Hey Sony — wake up

Here’s a column I posted at globeandmail.com about Sony’s DRM rootkit fiasco:

“For a company that has so much great technology behind it, including a number of firsts like the compact disc and the portable music player, Sony Corp. often seems to behave more like a dinosaur — and a slow-moving, club-footed dinosaur at that. A case in point is the company’s recent ham-handed attempt to protect some of its music CDs by installing anti-copying software on its customers’ computers. A simple thing, you might think. Plenty of other companies do it. Sony, however, has managed to turn what should have been a non-event into a public-relations disaster, one that has helped to cement its reputation as the technology giant with the best technology and the worst execution.

The company has said that it will stop using the “rootkit”-style copy-protection software — first discovered and publicized by Mark Russinovich on his blog — but the damage has already been done. Not only does Sony look stupid as well as sneaky, but a list of the artists whose CDs have been “protected” by the company’s technology has been published far and wide. Is anyone going to rush out and buy those particular discs, or are they going to stay as far away from them as possible? If I were an artist with Sony Music (such as Canada’s Our Lady Peace), I would consider asking the company to compensate me for the effects of its reverse PR.

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Are you a user or a slave?

Robert Scoble of scobleizer.wordpress.com has an interesting post on his blog in which he tries to get at the question of Web 2.0 services whose “content,” as it were, is produced by its users — something like Flickr.com being an obvious example. The pictures are uploaded by others, they are shared with the community, and Flickr derives revenue from that and from ads that run alongside the pictures. WordPress.com (which hosts Scoble’s site, and whose software powers this one as well) does the same thing with blogs, and for that matter Google.com does the same thing by aggregating other people’s content and then selling ads related to it. What does that make you and I? “Content generator” makes it sound like some kind of soulless, Matrix-style factory. Participant? Partner? Content provider?

Anil Dash has also wrestled with this issue, not so much the naming of it but the relationship between the content service and you the person whose stuff drives the service (Caterina Fake of Flickr responded to Anil here, and Matthew Gertner responded too as did The Teutonic Spectator, who made some good points). For me, the equation comes down to why you do what you do — put pictures on Flickr, or post blog entries, or whatever. Presumably you do so because you want people to see and/or read them. The service you use — WordPress, MSN Spaces, Blogger, Flickr — helps you to do that, and then takes a cut of the attention that people are paying you by looking at your pictures or reading your blog. That doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, especially if it keeps the service free.

Sun, Google — and Gdrive?

Jonathan Schwartz, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, gave a couple of hints recently about what Sun and Google might be working on as part of their collaboration, the one that got everyone (including yours truly) salivating about a Web-based Office suite. On his blog, Jonathan mentioned that lots of people have a need to retrieve documents and files from different computers at different times (the Sun exec has 5 computers and multiple laptops) which makes the idea of storing your files on a shared network drive somewhere more and more attractive (just one question: why not just use a USB thumb drive, Jon?). In other words, perhaps a “Gdrive” run by Google or a version of Sun’s “Grid Utility” network, which according to some critics has very few customers.

Says Jon: “The two features every single user needs are: Save, and Open. So wouldn’t it be interesting if rather than exploring your local file system on your local PC, the Save and Open panels simply looked to a network account on Sun’s Grid? Shareable like any of the mainstream photo services are today? Or how about saving to that 2.5Gb allowance Google gave you in your GMail account? And wouldn’t it be great if you could save to ODF, or translate to Microsoft Word, or generate a podcast or mp3 file – on the fly? From within any app? That would certainly put into question why you’d want to shell out $500 for Microsoft’s Office 12 when OpenOffice.org was free, cross platform, more innovative, and just more for your money. And enabled by the biggest names on the internet.” Sounds like a plan.

In the interim, you can do as Mr. Schwartz suggests and use your Gmail storage as a file system if you wish, and you can also add your name to a petition asking Google to please provide a Gdrive-type service — it’s at petitiononline.com.

