Can TiVo change its stripes?

Personal video recorder company TiVo Inc. said Monday that it plans to roll out a new feature that will allow users to choose certain commercials, based on keywords, and then have them inserted into TV shows that they have recorded with their TiVo (Dave Zatz has a description of how this would work, taken from a patent application by TiVo).

That might sound a little odd considering one of the main benefits of having a TiVo is that you can fast-forward through the commercials, but it’s obvious that the PVR company is trying to find new revenue sources and is willing to consider just about anything. This new feature sounds a lot like an attempt to create a kind of Google AdWords model, but with TV instead of the Internet.

Is that even possible? Carl Howe, a former Forrester Research consultant, says he thinks it is “a brilliant idea,” — the Googlization of TiVo, he calls it (he goes even further to say that he sees Google buying TiVo because of the information it will be able to collect based on its new advertising model). Others disagree.

Om Malik, for example, notes that paying users of TiVo — who are already paying for something that others can get for virtually nothing through the PVR offered by their cable company — might be less than enamoured with the new service. AdWords works for Google because its main service is not only free, but is so useful that people don’t mind having ads served to them, not to mention the fact that the act of searching is more closely aligned with targeted ads than, say, the act of watching CSI:Miami.

Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek is also skeptical, as is Cynthia Brumfield from IPDemocracy. And I would have to say I am too — TiVo’s move seems more like a Hail Mary pass by a struggling company than anything else.

Flickr vs. Webshots

Thomas Hawk, a Flickr fan who writes a technology blog at thomashawk.com, recently linked to an interesting post by Norwegian engineer and blogger Eirik Solheim, who compared Flickr — the former Vancouver-based photo site that is now part of the Yahoo empire — with Webshots, a photo site that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

A chart mapping the traffic patterns from both sites (courtesy of Alexa.com) is quite instructive, in that Webshots has been going steadily downward in terms of “daily reach” while Flickr has been going steadily upwards. Flickr is about to pass Webshots, and the site hasn’t even been in existence for two years.

As both Thomas and Eirik note, this is likely because Flickr is a much better example of a “Web 2.0” service. In other words, it does a better job of taking advantage of the interactive Web. It is easy to use, it has a simple interface with not a lot of cluttered advertising, and it emphasizes community through the use of tags, groups, comments, contacts and so on — not to mention RSS feeds for everything and an open API. A lesson to be learned, and not just for photo sites.

Update:

Narendra Rocherolle, one of the founders of Webshots, has taken issue with the Web 2.0-style comparison between that company and Flickr for a number of reasons, including the fact that he says Photobucket is also growing just as quickly as Flickr and is not a Web 2.0 company. Leaving aside the “what is Web 2.0” question, I would argue that Photobucket is growing because it also encourages sharing (or distributing), just in a different way than Flickr — and both do so in ways that Webshots doesn’t. That is the important point, I think.

Update 2:

A story from Associated Press makes a similar point about Mapquest, although you have to read between the lines. Mapquest is the most popular map site, but is facing increasing competition from Google — in part because of features such as satellite images (which Mapquest used to have, but got rid of because it didn’t think they were useful) but also because it doesn’t have an open API. That means if you want to do “mash-ups” like beerhunter.ca you have to use Google, and I would argue that is a crucial difference — not just in useability, but in the way the two companies are structured — and that in turn ultimately affects how attractive the service is.

Wired editor says RSS rules

Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson — also the author of a book on the so-called “long-tail” phenomenon — has an interesting post on his blog, in which he notes that he spends most of his time reading the 150 blogs he subscribes to, and only reads something in a mainstream media outlet if a blog he is reading links to one. “If there’s something relevant to my interests in the Wall Street Journal, the daily NYT or some other news site, I assume one of the blogs I read will point me to it,” he says.

That could cause a sort of echo-chamber type of problem, of course (what if those other blog writers don’t read any mainstream media outlets either?). In any case, Chris says he reads blogs because they add something to the regular news or idea flow, in one of three ways: they add value with “a unique perspective or analysis,” they add it with unique information, or they add value by “providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere,” (which sounds a little like number one).

As he points out, this is not just a smart strategy for blogs, “it’s a smart strategy for any content creator in an era where the tools of production and distribution are fully democratized and the marketplace is flooded with commodity competition.” I couldn’t agree more. And that applies in spades to newspapers and magazines, media formats that have been dying a slow death for the past 20 years, long before the Internet became a phenomenon. All the Web has done is to make the process more obvious, and speed up the rate of decay.

The reason Chris likes blogs is because they filter the news in all sorts of interesting ways, giving you dozens of different viewpoints — like having a newspaper edited by a whole pile of different people, instead of just one or two. And it gives it to you in “micro-chunks,” as VC Fred Wilson calls them. That’s appealing in all kinds of ways — ways that a newspaper isn’t.

