Home > January 2011

January 2011

LOVEFiLM

Saturday, January 29, 2011 0

The big, exciting news last week was that popular bookstore and epic retailer Amazon has acquired the remainder of European movie-rental company LOVEFiLM. This news excites me for two reasons, the first is that I was already considering taking out a subscription with LOVEFiLM and secondly, I’m hoping that this acquisition propels them more towards an online streaming company rather than postal service; ala its US cousin, NetFlix

Streaming media is one of my big things in technology for 2011, so I’m hoping that this type of service is improved and made available in Europe and the UK to bring us on par with those services offered in the US.

I’ve used LOVEFiLM’s DVD postal service a few times in the past and I’ve always been impressed by how quickly they are able to get discs out to me and I’ve always enjoyed the films of course, but for me it was always a bit of a hassle (no, lets say minor inconvenience), to have to find a post box to send my discs back – and I always worried by what would happen if the disc went missing either on route to my house or en route back to them.

Being able to select and stream movies from the comfort of my living room, for me, is a very attractive proposition and it obviously is for Amazon too, especially if they are able to tap into their vast movie library.

Additionally, I’m hoping Amazon follow in NetFlix’s recent footsteps and start to offer a ‘streaming only’ subscription for those who don’t want to rent actual DVDs. I can’t see any reason why they can’t do this and surely it would be popular and make sense given the potential savings on postage such a membership would create.

Also hoping, but less ambitiously so, Amazon and Microsoft can bundle together a deal similar again to NetFlix where by movies can be searched and played via subscription directly onto the Xbox 360 with added support for Kinect.

I’m already reviewing my budget to see if I can source the funds to subscribe, but if the Microsoft deal is made possible, I know I would be searching my budget again for Kinect funds for sure too.

A Moment of Madness

Sunday, January 9, 2011 0

Channel 4 have let me down.
They’ve disappointed me massively.
I can’t understand what they are doing anymore.
Is this a moment of Zen Madness?

What has got me like this? The decision for More4 to cancel its showing of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on a daily basis in favour of “local commissions such as TRUE STORIES”.

No!

Whilst I’m sure that the “TRUE STORIES” series gets plenty of viewers and it supports the “UK independent production sector”, it doesn’t stack up against “The Daily Show”, and here’s why; The Daily Show (TDS), is American news satire, but with an occasional serious point to make such as the worldwide financial crisis, 9/11 first responders bills, US Elections, etc. For us in the UK, its the only source of news of what is going on in the US – even if the news is reported with a comedic spin attached.

What’s more, the last couple of guests on TDS before they wrapped up for the Holidays were; Gordon Brown and Ricky Gervais – both from the UK and in Gervais’ case, popular with the British audiences. The show has that global appeal and that’s why we enjoyed watching it here in the UK.

I was always amazed by the number of comments on Twitter from many of my UK based followers about TDS, far more people than I thought enjoyed watching the show and tuned in almost on a daily basis. It was certainly a show on the rise in the UK (I don’t have any actual numbers to back up that statement, but purely from what I see on Twitter and read on blogs, the direction is/was clear to see).

Already this year Channel 4 are showing a programme called “Famous and Fearless”, hosted by Chris Evans. Now, I’m a big fan of Mr Evans but this show is an absolute bust; again, many of the comments I’ve seen are that they show simply doesn’t work and no body cares about a group of celebs racing around on BMX bikes and roller skates to generate money for charity – Channel 4 would have been far better off writing a much larger cheque to a bunch of charities than going to the expense of making this particular show.

Channel 4 also know that news based comedy satire work too – and is popular with the audience. I know this because I’ve seen trailers for their own show coming soon called “The 10 O’Clock Show”, featuring UK King of news satire Charlie Brooker (who did “Newswipe” on BBC Four for a few seasons). This makes me wonder why even more Channel 4 dropped TDS,

What frustrates me a little bit more however is that More4 have continued to hold the rights and continue to broadcast “The Daily Show GLOBAL EDITION”, which is a look back at the previous weeks best bits. I wonder about the logic in that; are they admitting they know about the popularity of TDS or are they holding onto it so that no one else can snap up TDS for their channel (BBC THREE for example).

