Archive for category Technology

Why Won’t AT&T Protect Your Grandmother’s Data?

He Sold His Soul to Telephone

Photo by Thomas Hawk

While going over my finances yesterday, I noticed a strange anomaly with my bills. After 3+ years of sending out a regular phone bill in the mail, all of a sudden AT&T stopped. Concerned that there could be a mix-up with my account, I contacted AT&T’s customer support line and was told that ebilling had been activated on my account.

The only problem is that I’ve never registered for online account access, nor have I ever provided AT&T with an email address. When I asked where my bill was being emailed too, the agent couldn’t provide me with an answer, but did say that my statement had been sent out this way for the last 3 years!

People may not be able to siphon money out of your bank account with your phone records, but they can still use this information to harm you. A competitor could use the list of phone numbers you call to prospect for clients, a thief could look for patterns of activity so that they would know a good time to pull off a burglary or a home invasion or an upset ex could use the records to stalk and harass you. While I’m inclined to believe AT&T when they claim that this mixup was actually caused by one of their employees, the thought of someone (nefarious or random) seeing this level of personal detail is a little unsettling to say the least.

Given the fact that there could have potentially been an online intrusion into my privacy, I asked AT&T to investigate the matter further and even more importantly to disable access to my online account. After 30 minutes on the phone, the AT&T rep ultimately declined to investigate the matter further and told me that the company has no way of turning off access to your online bill. Her only solution was for me to register my account online and to set my own password, so that someone else couldn’t register without my being notified first.

While I imagine that a large percentage of AT&T’s customers register for online account access, I’ve got to suspect that I’m not the only one whose never taken the time to do this. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that less than 25% of all senior citizens haven’t registered for online access. Given that all one really needs is a copy of someone’s phone bill, AT&T’s policies are putting some of their least tech savvy customers at the greatest risk. With zero notification for when ebill gets turned on, customers who depend on the physical mail for their billing info must wait at least 30 days to find out that they could have been a victim to a crime. Meanwhile, someone could use the time they get from hijacking your billing, to put 1-900 charges on your phone or to sign you up for monthly plans that don’t really provide any benefits.

Other utilities that I’ve contacted, haven’t had any problems with this request. PG&E for example, won’t even provide me information over the phone, unless I show up to one of their retail locations with my ID in hand. This may seem a bit extreme for most people, but your smart meter data is just as vulnerable.

To say that 2011 has been the year of the hack is an understatement and while I’m sure that AT&T spends millions on internet security, no system is fool proof. Add the fact that AT&T actually receives a percentage of the proceeds from the estimated $2 billion illegal cramming industry and one could make an argument that this security vulnerability is by design so that AT&T can profit at the expense of their less savvy customers. I love the internet and how quick and easy it is to get access to important data in my life, but if other people can also access that data, I’m not sure that it’s worth the risk.

It’s Time For Netflix To Say Goodnight To Silverlight

In 2006, Netflix scored a grand slam when they announced a $1 million prize for anyone who could improve their recommendation engine by at least 10%. It took 3 years for a team of scientists to actually accomplish this feat, but the prize was ultimately worth far more than a million dollars in publicity and to Netflix’s bottom line. Better recommendations not only led to happier subscribers (less churn), but they also made it easier for Netflix to sell the niche content that they spend less money on. Recognizing the benefit that they received from the contest, Netflix was quick to announce a sequel, but ultimately had to suspend their plans over privacy concerns.

While a contest to replace Silverlight likely wouldn’t garner as much attention, I believe that the financial benefit to replacing this outdated codec, would be just as significant.

Some will argue that I’m being tough on poor old Softie and that Silverlight represents some of the best video compression out there, but consider my logic for a moment. From the way I see it, Silverlight has two basic flaw. It’s buggy as all get out and it’s a bandwidth thief.

The screenshot posted above is a real life example that I encountered of Silverlight in action. All codecs are prone to errors of course, but look at all the hoops Netflix makes their customers jump through just to support a buggy piece of software. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to restart my browser after a Silverlightning strike, I’d probably have .35 cents by now. Seriously, I have less trouble with Real Network’s codec and that’s saying a lot. Instead of putting up with these kinds of errors, Netflix should be actively searching for a more reliable alternative.

Given Netflix’s runaway success, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the big telco companies are running scared. While usage based pricing hasn’t hit the US yet, the Canadian telcos were very quick to raise rates the minute Netflix invaded their territory. When you consider how many internet service providers also sell video, it’s clear that Netflix will need a way to undercut these tactics, especially if they plan on expanding internationally. Currently, an SD movie over Silverlight clocks in at approximately 2 Gigs, while an HD movie will cost the user 3Gbs towards their cap. If Netflix could reduce the size of a movie file by 50% – 75%, without sacrificing quality, they could end the usage based meter for their customers, while also undermining a critical future component to their latest competitors’ business model.

Getting Hollywood to sign off on an outsourced video codec could be a potential problem for Netflix, but even if they were able to gradually ween their customers away from Silverlight by delivering independent films with the new technology, the benefit could still be substantial. Given how little they pay for traffic, they probably wouldn’t save $1 million on their bandwidth bill, but being able to stop telcos from nickle and diming Netflix’s members would be priceless and would help to future proof their business.

Has The DMCA Created A Legal Bermuda Triangle For Downloads?

For the last several years, the entertainment industry has been doing their darndest to put The Pirate Bay out of business. Whether it’s been suing TPB’s users, going after TPB’s hosting providers or trying to make the site’s founders criminally liable for the behavior of their customers, it’s clear that TPB doesn’t have many friends in Hollywood. More recently, we’ve seen a legal settlement industry spring up where mass lawsuits are threatened against consumers for allegedly participating in P2P activities. Whether or not the entertainment industry has been successful in these endeavours is open to interpretation, but in their zeal to put an end to filesharing, they may have created an even more dangerous monster.

