Syndication fever

July 18, 2011 5 comments

Just a quick note today to let regular readers know that as of this past Friday, they can also read this blog over on Maclean’s (Canada’s weekly news magazine). I signed a syndication deal earlier this year with Rogers, which owns a host of magazines including Maclean’s. Canadian Business, also a Rogers magazine, has been publishing my posts for a few months now.

The deal actually applies to all of the company’s publications, so my posts may start popping up on the Chatelaine and Flare websites too. If you notice me writing about the latest fashions or how to satisfy your lover, you’ll know why. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

Categories: rogers

Excuse me: is the BlackBerry XB25687 in stock?

July 15, 2011 3 comments

Another day, another round of stories wondering what’s wrong with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. One particular article - from PC World about how the seven new BlackBerry models promised by the company at its recent annual general meeting are just distractions - got me thinking about how companies name their products.

Apparently, the new phones on the horizon include the Torch 9810, the Curve 9350/9360 and the Torch 9850/9860.

Huh? What? What’s with all the damn numbers? How is the average consumer supposed to remember those?

Back when I was an employee of The Man, I used to tote a BlackBerry around on occasion. When people would ask me what model it was, I’d shrug and say, “Uh, an older one?” Same goes with a bunch of Nokia phones over the past few years, which had a similar naming convention (the N8, the E71, the N64… no wait, that was a video game console). As the PC World article points out, that’s not a good similarity for RIM because it certainly doesn’t want to end up like Nokia.

The two companies are far from alone in naming their products with confusing numbers and letter combinations. Indeed, up until recently, that has been the general convention with technological products. Televisions, cameras, stereos - you name it - everything was defined by its model number. That’s mostly because the manufacturers weren’t selling to consumers - their main customers were retailers. And Best Buy et al really don’t care if a product has a sexy and easy to remember name, they’ll order it (or not) anyway.

Regular people are different. I can’t remember the last time - if ever - that I’ve walked into a store and said, “Excuse me, do you have the Sony RP786340? I simply must have it.” Most consumers are probably the same.

Apple has received a lot of praise over the years for its marketing savvy. Product names are definitely one area it excels in. For starters, everything begins with an “i” - how simple is that? (Tellingly, virtually its only product that doesn’t carry the “i” prefix - Apple TV - is not a hot seller.) But more importantly, there are no model numbers, or if there, they’re simple. The iPod, iPod Nano, iPod shuffle, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPad 2 and so on. If it were RIM, the products might be named the iPad 5678 or the iPhone 2112 (in honour of the company’s Canadian roots, of course).

Apple is of course not the originator of simple product names, but it has used them very effectively. Other smartphone makers have taken notice and moved toward doing the same, away from the model numbers of Nokia and RIM. The most successful phones tend to have the simplest and easiest-to-remember names: the Motorola Droid, the Samsung Galaxy, the Sony Ericsson Xperia. Sure, some of them are adding numbers to their brand, but the manufacturers probably know they have to keep it simple.

That’s because the world has shifted. Tech makers aren’t just selling to retailers or corporate IT departments anymore. They know that if they want their product to get that “must-have” sex appeal, they need to give it a slick-sounding, easy-to-remember name. Numbers and letters won’t do.

RIM seems to be on the fence with this. On one hand, the company has moved toward the new paradigm with devices such as the Torch and the PlayBook, but if the upcoming model names are any indication, it’s still tied somewhat to the old school. Interestingly, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis used to say that the BlackBerry would never have a marketing-derived name, that they would always have model numbers. (He also used to say they’d never have cameras or MP3 players. Yikes.)

If only all electronics makers could follow this trend. It would certainly make for some creatively named products. I, for one, think it would be great to walk into a store and ask for the latest Samsung Awesome plasma TV, the Panasonic Ass-Kicker camera or the HTC Chick Magnet smartphone. Okay, maybe not the last one. Anyone else have any suggestions?

Categories: Uncategorized

The ‘end of free’ is near? Keep dreaming

July 14, 2011 3 comments

I had a fun debate with a friend the other night over who was more annoying: Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, or Paul McGuinness, U2′s manager. Ulrich is, of course, famous for leading the charge against Napster, the file-sharing service that turned the music industry upside down a decade ago. McGuinness, who continues the fight against free downloading today, is basically the drummer’s heir apparent.

My position was that McGuinness is the worse of the duo. While Ulrich struck many as a cry-baby millionaire, at least he had the decency to fight Napster out in the open, in court. McGuinness, however, would rather subtly lobby policy makers to try and get laws changed, partly through publishing op/ed pieces in major newspapers.

A week ago, his latest screed against downloading - headlined “Digital Downloads: The ‘age of free’ is coming to an end” - appeared in The Daily Telegraph. A few days ago, The Globe and Mail published the exact same article, with a sentence or two changed so that it was more “Canada relevant.” To say it’s highly unusual for one major newspaper to regurgitate something another major paper published a week ago would be an understatement. Hmm, I wonder if Bono pulled some strings with his editor buddies?

In any event, in his article McGuinness praised the recent deal struck in the United States between entertainment companies and internet service providers, where the ISPs agreed to act as copyright cops. Most of the country’s major ISPs have agreed to initiate a so-called graduated response system where subscribers who download copyrighted work will be warned several times, after which their internet access will be slowed and potentially even cut off.

McGuinness said this was great, that ISPs finally taking responsibility for what goes over their networks is part of a worldwide trend:

The US is not the first country where ISPs have started to cooperate with rights holders. Similarly sensible thinking broke out in France in 2007, thanks to President Sarkozy. France, along with a growing number of other countries, including South Korea and most recently New Zealand, has introduced a so-called graduated response law, obliging ISPs to take proactive steps to help curb copyright abuse. The UK has passed its Digital Economy Act which, if it is implemented effectively, will go down a similar route.