I’ve wrote to Channel 4 to express my views, but got what seemed like the standard reply back. Do I think they’ve made a huge mistake? Yes. Do I think TDS will be back on More4’s schedule soon? I certainly hope so.

Lets have a moment of Zen.

The Price of Entertainment….

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In my previous blog post I touched on the topic of entertainment in the living room in the future; Microsoft wants us to put an Xbox in our living rooms, Sony wants us to have a PlayStation, Sky wants us to have their HD and satellite services, Freeview wants us to put their box underneath our television sets, LoveFilm wants use to take their subscription services, Spotify wants us to stream their music and a bunch of other services are all vying for our attention and our money.

 

Bringing all of these services together could end up costing you an absolute fortune; lets review real quickly:

  • Xbox Live - £30 a year
  • Sky - £52 a month, for the full TV package
  • LoveFilm - £13.27 a month (most popular package)
  • ESPN - £9 a month

Already that’s £76.77 a month!  Not including any pay-per-view content or additional extras such as console/online gaming.

 

My question is, who can afford to spend that much money per month only on in-home entertainment?  And that’s not even taking into account the purchase of DVDs, CDs/MP3’s and movie tickets when you want to go out and see the latest films.

 

This article came about because Microsoft want to make the Xbox *thee* device that sits in our living rooms.  I’m still stuck in limbo trying to work out whether my Xbox or my Windows Media Centre PC should be the device in my living room and which should be banished to the bedroom (the Media Centre currently has my living room, because it does TV recordings too), but what if I did want to swap them over?

 

First of all, I’d need to get my Xbox Live membership, which I don’t currently have – so that’s a cost that I have to absorb even if I already have Sky, LoveFilm and any other subscription based services.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Microsoft need to make money somehow and the £30 they ask for per year (making it only £2.50 a month), is a small amount of ask to access their content – but what if I don’t want their content?  I don’t have any choice in that. 

 

But picking and choosing content is not what Xbox Live is all about, but in my mind it should be about more.  Why aren’t Microsoft partnering with these subscription companies and pulling all of their services together into a single, lower cost subscription cost?

 

If Microsoft could half the cost to £38 a month, for streaming TV content, movies on demand, music on demand and online gaming, I could guarantee that a lot more people would go out and purchase an Xbox and give it pride of place within the living room and become thee entertainment hub for the whole family.

 

Do I think it’ll happen though?  No, not yet – why?  Because people seem happy to pay these costs to these various companies – and to Sky and Virgin Media who are already doing their own thing in this space and are equally desperate to sign you up as a customer and take your money. 

 

Whilst Sky and Virgin are good at what they do, what they aren’t good at by comparison is software and using software to expand their content beyond their own in-house developed set top boxes.  Microsoft are good at software – as are Apple and Google – and its these companies that need to partner up with the content providers and combine the whole experience together into something customers really, really want (we customers want everything by the way; on-demand, mobile, cool user-interfaces, etc). 

 

Streaming content is going to be the big thing this year – Apple and Google TV emerged in the latter part of last year and it’s only going to get better and more predominant this year.  The cable companies are going to panic and flounder and block content as they attempt to swat off these big software companies – just as the record companies did before with music making the move to the Internet. 

 

I’m happy for these software companies to break these barriers down – whether they partner with the existing players or they force their way in, I’m none too bothered, but bringing that price down has to be the key to all of this.

 

Lets hope they can do it.

Microsoft CES 2011 Keynote

Saturday, January 8, 2011 0

Exactly the same as last year, after watching Microsoft’s keynote speech/demo from this years CES show I’m left with exactly the same feelings; that Microsoft are still relevant and whilst we don’t always see it as clearly as products that fly off the shelves like those products made by Apple, we have to remember that MS are in a very different market all together.

Listening again to an old podcast from a couple of years again featuring a lengthy interview with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, I was reminded of a quote from Jobs which basically said “Apple employees forgot that this is a zero-sum game and they thought that for Apple to win Microsoft had to lose”, the point being that this is far from the reality; both companies are never going to ‘win’ or ‘lose’, they simply need to compete and co-exist. It’s important to note that in the early days BillG was contracted out to Apple to write code for them and they worked together on a bunch of projects.

