Archive for August, 2011

Google fans UBB fire with movie rentals

August 31, 2011 3 comments

Just when all was quiet on the usage-based internet billing front, here comes Google to stir the pot again. The company on Wednesday launched YouTube movie rentals in Canada, which should make a nation of already prodigious online video consumers even more ravenous devourers of bandwidth.

Google launched YouTube movie rentals in the United States on a limited basis in January 2010, then got serious about it a few months ago by adding thousands of titles. The Canadian launch is its first international expansion, according to Google Canada spokesman Aaron Brindle.

As with all similar services available in Canada, this one comes with a bunch of caveats. The selection will be fairly limited, with just over a thousand movies from the catalogs of Warner Bros. and Universal, and Canadian studios E1, Mongrel and Alliance Atlantis. The films are also only offered in standard definition, as per the studios’ wishes, and will come at a $1 premium to what they cost in the U.S.: $4.99 for new releases and $3.99 for older titles.

Bindle said Google is following industry standard on costs, where studios set the wholesale price and have some say in the ultimate retail price. The bonus for Canadians, though, is that they get their rentals for 48 hours as opposed to the 24 Americans get.

Despite all that, it’s reasonable to expect YouTube movies will still meet with a degree of success in Canada, simply because Canadians are apparently among the biggest users of the site in the world. Google’s offering therefore has tremendous ease of access to customers who are already happily using other parts of the service. That’s brand recognition and a point of sale that other competing services, whether it’s Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Rogers On Demand Online, Shaw Movie Club and even Netflix, don’t necessarily have.

If that’s so, it’s also reasonable to expect more noise on the usage-based billing and net neutrality fronts. If Canadians are already chugging huge amounts of data, as the likes of Cisco has found, then movie rentals on the most popular online service in the country is only going to add fuel to the fire.

Satellite, cable and IPTV companies, who are also internet providers, are especially not going to like this one bit, since Google is now in direct competition with their on-demand businesses. They’ve already fought back against competing services with throttling, usage caps and political lobbying. Will they take the entry of such a powerhouse company into one of their biggest cash cows lying down? Not bloody likely.

LTE pricing won’t help mend digital divide

August 31, 2011 5 comments

Canadian wireless carriers are in the process of rolling out next-generation networks and, as is usually the case with these things, there is the reality and there is some rhetoric.

Rogers launched its fourth-generation (4G)  Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless network in Ottawa last month. At a briefing at the company’s headquarters in Toronto on Tuesday, the company outlined its plans for a rollout in the nation’s biggest city, which will happen on Sept. 28. John Boynton, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of Rogers Communications, told our small group of journalists that the new network will cover all of the 416 area code in Toronto. Rogers has also confirmed Montreal and Vancouver launches in the fall, with other Canadian markets coming in 2012.

If you follow this stuff, you know that LTE is important because it’s super-high-speed wireless internet that can be used by smartphones, tablets and computers that have data sticks plugged into them. The technology is capable of a theoretical 150 megabits per second, which is about as fast as any wired internet connections currently available to home users in Canada. Realistically, though, Rogers says it will be offering customers a “commitment speed” between 12 and 25 megabits for downloads to start with.

In tests at the briefing, the speeds were in fact blinding. The existing Rocket stick currently being sold in Ottawa, was zooming along at close to 50 megabits per second, with an upload around 20 megabits. A newer Rocket stick, which is currently being certified and targeted for fall availability, cranked out 100 megabits down and 30 up.

I asked whether there would be any commitment speed on uploads, but alas, Rogers is staying mum on that. I’ve written before about Canada’s woeful upload speeds and how they’re an obstacle to innovation. Without anything else to go on besides the existing state of wireline speeds, it’s reasonable to assume that Rogers’ upload capabilities on LTE will be held back and slowed down. And, as one carrier goes, the others are likely to follow (Bell, Telus and Wind have all announced future LTE plans). There aren’t really any good reasons to be optimistic about these upload problems getting better any time soon.

Where things get sticky, as usual, is on pricing and usage. Rogers hasn’t yet announced these details for phones and tablets that will run on the new network, but the Rocket stick will be available with several options on the “Flex” plan: $45 for 1.5 gigabytes a month; 3GB for $60; 6GB for $75; 9GB for $90; and $10 for each additional gigabyte.