One could argue that it all started with YouTube, but over the past few years we’ve seen a shift in consumer behavior away from P2P and towards streaming and downloading services. To see proof of this trend, all one has to do is compare the traffic of TPB with the streaming/downloading search engine FilesTube.

According to, over the last year has been able to consistently attract 50% more visitors than TPB. Not too shaby of a feat considering that didn’t even exist 3 years ago.

Given their animosity towards TPB, one would think that entertainment executives would be celebrating the cultural decline of TPB with a round of cold beers and high fives, but the reality is that instead of curbing piracy, they’re merely redirecting that illicit traffic towards safe harbors where consumers don’t appear to be at risk. In the immortal words of Princess Leia, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”

By continuing to squeeze P2P users with countless numbers of lawsuits, the entertainment industry may have been able to establish a precedent that uploading content to the internet is a copyright violation, but what’s less clear is whether or not simply downloading that same content is actually illegal?

According to the Copyright.Gov FAQ website, “Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. ” [Emphasis added by me]

Setting aside the ethical question of whether or not it’s moral to download grey area content, it is clear that US Copyright law places some restrictions on infringing downloads vs. legitimate ones. From the same FAQ page,

Whether or not a particular work is being made available under the authority of the copyright owner is a question of fact. But since any original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium (including a computer file) is protected by federal copyright law upon creation, in the absence of clear information to the contrary, most works may be assumed to be protected by federal copyright law.” [Emphasis added by me]

Now I’m not a legal beagle, but I believe that this means that consumers can’t be prosecuted for downloading a movie, if the service they are using claims to be offering content with the blessing of the legal copyright owner. For example when I’m streaming (making a cached copy) of old episodes of Battlestar Galactica from Netflix, I’m not actually breaking the law because I have a reasonable belief that Netflix has licensed this movie for their subscribers.

Since many streaming sites are largely controlled by the company that is paying for the bandwidth, it would be relatively easy for the studios to hold these companies accountable if they did stray off of the straight and narrow path. Where the legal waters become more murky though is when service providers (streaming companies) allow others to upload content instead of taking charge of this themselves.

With YouTube receiving 35 hours of content per second, it would be impossible for them to screen every second of footage that is uploaded to their site. Because of this the DMCA offers YouTube a safe harbor as long as they respond to DMCA takedown requests and don’t encourage piracy. To date we’ve seen several lawsuits that have tried to challenge this exemption, but so far they’ve all been a bust for the entertainment industry.

So on one side of this digital triangle you have consumers who are exempt from legal liability as long as the service provider requires uploaders to claim ownership of everything that they upload, on the other side of the triangle you have the service providers who are exempt from liability as long as they respond to DMCA request and don’t uploading anything themselves and on the final side of the triangle you have the content owners themselves who must choose between trying to police an endless stream of piracy or to quietly embrace the millions of consumers who are now streaming their television instead of paying for cable.

In a perfect world, only the actual copyright owners would be uploading their content to these digital locker services, but because sites like pay users based upon the number of plays their videos get, there is an economic incentive for rouge operatives to cheat the system by claiming content as their own. To Megavideo’s credit, they have a history of refusing to pay copyright violators, but from a practical standpoint there are many who’ve been able to collect royalties on other people’s content.

Also to Megavideo’s credit, the entertainment industry has a long history of embracing “piracy” while staying in the closet about this. For example, when Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, some of the clips they sued over were uploaded by Viacom employee’s themselves. It would hardly seem fair to hold either YouTube or consumers who watched those clips liable for copyright infringement when Viacom was creating a honeypot to tempt web surfers with.

Some will argue that content owners would never do this, but there are many reasons why someone would choose to embrace piracy and the popularity that it can bring a film. Whether you’re trying to jumpstart a struggling TV series or you’re trying to increase licensing opportunities, just because someone doesn’t pay to view a video doesn’t necessarily mean that the creator won’t benefit from that attention.

One of the things I’ve noticed when browsing through the search results is that often times studios will be unrelentingly aggressive about filing DMCA takedown requests the minute infringing files are uploaded while other files will remain online for over a year without even being “noticed.” While it would be tough to argue that 100% of these files are being monetized by the original copyright holders, I do believe that many copyright holders have chosen to secretly monetize their content in this way, but aren’t able to publicly disclose this because of how it might impact their negotiations with more traditional video distributors.

While the uploaders who falsely claim ownership of copyrighted material certainly put themselves at legal risk, with most of the uploading activity occurring outside of US borders, it’s unlikely that many infringers will find themselves being dragged into US court.

Some will cry foul over this latest trend, but I do find it fascinating how alternative business models can thrive when copyright issues aren’t strangling internet startups.

For example, one of the unique ways that Megavideo is able to sell memberships for their service is by letting consumers watch a certain amount of video each day for free before being interrupted with a time out. By running their business this way, they are able to use each and every video as an advertisement for their paid service. Since you may be 80% of the way through a movie when the time limit hits, a consumer is given the opportunity to ask themselves whether or not the content is really worth paying for to see right away or if it is a piece of garbage that you don’t care about finishing anyway.

Can you imagine if you were able to go to a movie theater and didn’t have to pay for your ticket until you had already watched 80% of the film? It would probably hurt ticket sales for a lot of the big budget flops, but the really well made movies would be incredibly successful because they’d be able to convert a larger percentage of those free eyeballs into paying customers.

