There are few industries that can claim to have been disrupted by the Internet as much as the media industry has. In the span of a couple decades they’ve gone from having fine grained control over what content goes where to a world that’s keenly aware of what’s available and will take it if it’s not given to them at the right price. At the same time however we’re far more likely to spend more than we would have done in the media world of the past, just that now we’re asking for much more value for our money. This back and forth battle between the Internet’s innate ability to break down geographical barriers and the rights holder’s business models that rely on them ultimately leaves both sides feeling hard done by, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The latest shot fired in this battle comes in the form of Netflix cracking down on subscribers that use VPN services to circumvent their geographical restrictions. For countries where the Netflix service is available this is usually done to access the broader catalogue but for places like Australia it’s necessary just to access the service at all. Indeed the user figures for Australia are pretty strong, enough so that a blanket ban on VPN users would see Netflix lose millions of dollars per month in subscriber revenue. The rights holders don’t seem to be to phased about this however likely thinking that we’ll revert to the other, far more expensive, options when our Netflix is taken away from us.
However that’s likely to be the last thing that any of the current Australian Netflix subscribers would do. You see setting up a VPN to get Netflix to work is, whilst not exactly hard, a non-trivial affair, requiring just as much technical know how to set up as your average piracy enabling client. Thus when their legitimate source of media is cut off from them they’ll likely turn to the illegitimate sources, either their old haunts of Usent and Bittorrent or the new world of media piracy provided through Popcorn Time. I honestly don’t know how you’d expect anything different especially considering that Australia consistently rates as the highest consumer of illegitimate media worldwide.
These kinds of idiotic decisions are driven by business models that are simply no longer viable in the Internet driven world. Sure, back in the days when physical media was king there was an argument to be made for this style of business however now, when digital media reigns supreme, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not likely consumers are unwilling to pay for it, indeed the hundreds of thousands of Netflix subscribers in Australia is testament to that, it’s that the companies that hold the rights to that media are simply unwilling to provide it. It’s been shown time and time again that should no reasonable cost alternative be provided users will simply turn to other sources and won’t stop until such a service materializes.
Not that it really matters what Netflix, or any other service for that matter, does to try and block people it’s only a matter of time until someone figures out how to defeat the detection methods used, allowing everyone to use it once again. This is a game of cat and mouse that no service provider can win as there are far more individuals out in the Internet’s ether working to crack such schemes than Netflix has to create them. I’m sure eventually the rights holders will come around and give up this crusade to protect their outdated business models but until then things like this are just going to cost them paying consumers and swell the ranks of those filthy pirates who won’t give them one red cent.
For the longest time large media and entertainment companies have been competing against pirates by any way they deem necessary. For games they lavish on restrictive DRM schemes, giving us only limited installs and mandating Internet access before we’re allowed to play. For music, movies and TV shows us Australians seem to be relegated to the backwaters of delayed releases at prices that are cemented in decades old thinking when it actually did cost a lot to ship stuff to us. The pirates then have been offering a service that, put simply, were far more attractive than their legitimate counterparts and this is why it continues to be such a big problem today. A few companies have got the right idea though and surprisingly one of them is our very own Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
For uninitiated ABC has long had a pretty darn good service called iView, an on demand streaming service akin to the BBC’s iPlayer. For PlayStation 3 owners in Australia we’re also lucky enough to have a dedicated link to it on our cross media bar, making it quite painless to use. If you also happen to be on Internode all the traffic to iView is unmetered as well meaning you can stream a good section of the entire ABC back catalogue for nothing. When a couple of my favourite shows were on there (Daily Show, Colbert Report) I used it quite often as I could just browse the list and then hit play, nothing more was required. The service has gone down hill as of late as they don’t keep entire back catalogues up for very long (I think it was about 6 episodes per show, usually for a time after they had aired) but the idea behind it is very solid.
News comes today though that they’re doing some quite extraordinary: putting up episodes of Doctor Who online right after they’re shown in the UK, a week before they’re shown in Australia:
In an Australian first, the new adventures of Amy, Rory and The Doctor will be available on the ABC’s iView player from 5.10am AEST on Sunday September 2, just hours after the first episode airs in the UK.