Those prices are obviously enough to give anyone a heart attack - not only are they significantly higher than what Verizon is offering in the U.S., they’re also for miniscule usage limits. Anyone plugging a Rocket stick into their laptop is sure to quickly chew through their monthly data limits if doing anything besides email.

Boynton defended the caps, saying that LTE is not meant for heavy-duty usage like watching full-on video. It’s more of a “displacement” technology that people might pick up when a wired connection isn’t available. “We don’t see people watching all their TV on LTE just because it’s available,” he said.

When talk turned to the upcoming spectrum auction - the one that will result from the airwaves being freed up by the impending shut-down of over-the-air analogy television signals - the rhetoric ratcheted up. Rogers has previously said it needs more spectrum if it is to roll LTE out into rural markets, so new cellphone providers - the likes of Wind, Mobilicity and so on - shouldn’t get any special benefits in the auction, like they did in the previous one.

Boynton added that it’s important to not give advantages to foreign billionaires, an obvious jibe at Wind’s Egyptian backer Naguib Sawiris, and instead focus on the companies that will service customers outside of major cities. “We’re committed to delivering to rural markets,” he said.

There has been much talk, both in Canada and abroad, about a digital divide forming between urban and rural dwellers. People who live in cities usually have several internet providers to choose from, so they therefore have better speeds and prices. As a result, they’re considerably more turned on to the benefits of the internet.

Wireless technology has often been considered a possible solution to this problem, since it is significantly cheaper to roll out in sparsely populated rural areas than cables.

Rogers’ LTE prices, however, are not going to do much to help that digital divide if applied similarly to these areas. Allowing rural customers to use between 1.5 and nine gigabytes a month is not going to allow them to even remotely catch up to what their city cousins are doing. Maybe they’ll get on to email, but they certainly won’t do more - like telehealth, cloud computing or online gaming and other entertainment.

Rogers’ altruistic claim that it needs spectrum to deliver high-speed internet to rural areas and mend the digital divide therefore rings somewhat hollow.

The only way that’s going to happen is if multiple providers - especially hungry ones - service those same customers. Indeed, if reversing the divide is a priority for the federal government (and there’s no reason to believe it’s even on the radar), rural customers might almost be better served if new cellphone companies are given all kinds of special benefits, such as exclusive blocks of spectrum in such areas. That’s obviously interventionist and anti-market-forces, but if the likes of Wind or Mobilicity started rolling their networks into sparsely populated areas, the big carriers would waste no time stampeding in behind them. Maybe rural dwellers would finally get good, cheap internet access.

Categories: internet, mobile, rogers

There is no ‘I’ in internet

August 30, 2011 11 comments

There was an aside that I wanted to go on in my latest mega-post on Apple, but I decided against it because that particular entry was already way too long. I mentioned that the internet is like heaven in that it doesn’t really exist, as far as science knows. It actually wasn’t a theological tangent I was thinking of, but rather a grammatical one.

I’ve had the same debate with editors everywhere I’ve worked: why is “Internet” capitalized? No one has been able to properly answer that question.

It’s possible the word was originally capitalized because it came from the Internet Protocol standards published by DARPA in the 1970s. Still, that’s ancient history and capitalizing “internet” defies grammatical conventions.

The basic rule is that all proper nouns - a word that represents a unique entity, whether it is a person, place or thing - are capitalized regardless of where they are used in a sentence (full rules on capitalization can be found here). The internet, however, is not a person, place or thing, nor is it really an entity. Depending on your definition, the internet is either a series of tubes or, more correctly, it is a network of connected computers that does not exist in any one place. It’s also not a proper thing.

I’ve often used the heaven example in arguments. It’s also not a real place - as far as we know - nor is it a real thing that can be touched. As a result, no one outside of religious publishers capitalizes the word “heaven.”

Although I’ve succeeded in convincing newspaper editors and style gurus that it’s similarly incorrect to capitalize “internet,” no one I’ve ever worked for has gone ahead and changed the rules on how the word is written. The killer has been the why: in each case, the decision to stick with the capital “I” was made either because that’s how it had always been done, or because everybody else was doing it.

Fortunately, some news organizations - mostly outside North America - are coming to their senses. According to Wikipedia, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald are among the outlets that have recently adopted the lower-case spelling, while Wired magazine here in North America was one of the first.