Whether or not content owners are embracing this business model may be unclear, but by aggressively pursuing P2P users, the entertainment industry has made it clear that downloading without uploading is a much safer alternative for consumers then participating in the P2P movement. As technology marches forward, we’ll find out whether or not this Bermudian Copyright triangle gets sorted out, but in the meantime the efforts to prosecute P2P users, only seems to be driving consumers from a clunky bandwidth intensive technological solution to offshore providers who are offering a more elegant experience.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the MPAA has claimed that movie streaming is still considered a form of theft, but instead of backing up their position by citing the appropriate copyright laws, they instead try to equate digital streaming with physical theft.

The problem with this position is that companies like Sony (one of the MPAA founding partners) is apparently offering a shoplifters paradise in the form of all you can stream free movies on their website. Other MPAA partners like 20th Century Fox have not only made their movies available online at their official sites, but have also licensed their content to a number of different distributors like Comcast’s Since it would be impossible for the end consumer to know the contractual details of every one of these down stream relationships, it would hardly seem fair to hold the consumer liable if someone uploaded a clip that actually infringed.

While I’m entirely open to exploring other opinions that downloading (without uploading) is still a copyright violation, I’ve yet to see any legal evidence indicating that this is actually the case. What do you think, when you hit play on a Simpson’s clip on YouTube have you actually committed a crime?

You’ve Got Questions, Ask500 Has Answers

Dark MysteryI’ve never had any trouble forming an opinion of my own, but often times I wonder how the rest of the world sees things. Anyone who has ever spent time with me can tell you that I tend to ask a lot of random questions that don’t really have any significant meaning behind them. This could range from asking someone what they think the area code in Detroit is or it could be something deeper like would you really want to be immortal if it meant you could never die?

While most are good sports about these things, I’ve received my fair share of puzzled looks in my time, so imagine my delight when I came across a website called Ask500 where you can pose these questions to a global audience. The site is set up where anyone can ask a question and if it receives enough votes, then they’ll leave it at the top of their main page until 500 people have viewed it. Over the last year, I’ve been ducking in and out of the site and since I’ve enjoyed it so much I thought that I’d share some of what I’ve learned. While these results aren’t necessarily scientific, I did find a few of them surprising.

-Considering that it costs more to make a penny than the actual monetary value, I thought it was interesting that people were split 50/50 when asked if it would bother them if we retired the penny.

-On the creepier side of things, 64% of respondents said that they wouldn’t break up with their significant other, if they found out that they were a relative.

-While nearly all of the Ask500 audience has tried chicken, only 41% has tasted rabbit.

-If forced to choose, 81% of people would rather go a day without the internet than a day without water. When forced to choose between the internet and TV, 81% would rather go online.

-When I asked how many cats it takes before it officially gets weird, 16% of the audience said it would take more than 6.

-In a sad commentary on the times that we live in, 48% of people responded that they would run out of money in less than a month, if they lost their job.

-Only 28% of us have owned a pager in our lifetime.

-51% said that they’ve called 911 at least once in their life.

-65% said that they wouldn’t travel back in time, if they knew that they couldn’t come back.

-Surprisingly, 72% of the Ask500 audience said that if their best friend’s spouse made a pass at them, they’d leave their friend in the dark about it.

-When asked if they’d ever be willing to pay more than $10 to download a movie, 88% of the audience said no.

-30% of respondents said that they’ve signed up for an internet dating site at least once in their life. When looking at the gender breakdown, women were almost twice as likely to have said yes compared to their male counterparts. Perhaps even more interesting was that 25% said that they’ve come across someone they’ve known while surfing an internet dating site.

-37% of you have engaged in an office romance

-Only 8% of the replies said that they had a bumper sticker on their car.

-74% of the audience agreed that revenge is a dish best served cold.

-Only 36% said that they’d want to know the exact date of their death if it was available to them.

-35% said that they believed there was at least one fact or opinion that 100% of the global population could agree upon.

-64% of people said that they had been living at their current residence for longer than 3 years.

-46% said that they’d break up with someone if there wasn’t a ring on their finger after 5 years.

-When asked what type of milk you buy, 20% said whole milk, 22% went with non-fat and 22% said light (1%), and 36% went with reduced fat (2%)

-67% said that they’ve owned a dog at least once in their life.

-66% of respondents said that they had their first kiss between the ages of 12 – 19.

-41% have lived dangerously by hitchhiking at least once.

If you’d like to view all of the questions that I’ve asked, you can see them here. If you haven’t checked out the site yet, I’d encourage you sign up because it offers all kinds of wacky entertainment. If you’re a business and are interested in crowd sourcing some of your market research, Ask500 has a sponsorship program where you can get instant feedback on ideas.

TiVo Granted Patent For The Season Pass

TiVo Season Pass ManagerThe US patent office must have gotten their hard drives unpaused, because hot on the heels of winning a patent related to closed captions on a DVR, TiVo has been awarded another patent at the heart of the DVR experience. With the application having been filed in October of 1999, it took the USPTO over ten years to review and approve their request, but on February 16th, TiVo was given the legal exclusive on season pass technology.

For those of you unfamiliar with how a DVR works, part of their magic is the ability to let you record shows in the future without having to worry about when it’s on. Back in the ole VCR days, you’d typically have to manually tell your gadget what time and channel you wanted it to record, but with TiVo (and other DVRs) they keep track of this information automagically and records your programs whenever it’s scheduled to be on. Because the TV studios tend to schedule all of their good programming at the same time (I’m looking at you Thursday night), there are sometimes conflicts between what you’d like to record and the number of TV tuners available to do it.