Perhaps he’s right. Like their American brethren, Canadian ISPs have so far - to their credit - resisted the pressure to become copyright cops, an exemption they would continue to enjoy under the latest proposed copyright legislation. However, I’m sure it would surprise nobody if this eventually changes, either by the ISPs following their American cousins’ lead and folding like a cheap accordion, or by the Canadian government beating them to it.

Nevertheless, cops or no cops, McGuinness and those who agree with him are missing one very important fact: the “age of free” is nowhere near an end, simply because the ability to get stuff “free” is not based on opportunity, it’s based on desire.

For all of human history, people have wanted to get something for nothing - it’s in our very nature. Whether or not we have been able to do so has been directly commensurate to the opportunities we’ve had. The internet has provided that opportunity on an unprecedented level; short of taking it away entirely, nothing will sate that desire. To say the age of free is coming to an end, then, is to suggest that the Rapture is well and truly upon us, or that the plug is about to be pulled on the internet. That’s hardly the case.

The technological opportunity to satisfy the desire for free is going to keep growing, and exponentially so. The only thing that may be “over” are the days of unencrypted file-sharing. ISP warnings and threats will spur the growth and advancement of encryption, virtual private networks, IP spoofing and, heck, even some good old-fashioned switching from one service provider to another. Maybe some smaller rogue ISPs will even use this in their marketing: “Get your service from us; We don’t bend over for the entertainment industry!”

What is definitely over are the days of people willing to fork over lots of cash for goods they now know are cheap to produce and distribute, which is something the entertainment industry just doesn’t seem to get. There is an acceptable middle ground between “free” and what they would like to see, and it is slowly but surely manifesting. Jesse Brown recently mused on this in a blog post, wherein he argued that the internet is basically a giant dollar store. Creators are selling songs, apps, games, ebooks and all kinds of other stuff for just 99 cents and not many seem to be complaining - it’s only the big companies and industries, like U2 Inc., that are.

What’s over are the days of huge profits for such monoliths. Sorry Lars, sorry Paul. The desire for free - or very nearly free - has always been here and it’s not going anywhere.

Categories: internet, piracy

Sex is good for you - if you’re a worm

July 13, 2011 4 comments

A new report in the journal Science postulates that having sex is healthier for worms than reproducing asexually, the BBC reports. There’s probably many ways to make that sound dirty, but I’m not going to go there.

Researchers at Indiana University engineered two sets of round worms - some that could only reproduce by having sex and those that could only clone themselves. They found that the ones that got it on lived while those that didn’t croaked.

This led the scientists to theorize that the resultant intermingling of genes from sex resulted in worms being able to fight off parasites better. In other words, their genetic structures got stronger from sex.

Cue the misinterpretations. My favourite was a headline on a story from TG Daily: “Scientists say sex is key to evolution.”

I’m no scientist, but if I understood the experiment correctly, that headline might be correct… if the words “for worms” were appended. Last I checked, humans can’t - and never have - been able to reproduce asexually. Cue the dirty jokes.

Categories: sex

A Canada without YouTube? It could happen

July 12, 2011 8 comments

Here’s an interesting if somewhat disturbing thought: can you picture a world without YouTube? Or more specifically, a country without YouTube?

It seems improbable, almost impossible, but it’s entirely conceivable if the CRTC loses its collective mind and decides to regulate such “over-the-top” internet services in Canada.

The regulator, answering to cajoling from traditional broadcasters, has now concluded its “fact-finding mission” on whether YouTube, Netflix and other OTT services should have Canadian content rules foisted on to them. At some point, it will decide on whether to proceed with a new, full hearing, or whether it will just drop the issue, at least for now.

The CanCon rules applied to traditional media generally require broadcasters to air a certain percentage of Canadian programming per day, plus pay a percentage of their revenues into funds that help create said programs.

Now imagine if those same rules were applied to the likes of Netflix and YouTube. They’d be easier for Netflix to adopt - it would probably be simple and cheap for the streaming video provider to stock up on old episodes of Beachcombers and The Friendly Giant, thereby meeting the percentage requirements. Paying into development funds would also drive up Netflix’s cost of doing business, which would mean the company would either have less money to spend on new content or it would have to raise prices, but it would be doable.

For YouTube, however, it’s a different story. Measuring and controlling the service for Canadian content would probably be next to impossible, but it’s actually the money issue that’s the bigger problem for YouTube’s owner, Google. The company has been promising for years that the video service is nearing profitability, but barring any official announcement, it hasn’t happened yet. That’s because it’s not an easy business to monetize - the tremendous popularity of the free service means rather big infrastructure costs, which advertisements haven’t seemed to counter just yet.

So what are a few extra million dollars in regulatory costs to a company the size of Google? Not much, but Canada would likely be just the first of many countries to dip their hands into Google’s pockets. Any other country that failed to enact similar regulatory requirements and costs - in the name of national cultural development, of course - would be missing out on an easy pay day. When that inevitable global bonanza gets added up, YouTube’s already questionable climb to profitability would slow down considerably.

Google is not likely to ever come out and say it would block Canadians’ access to YouTube in the event of regulation (I asked and they didn’t comment), but it would make sense if it happened and no could really blame the company. After all, sometimes it’s best to cut off a limb to spare the rest of the body from a hostile infection.

But boy would it be fun if the unlikely did happen. For one thing, given that Canadians are among the world’s biggest users of YouTube, we might not have to worry about usage-based billing anymore since our internet traffic would plunge off a cliff. The country would go back to the good old days that big internet providers seem to love so much, where all people did on the internet was send email.

More realistically, though, usage of BitTorrent file-sharing and virtual private networks would skyrocket, making Canada a veritable piracy wonderland. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Categories: crtc, Google, netflix