Why Comcast is right to jam BitTorrent

The outrage continues over Comcast’s jamming of BitTorrent and other traffic on its cable network in the U.S. The company has tried to clarify its position by saying that it doesn’t block BitTorrent traffic, it merely “delays” it (and apparently some other traffic as well). As James Robertson and Cynthia Brumfield have pointed out, part of the problem is that Comcast isn’t being very forthcoming about what it is doing at all — in part because the company says it is afraid that providing too much detail will allow BitTorrent users to find a way around the network “shaping.”

I know that the popular position is to slam Comcast for telling users what to do with their network bandwidth, and I know my instinct is the same whenever my ISP talks about BitTorrent or bandwidth caps. But like most ISPs — and cellular carriers — Comcast has a “terms of service” agreement that allows it to restrict what users do with their accounts, so that whatever they’re doing doesn’t impact on others using the network. That’s a fact of life.

The big issue for ISPs is that p2p apps like Skype, Joost and BitTorrent can consume a huge amount of bandwidth. According to some estimates, 10 BitTorrent users on a network node can double the delays that other users experience — and as much as 60 per cent of the traffic on some networks is BitTorrent-related. That may not be a problem for BitTorrent users, but it could severely impact those using other applications on the same network.

Obviously it would be better if ISPs like Comcast or Rogers built out their networks to provide more bandwidth, and it would also be better if there were more competition in the Internet access business. But it’s hard to blame Comcast or anyone else for trying to make sure all of their customers get the service they deserve. Now if only the company would come out and say so.

MediaPost: Is print doomed or not?

Two pieces in the latest issue of MediaPost magazine take opposite views on the issue of print’s longevity (or lack thereof). One, by Adam Penenberg — who has written for Forbes, the New York Times and Wired magazine — argues that print will almost surely disappear over time, simply because digital content is so much more flexible. It can be consumed on PCs and on mobile devices, and it supports video and interactivity in a way that print doesn’t. Penenberg says:

“Print as a medium will ultimately fade away, just as parchment became paper, the typewriter gave way to the pc, and the waxed cylinder morphed into the record, then the compact disc, and now the digital download. The first to go will be newspapers, but over time magazines and even books will follow.”

The other piece, by David Zinczenko — editor of Men’s Health magazine — argues that print will always be with us, whether it’s magazines, newspapers or books. Why? Because, Zinczenko says, we like to display our intelligence or wealth or sense of taste to those around us, and we can only do that by displaying the covers of magazines, books and newspapers. As he puts it:

“Sharing The New York Times with overnight guests, reading Best Life on the shuttle, or taking Blink to the beach tells those who occupy our physical space something about who we are – our values, our priorities, our interests. They are outward expressions of our individuality, and their impact simply can’t be duplicated by an electronic medium.”

Unfortunately, that’s the entirety of Zinczenko’s argument — an argument that comes under withering fire from Gawker, and not without justification. The thing that’s going to save print is that people are so egotistical they will continue buying and reading books and magazines just to show off? That’s a pretty sad argument.

Apple knocks it out of the park

Like many people, I expected Apple’s results for the latest quarter to be good — after all, sales of the iPhone seem to be humming along (despite some early skepticism about the market’s response), and Mac sales also seem to keep climbing. But I must admit that I didn’t expect the company to blow the doors off. Profit up 67 per cent, revenue up almost 30 per cent — for a company with annual sales of almost $25-billion, that is an incredible performance. Analysts were expecting 85 cents a share in profit and Apple made $1.01. The company’s share price has more than doubled since the beginning of the year, but I would hazard a guess that it is going to go up some more.

Maybe people don’t really want UGC

The vision of social media as a vast, harmonious collective that both generates and consumes “user-generated content” is mostly a straw man set up by Web 2.0 critics so they can demolish it (yes, I’m looking at you, Nick Carr), but there’s no question that social media is built on the idea that there’s plenty of talent out there that traditional media isn’t letting you see.

But what if people don’t want to see some unknown singer or musician, no matter how talented they are? What if they really just want to see “celebrities,” regardless of whether they’re talented or not?

That’s the somewhat disturbing implication (to me at least) of ManiaTV’s decision to forego the “user-generated content” and go back to the site’s original model, which was distributing video that featured recognizable names and faces, including Canadian-born Tom Green (who later left the site to go solo from his living room, and recently signed a TV distribution deal).

According to Mania, the site’s user-generated content didn’t really drive much traffic. What people have really been coming to see, CEO Peter Hoskins says, are the “celebrities” — and that’s what advertisers wanted to be associated with as well (he likened user-generated content to “dumpster-diving for gold.”)

“People liked good quality entertainment and advertisers liked quality branded entertainment. Advertisers wanted to distance themselves as far as they possibly could from the user-generated content.”

This is one of the knocks against YouTube and similar sites, that advertisers won’t want to have their message appear alongside a clip of some kid hurting himself on a skateboard. The argument in favour has always been that such sites get so much traffic that advertisers would effectively have to put their ads there or risk missing a key demographic.