The show will then reappear in the future, on ABC1at 7:30pm the following Saturday, September 8.
ABC1 controller Brendan Dahill said the decision to air the show online before television was motivated by a desire to reduce piracy, as well as fulfill the needs of drooling Whovians, who have waited almost a year for the new series.
Indeed the biggest complaint that many people had regarding the Doctor Who series was that even if it was available in their region it was often significantly delayed. The Doctor Who fans are a rabid bunch and being out of sync with the greater community is something that many of them couldn’t bear and so turned to pirated solutions. Offering up the episodes at nearly the same time will go a long way to turn those pirating users into viewers that can be monetized in some way, although how that will be given ABC’s lack of commercial interests remains to be seen. The producers of Doctor Who must be in on this however so I’m sure there’s something in it for them.
I think it’s quite commendable that ABC has decided to tackle piracy in this way instead of trying to take more draconian measures, as is the usual route. Whilst it won’t stop pirating entirely it will go a long way to making the ABC’s offering that much more desirable. I’m sure they could up the ante significantly by opening up their entire back catalogue for a nominal fee but I’m not sure what kinds of regulations they’re under, being a government funded initiative and all. I might not be an ongoing customer but I could see myself buying a month here or there when a I got interested in a series they had.
This is the future that media giants should be looking towards. Instead of trying to force the pirates further underground they need to make their offerings better than what they can get elsewhere. iView is a great example of that and they really are only a couple steps away from beating the pirate option in almost every respect. Hopefully this spurs the other commercial stations to do similar and then Australia won’t be the pirate ridden media backwater that it has been for the past couple decades.
There’s no question now that the hot thing for any company to do is to make some kind of software that has a social component to it, and why wouldn’t you. If your product is based around friends (and not really friends) interacting with each other then the marketing really does itself, so long as your product is somewhat useful or novel. It’s getting to the point where once a service has been around for a while they will inevitably either integrate with Facebook or build in their own social networking components, usually to keep driving the user numbers upwards. No company seems to be immune to this, even my fledgling little application allows you to login via Facebook, except for one: Microsoft. Despite the social revolution that seems to be rampaging on around them Microsoft has quietly kicked back letting others duke it out for social supremacy. For a company that’s renowned for throwing money around in order to gain market share in pretty much every IT related area their silence on the social scene is quite eerie, verging on the point of them knowing something the rest of us don’t.
For the most part their strategy seems to have been one of going along with the current trend of integrating their products with the current social giants. Their MSN Messenger product was just recently updated with a new beta that had Facebook integration. Already it’s garnered a healthy 4.6 million users or approximately 1% of Facebook’s user base. That might not sound like much but considering that it’s still in beta and the current incarnation of the Live product has well over 330 million users you can expect that a lot of people are going to be getting their Facebook fix from Microsoft. Additionally many Outlook users would be familiar with their new Social Connector which is in essence a social network for businesses and has been getting some traction due to its integration with Sharepoint and the Office suite of products.
Still there’s no Microsoft Social Network (MSN? Ha!) to be found, so what’s the deal?
Part of the answer would seem to lie in the past. Rewind back about 3 years and you’ll come across a flurry of articles speculating on a bidding war between Microsoft and Google for a piece of the next hottest thing: Facebook. Surprisingly enough Microsoft won out in the end managing to secure a small share of the company for a cool $240 million, or 1.6% stake. This was a continuation of the relationship that they had established previously when Microsoft secured an advertising deal with Facebook just one year earlier. Still it was an odd move for Microsoft as the investment was peanuts for them (They had over $23 billion in cash on hand, yes cash) and realistically even if the company went to IPO and they got a 10x exit from it you’re still only looking at $2.4 billion dollars for a company who turns that over in about 2 weeks, so it was more a foot in the door than anything else. Their recent integration activities with Facebook also shows that they’re more keen to work with them rather than try to push them out of the market.