Regardless of the past though, let’s get back to looking at the future. Steve Ballmer touched on three areas of Microsoft in this years keynote and it was interesting to note that these lined up exactly with their 3 screen strategy.

Entertainment – Xbox

The first was the living room, entertainment experience as provided by the Xbox 360 platform and the developments that have been made in this area. The real game-changer here is the Kinect interaction experiences; combining movement, speech and gestures, eliminating the traditional controller and/or remote control.

The Xbox is really developing more and more as that ‘entertainment centre-piece’ rather than a ‘games console’. They’ve done this by pulling together Xbox Live, streaming movies (Netflix), television (Hulu/Sky), sports (ESPN/Sky), video calling and the recently announced “Avatar Kinect”, which allows your friendly digital avatar to move and mimic your exact movements and emotions as if you were in the room with your friends, adding an entirely social layer to the entertainment experience, allowing that interaction to be shared across Facebook and other platforms.

I love what Microsoft are doing in this space, but I do still have concerns – mostly around cost and the stark difference between US and UK services that are currently available. Take for example movies, in the US Netflix is currently way out ahead of everyone else in the streaming movie business. In the UK we don’t have a movie streaming service yet – or certainly not one that’s on the same level as Netflix (LoveFilm is the only one close to having such a service).

But – and here’s my concern – the cost of Netflix is monthly subscription, the cost of Xbox Live is a subscription, the cost of Sky (in the UK), is a subscription and all of these other services that get bolted on all cost money. My fear is that if Xbox makes its way into my living room as the primary device, how much is it ultimately going to cost me per month for the privilege? And why wouldn’t I just have a Sky HD box installed instead of streaming via my Xbox to take advantages of what Sky are offering? Perhaps that thought is for another day and another blog post however.

Microsoft also need to be careful not to confuse the market with too many devices/options either. Are they pushing the Xbox as ‘thee’ device to have in your living room or are they promoting a set top box or a media centre PC as the device to have? I’m a little confused by it, especially as I already have both a media centre PC and an Xbox and have pondered on many occasion where they should be located in my house.

Finally, when Ballmer revealed that MS has so far sold 8 million Kinect devices in two months, this underlines the popularity of both the Xbox and how excited people are about this technology. It’s a staggering figure to have been sold in such a small amount of time.

Mobile – Windows Phone 7

I should be absolutely honest here and say that I’ve not really given Windows Phone 7 any attention thus far – sure I’ve read a couple of early reviews, but I’ve not actively gone and sought anything in depth or any product demonstrations to understand how it actually stacks up. That said, my mobile contact is still valid and I’ve had no reason to seek out this information.

The CES Keynote then is the first time I’ve seen the platform in action and I have to say, it’s peaked my interest a little bit; it’s certainly a different approach to that others are taking, yet seems to continue to mix in the expected elements of what you would find on a modern day smart phone. I have to admit though; I do like the approach MS are taking here, integrating their existing platforms (Xbox Live, Bing, Windows, etc), directly into the handset so it almost becomes that seamless experience between devices.

I’ve not had chance to check this out yet, but if I find the Windows Phone 7 can connect to my Live Mesh and sync in exactly the same way as my laptop and PC are able to, then I may just well be sold on the idea of purchasing a WP7 come March when my current mobile contract expires. There’s a long way between now and then though, HP have WebOS announcements due in February, which may sway me back on track and stick with what I currently have.

Overall though, after what seems like years in the wilderness with Windows Mobile 6/6.5, MS certainly seems to have something they can build upon and compete with in the mobile space.

Desktop – Windows 7

I was both annoyed and absolutely fascinated by this part of the presentation.

First why I was annoyed: the Surface 2.0 computer was unveiled, showing just how far that product has been developed over the course of a single year and I was absolutely taken with just how much it can do and the various applications and scenarios it can be used for – brilliant. But what annoys me and winds me up is that Microsoft hasn’t pushed this device hard enough. I’ve never seen one in the wild yet and I can’t work out why.