To resolve these issues, TiVo created a season pass manager that allows you to prioritize which shows get recorded and which ones don’t. This helps to make sure that I always get to watch Survivor and CSI, even if it means that I sometimes have to skip Community.

From patent 7,665,111,

“The invention correlates an input schedule that tracks the free and occupied time slots for each input source with a space schedule that tracks all currently recorded programs and the programs that have been scheduled to be recorded in the future, to schedule new programs to record and resolve recording conflicts. A program is recorded if at all times between when the recording would be initiated and when it expires, sufficient space is available to hold it. Programs scheduled for recording based on inferred preferences automatically lose all conflict decisions. All scheduling conflicts are resolved as early as possible. Schedule conflicts resulting from the recording of aggregate objects are resolved using the preference weighting of the programs involved. A background scheduler attempts to schedule each preferred program in turn until the list of preferred programs is exhausted or no further opportunity to record is available. A preferred program is scheduled if and only if there are no conflicts with other scheduled programs “

Without the ability to do this, the DVR would be as hard to program as the blinking clock on the front of your VCR. Recognizing how crucial this feature was to the DVR experience, TiVo moved aggressively to patent the feature, before they even rolled out their technology to the public.

In the ten years since then, TiVo’s season pass technology hasn’t really changed all that much. Most of their DVRs now come with two tuners instead of one, but the basic experience has remained the same.

Two improvements, that I’d like to see them make to their season pass manager would be faster processing times for when you want to rearrange your priorities or delete season passes and some kind of a menu that can identify future conflicts even after you’ve already scheduled your program list.

If TiVo introduces a DVR with faster microchips at their March 2nd press event, the long delay after reorganizing your season pass should take care of itself, but making their conflict resolution program a bit more robust would need some kind of a software upgrade.

While TiVo is good at pointing out conflict issues when you first schedule a program, they rely solely on your prioritization list when considering future conflicts. This may ensure that the programs you care about most get recorded, but it can make it difficult to know when you’ve missed an episode because of a scheduling change. In the past this hasn’t been much of an issue because the consumer’s only option would be to wait for a rerun, but with sites like Hulu and Netflix now streaming the repeats, it would be nice to be able to view some kind of a report of what you missed that week, so that you could watch any missed programs online.

While pretty much every single DVR currently uses this embodiment of the season pass manager, TiVo’s latest patent isn’t without a workaround. Because it was invented during a time when cloud computing was an expensive pipe dream, TiVo only patented the client side application of this technology. In other words, as long as the conflict resolution is done remotely on a server, competitors like Microsoft and cable companies could avoid infringement. Of course, this could potentially be a lot more expensive than licensing the patent from TiVo to begin with, but given the current trend towards remote DVR services, the USPTO’s long application process may have made TiVo’s invention obsolete, before they’ll have much of a chance to enforce it.

Forget Net Neutrality, What About Media Neutrality?

Media NeutralityOver the past five years, there’s been a lot of debate around the topic of net neutrality and while there have been a few examples where internet providers have tried to favor their own services over the competition, by and large this has turned out to be little more than a boogey man. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it’s important to keep the playing field level, but I also believe that there are bigger issues where consumers are being harmed.

While many media companies would like to see the first sale doctrine done away with, ever since the supreme court established the doctrine in 1908, consumers have enjoyed tremendous benefits from it. The concept, which was later codified into law in 1976, allows businesses and individuals to resell goods that they’ve legally purchased. Without it, companies like Ebay, Craigslist and Blockbuster Video wouldn’t even be possible.

Having the right to resell goods benefits consumers in two major ways. First, it reduces the risks that consumers have to take when making purchases. This ultimately makes things cheaper for all of us, because companies are forced to compete with their own products and consumers have a way of recouping part of their initial expense.

When I first purchased my TiVo series 3 for example, I spent over $800 on the product. While this may seem like an insane amount to spend for television, I was able to justify the cost in part, because I sold my original TiVo on eBay for $200 and knew that one day I would be able to resell my Series 3 (currently worth approximately $400 on Ebay) to recover part of my expense. As a result, I’ve been able to enjoy a premium DVR experience for about 1/3rd what it would have cost me to rent an inferior DVR from my cable company.

The second benefit to the consumer is that by having a robust resell market, it allows more businesses/middlemen to participate. This ultimately increases demand, stimulates innovation, and drives down prices. Redbox for example is able to rent you a DVDs at 1/20th of the cost or what it would cost you to buy the actual DVD thanks in large part to the first sale doctrine. Because Redbox knows that they can get more than 20 people to share the same product, it enables consumers to save money, the media companies to sell more DVDs and for Redbox to still earn a tidy profit in the process.

While the first sale doctrine has been a huge benefit for consumers over the last 100 years, these benefits are rapidly being eroded as media moves digital. Because the first sale doctrine was based on physical goods, it hasn’t aged very well in the digital realm. As a result, consumers have been forced to endure awkward DRM implementations, limited availability of digital content and higher prices for media services.

As the top media conglomerates have sought to seize more and more control over the distribution of their products, they’ve shifted from a world where you have the ability to “own” your media, to one where you only have the option to “license” your content.

For a lot of consumers, this distinction may not seem important, but it has profound implications on the future of digital entertainment. Since firms aren’t allowed to buy products at a wholesale price and rent them to multiple consumers, they’ve been forced to negotiate agreements one by one. This is a costly and time intensive process that has limited how quickly media can migrate online. It has also given the media conglomerates monopolistic control over prices. Instead of being forced to compete in an open environment, they are able to take their ball and go home, when they haven’t liked the terms and conditions that innovators offer them.

