Archive for November, 2011

Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

November 11, 2011 15 comments

I had to take a deep breath before writing today’s post, mostly to get all the four-letter words and other obscenities out of my system. There are few things that make me as angry as Canada’s abject failure on broadband issues, a situation that was highlighted again on Wednesday by our neighbours to the south and their creation of a plan to get high-speed internet to the poorest Americans.

If you missed the news, the Federal Communications Commission introduced a plan that will give households in the National Student Lunch Program access to broadband for $9.99 a month. Moreover, the FCC’s Connect 2 Compete program will also get these families access to inexpensive computers ranging from $150 to $250, plus training on how to use them and the internet. This is far from just a government initiative, though - the broadband part is coming through a partnership with cable companies such as Comcast, with the likes of Microsoft and Best Buy providing the other stuff.

It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality. That’s why, for the most part, the FCC’s plan is being lauded. Lefty types like it for obvious reasons while the righties like it too because it targets those 5.5 million homes that don’t - and most likely can’t - subscribe to broadband anyway. The plan doesn’t take money out of internet providers’ pockets and it stands to add millions of people to what was once considered the economy of the future, but what is in reality the economy of the now.

Here in Canada, we can only look on in envy - and anger, because our situation is similar. Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband, which is not necessarily a case of whether telecom companies are charging too much for the service, but rather a simple fact of poverty. The Canadian government’s record in all things broadband, meanwhile, is dismal, particularly in comparison with our G8 partners. Along with the U.S., every other country that counts has taken definitive steps to get all of its citizens connected:

Japan: Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s most advanced internet nation, with the cheapest and fastest broadband available (only South Korea comes close). It all started with the e-Japan plan, a strategy unveiled way back in 2001… you know, when Canada was still a world broadband leader. Looking at that link, which goes to the government’s e-Japan website, is a lesson in irony given how absolutely ancient it looks by today’s standards.

France: The French government launched its France Numerique plan back in 2008 with an aim to making the country a leader in the digital space by 2012. The comprehensive plan tackled everything from getting universal access to broadband by 2012 to better video game production. While France is getting close to assessing how well it has done, Canada hasn’t even gotten in on the ground floor.

Germany: The Germans have aimed high with their broadband plan, announced in 2009. The first phase looks to get 75% of the country speeds of 50 megabits by 2014 while the next phase aims for 100 megabits to 50% and 50 megabits to another 30% by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s always good to shoot high because if you fall short, you’re usually still miles ahead of where you started.

Italy: The Italian government also detailed its broadband strategy in 2009, with a plan to get universal connections speeds of 2 megabits by 2012 and 20 megabits by 2020. Work continues apace, with the government leading and organizing industry to implement the plan.

United Kingdom: The UK’s plan of getting every home a connection of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015 isn’t exactly ambitious, but it’s still better than what Canada has, which is diddly squat.

Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel. The bad news is, it’s joined by Russia, which has apparently done about as much - the government has talked a bunch about broadband, but otherwise initiated nothing. Simply put, there’s really no level on which Canada wants to be compared to Russia.

Depressing, isn’t it? And that’s just the G8, never mind what’s going on in other European and Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, where governments are actively spending billions of dollars in overseeing the construction of next-generation networks that will, with any luck, be accessible by all of their citizens. A quick read of this Wikipedia page or the OECD’s overview is enough to bring any Canadian who cares about the future of their country to tears.

In the end, we can only complain about this for so long. Blaming the government or telecom companies for holding back or doing nothing about Canada’s digital development clearly isn’t getting us anywhere - it’s obvious both have failed the country - which is why people from across the spectrum are starting to speak up and/or taking action. Greg O’Brien, editor of telecom and broadcast news site, has an excellent overview of the issue.

As he points out, solving this problem starts with getting computers to those who need them most. Renewed Computer Technology is a non-profit charity that specializes in taking used corporate machines, wiping them clean and then redistributing them to schools, libraries and others who need them. If you or your company has computers that need to be disposed, check with this organization to see if they can be put to use.

Similarly, telecom consultant Mark Goldberg is trying to organize a “One Million Computers” movement that seeks to address the same issues. While Mark and I disagree on many things, this isn’t one of them. All Canadians should have a computer and have internet access, period. If you think you might be able to help or have any ideas, feel to contact him or me through our respective websites.

The broadband side of things is trickier to solve. The answer, when industry and government is failing the people, may lie in the people bringing things closer to home, as the recent fight in Longmont, Colorado illustrated. The town of 80,000 was tired of getting substandard service from ISPs, so it held a referendum and - despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying by Comcast and other opponents - succeeded in getting the right to build its own fibre network. How it goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s an inspirational win for fans of democracy (and who isn’t one?).

If this issue does bother you, get on the phone to your MP, MPP or local councilor and urge others to do the same. Let them know that Canada can’t afford to be left behind.

Is this sort of local engagement the future of broadband development? Will internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.