I’ll keep fighting my lower “i” war in the hopes that some day, we too will become enlightened like our international brothers. You can enjoy the lower-case internet on my blog’s home page, but if it’s the upper case Internet you’re looking for, you can ironically see that in the Macleans version.

Categories: internet

It’s folly to underestimate Apple’s contributions

August 29, 2011 10 comments

I’m back from my short vacation and what’s the first thing I see? A character assassination attempt by my fellow Macleans blogger Jesse Brown.

Just kidding. I have nothing but respect for Jesse and love his stuff (his interview a few years back with Jim Prentice, where the industry minister hung up on him, is one of my all-time favourites). He messaged me while I was gone to ask if I was okay with him rebutting my blog post the other day about Steve Jobs and Apple’s importance to technology over the past decade. Of course I was, so he had at it.

To summarize, Jesse challenged my assertions that Apple changed everything with a slew of products that included the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. He went on to say that Google has been the far more important technology company over the past 10 years.

Just as he thought I was “off my nut,” I think he’s similarly out to lunch, not so much for his conclusion but for how he got there.

First, a mea culpa of sorts. Jesse says I was wrong to say that Jobs himself has been the most important person of the decade, that “Osama Bin Laden must be spinning in his grave.”

No argument there. I’m a technology journalist and commentator and don’t necessarily consider myself qualified to discuss who the most important and influential person overall might be. I thought it was a given that I was limiting myself to the world of tech, but perhaps not. If so, my bad.

As far as which company has been more important, it wouldn’t be as straightforward an argument as Jesse suggests. While I’d probably also favour Google in that debate, it wouldn’t be without reservations, which is where we differ. Jesse asserts that Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic - that all it has done is perfected the work of the previous century and only changed the way things look:

It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone.

Google, meanwhile, is the company that has reinvented advertising, organized all the information on the internet in a meaningful way, driven cloud computing and created “a data-driven economy fueled by the input of individuals.”

Again, I don’t disagree with the arguments for Google, but I do take umbrage with the serious undervaluing of Apple - and every other hardware maker, for that matter. Such a position completely discounts a full half of the internet because without the things that actually connect to it, there is no internet. It’s just an electronic ether that doesn’t really exist, much like heaven (as far as science can prove). Until we can connect our brains directly to this virtual miasma of data that Google has done such a good job organizing, we’re going to be reliant on companies to make hardware that acts as the intermediary.

There are many hardware companies that are important to the internet, from Cisco and network equipment manufacturers to HP and other server makers. Apple and other consumer-facing companies, however, are the ones that decide how every-day people access and use that miraculous internet.

Apple is just one of many makers of this sort of stuff, but its impact has been far more than aesthetic. It hasn’t just made things look nice, it has led the market and invented entire categories of products, all of which exploit, expand and bring value to the internet that we treasure so much. And before the Apple haters jump down my throat, there is a big difference between inventing a “product” and a “category.” Apple may not have invented the tablet computer, for example, but it sure did motivate the section for them at Best Buy. Apple didn’t invent smartphones either, but it absolutely kickstarted demand for them.

That said, isn’t a company that has expanded the ways and means in which people access all that information and data on the internet just as valuable as the company that organized it and did nifty things with it? I think so.

Jesse also argues that much of what Apple has done was inevitable:

If the iPod and iTunes never existed, online music sales might have taken years longer to develop from the ashes of Napster. But it still would have happened… [With the iPhone Jobs] may have jumpstarted the popularization of the mobile Internet by a year or so.

Couldn’t the same be said of Google? There were search engines before it - all Sergey Brin and Larry Page did was come up with a particularly effective algorithm that eliminated human labour from the equation. While Yahoo had employees manually surfing the web and inputting search results, Google had computers doing the same, which gave it a huge efficiency advantage that ultimately crushed all competitors. Google Maps is similarly a fine tool, but isn’t it just a shinier version of Mapquest? Gmail is also great, but isn’t it just a better Hotmail?

Google’s real innovation was in figuring out how to apply ads to all of this stuff and make piles of money from them, which in turn enables everything else it does. In a way, all Google did was get to that now-logical conclusion before anyone else.

The point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s Apple or Google - it’s wrong to disparage a company just because it thought of a better way to do something that somebody else did before. That’s the essence of innovation.