The result of this transition from ownership to licensing has increased costs for consumers even beyond the price of media. Take for example, the various hardware devices that we’ve seen released over the last five years. If you want to watch digital copies of old movies and TV shows, you can do it through Netflix, but only if it’s on a device that has a business relationship with them. When Sony decided to release a digital copy of Cloudy with a chance of meatballs at the same time the movie was in the theaters, consumers could only participate on select Sony TVs.

If you prefer to watch new releases from Apple’s iTunes store, you’ll need to buy an AppleTV to easily watch that content on your TV. If you want to watch a DivX file that you purchased from CinemaNow, you’ll need to illegally hack your AppleTV or purchase a DivX certified device instead. It’s fantastic that consumers have the ability to record HD cable TV through TiVo, but if you subscribe to AT&T or Dish Networks, you’ll need additional (proprietary) hardware to decode their signals.

While many of these businesses have come a long way towards opening up their systems and fulfilling the digital dream, they’ve all been limited by what content holders allow. As a result, consumers must face a digital minefield where DRM and file formats are used to limit what you can do with the content that you’ve paid for.

As we continue to move forward into the digital world, I think it’s important that consumers shouldn’t have to abandon the first sale protections that have served us so well over the last century. What I propose is a new set of rules that would allow media companies to control their prices, but would also give consumers (and businesses) a way to move past some of these restrictions.

While the DMCA has been a mixed blessing for tech companies and consumers, it is in desperate need of an update (and one that isn’t written by the lobbyists.) For example, currently, it’s illegal for consumers (or businesses) to circumvent DRM, even if consumers are being harmed by the DRM. This has led to situations where people who have purchased media, later lost access to those rights because a provider went out of business. Situations, where companies are unable to offer lifetime licenses in the cloud, because of exclusivity clauses in contracts with pay TV channels.

What I purpose is that if media companies want DMCA protection for their content, it should come with strings attached. In crafting new rules for a modern first sale doctrine, I would require content owners to set a wholesale price that all businesses would be allowed to buy content at. They could still require minimum purchases sizes and would have complete control over what they wanted to charge for that content, but they shouldn’t be allowed to sell a license at one price to one company and then exploit another company for political reasons.

What this would do is create a level playing field for all of the digital retailers. If UMG wants to charge $50 for a download, they would have the right to do this, but they couldn’t favor one vendor over another and they couldn’t punish innovators for being successful or passing on value to the consumer. This would also bring welcome competition to the pay TV market because media companies wouldn’t be able to play MSO’s off of each other.

For example, I’d love to be able to see every NFL game each season, but I can’t unless I’m willing to subscribe to DirecTV for service. Instead of making consumers fight and choose over exclusive content, everyone should be given fair access to that content. If cable companies don’t want to pay the price of admission, they would be less competitive with consumers. The end result would be more demand for NFL content by consumers and more competition for their dollars. If we allow media companies to continue with exclusive content in the digital realm, it will only makes it more expensive for everyone.

I also think that if the media wants to continue to have DMCA restrictions on their DRM, that they shouldn’t be allowed to use that DRM to discriminate between hardware partners. It’s great that I’ve got the ability to record HDTV on my TiVo, but since cablecards don’t work with satellite or U-verse, it essentially gives Comcast a monopoly on pay television for TiVo households.

As a result, Comcast is able to provide abusive cablecard support without having to worry about competition. If they knew that they had to actually compete for the $50 – $200 a month that they charge, it would encourage them to provide better service and to continue to innovate, (even if consumers decide not to use Comcast’s equipment.) Instead we’ve seen cable companies limit the ability for consumers to take their programs on the go and prevent consumers from accessing VOD services on DVRs that aren’t rented from them, all without having to worry about repercussions.

The same is true for digital downloads. If Apple wants to use DRM to help protect their content partners, they should be allowed to, but not at the expense of consumers. If other hardware manufacturers want to build support for iTunes’ product they should be allowed to license the DRM (at cost) from Apple. This would prevent Apple from offering exclusive downloads that lock consumers into their own hardware ecosystem. The end result would be more devices that could play Apple content and more competition among set top box manufacturers. This competition would cause prices to drop and would encourage Apple and others to be innovative with the features and services that they offer to their customers.

While some may be content to let the media industry continue to grow inside of these walled gardens, I’d like to see a world where someone can legally purchase media and play it on any device that they want to. By creating new laws to help better regulate the abuses of our current licensing system, consumers, businesses and the online video industry as a whole, would be allowed to flourish across many different platforms. Instead of being forced to buy the same content over and over and over again, consumers would be allowed to license their media under fair and reasonable conditions.

Why McAfee Isn’t Any Different Than The Scammers They Try To Stop

Spider Invades MonitorYou can mock me for being afraid of the black helicopters or alien visitors with advanced technology, but I learned long ago that there are enough legitimate threats out there, that people need to take internet security seriously.

As a small business owner, I’m not just concerned about protecting my own privacy, but I also care about the vendors and customers who do business with me. Because of this, I’m willing to pay a premium in order to have the best anti-virus protection on my computer, so two years ago I purchased several subscriptions to one of McAfee’s anti-virus solutions. Given their reputation, I felt that they were the best at what they do and had complete trust in their service. Unfortunately, after learning first hand how they treat their customers, their “total protection” turned out to be little more than a protection racket and I can promise you that I’ll never spend another dime on the company again.

