Archive for August, 2010

M. Night: It’s Over, Mon

August 31, 2010 Comments off

Being a film buff, I see a lot of movies. It was with great interest, then, that I sat in a theater recently and watched a trailer for a new horror thriller that takes place largely in an elevator. An interesting concept, I thought, as did most of the audience… until a set of words popped up onto the screen that inspired howls of laughter: “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.”

Seriously. The audience broke out in laughter as soon as the director/writer’s name appeared. What’s even funnier is that I’ve now seen the trailer before a couple of movies, and every time it’s been the same reaction: steady interest until his name appeared, then laughter.

You don’t need to be a film critic to know that’s not good. It seems pretty clear that Shyamalan, who first burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense - a movie about a kid who sees dead people - has by now lost all credibility. The abominable Last Airbender, which got an astonishing 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping average critic score of 20 out of a 100 on Metacritic, looks to have been the final nail in his dwindling career.

Up until now! Oh yes, as if Shyamalan doesn’t have enough trouble being taken seriously, he’s gone and done a spoof of the upcoming elevator movie that he wrote - unimaginatively called Devil, by the way - with MTV’s Josh Horowitz and Penthouse Pet Ryan Keely (her inclusion thereby tangentially qualifying the movie for discussion on this blog). Here’s the spoof, equally imaginatively named Escalation.

As you can see, the only thing worse than a man who isn’t being taken seriously spoofing himself, is a man spoofing himself in something that isn’t even funny. Yikes.

Categories: movies, penthouse

The humble can: 200 years of awesomeness

August 30, 2010 2 comments

I received an email the other day from Tom Megginson, a creative director with Ottawa-based marketing firm Acart Communications who wanted to let me know that he had mentioned me on his blog. After giving it a read, I simply had to point to it here - not because I’m in it, but because his posting is hilarious.

In what can only be described as an “ode to a can,” Tom pays homage to the humble tin can. Yup - that piece of metal that over the past two centuries has housed everything from soup to Spam to beer. We rarely think about the can, but as Tom humorously sums up in his post, it’s been an incredibly important piece of hardware.

As I delve into in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, the can was the first and most important step in food processing - it was the first technological breakthrough that made long-term storage and transportation of food possible. Not only did that enable further exploration and study of the world, it also aided military forces by providing durable food for troops far away from home.

But, as Tom observes, the trusty and reliable can is now under threat from something called the retort pouch, or lighter and better packaging developed - ironically - by the military. I won’t spoil the rest of his post, but I recommend you give it a read.

One thing I’m left wondering, though, is whether the beer pictured at the bottom of his post will ever come in a retort pouch. That would be weird.

Categories: food, packaging, war

Why Google’s voice denial doesn’t jibe

August 27, 2010 Comments off

Yesterday’s post about why Google is offering people free voice calls generated quite a bit of discussion. The folks over at Gizmodo contacted me and asked if they could syndicate the post, and I said sure - there were quite a few good reader comments that took my theory a bit further, and at least one observer who thought I was off my rocker.

I also checked in with Google to see what they thought of the theory - that the company is giving away free calls in exchange for audio samples that can be harvested and used to build better voice search - and they sent me this quasi-denial:

“Actually, it is about free calls. We’re not using call phones in Gmail to improve our voice search features. The revenue from international calling will cover the costs of free calls, and we’d encourage you to give your friends overseas a ring.”

I’m not fully sold on that denial, not because I don’t trust the company’s communications people, but because I have a high degree of respect for its engineers, and I would almost think it foolish of them to ignore such a valuable cache of information. Interestingly, some privacy advocates in Australia seem to agree.

Google’s response also doesn’t make a ton of sense, for several other reasons.

In the first case, despite what it seems like, Google doesn’t give anything away for free - not search, not Gmail, not Maps. All of these free services have a price, and it usually involves showing the user some ads. Phone calls, as cheap as they are, actually cost Google money, so it’s hard to believe the company would just give them away for nothing.

As per the company’s reasoning, where the costs will be recouped through charges for overseas calls, that may turn out to be the case, but I suspect in the early going the vast majority of calls will be made in the United States, the only country where Gmail calling is officially available so far (we Canadians can get it too for some reason, as can Australians evidently).

Then there’s the fact that Google admits to storing calls made to its GOOG-411 information service. It’s right there in the privacy policy: “We also collect and store a copy of the voice commands you make to the service, so we can audit, evaluate, and improve the voice recognition capabilities of the service. We do not directly link the stored copy of your voice commands with your caller id. Your voice commands are anonymized after six months.” Why then, would its other voice services be different?