Getting back to the iPhone, it’s hard to overstate just how big an impact it has had. Prior to its release, when corporate users were busy punching emails into their BlackBerrys, mobile data was unbelievably expensive. Here in Canada, a single gigabyte cost somewhere in the realm of $2,500. If Jobs’ biggest accomplishment over the past 10 years could be pinpointed, my vote would go to his convincing AT&T to offer unlimited data on the iPhone for less than $100. From his perspective, there was no point in releasing a handy data- and web-enabled device if people weren’t going to use it because of its prohibitive cost, so he somehow forced AT&T to play ball. Carriers across North America had no choice but to follow suit, which is why we now have a smartphone and mobile internet boom - one that Google is coincidentally profiting from.

The smartphone originators - BlackBerry, Nokia or Microsoft - could have tried to do that, and for that matter so too could have Google, but they didn’t. It was Apple that dragged the internet off of computers and into the mobile light of day. That’s a huge accomplishment.

Jesse is also a self-avowed non-believer in the iPad and, by extension, tablets at large:

I’ve yet to notice any real impact of the gadget… Tablets are not the written word’s savior or the future of the digital age. They’re just a different kind of computer that adds comfort while subtracting control.

That misses the point of what a post-PC world is - it’s a future where computing is made invisible and divided into different devices in different situations (until we get that direct brain-internet connection, that is).

A few years ago, if you wanted to do any sort of computing work - write an article, look up movie showtimes, edit a video or watch a movie - you had to either sit down at your desktop or pull out your laptop. Now, smartphones are cutting into all of that, as are tablets.

I took this tablet hating to task a few months ago in a post where I professed my love for them. That love has only gotten stronger since. I write my stories and blog posts on a computer, but I do everything else - read books, watch movies while on the go, play games, hotel check-ins, social media, mapping, check the weather, you name it - on an iPad. A few weeks ago, I had coffee with an editor who told me about how her elderly parents had taken up computing thanks to the iPad. The former Luddites used it to book a trip out west, then emailed photos once they were there. My old Polish mother has also expressed an interest in tablets. That fact alone, if you knew her, is a major impact.

Businesses are adopting them too. A few months ago, when I was taking a shuttle from the L.A. airport, I couldn’t help but notice the buses all used iPads for route planning and organization. Similarly, The Guardian had an article over the weekend about how airlines are using tablets for their flight plans. These are anecdotal examples, but more and more of them are popping up every day. Add them up and you have the makings of a real impact. The actual numbers, which show that PC sales are sliding because of tablets, are starting to show the same thing.

A post-PC world, therefore, isn’t one where computers are made obsolete - it’s one where the majority of computing is done on mobile devices.

The bottom line to all of this is that it’s easy to like Google and hate Apple, especially if you’re a journalist. One is relatively open and preaches the same while the other jealously guards its secrecy and is otherwise a closed book. Despite that, Apple still manages to get an undue amount of media attention, which rankles many.

By the same token, it’s easy to hate on the top dog - and let’s face it, that’s what Apple is in consumer tech (it has near-monopoly status with iPods, iTunes and iPads; has the top-selling smartphone by far despite Android’s collective market share leadership; and is on the verge of finally conquering Microsoft in computers). While the company amassed an army of fanboy followers over much of its history as the underdog in the epic struggle against the “evil empire” (Microsoft), it’s perhaps understandable that haters are now popping out of the woodwork. It’s poetic justice and all that.

As a neutral observer with no stake in this issue either way, I can’t say I particularly care whether Google or Apple is the more influential and important company of the past decade. Both have been drivers of major change and will likely be vital to the continued evolution of the internet and technology in general, at least for the next few years. To dismiss or discount the accomplishments of either, however, is folly.

Categories: apple, Google, internet, ipad, iphone

A fast-food monster with two heads

August 26, 2011 Comments off

I’m on a mini-vacation today so I’ll leave you all with a short funny. As regular readers know, I’ve made a bit of a sport out of trying the craziest fast-food I can find. The reigning champs, of course, are McDonalds’ McRib sandwich and KFC’s bun-less Double Down.

Check out the guys in the video below. They’ve done the unthinkable: they’ve combined the above two sandwiches into something they call “the McDribble Down.” It’s wonderful and horrible all at the same time:

Categories: kfc, mcdonald's

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