a restaurant’s “for-customers-only” AP instead of the airport’s “public” one. It is therefore possible to be committing a felony without intending to or even being aware of it. It is therefore simply inappropriate to use a “no-permission” defense in this situation.

As things stand, the law does not put any requirement on the owner of a network to secure it. It ain’t hard, even in a coffee shop. Use a password. Change it daily or weekly, put up a sign or print the password on receipts.

Paradoxically, if someone connected to my AP and started downloading music, and the RIAA caught wind of it, I would be on the receiving end of their ire; they would not accept a “someone hacked my network” defense, because (they say) I am legally responsible for what happens on my network, and I am expected to do my due diligence to ensure that no illegal activity occurs on it. Yet here, the AP owner is not held responsible in any shape form or fashion.

Looks like a double standard to me – one law for businesses, one law for people.

I do not believe that it is the purpose of these laws to serve as a refuge for idiots who are too lazy and sloppy to take even the most basic steps to protect themselves. The law should be amended so that unprotected networks are fair game. It is easy enough to put up the equivalent of a “Private Beach – Keep Out sign”

I find it amusing that a coffee shop will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars getting trained professionals to install a state-of-the-art burglar alarm system, but can’t be bothered with the hassle of taking the most rudimentary steps to secure their network.

Any road up, Sparta MI is high on the list of places I don’t want to go.

High School Commencement Address

I look out at the class of 2007 with mixed feelings. On the one hand I see the clean-limbed, lithe children of the West; flexible, invincible, and above all, optimistic.

On the other hand I see the product of a generation that is overstimulated, overindulged, overpraised and both over- and undereducated. A generation that knows about sex but cannot balance a checkbook. A generation that views Credit Cards more as status symbols than as the tools of economic slavery that they are.

I see a class where the commonest grade is an A, a C is considered underperforming and D and E grades are almost unheard of. If those grades were to be taken seriously, about 80% of you are above average. Those of you who took statistics know that this is mathematically impossible.

For many of you, the final year of High School has been a cruise. I hope that you enjoyed the year; for most of you life will never again be that easy or problem-free. For a few of you, this day is the culmination of a long, hard year of struggle. You have found your limits, tested them, pushed and expanded them. I salute your achievement.

Norman Douglas, the British Writer, once said “If we want children to succeed, we must stop giving them things“.  Sadly, those of you who have been pampered, cosseted and showered with gifts are the least likely to succeed. Those who got a brand new car or somesuch for graduating are the ones that I feel truly sorry for.

There is an old tale about two frogs that somehow became trapped in a bucket of milk. One frog, who was more intelligent than his compadre, said “What’s the point? There’s no way out. We can’t paddle all night. We’re dead” With that, he stopped paddling, slipped beneath the surface, and drowned. The second frog kept on paddling until eventually he whipped up a little island of butter. Exhausted, he crawled onto the island, and waited until morning, when the milkmaid threw him out.

I have found that the brightest people are rarely the success stories.  This is because the race does not go to the swift, the strong or the ruthless. It goes to those whose bloody-minded stubbornness will not allow them the luxury of giving up.

For those of you who have had a long hard struggle, who had to work hard for everything you have, whose parents may not be able to put you through college, you have already learned the value of tenacity, and you are, in my book, the most likely to succeed.

Almost all of you hope to surpass your parents. Some will, most won’t. Too many of you have parents who fervently hope that you won’t repeat their mistakes. Sadly, many of you will. To many teenagers, parents are clueless at best, killjoys at worst. This is nothing new. Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Very little that you have done before this day will make a difference or matter ten years from now. The prom, cheerleading, sports, boyfriends, girlfriends and all of those things that you spent much of the last year obsessing over are destined to become footnotes in your life, if they are remembered at all. Three years from now, the name of your High School will not matter, except, perhaps, as a personal identification question when talking to a Customer Service person in a cube hundreds – or thousands – of miles away.

What we celebrate today is the completion of the life-equivalent of boot camp; basic training. Don’t expect any medals or promotions; you have not yet seen battle.

In conclusion, Larry Elder said “You need only do three things to avoid poverty in this country:

  1. Finish high school.
  2. Marry before having a child.
  3. Produce the child after the age of 20.

Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor;
79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.

Congratulations on achieving one of those goals.

Now Reading: Stealing your Life, by Frank W. Abagnale