There is one potential reason, and if there’s a flaw in my theory, this is it: Google’s recording and storing of calls could be illegal. In Canada - and I’m fairly sure the law is the same in the United States - a phone call can be recorded if at least one party to the conversation is aware that it’s being recorded. I’m no lawyer, but this type of service from Google - with a pretty vague privacy policy - is murky at best, since Google would represent a third party. It could be argued that by the user accepting the privacy policy, which states that “Google maintains and processes your Google Voice account and its contents to provide the Google Voice service to you and to improve our services,” they acknowledge and accept the third-party recording.

There’s also the inevitable concern that Google mining phone calls would be a violation of the user’s privacy, but I’m not too excited about that one. We went through the same concerns when Google first started combing through people’s emails to deliver them ads, and in the end that didn’t amount to much. I don’t see how Google going through phone calls would be any different, even if it’s to a different end than parsing people’s email.

Maybe, maybe not. But as one Gizmodo reader pointed out: “At the very least Google Voice gets to look at your voicemails, or voicemails to you, and work on translating those into text. So if they don’t have direct access to your calls they do get to see your messages.” So even if Google isn’t mining the larger sample of voice calls, which it says it isn’t, it could use voice mails as its database of audio samples. I’ll see if the company denies that and report back.

Lastly, some people seemed to think there was some negativity behind my theory yesterday - that perhaps I thought Google giving away phone calls as a way to evolve its search engines was a bad thing. Far from it. Like I said above, I think Google’s engineers are some of the smartest people around, and the calling service is great - I plan on using it quite a bit. I only hope that Google extends the free North American calling beyond just this year.

Categories: Google, telecommunications

Gmail Voice about future search, not free calls

August 26, 2010 3 comments

Yesterday’s most exciting news was Google’s introduction of free voice calls to Gmail. In a nutshell, if you have a Gmail account, you can now make free calls from your computer to real landlines and cellphones in North America. You can also call the rest of the world for peanuts, with many countries costing only 2 cents a minute.

The announcement is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it’s direct competition for Skype, which was already pretty direct competition to landline and cellphone companies. Skype has made calling virtually free - I currently pay about $35 a year for unlimited calls within North America through its SkypeOut service, which is obviously a fraction of what phone companies charge.

In the U.S., the computer-based Gmail service works nicely with Google Voice, which is another free calling service that lets smartphone owners use their data plan rather than their voice plan to make calls. In other words, you don’t actually need a voice plan to make phone calls with Google Voice; just the data connection will do. And while the Gmail service is currently shackled to the computer, there’s no realistic reason why it’ll stay that way.

Here’s why Google will beat Skype and every other phone company: to those other companies, it’s still about phone calls and figuring out how to make money from them. But, because the actual cost of making a call over the internet is almost zero, Google can afford to swallow this rather incidental cost as a future investment toward its real business: search.

In Sex, Bombs and Burgers, I talk to Franz Och, the man behind Google Translate. The company’s award-winning and pretty accurate service uses statistical machine translation, an algorithm that studies patterns in different written languages and then predicts the results in another language. The system’s accuracy is predicated entirely on the number of documents it has to work with; the larger the comparison database, the more accurate the translation.

In 2007, the search company launched Google 411, a service that you could call and ask questions, such as the address of a business. The service would send you the requested information back in a text message. The purpose of 411 wasn’t so much for Google to provide you with a rather convoluted information delivery system, but more for the company to gather voice samples to use in building a better voice search system, in the same way that documents were used to build Translate’s database.

Och, in building his original translation system, used United Nations documents because there were millions of them, and they were all already translated into the U.N.’s six official languages. It was a treasure trove of information. Google 411 was a similar early attempt at building a database and the effort bore fruit with the launch of voice-activated search on the iPhone in 2008, but it wasn’t exactly the same jackpot as the U.N. documents largely because it wasn’t that useful to consumers.

Google Voice, including Gmail calling, is the next step in that process. Google will use the zillions of calls that go over its Voice service to build up its database, which will allow it to improve the accuracy of its voice search. As the Google Voice privacy policy states:

Google’s computers process the information in your messages for various purposes, including formatting and displaying the information to you, playing you your messages, backing up your messages, and other purposes relating to offering you Google Voice.

That “various purposes” clause is pretty nebulous and can certainly include research and development of search algorithms.

In other words, free phone calls are the jackpot that Google has been looking for. While Skype and phone companies continue to try and find a way to squeeze pennies out of phone calls, for Google it’s extremely valuable to give them away for nothing because it will help the company develop the next generation of search. After all, typing our searches into a web browser is far from the most efficient way of finding information. Saying what we want is much better, and it’s how we’ll primarily be searching in the not-so-distant future.