Strangely enough it looks like Microsoft actually did try to compete with Facebook all those years ago. I’ll admit I didn’t know about this when I first starting writing this post, I came across it in my research, but it appears that in response to Facebook going open to all back in 2006 Microsoft retaliated by launching their own site Wallop:
Seattle-based Microsoft Corp.‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) spin off Wallopsaid Tuesday it was starting service. It’s a site intended to compete head on with MySpace and Facebook. Wallop starts with $13 million in backing from Microsoft, Norwest Venture Partners, Bay Partners and Consor Capital.
Considering that I’ve never heard of this site it’s not surprising that it never managed to get off the ground. Checking out the wiki page on the service it appears that they left their lofty ambitions behind back in 2008 instead focusing on developing applications for social networks rather than trying to compete with them. This it would seem is the reason behind Microsoft’s curious lack of a real social network. They tried, they failed and then realised that there was more to be done with them than against them. This really is contrary to their normal kind of behaviour and I’m sure there’s an ulterior motive to this that I just can’t figure out.
Taking a wild stab in the dark I’d say that they just don’t think they can take the shine off Facebook’s crown. Microsoft really isn’t the kind of company you expect to make products and services like that, they’re more of an underlying services platform that will deliver those products to you. Considering this is where their main revenue line is drawn from it’s not surprising but it’s still one of the first times where it looks like Microsoft has just thrown in the towel and capitulated to the competition. It will be interesting to see how this maneuver pays off as Google starts to ramp up their efforts in the social space with a rumoured Google Me service starting to make waves on the Internet. I still think Microsoft will hang back on that one too, but there’s every chance they’re waiting for the market to segment a bit before attempting to jump back in to the social networking scene.
If there’s one trendthat I’ve noticed about any of the successful Internet businesses of the past decade or so is that they tend to be platforms on which others can build their business. Sure there are many highly successful companies that operate in a closed fashion but the trend towards a more open web is undeniable. Nearly every successful Internet based company allows some form of interoperability with the wider world allowing anyone to leverage the platform for their own purposes. Thus today for any fledgling start up the choice on whether or not to open up your service for others to use has already been made for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing.
There are many great examples of companies as a platform dating back to the early days after the dot com bust. One of the examples that sticks in my mind is eBay which started out as a simple way for anyone to sell their unwanted goods online. Quickly though people realised that eBay was in essence a cheap online shop front, much cheaper than many of the alternatives available at the time. This quickly snowballed and many niche businesses found their home on eBay using the brand to get exposure and the platform to grow a business that wouldn’t have been possible before.
The examples flow thick and fast for nearly all of the current Internet giants. Facebook has shown that whilst its core of replicating your friendship online remains it’s now a gaming platform and promotion network. Twitter owes quite a lot of success to its wide open API which has generated hundreds of quality applications, drove adoption of the service and makes it the de facto target for any Internet mash-up (even Geon!). So why does being an open platform do so much for driving adoption of a service?
Primarily it appears to be due to the amount of free development that one can receive by making their services available to developers. Twitter for the longest time didn’t have an official mobile application, arguably the killer app for something that’s based around short frequent updates. Still that didn’t mean there were a lack of clients available for it like Echofon, Tweetdeck and Brizzly. Opening up their API meant that they could focus more on improving the service and developing new ideas rather than having to spend additional resources bringing their platform to where it was needed. This forms a positive feedback loop that enables the underlying platform to improve whilst ensuring that it still remains relevant to its users.
Of course this all relies on the idea that your service provides something of value to your users. For a lot of companies the services that they provide start out closed off in order to ensure that it functions as expected. Early on development time is at a premium and the additional resources required to ensure the platform is stable can outweigh the potential benefits of doing so. However once a critical mass of users is crossed it makes sense to open it up in order to drive adoption. A great example of this is Gowalla who only recently released a full API after being available for about 2 years.