My problem occurred late last year, ironically just 2 weeks before my anti-virus package was up for renewal. Since hackers tend to do a pretty good job of staying ahead of the curve, it’s always been important to me to update my software as promptly as possible. Whenever McAfee would release new virus definitions, it was a no brainer to install them. Because McAfee had earned my complete trust, I never thought twice about the possibility of them sneaking malware into one of these updates.

Yet, after approving one such “recommended update”, I was dismayed to find an obnoxious button with the McAfee logo sitting at the top of my internet browser. Without every clearly explaining what they were doing, McAfee had installed a Siteadvisor toolbar directly on my internet explorer browser. Since I’m particular about how my browser is customized and since I was already aware of the Siteadvisor service, I wasn’t very happy about giving up valuable real estate on my screen to someone who I had paid money to. Worse yet, one of the proprietary programs that I use for my work had a conflict with their program making the situation completely unacceptable.

Being a little bit computer savvy, I figured it would be easy enough to disable or uninstall the update, but no matter what I tried, I simply could not get this button off of my browser. Over the years, I’ve had to deal with my fair share of malware and unwanted viruses and while there have been times where it took a bit of effort and research to get rid of these obnoxious predators, I’ve never had this much difficulty zapping an unwanted visitor before. If you search the web, you’ll find a ton of other people asking about how to remove it and a lot of answers telling them just to give up.

Here’s a good example of what other people’s experience with the program has been like.

” one good reason to remove it, is because the damn thing is a nightmare to remove and anything that evasive when it comes to uninstalling usually means it a bad thing. I’ve had less trouble getting rid of nasty virus’, therefor i consider it just as bad as a virus, because a user should have the right to remove their software, (and if its near impossible to remove, i’ve gotta wonder what else it upto that it shouldn’t be). I originally wanted to just remove stie adviser and keep the rest of my McAfee package, I’ve now uninstalled all of it in an atempt to get rid of it, and will never trush McAfee again, after relying on their antvirus for years. Its so bad i’m now resorting to formatting my shiny new laptop, which is less than ideal as I have to now try and hunt down all my drives. I’ve tried repeatedly to uninstall it in various ways I have Vista with IE7, I originally tried using the McAfee uninstaller, I have since removed it no less the 15 times using add or remove programs, even filled in their sodding questionair to why I removed it over and over again, but every time I open internet explorer it re-installs itself without my permission and leaves it it in a domant state, poping up a window saying it has been updated and wanting me to re-activate it every single time I open a new internet explorer window or tab, which as you can imagin is unbelievably annoyng. any surgestions about getting rid of it for good would be welcome?”

It would be one thing, if McAffee’s software was freeware and they choose to migrate to an ad supported model, but since I had paid for multiple copies of their software, having an ad forced on me was tacky at best. After conditioning me to always trust their updates, they took advantage of that trust by sneaking in a payload on an unsuspecting customer.

What really made this situation so infuriating though, wasn’t the mix-up with their unwanted malware or even the nefarious way that they choose to distribute this piece of software, it was what happened when I called the company for customer support.

After taking a look at the account, I was informed that since it had been more than 90 days after my purchase of a 2 year product, that McAfee wanted me to pay them a “service fee” before they’d be willing to help with my issue 8O

Even when I asked to speak with a manager to discuss this policy, the rep flat out refused to transfer the call and told me that he wasn’t going to continue the conversation until I paid them the fee.

Over the years, many computer users have been tricked into a scam where they unwittingly download a piece of software that then tells them their machine is infected or at risk of a virus. While many viruses want to stay hidden, these programs want you to know about them because they then aggressively offer to sell you the antidote for getting rid of them. Not only is this behavior unethical, but it’s even considered illegal. In fact, just last month the FBI warned consumers about this very type of scareware and said that they think these scams have cost internet users over $150 million in bogus charges.

Now I can understand why McAfee is reluctant to help people troubleshoot their computers, especially when you may have installed a tricky virus or trojan file, but when their very own software uses sneaky and underhanded methods to place an ad on every web page you visit, I feel they owe it to their CUSTOMERS to help them get rid of this unwanted behavior. While they may have a good reputation within the anti-virus community, by requiring customers to pay an extra fee to get rid of THEIR unwanted software, they are essentially trying to extort money from the very people who are buttering their bread already.

McAfee may try to argue that they are only trying to protect their customers with a security enhancement, but I believe that their behavior is no different than what these scareware companies are trying to pull off.

Ultimately, the only way that I was able to get rid of this annoyance was to do a complete reinstall on my computer and to wipe out a lot of data in the process. Spending 3 – 4 hours to reformat my system and reinstalling my programs may sound like a lot of fun :roll: , but as a small business owner it cost me valuable time and money, that could have been spent more efficiently.

Since McAffee has built their business around a program where updating the software is a crucial part of the service, I don’t believe that it’s unreasonable for consumers to expect to have a hassle free experience when they are getting the most recent data files. Nor do I think that it’s unreasonable to expect a minimal level of technical support when it’s their own program that is causing the issue.

If you search the internet, it’s clear that these problems have been going on for a long time, but instead of dealing with them, McAfee continues to abuse customers who would prefer not to see an ad at the top of their browser. While this scheme may net their shareholders a little bit more in profits and a lot more in extra traffic to their Siteadvisor website, it’s also cost them at least one small, but irritated customer.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Subscribe To HBO

HBO NY OfficeHBO may stand for Home Box Office, but it may as well be Hates Being Online given their objections to internet video. According to Time Warner, HBO has over 40 million subscribers and while this lucrative revenue stream allows them to produce some of the most compelling content on television, it also gives them an extraordinary amount of influence on the entertainment industry. Not only is the company owned by one of the major studios, but because of the billions that they take in each year, they’ve been able to outbid small nimble start-ups for access to content. Instead of using this power for good though, they’ve chosen to fight against consumer’s interests by restricting your ability to watch digital content that you’ve legally purchased.