Categories: government, internet

Apple killed the Flash star

November 10, 2011 1 comment

Ding dong, the witch is dead. And by witch, I mean Flash, that multimedia web platform that enables everything from video to games. That’s good news for just about everybody, except for the people who are losing their jobs, natch.

Adobe announced on Wednesday that it is ceasing development of Flash for mobile devices, which basically translates into its death knell. The company says it will concentrate its Flash development on computers, but with more and more web traffic happening on phones and tablets, there really isn’t much of a future there. After all, if you want people to view your website, you’re going to want to make sure they can look at it on their mobile devices. From this day forward, only the foolish will bother using Flash in their website design.

Many observers have already pointed out that Steve Jobs was right. A year and a half ago, the recently departed Apple guru famously wrote his declaration of war on Flash. The software was unstable, proprietary, not friendly to touch interfaces and a drag on battery life:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short. The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content… New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

On the surface of it, it looks like Jobs was indeed right, or even prescient. In reality, though, it’s more of a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Was Apple correct in its criticisms, or did Apple itself kill the Flash star?

With zillions of iPods, iPhones and iPads out there not running Flash, it’s more a case of the latter. Apple simply brought its considerable weight to bear and killed Flash.

Google, which has long said it supports openness on the web in all its forms, could have done the same thing but didn’t. It’s understandable why. With Apple’s big lead in mobile devices to overcome, Google had to look for every possible leg up, which is why Android devices have so far run Flash. That’s also why porn is big on Android - Jobs was notoriously against porn and probably would have liked to have killed it too. Apple may not be able to achieve that particular goal, but piracy is doing a nice job of it.

Ultimately, HTML5 - which is supported by both Apple and Google - looks like it will rule both mobile devices and computers. It shouldn’t be too much longer before those infuriating blue boxes with questions marks - illustrated so ingeniously by the picture above (where is it from, anyway?) - become a thing of the past.

Categories: apple, Google, mobile

Ebooks and the pricing surrender monkeys

November 9, 2011 11 comments

Google launched its ebookstore in Canada last week and, as a self-interested author, the first thing I did was head over to see how much my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, was selling for.

Surprise, surprise, it’s going for the princely sum of $21.99, which is not only more than the hardcover on Amazon or Chapters, it’s also quite possibly the most expensive ebook in history. This isn’t surprising because it’s exactly the same price that Chapters/Indigo has been charging through Kobo.

Who would pay that much for an ebook? Aren’t digital goods supposed to be cheaper because they have significantly lower manufacturing and distribution costs?

Exactly. Which is why I sold all of 16 of them in the second half of 2010, according to my sales reports.

Google has evidently joined Kobo in catering to publishers’ out-of-date pricing schemes. So, while Canadians seem to have growing choice between e-tailers, most of those sellers aren’t actually going to bat for consumers by trying to lower prices. It’s a little surprising in Google’s case, given that the company has in the past been willing to go to war on things such as wireless prices and net neutrality.

The exception in ebooks is Amazon, which has been notable in its battle against publishers on several fronts. The most recent is the skirmish over its new book lending program, which has prompted some libraries to stop buying from the likes of HarperCollins.

My favourite situation is the fight between Penguin, my publisher in Canada, and the online bookseller over pricing. A quick recap: Amazon last year wanted all ebooks to be priced at $9.99 (a price I agree with, by the way) but Penguin would have none of it. The publisher said it would no longer let Amazon sell its ebooks once their contract expired so, in retaliation, Amazon decided to sell all of Penguin’s physical books at $9.99. The company might take a loss on those books or not make as big a profit, but it was evidently set on making its point. Gotta love those kinds of balls.

The two companies ended up settling the dispute, but something is still going on since I can’t find my ebook on Kindle. I wish I could say why that is, but as is usually the case with us authors, nobody tells us nothing, even when we ask.

That’s why Google’s ebookstore launch is a ho-hum for me and it’s why, as a consumer, I buy all my books - physical or digital - from Amazon.

Categories: amazon, ebooks, Google, kobo

Starbucks mobile: towards a money-free world

November 8, 2011 1 comment

Coffee lovers rejoice: Starbucks is finally launching mobile phone payments in Canada. Starting this Tuesday (Nov. 8), the chain is updating its iPhone app so that customers can pay for their super-tall-mega-grande-low-fat-soy-mocha-frappucinos with their devices instead of with cash or plastic.

I got a run-through of the feature last week and it’s pretty neat. You load up your account with credit, which can be done on the phone itself, then call up its bar code through the app, which the counter clerk scans. The amount of the order is then deducted from your balance. Simple. The app also ties in to Starbucks’ loyalty program, so you can earn free drinks the more you frequent the place.

The mobile payment feature was introduced in the United States earlier this year and Canada is the first international expansion. While it’s available across iPhone, Android and BlackBerry down south, at launch it’s iPhone-only in Canada. The folks at Starbucks tell me the other two platforms should be added early next year.