Perhaps it is too expensive or maybe still a little bit too much of a gimmick for businesses to invest into right now. I mean, I’d love to see a couple of these at my local cinema showing movie trailers and allowing me to buy my ticket right there and then by swiping my card over the device and I’m sure a bunch of other interactive stuff – and the reason I’m picking on my cinema is because they already have a touch screen device that allows the user to select their film and take payment – a fraction of what they could be doing.

As I say, the main reason may be down to cost (and hard economic times, etc), but Surface is without doubt a technology Microsoft believe in and want out there. But that’s just my opinion.

Where Apple produces software to sell their own hardware, Microsoft produces software to sell – and this is very apparent as you see the variety of Tablet devices that manufactures are lining up which run Windows 7 compared to the single form factor of Apple’s iPad. I very much like the fact that this allows users to purchase a device or form factor that suits their needs – giving the device purpose. I also like that Microsoft haven’t given up on ‘ink’ and the ability to write on the screen is still very much a part of what they want to achieve – there are arguments for and against having a pen over and above finger input, but again, by being receptive to both the customer has the choice when purchasing their ‘ideal’ tablet device.

I’d heard about the rumours Microsoft were considering tweaking Windows to run on ARM processors, but I never really thought much about it and the potential it would have and the implications of System on Chip (SoC), until it was confirmed in the keynote. Then it all made sense – running Windows on chip is exactly what is needed as Microsoft transition (or run in parallel), between full fat, traditional PCs and the next generation of devices and form factors.

When the SoC is shown and you realise how small the architecture can be reduced down to, it highlights just how much potential this move has. Fully blown Windows running on devices the size of your mobile phone, but with all of the optimisation and design built right into it. Power savings suddenly become dramatic; something which is all important as more and more devices become mobile.

As I’ve wrote before, coupling these SoC next-generation devices with Microsoft Cloud platform technologies and suddenly another building block for the future falls into place and the paradigm should potentially shifts from Apple back towards Microsoft. For Microsoft what they have shown over the past 5 years is everything building towards this future vision (that’s where Ray Ozzie really was brilliant with his dream of where he wanted to take MS).

Summary

The ‘three-screen’ strategy that Microsoft envisioned a long time ago is only just starting to come together, perhaps slightly delayed by the Vista years that needed to be fixed, but after learning really quickly what needed to be repaired. But after what seems like a time when Microsoft went quiet, they continued to build the platforms and technologies (Cloud, user interfaces, etc), for the devices we are seeing today and we’re only at the very beginning of all of this.

Repeating myself again, Apple produces software to sell their hardware, Microsoft produce software to sell. Software is a magical thing and these software platforms that have been developed combining Internet, Cloud and new approaches are setting up something really magical for device manufacturers who can do hardware in many new and exciting form factors far better than Microsoft could do alone.

But this isn’t a Microsoft Vs Apple situation, this is about Microsoft building platforms based around the biggest platform of them all; the Cloud, and asking the industry to start to dream and build the devices that Microsoft need to succeed together. I’ve no doubt that Microsoft could do their own hardware if they were forced into doing so, the Xbox is proof of that, but that’s not their style. This is a software company, existing to be a software company and nothing else.

I always get excited when I watch a demo like this and I can clearly see the big picture strategies at play and can realise how what is available today is what the future will be based upon. Microsoft just delivered again.



First Impressions of Quora

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As I start to notice trends in how people flock to new Internet services, as a digital explorer, I very much like to sign up and give them a go myself for two reasons, the first is to see what all the fuss is about and secondly to see what that new service is designed to disrupt.

The most obvious service that I tried and stuck with is Twitter. I certainly wasn’t one of the first people to sign up to the service, but I certainly created my account before the hype really took off and it became mainstream to millions of users. This meant I saw a lot of the fuss being made about Twitter firsthand and I’ve also seen just how much disruption it has caused to so many industries; IT, technology, media, marketing, advertising, etc.

The chatter that I’m reading about right now is a service known as “Quora”, which seems to be gaining quite a lot of traction. As a result, I signed up for an account (actually, I signed in using my Twitter account using OAuth authentication), and decided to see what I was missing.

Quora is essentially a question and answers site, Wikipedia (in the sense that admins are controlling the questions and answers to ensure relevancy), and elements of Twitter (namely their ‘Follow’ feature), all thrown together. It seems like a good idea and a way to progress forums and message boards into the 21st Century.