With consumers clearly wanting to access content online, one would think that HBO would be the first in line to embrace this trend, but because of their status quo, they’ve chosen to fight progress instead of helping to usher in the digital age.

Over the last two years, a group of digital and traditional media companies have formed an impressive collective known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). This diverse group of firms includes firms ranging in diversity from Sony to DivX. While each company has their own agenda, the goal of the group is to try and create a media framework that allows consumers to purchase downloadable media and to play it on a wide range of consumer electronic devices.

While I do think that there are some problems with their proposed implementation, I’m also pragmatic enough to see this consortium as our best chance of furthering the internet video revolution. To date, media companies have fought digitization tooth and nail, but this co-op between Hollywood and the Silicon Valley could create an environment where more new release content is made available to the public.

Anyone whose used Netflix’s Watch Instantly program knows that there is a ton of content from the 1980′s, but very few titles from the last decade. One of the biggest reasons for this, is that companies like HBO have used their vast financial resources to outbid them and other digital players for these films. With studios scared to death of upsetting deep pocket partners like HBO, it’s created an environment where consumers must either pirate recent content, set an appointment to see TV or stick to watching it on a disc.

While, HBO has made some of their content available through Comcast’s TV anywhere initiative, it’s only includes their weakest titles and you must be a cable subscriber to get access to the content. Contrast this to Showtime’s digital experiments and it’s clear that HBO is standing in the way of progress.

Like Netflix’s Watch Instantly platform, DECE has proposed a system where consumers can store their media content in the cloud and then stream it whenever (and more importantly wherever) they want to view the film. Yet, according to the industry trade publication, The Wrap (via Inside Redbox), HBO isn’t a fan of this system and is actively trying to block it’s implementation. Since they insist on legal language in their contracts that prevent consumers from accessing digital content while it’s playing on their channel, it’s possible that you could purchase a film and then be blocked from seeing it while it’s playing on HBO.

Imagine paying a steep premium to see a recently released film and then being told that you can’t watch it on certain dates, just because HBO is afraid that you might not subscribe to their channel. Clearly, this isn’t in the interests of consumers and yet HBO is using their financial resources to try and create this very scenario.

“Paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year for output deals with Warner, Fox and Universal, HBO currently restricts these studios from distributing their films digitally during its exclusive pay-TV window. Typically, that window starts six months after a film debuts on DVD and extends for 18 months. It already has presented itself as a challenge for established download sellers including iTunes and Netflix.”

HBO is free to run their business anyway that they like, but I believe that policies that are downright hostile to consumers should not go unpunished. Because of this, I’m asking HBO subscribers to call your cable company and cancel the channel. I know that this may mean giving up some great content, but if HBO starts to feel the sting from a consumer backlash, perhaps they’ll rethink their position and start to embrace the digital revolution. Currently, only 3% of the entertainment industry’s revenue come from online, but if just 3% of HBO’s subscribers were to cancel service, it would have a profound effect on the company’s profitability.

For too long, consumers have been abused by these exclusivity agreements and if you sit back and allow them to walk all over you, then you’re only part of the problem. Instead of rewarding an outdated analog business model, we need to be demanding that studios and their partners join the 21st century and make their content available online.

How Real Time Search Could Drive Traffic Offline

More ShopsFrom the first moment that I tried the internet, I was instantly hooked. After signing up for a “free” dial-up AOL membership, I remember getting my phone bill and being shocked at over $300 worth of local toll charges. Being 15 miles outside of civilization, I should have known that I was paying by the minute, but honestly I didn’t really think about how much time I was online. After that, I was more careful, but still paid more for that connection each month, then I pay for broadband today. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that time was spent, it was the ability to find information on topics that I really cared about that kept me clicking to all hours of the night.

When e-commerce started to become a reality, some were nervous about trying new companies online, but I had no reservations about being one of the first ones in online. While I still miss my Webvan and deliveries, no one can say that I didn’t do my part to support the shift from bricks to clicks. Given my preference for the online experience, it would be easy to conclude that for traditional retailers, I’m a lost cause. Yet, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the biggest weaknesses of the online experience. For as fast as all those ones and zeros move, when it comes to instant gratification, you still need to wait a few days to receive most purchases.

While I do tend to plan ahead, there are times where I’m willing to pay a premium to have something right away and while it’s easy to transport media over broadband connections, when it comes to physical goods, you typically have to wait for UPS or the post office to stop by. This is a huge advantage for traditional retailers, but it’s one that I don’t believe that they are leveraging enough. Certainly, they do their best to draw traffic into their stores, but if they want to court the internet generation, they’ll need to use technology to better highlight this advantage.

Recently, I was in the mood for a little bit of world domination, so I set my sights on a lengthy game of Axis and Allies. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, it’s a complex simulation of world war two that is a ton of fun and can take all night to play. While there are digital versions of the game, it can’t fully replicate the real world experience of the board game.

It may have only taken me 10 seconds to find a copy of the game online, but when it came to finding out which local retailers carried the game, it was almost impossible to find. After a half a dozen phone calls to all of the usual suspects, I finally tracked down a copy that was over 40 miles away :(

In this case, I was so motivated to play the game that night, that I begrudgingly made the long journey to get it that day. While real time search has seen huge improvements over just the last year alone, when it comes to searching retail inventory, it’s almost unheard of to be able to check availability before driving to a store (let alone to be able to get that information in real time.) Yet, many companies employ expensive sophisticated inventory management software, that allows them to know exactly what’s sitting on their shelves, what’s being delivered via truck and what needs to be ordered pronto, just so that it can be restocked in time.