One thing I was hoping for that Starbucks has yet to introduce is some sort of advance ordering option. Several food companies, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, have such a thing - it lets customers place an order on their phone, then show up to pick it up. With its often huge lineups, it’s a feature Starbucks and its customers could surely benefit from. Alas, no luck so far, representatives say.

Perhaps the niftiest part of the mobile payments option is that it works cross-border, so Canadians can also pay for their coffees at U.S. Starbucks with their phones and vice versa. The exchange rate is apparently kept up to date and calculated at the point of purchase, so no banks are involved.

I asked the obvious question, of whether this feature will be rolled out to other countries, and while I didn’t get a reply in the affirmative, that certainly would be the plan.

If so, it may not be too long before you’ll be able to walk into a Starbucks anywhere in the world and order a coffee with your smartphone. No paper, coins or plastic necessary. The currency-less world, evidently, is beginning at Starbucks.

Categories: iphone, mobile

Is Call of Duty a danger to gaming?

November 7, 2011 3 comments

If you hear a lot of people (mostly young men) saying “dude” and “bro” more often over the next few days, it’s because it’s officially DudeBro Week. Also known as the week that the new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, hits stores.

Regular readers know I’m a big fan. I usually stay far, far away from playing video games online, firstly because they’re a giant time sink and secondly because if I wanted to hear incessant racist and homophobic babble, I’d hang out with my family (zing!).

Call of Duty games, however, are another matter entirely. Over the years, they’ve completely sucked me in with their crack-like addictiveness, to the point where I don’t even notice that it’s five a.m. and, holy crap, I’ve been playing for 12 hours. (The key is to immediately mute all those annoying players as soon as you log on.)

A little while back I started thinking about the Call of Duty phenomenon. With the games having sold more than 100 million units and grossed more than $5 billion, the war-themed shooter series is a bona fide entertainment juggernaut. Not many franchises post those kinds of numbers; Harry Potter, Star Wars and the like come to mind.

But the thing is, when an entertainment concern manages to rake in money of that scale, it usually has some sort of larger cultural impact. Star Wars, for example, has pretty much defined pop culture for a generation while Harry Potter has over the past few years spurred kids to read more and dress up like their favourite characters at Halloween. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Call of Duty has had any similar, larger effect.

When I was down at the Call of Duty XP fan convention in Los Angeles back in September, I thought that the answer might be yes. After all, the event attracted more than 7,000 DudeBros who paid $150 each for the chance to virtually shoot each other up and take in a horrible Kanye West performance. Also, at any point in time, there are seven million people online playing the games, an impressive number to be sure.

But is all of that enough to qualify as a cultural impact? For something to affect the larger culture, it has to have relevance outside its core audience, perhaps by spreading into other media or at least shaping and influencing the things we talk about.

I wasn’t sure, so I interviewed some of the games’ makers, then went and spoke with some games experts - academics, other creators and authors. The result was a story published on MSN over the weekend.

There was a lot that didn’t make it into that story, for length or thematic reasons. One of the experts I spoke to, Jane Pinckard - associate director at the University of California’s Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media - talked a lot about how Call of Duty has become the must-play game in any given year. That gives it some cultural heft.

“It becomes a game that you have to have because you are a 24-year-old male and it’s what you’re supposed to be consuming,” she said.  “When Lost is on, maybe you’re not watching but you feel like everyone else is, so you think maybe you should read about it.”

I also spoke with author Tom Bissell, who wrote Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, a critical dissection of several large game franchises and how they’ve affected his life. He had some good, but mostly bad, things to say about Call of Duty. Like me, he really enjoys the multiplayer, but he’s also very down on the franchise because its overwhelming success has effectively forced all major games to add online multiplayer modes if they are to be commercially viable, which doesn’t always fit the tone of the game. A case in point is the Uncharted franchise - the latest game has a really fun multiplayer option, but it’s completely unrecognizable from the main single-player game.

Moreover, as at least one of the speakers at the Montreal International Games Summit lamented last week, adding in these rich multiplayer features inevitably causes games’ budgets to skyrocket, which will eventually take a toll, whether it’s through higher prices on the games themselves or publishers green-lighting fewer titles. In the end, Bissell is right; it may be in everyone’s interest to reverse the trend propelled by Call of Duty and split up single-player and multiplayer games.

The other aspect Bissell touched on was the linear nature of Call of Duty’s single-player modes. The main storylines stick to a very tight script and don’t allow for much, if any, exploration or independent action on the part of the player. By forcing players down this “waterslide,” the games may provide a visceral thrill but they ultimately limit themselves in terms of long-lasting effect.

“Video game design should create a world that the player feels is his own. I can’t say I’ve ever had that feeling playing Call of Duty. That’s why they don’t create a whole lot of stuff for us to think about,” Bissell said. “I don’t think that’s what game design is or should be but we’re creeping closer to it with the unquestioned supremacy of these games.”

That’s definitely the case, if games such as Uncharted 3 and Battlefield 3 are any indication. Then again, there still are games like Skyrim that completely buck the trend. My review on that is coming Thursday…

Categories: video games, war

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