However, after browsing around the site and reading some of the questions in categories that it seemed to select for me, I realised that the questions that are being asked are very specialist and I have absolutely no change of knowing about or even attempt at being able to answer (questions on computer and web obviously being Silicone Valley – and I’m far, far from the Valley by comparison). However, I looked beyond those and decided to ask my very own simple question to see how quickly I got a response and the quality of that response.

My question was thus:
“When does the Bill and Melina Gates foundation release their annual statement for 2011?”
Two days later, I’m still awaiting a reply of some sort from a fellow Quora user. Whilst this question might not have been ‘main stream’, I’d imagine that many people actively follow BillG’s Foundation or at least read his previous statements and therefore might have an idea of when the next statement is due, so my question isn’t exactly difficult to put some sort of answer to.

Here’s my issue; what does Quora disrupt? My initial thoughts were that this service is fantastic for reaching people who you don’t necessarily follow on Twitter and being able to ask direct questions surely disrupts ‘Search’. Alas not it appears, because I opened up IE9, Bing opened up and pasted my question exactly – within 5 minutes not only had I found many links to the Foundation, I also discovered that the statement from 2009 was released 27th January 2009 – I vaguely remember 2010’s statement being around the same time, so although I don’t have a definitive answer, I do have a much better idea of when its due to appear, which is ultimately all I really wanted to know in this particular instance.

I’ve no doubt that they’ll be other times and questions on Quora that require a much more definitive answer – and a definitive answer to my question would have certainly validated the service. But I’m left pondering whether Quora can really offer anything that search doesn’t already cater for? And if not ‘search’, then existing online forums and bulletin boards?

I’m now left wondering what exactly I’m missing with Quora; where are others are seeing the benefit that I’m not? Are other people more willing to trawl through the site and look for questions they can answer than I am? I’m not at all sure this is the case.

This leads me to think that this site is a bit of a fad, a site a bunch of geeks have signed up for and are using inside their community (much like the very early days of Twitter, a place where only the geeks would post to), and has somehow slipped out to others who are dipping their toe to see what the fuss is about. I’m willing to predict that this site will soon lose appeal and its numbers will drop off after the honeymoon period of them signing up.

Quora reminds me most of Google Wave, the collaborative tool where many users work around a single issue and we all know how Wave ended up? Then again, I might be completely wrong – this could be the next big thing and I’m just missing the point of it all.

365 Days

Saturday, January 1, 2011 0

For what seems like the millionth time, I’ve recently been watching the entire 7 series of critically acclaimed and in my opinion – amazing - “The West Wing”.

I’ve just finished series 6, but found myself watching an episode called “365 Days”, in which Leo McGarry, the former Chief of Staff returns to the White House following a heart attack and sets about finding himself something to do to make himself useful to the President. What Leo comes up with is a senior staff meeting, a whiteboard and an inspiring speech, which basically asks the question what the staff would like to achieve in their last year in office – hence “365 Days”.

Today is the first day of a New Year and I’m looking around at Twitter and my social networks seeing people set out their New Years Resolutions. I’ve never been much of a fan of New Years Resolutions, as I’ve never liked the idea of only setting myself goals at one time of the year instead of as and when they are needed.

But not one to miss an opportunity and having been inspired by Leo, I’ve been thinking what is in store for my next 365 days.

I already know that my first two months of this year are taken up with a all out attack on producing documentation and writing procedures for work – it was something I was briefed on before the Christmas holidays. After that though, the path is unclear.

Being the geek that I am, I’ve had an idea for a little while now that I would like to have a whiteboard on my kitchen wall and I want to start to populate that board with these very goals and aspirations that I set myself over the next 365 days. Not only does this get me the whiteboard I want, it also re-enforces and helps me set goals and focus on achieving them.

I think its a flawless idea – I’m unsure quite why I’m justifying myself here on my blog, but I am (guess if I write it down, then I have to do it).

Unfortunately the only clip I can find on YouTube of how this whiteboard and idea of setting goals over a 365 day schedule is in Italian, but please watch on anyway, the message comes across loud and clear and the flow of ideas are soon trickling with ease.

That’s how I want my 2011 to be.



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