Despite this wealth of information though, unless you’re an employee inside of one of these companies, the data more or less doesn’t exist to the public. While there may be some competitive reasons to keep sensitive inventory data out of the hands of the public, I think that retailers are missing a golden opportunity to use that real time inventory data to draw online adopters like myself, back into their real world stores.

In the case of my situation, I would have gladly paid 50% more for the game, if I could have found it within 10 miles. Instead of being to forced to compete by heavy discounting, local stores could compete using their greatest advantage, the instant gratification that the internet simply can’t provide.

While i don’t expect that we’ll see this void filled in the near term, I do think that the firms who sell real time inventory solutions could easily become the next Google, by negotiating to list their client’s information online. Not only would retailers be able to charge different prices based upon distance or availability, but they could allow consumers to reserve and purchase the item before they even got in their car. If one of these real time inventory firms could get just a handful of major players to participate, it wouldn’t take long before real time inventory software went from being an efficient. but expensive luxury to a lucrative revenue source for their clients.

Cut The Cable and Free Your TV

HDTVoA couple of months back, I received my monthly bill from Comcast and almost had a heart attack. Over the course of one month, my bill went up over 50% and while I’ll admit to loving TV more than your average bear, after years of fee increases, it became hard to justify paying over $50 a month for the small handful of channels that I actually watch.

When I called Comcast to inquire about the increase, they told me that instead of extending their “promo” deals like they have in the past, they would rather lose my business than extend my discounted rate. After much hand wringing, I finally decided to cut the cord and figured I could always go back.

Sure enough, less than one week after discontinuing my cable TV service, Comcast had a change of heart and sent out a 12 month promo offer bundled with internet. While the deal looked tempting, I didn’t want to keep trying to play musical chairs when it came to how much I paid for television and I didn’t particularly appreciate Comcast’s policy of screwing existing customers until you actually quit. At first, I tried going cold turkey and figured I’d have withdrawals, but much to my surprise, I found that I didn’t really miss cable TV all that much.

Thanks to sites like Netflix, Megavideo, Amazon and Hulu, it was easy to stay up to date via the laptop and with less distractions, I found that I was actually accomplishing a lot more in my life.

Over the holidays, it became clear that cable TV simply wasn’t offering a very good value for what they were providing. In the past, there’s been talk of allowing consumers to subscribe to channels a la carte, but Comcast has consistently resisted offering this to consumers. As much as my laptop provided a reasonable solution for finding content though, I still felt like I was missing out on the high definition experience that I had grown to love, so after the holidays were over, I purchased an Audiovox HDTVo antenna to see what kind of free OTA signals I could get.

In the past, I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews on HD antenna’s, so I half expected that I’d be taking the product back, but despite a few difficulties in getting it set up, I couldn’t be more pleased with the reception that I’m getting.

When I was a kid, we had a giant antenna mounted on top of our house. Not only was it ugly, but every time a storm blew in, we’d lose all reception. On the good days, we were lucky to get three channels and even then it was intermittent with static. While the price for OTA signals hasn’t changed any, technology sure has.

Not only did my Audiovox antenna allow me to pick up signals that were over 50 miles away from my house, but they provided the signals with incredible clarity. No static, no glitches, just pure high definition goodness. When you throw in the ability to time shift my programs with my TiVo, it creates a remarkable user experience.

In comparing my season passes from cable to post-cable, I found out that there are approximately 15 programs that I’m missing out on. Of those programs, 10 of them are available through Hulu or Netflix. While I do miss some of the Laker games that are broadcast on ESPN and some of the original programing on USA and TBS, with over 45 programs being recording each week, there is more than enough high quality content to keep me busy. If you throw in Netflix’s watch instantly integration via the TiVo, there are another 250 movies or shows that I’ve got waiting in my queue.

While my overall impression of the AudioVox HDTVo antenna was positive, there were a few drawbacks. While the antenna is fairly small, it does look a little obnoxious sitting on my roof. Because of the location of the broadcast towers, in order to capture the signals I could only install it on one side of my house. This makes it hard to camouflage from the neighbors and could present problems to those who live next to tall trees or buildings.

Another difficulty that I had was that the installation instructions were very poorly written. They referred you to web addresses that didn’t exist, didn’t provide the names of each part, but referenced the parts like you were supposed to already know what they were and when I first hooked it up to my TV, I couldn’t get any signals because by five year old HDTV did not include an HD receiver inside of it. Luckily, My HDTiVo did and was able to translate the signals perfectly. I also thought that the name HDTVo was a little bit deceptive and made it seem like this was a product designed specifically for TiVo. While I’m not sure that it would amount to a trademark violation, I do think that the way they’ve chosen to market the antenna could lead to a bit of confusion on the part of consumers.

Despite my frustration setting it up though, the final experience exceeded my expectations and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the product to anyone who are looking for a way to save money on their television. At $65, it takes about 5 weeks before it becomes cheaper than paying Comcast for lackluster service and when you consider that you can save over $600 in the first year that you use it, the savings can add up pretty quick.

That $600 could be spent on two movies a night from Redbox or a Blockbuster rental every other day and I’d still end up ahead. While antennas in the past may have been a disappointment, the new generation of digital antennas make it easy to cut the cord and make it awfully hard to justify the expense of pay television. I don’t expect that we’ll see everybody cancel their cable bill, but if enough people begin to take advantage of this type of equipment, hopefully we’ll see some of the cable companies begin to rethink their fee increases.