Blog ads’ mainstream appeal

If you happen to run into a newspaper editor or publisher and they look a little dazed, or seem to be frantically checking over their shoulders, they have good reason — the interactive Web and specifically Web advertising (which grew by about 34 per cent last quarter) are creeping up on them with ever-increasing speed. If you want to rub it in, just show them an article that ran in the New York Times this week, all about a major advertising campaign that Budget Rent-A-Car ran — something that would normally have appeared in a newspaper.

And where did it appear instead? On about 177 blogs, including Gizmodo.com and Buzzmachine.com. The guy in charge of the campaign, Scott Deaver, said that what is “most valuable about nontraditional media like blogs is their ability to ‘actively engage the consumer’ compared with ‘passive TV spots’ and other traditional choices.” Plus, the Budget campaign cost about $20,000 — which wouldn’t buy you much in either a newspaper or on television. Budget chose the blogs by searching Technorati.com for blogs that got a lot of traffic and were updated regularly.

Blogs: shallow and egotistical?

Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com — the guy who wrote a critical and much-cited post earlier this year about the amorality of Web 2.0 — is up to his old skeptical tricks again in a recent post entitled “Jellybeans for breakfast.”

In it, he writes about how blogosphere proponents like to think of what they are doing as a deep, Socratic dialogue on issues — but Nick says that “experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning – skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep. It’s impressionistic, not contemplative. Fun? Sure. Invigorating? Absolutely. Socratic? I’m not convinced. Preferable to the old world? It’s nice to think so.”

He goes on to say that “for all the self-important talk about social networks, couldn’t a case be made that the blogosphere, and the internet in general, is basically an anti-social place, a fantasy of community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect? Sometimes, it seems like we’re all climbing up into our own little treehouses and eating jellybeans for breakfast.” Agree or disagree? I can see Nick’s point — and it’s true that blogging can sometimes deteriorate into a clubby exercise in mutual back-patting, about issues of interest to small group of geeks.

I would have to agree with some of the comments on his post, however (including one from Seth Finkelstein), which argue that many readers of the MSM (mainstream media) have just as shallow a relationship with what they are reading. At least blogs encourage discussion. It’s up to us to ensure that the discussion is worthwhile.

Is downloading theft?

While browsing my RSS feeds using the Ajax-y goodness of netvibes, I came across a post made by Toronto-based venture capitalist Rick Segal, who is a partner with J.L. Albright Ventures — a VC group that has investments in Q9 Networks, Nuvo Networks and FUN Technologies (which just sold control to Liberty Media for $195-million). The post was a response to one from Fred Wilson, another VC based in New York City, who was writing about peer-to-peer networks and the music industry and how the two should get together in the interest of serving customers such as himself.

Rick took Fred to task for saying that he had no problem with downloading music if he couldn’t find it somewhere legally, and said this made him a lost customer rather than a thief. Rick said this was disingenuous, however, and used this metaphor: “The clerk went in the back room, I couldn’t wait so I took the candy bar but if the guy had been at the counter I would have gladly paid for it. Extreme example? Yes, but it is to make the point. Let’s just call it what it is.” In other words: theft.

But is Rick right? I don’t think so — and the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with me. In a ruling in 1985, they specifically said that copyright infringement is not the same as theft because the “thief” does not “assume physical control over copyright, nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.” In other words, the candy-bar example — not to mention the entire concept of music “piracy” — tries to take legal concepts that pertain to physical objects and apply them to creative works that have no physical attributes, in the sense that they cannot be “taken” the way a candy bar can be taken.

In the case of someone like Fred downloading music, the only loss that can be shown (and then only theoretically) is the loss of a potential customer. Some copyright experts have even argued that downloading should fall under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, the same way listening to the radio does. In any case, I would have to disagree with Rick and argue that Fred is right to say he is more of a lost customer than a thief. A copyright infringer, perhaps, but not a thief.

Hey look — we’re winning! Honest!

There’s a story on the Associated Press wire about an agreement reached between the Motion Picture Association of America and BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen — and after reading about three sentences it becomes obvious that the primary intent of this “agreement” and the press release is to show that the MPAA is winning in its fight against on-line “piracy,” as they like to call it. All Bram has agreed to do is not let people search for copyrighted works using the search function at bittorrent.com — but that’s not how 99 per cent of people find content (copyrighted or otherwise) to download with BitTorrent anyway. This agreement either shows a complete misunderstanding of how BitTorrent works, or a desire on the part of the MPAA to make the crackdown look like it’s working, on the assumption that few people will know how it works, or care. Nice try.