For someone like myself who is seeking Internet fame and stardom the idea of being a platform underpins many of the decisions I make when developing a service. You see whilst I may think I know what people might want there are so many things that I just don’t think of when I’m elbow deep in my code. In fact about half of the features in the current version of Geon have come just from talking the idea over with my friends and people who’ve been in the business for some time. Keeping my service open means that should an enterprising user find something lacking they’re able to build it hopefully bringing more users to my service and giving them a little Internet e-cred.
Does this mean that every service that isn’t a platform is doomed to failure? Absolutely not. There are many things where an open API simply isn’t required like if the company themselves provides products that cater to their user’s needs succintly. Still the writing is on the wall for those who build things on the Internet and the more open your application is the more likely it will be picked up by the wider world. Google VP Andy Rubin said it best with the words “Open usually wins” and the recent decade of the Internet seems to agree with him.
This morning, at 4:01am Australian Eastern Standard time the Shuttle Mission STS-125 blasted off on what is to be the last visit a human will ever make to the space telescope, Hubble. I’ll admit watching the lift off today left me a little teary eyed, as have many launches before. There’s one person though who I’m sure will be far more eager to see Hubble again then anyone else, astronaut Mike Massimino:
“I do actually get a chance to touch the Hubble and I can hug it when I get up there,” Massimino told SPACE.com in a phone interview. “Yeah, the Hubble is great.”
Massimino and the other members of the shuttle Atlantis’s STS-125 crew, led by commander Scott Altman, are due to lift off May 12. The astronauts plan an 11-day mission packed with five spacewalks to repair hardware and install equipment such as a new camera, gyroscopes and batteries. The upgrades should extend the observatory’s lifespan through at least 2013.
For Massimino, revisiting the telescope will be a trip down memory lane.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Hubble again,” he said. “I saw it seven years ago. I think it’s going to be really cool and I think it’s going to bring back a lot of memories, and remind me of emotions I had during the last flight that I forgot about or haven’t thought about in a long time.”
Reading this article last month really brought this mission home for me. Just imagining going up there once and seeing this impressive telescope back dropped by our beautiful blue marble of a planet would be enough for anyone. Going up a second time would be like going home to visit your old friends, something sure to stir the emotions and tug at the heart strings. Truly the astronauts on this mission are some of the most fortunate people, and I wish them as safe journey.
Hubble is about to receive 7 astronauts who will perform an intensive 11 day mission. This mission includes 5 intensive 6.5 hour back to back space walks as well as the routine of ensuring that the shuttle is capable of landing back on earth without incident. This is a routine procedure since the Columbia disaster back in 2003 and is the cause for one of the most amazing plans that NASA has put into place.
Current NASA policy dictates that should the shuttle suffer significant damage before it returns to earth, either by debris or otherwise, it must have a safe haven that it can go to whilst a rescue mission is prepared using another shuttle. Since the typical Shuttle mission is to the International Space Station this usually isn’t a problem, as the station can cater with the extended load for a moderate amount of time. Worst comes to worst they can always shuffle 3 of them off in the Soyuz life boat in order to reduce the load. Due to the high orbit required to get to Hubble (559KM above earth, the ISS is only 347KM) and the different orbital inclination (28.5 to 51.6 degrees) the energy required to perform such a manoeuvre, called a plane or orbtial inclination change, is extremely prohibitive. Therefore, they have a backup plan unlike anywhere else:
Should Atlantis not be able to safely return to earth Endeavour will be launched in order to rescue them. The mission itself is no small feat either, with a tricky set of manevours planned in order to get all the astronauts across safely. Whilst I don’t wish any harm on the astronauts I’d love to see this plan put into action, as it would be a testament to NASA’s prowess when it comes to operating in space.
Whilst this mission doesn’t have as much of a human element as trips to the ISS do it does hit close to home. Once this mission is over the astronauts up there will be the last to see Hubble in the flesh and I’m sure the departure will be a bitter-sweet moment for them, as it will for the rest of us.
Launch photo credit: NASA/Fletcher Hildreth, May 11, 2009
Twin shuttle photo credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com