UPDATE: This post has been picked up by Gizmodo, and some reader comments there have provided some additional clarity on how Google Voice works. The calls made on Google Voice using a smartphone actually go over the cellphone carrier’s voice network, not its data network, as I mentioned above. That’s a little different from Skype on a smartphone, which as far as I know, uses only the data connection. Google Voice could theoretically use the data network, and I’m not really sure why it’s not doing so. In any event, how the service is conveyed doesn’t really make much of a difference in my search theory.

Wireless "tabs" don’t really deliver deals

August 25, 2010 Comments off

In a bit of a departure today, I thought I’d write a bit about one of my favourite topics: cellphones. As every wireless customer in Canada knows, we’ve been shelling out pretty nicely here for years to our big three wireless carriers, Bell, Rogers and Telus. Things are looking up though, with several smaller new players - such as Wind, Mobilicity and Public Mobile - shaking things up and helping prices come down. The situation has also been helped by Bell and Telus recently moving to the same network technology as Rogers, which means that in theory at least, customers will be able to use their phones on all three networks, which will spur competition. Apple’s iPhone is a good example - all three carriers offer the hot device, and deals are starting to emerge to entice customers to a particular service provider.

The other day, though, Virgin Mobile put out a press release introducing its new “Super Tab,” which is supposedly a way to get cool phones without signing a long-term contract or paying the full price of the device up front. It’s essentially a knock-off of Koodo’s Tab. Virgin and Koodo, if you didn’t know, are respectively owned by Bell and Telus.

Here’s how Virgin’s Super Tab works: pick a phone, then bank up to $500 of the cost on the Super Tab, and pay the rest - if any - up front. Then, 10% of your monthly bill will be deducted from the amount you owe on the phone. Ultimately, you’ll have the phone paid off, or so the idea goes. If you cancel your service at any point, you have to pay off whatever is left on your Super Tab. Koodo’s Tab is similar, except the amount you can start off owing is set at a maximum of $150.

The whole tab concept, while marketed as beneficial to consumers, is unfortunately another attempt to snow customers because they can actually cost you more money than if you bought the phone up front, or if you signed on to a long-term contract. Take Virgin’s highest-end phone as an example: the iPhone 4 32 GB, which costs $769 up front. If you bought this phone, you’d have to pay $269 up front and bank $500 on your Super Tab. If your monthly bill was, say $50, you’d earn $5 a month - which means your new iPhone would be paid off in about, oh, eight years and three months. If you’re a power user and your monthly bill was $100, you’d have it paid off in half that time - just four years, or one year longer than a three-year contract (which, incidentally, is the longest contract you’ll find anywhere in the world).

Let’s do some math. If you were indeed that $100 power user and cancelled your service after three years you’d still owe $140 on that phone which, when you add the initial $269 up-front payment, would bring the total amount you shelled out to $409 (the $50 user would still owe $320, for a total cost of $589). But if you bought the same phone from parent Bell on a three-year contract today, you’d pay $159, which means if you have no intention of canceling your service over the next three years, there’s absolutely no reason to go with the Super Tab. In real terms, it would cost the $50-a-month user $430 more to use the Super Tab, and the $100-a-month customer $250 more.

But what if you cancelled your service after one year? On the Virgin Super Tab, the $100 customer would still owe $380, bringing the total cost to $649, while the $50 customer would still owe $440 for a total cost of $709. How much would the Bell customer owe? Who knows? The maximum early termination fee used to be $400, which would bring the total iPhone cost after one year to $569 - not a bad deal given the $769 price tag - but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. Any mention of wireless cancellation charges have recently vanished from Bell’s website which, if you care about such things, is a violation of the wireless industry’s self-adopted code of conduct. What you might owe Bell after canceling your iPhone one year into a contract is anybody’s guess at this point. (Telus is more transparent with its early termination fees - canceling an iPhone after one year would run you $480.)

Speaking of Telus… currently, the most expensive phone offered through Koodo is the BlackBerry Curve 8530 for $250. Let’s bank $150 on the Tab. Again, a $50-a-month customer would have that paid off in two-and-a-half years while a $100 customer would take just over a year. That’s not nearly as bad as the Virgin example above, but it’s clear that the more expensive the phone, the worse this whole tab idea looks.

Again, if you want a high-end smartphone, you’re better off signing a contract or, better yet, buying the thing outright and unlocking it. That won’t necessarily net you any service deals yet, but that is likely to change if Wind, Mobilicity and the rest start to have any real impact.

Categories: iphone, telecommunications