Update:

BoingBoing.net has a link to a piece in Variety that explains it well, and makes it clear that this is part of a larger potential deal with the MPAA in which movie studios would use a modified version of BitTorrent to let users download movies on demand. Darknet has some skeptical (and largely true) comments about the abilities of mainstream journalists to describe things accurately. And Xeni Jardin has a nice piece on the topic in Wired magazine. Om Malik has also weighed in, and raises the question of whether becoming legit (or trying to look as though it is) will hurt BitTorrent.

Fruits of Ray Ozzie’s labour

Ray Ozzie, the Lotus Notes founder who is now chief techno-visionary at Microsoft (and author of one of the recent “sea change” memos about the need to embrace the interactive Web) has a new blog, and in one of his first posts he talks about a new extension to the RSS newsfeed standard that allows people to share, merge and otherwise interact with lists of meetings, appointments, contacts and other info. As Ray describes it, lots of people have multiple lists of contacts, meetings and other data — personal ones, work ones, different levels of work, and so on — and this allows them to “mesh,” so that information can flow from one to the other.

Better still, Microsoft has released this new format proposal under a Creative Commons license, which means it is freely shareable — a nice move by the (formerly?) evil empire. “We brainstormed about this “meshed world” and how we might best serve it,” says Ray, and “we decided we’d never get short term network effects among products if we selected something complicated – even if it were powerful. What we really longed for was “the RSS of synchronization.”

Dave Winer, who helped create what became the RSS standard, says he enjoyed working with Ray on the new extensions (described here), and that this collaborative process and what the group came up with was “technology at its best. This is is technology working.” Mike Arrington of TechCrunch says that new businesses will be built as a result of the SSE standard, and he applauds Microsoft for using the CC license.

Update:

Niall Kennedy is already working on exporting a feed that takes advantage of the new extensions, and software VC and blogger Jeff Clavier says the speed with which Microsoft came up with the new format, and the open-source nature of it, are a novel move for Microsoft , and Mitch Ratcliffe calls it “slick.” Not everyone is impressed, however: programmer Danny Ayers says Microsoft has ignored much of the work that has gone on with Atom, a more open standard, and is “ringfencing their own territory away from everyone else, a strategy likely to end in tears for them.”

Is Web 2.0 just one big party?

Am I the only one who feels left out of the whole buzz and hum that is Web 2.0, with its launch parties and takeover parties and Flickr galleries of same? I’m joking, more or less, but sometimes Toronto — or just about anywhere that isn’t the Bay area — feels an awful long way away from where things are happening. Do you feel the same, Mark? Of course, Paul Kedrosky is lucky because he gets to travel to all the conferences and so on, so he’s like an honorary resident of Web 2.0-land.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.com only arrived a few months ago, and already his house is the place to be for Web 2.0 conference attendees and launch parties, like the recent one for facial-recognition software company Riya — the one that may or may not be about to become part of the Brin and Page family. Maybe it’s because of the giant yard and patio that Mike’s house has, which makes it easy to have 250 or so people over. Some think the focus on parties has gone a little too far.

Anyway, reading various blogs after the Riya party makes it obvious just how many people know each other and see each other regularly in this small crowd of Web 2.0 types — people like Robert Scoble of scobleizer.wordpress.com and Jeff Clavier of SoftTech, not to mention Gabe of memeorandum.com (although he wasn’t there), Fred Oliviera of webreakstuff.com and Scott Beale of Laughing Squid. It’s funny in a way how something that is based on the next-generation Internet — a distributed medium in which anyone can be anywhere and be close to whatever or whomever they want — still depends so much on face-to-face communication and who knows who.

Update: My friend and fellow tech writer Mark Evans posted something similar about Google’s Xmas party. And interestingly enough, Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web — who lives in New Zealand — just wrote something about how maybe being far away from Silicon Valley isn’t such a bad thing… he notes that Dan Grossman of A Venture Forth says companies may increasingly start to look outside the Valley when they’re hiring.

Google takes over the Internet

Robert X. Cringely has an interesting theory about why Google has been buying all that dark fibre everyone says it has been acquiring: to take over the Internet — but in a good way.

“The probable answer lies in one of Google’s underground parking garages in Mountain View,” he says. “There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn’t just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We’re talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid.”

This idea makes a lot of sense. Google’s specialty consists of taking vast amounts of data and analyzing, collating, searching, sorting and displaying it. It does all this with in excess of 60,000 or so servers running as a giant distributed computer. So why not distribute nodes to where the they can jack right into the high-speed backbone of the Internet? That makes running things such as a Google distributed Office suite — or any other feature, service or application Google feels like providing — both easier and faster. Cringley figures the company could do it for about $1-billion. Considering the company is worth about $110-billion or so at the moment, and has $7.5-billion in cash, that shouldn’t be very tough.

Dan Dodge points to Cringley’s take as well, as does Michael Parekh.