So was it just that ManiaTV’s content wasn’t any good, or are people not really that interested in user-generated content? There’s no question that plenty of content on YouTube gets viewed by millions of people, but perhaps they are the exception. What I find depressing is that people would prefer to watch “celebrities” like Tom Green and Dave Navarro instead of some more talented unknown.

Walt Mossberg goes for the jugular

Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s personal tech columnist, usually writes columns that are scrupulously fair, in which he takes issue with the flaws of a device (which he invariably gets before anyone else) but in a relatively diplomatic fashion — balanced by comments about the positive aspects of whatever it is that he’s reviewing. Not today though. Today, Walt seems to be mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more.

Maybe Walt is catching on to the spirit of the blogosphere, but his blog post at All Things D — which is about how cellular providers lock in their customers — is everything his WSJ columns aren’t: opinionated, even angry. But rightly so. His point is a simple one: Why are mobile carriers able to lock down their devices and prevent people from using them on other networks? As Walt notes, your PC doesn’t work with just one Internet service provider. The car company doesn’t prevent you from driving on certain roads. And yet, for some reason we have become complacent about the way that cellular contracts restrict our choices. And all because, as Walt puts it:

“A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now.”

Walt goes on to compare the cellular companies to the old Soviet ministries, who tried to coerce markets into operating the way they wanted them to, instead of adapting to the way that they functioned. And he also draws a straight line connecting their current behaviour with the way the early phone companies such as AT&T ran things, with phones that only connected using their network.

When it comes to the technology part of his argument, I’m not sure Walt is on such firm ground. While the U.S. choosing to allow multiple standards may have been wrong in the long run, mandating a single standard (as Europe did) would undoubtedly have caused a hue-and-cry about state control, even though it resulted in a market that increased consumer choice.

Mossberg also correctly notes, however, that the phone subsidies the carriers use to justify their customer lock-down practices are a sham — or rather, a circular argument. Phones are expensive (and therefore require subsidies) in part because consumers can’t buy and use them freely across different networks.

In any case, it’s nice to see Mossberg not pull any punches for once. Welcome to the blogosphere, Walt.

SFChronicle: Blogs can be businesses

The San Francisco Chronicle has a story about blogs as businesses, featuring comments from Mike Arrington of TechCrunch, Lisa Stone of BlogHer, Jon Callaghan of True Ventures (which is an investor in Om Malik’s GigaOm.com), Nick Denton of Gawker, John Battelle of Federated Media and Brian Sugar of PopSugar.com — the latter being one of the most successful blog networks, but not one that gets mentioned much because it’s mostly aimed at women.

Although there isn’t a huge amount in the story that we haven’t read in previous profiles of Mike and other professional bloggers (including one in BusinessWeek, which featured the infamous photo of Mike lighting a cigar with $100 bills), there are a few tidbits, including the fact that TechCrunch now has a full-time staff of eight, it and various related blogs get 1.2 million visitors a month and the company makes about $240,000 in revenue per month. According to Mike, he has also walked away from four venture capital deals because:

“Every time we almost did a round (of financing), we grew so fast the terms didn’t make sense anymore.”

Nick Denton Of Gawker.com, meanwhile, does his typical modest-mouse routine, in which he argues that blogs really aren’t that great and while a few people might be scratching out a living he doesn’t see it amounting to much:

“A few self-sustaining blog media businesses do seem to have emerged… but they’re still minuscule by the standards of traditional media. And none have weathered a downturn. So it would be unwise to sound too triumphant.”

But my favourite quote of all goes to Brian Sugar, who has turned a blog he started with his wife into a network of 11 covering everything from fashion to health, with a staff of 56 people and five million visitors a month. Sequoia has invested $10-million and NBC has put in $5-million. Does Sugar want to sell? No. Why? “This may be a weird answer,” he said, “but I’m having way too much fun.”

CDBaby CEO comes clean on Snocap debacle

A few weeks ago, Snocap — the music 2.0 service that Shawn “Napster” Fanning co-founded after recovering from the wounds inflicted on him by the record industry — went down in flames, letting go 60 per cent of its staff and hanging a “for sale” sign on the door. Valleywag noted at the time that this came not long after the failure of a joint venture with CDBaby.

In the Valleywag post, CDBaby CEO Derek Silvers was quoted as saying that he would have more to say about the collapse of the deal at some point in the future — and that point arrived this weekend, when he wrote a long post describing what happened. To put it mildly, it sounds like a complete and utter train wreck.

Not only does it sound like Snocap couldn’t make up its mind what its business model was going to be, but according to Silvers’ description the company changed the terms of its deal with CDBaby.com after more than two years of negotiations, and effectively tried to do an end-run around the company in order to get artists to sell their songs through Snocap’s widgets on MySpace.

All the while, he describes a painfully dysfunctional relationship in which CDBaby had little control and Snocap couldn’t get its act together. No doubt there is another side to the tale, and perhaps Snocap or Fanning will be prepared to tell it at some point.

But the most damning part of Silvers’ post is the part about how much revenue the company saw from its deal with Snocap: a total of just $12,000 over eight months. And in just three weeks of having a “download mp3” button on its own stores — without even advertising it — CDBaby sold more than $110,000 worth of music. Ouch.

(On an unrelated note, CDBaby has one of the best “your order has been shipped” emails I’ve ever come across).

Mystery object: Candle-holder or gauge?

Maybe I have too much time on my hands, but I was fascinated by a post on BoingBoing yesterday about a mystery object that someone inherited from their grandmother, a metal contraption with three square supports (each with a circular hole in it) and a long articulated neck with two joints, ending in a point. The whole thing folds up into a square so as to be portable. BoingBoing writer Mark Frauenfelder posted it in order to get people’s thoughts about what it might be, and some of the answers are fascinating — in fact, I encourage you to read through them before jumping to the end to find out what it is. I actually thought some of the theories (there are more theories and pictures of the object here) were far more interesting than the reality.

Flock: Latest version is pretty sweet

I have to give the team at Flock a lot of credit. The browser — which is built on Mozilla code, but has all kinds of added social features — has been through hell and back over the past couple of years. First, the initial release was weak, and got dumped on by just about everyone. Then Performancing released an excellent blogging plugin for Firefox (now called ScribeFire), and my friend Paul Kedrosky said Flock was, well… fucked.

Since integration with blogs was one of the big features that Flock brought to the table, there seemed to be a good chance that Paul was right. But Flock kept on plugging away. Not long after that, Firefox announced that it was going to add social features through something called The Coop, and I wondered whether Paul was even more right than before. But The Coop didn’t really fly (sorry) and Flock kept on adding features and plugging away. Now, the company has come out with version 1.0 of the browser, and I have to say that it is pretty interesting. It’s not perfect, of course, but it has a bunch of cool features.

Not everyone is going to want a browser with all sorts of add-ons, including a media bar — which displays Flickr photos and other stuff — and a “People” sidebar with links to your Facebook and Flickr and YouTube friends and their content. Some may find all the different tools and windows confusing. But for the social-media junkie (yes I’m looking at you, Fred) it brings together a number of different social threads in an interesting way.

You can see Facebook updates and photos with a click, scroll through Flickr photos, drag and drop your own photos on a friend in your People sidebar to share them, post something to a blog and even use your sidebar as a notebook for future blog posts, dragging and dropping images and text to it. Mike Arrington is right that Flock should be able to upload images to a blog server rather than just to Flickr or Facebook, but that shouldn’t be too hard to do. And apart from that, Flock 1.0 is pretty sweet. Karoli likes it too.

Nick comes to the defence of TimesSelect

Never one to miss an opportunity to be contrarian — although Andrew “I Hate The Internet” Keen has stolen much of his Prophet of Doom act — Nick Carr has a post about the New York Times’ subscription service, TimesSelect, in which he dismisses criticism of the venture as the misguided rantings of “free content” ideologues like Jeff Jarvis.

Carr refers to a Financial Times piece about a study by Matthew Gentzkow, in which the economist looked at the competition between the Washington Post print edition and Web edition. As the FT column describes it, Gentzkow analyzed the readership data from both the print edition and the website and came to some conclusions about how much one cannibalized the other. Says the FT:

“[Gentzkow] found that people who had access to fast internet connections were, other things being equal, less likely to read the print edition. He found reasons to believe this was specifically because of access to washingtonpost.com, not to the Internet in general.”

What are the reasons he found to believe this? I read (or tried to read) the entire paper online, and I still don’t know, in part because of sentences like this one:

“Both reduced-form OLS regressions and a structural model without heterogeneity suggest that the print and online editions of the Post are strong complements.”

And that was in the early part of the paper, where Gentzkow was summarizing his findings — before he got to the part with the long calculus-type formulas and algorithms. At one point, the economist says that according to his research on the levels of substitution between the two products:

“Removing the [news website] from the market entirely would increase readership of [the newsaper] by 27,000 readers per day, or 1.5 per cent.”

He therefore concludes that the Post has lost $5.5-million in newspaper revenue as a result of providing its news online for free. Does that make any sense? It might to an economist, but I would argue his thesis fails the reasonability test. If the washingtonpost.com website were to disappear or be locked behind a pay wall tomorrow, does anyone really think that 27,000 people would suddenly go out and start reading the paper edition?

Gentzkow clearly does. I think they would be more likely to just go elsewhere for their news, such as Google News or Yahoo News or MSNBC or CNN. It might be tempting — and make for a much simpler business case — to argue that a product like the Post competes primarily with its own website, and vice versa, but I don’t think that is the way things work.

A pay wall for the Post or the Times or any other paper simply blocks people out who then go elsewhere (my friend Rob Hyndman has more on that angle). That’s not a religious view, as Nick would like to portray it — in fact, I would argue that it’s a lot more “rational” than Gentzkow’s analysis. And I’m pleased to see that Fred Wilson appears to agree with me.