Visto, RIM in for “world of hurt?”

Visto — the wireless e-mail provider whose service competes with similar “push” e-mail services from Seven Networks, Good Technology, Intellisync and of course Waterloo’s own Research In Motion — has raised another $70-million (U.S.) in financing from a bunch of venture capital groups, including Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Oak Partners, bringing the total it has raised to more than $230-million. According to a VC named Bill Burnham, who used to work at Softbank and before that was a Wall Street analyst, Good has raised a similar amount of money. Mr. Burnham feels that this is insane, given the fact that Microsoft has added push e-mail features to its Exchange server software and included them as a free upgrade.

He has a point. And what does this mean for Good and Seven and Visto? As far as Mr. Burnham is concerned, they are in for “a world of hurt.” As for RIM, he predicts it will “see its value cut by 30-50% in the next 12 months.” An aggressive forecast, but not out of the realm of possibility. Most businesses already have Exchange servers, which they are not only comfortable with but have invested a lot of time and money in, and now along comes a free upgrade that provides push e-mail to any Windows device — which will soon include the Palm Treo handheld, now that Palm has done a deal with the Beast from Redmond. An interesting time to be pouring money into a wireless e-mail vendor such as Visto. (via gigaom.com)

Netvibes rules — hear that, Bill?

The new Windows Live initiative that Microsoft launched with much fanfare recently — which was followed up by the two “sea change” memos from Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie — included an AJAX-driven customizable webpage at www.live.com, which was kind of buggy but promised to allow users to design their own home page and include RSS feeds of their choice, as well as other content. Which is a great idea, except for one thing: not only is Google already doing this to some extent with its home page, but a little startup called Netvibes.com is already doing it way better than either one of them.

I used to run my own RSS aggregator and feed reader based on a Linux server in my basement (running Debian and “feed on feeds” if you’re interested), but lately I’ve been using Netvibes.com, and it is fantastic. It is fast, customizable, accepts almost any feed — including tag-targeted feeds from Technorati.com — and updates the feeds automatically. Clicking a link opens a window with the item, and a link to open it in a new browser tab or window. When you’re done reading a feed, a simple click on a small arrow at the top of the box with the feed in it “rolls up” the window. You can also add a weather applet and a search box, and of course like most AJAX-y pages, you can drag all the boxes around and arrange them any way you want. Fast. Simple. Easy. Free.

Bill tries to rally the troops — again

The hot topic on various tech websites and blogs is Microsoft’s attempt to rally its troops and attack the new Web services market — an attempt that comes 10 years almost to the day after Microsoft tried to turn its giant ship around and get religion with respect to the Internet, a campaign that began with the famous “Internet tidal ave” memo from Bill Gates. This one begins with two memos: one from Bill G. and one from his new chief technology officer Ray Ozzie, one of the co-creators of IBM’s Lotus Notes and co-founder of Groove Networks. Tech guru Dave Winer managed to get hold of the two memos and has posted the full text of them on his website.

They make for very interesting reading — even if, as Dave and John Battelle suspect, they were written with the expectation that they would be leaked (Shelley at Burningbird thinks so too and Good Morning Silicon Valley says it might as well have been a press release.). If nothing else, the memos make it clear that Ray Ozzie is the new visionary at Microsoft, as Nicholas Carr points out on his blog. Om Malik says that despite the vision, Microsoft still appears to be looking in the rear-view mirror and ignoring the move to mobile devices or non-PC devices in their new vision. Robert Scoble says Microsofties are calling the Bill G. memo the “birthday memo” in honour of their supreme leader recently turning 50. Happy birthday, Bill.

Column: Call it YahooVo?

Here’s a column I posted at globeandmail.com about rumours that Yahoo might acquire TiVo:

“In what was no doubt a welcome ray of sunshine for shareholders of TiVo, the maker of personal video recorders announced a deal with Internet portal and search engine company Yahoo, which will allow TiVo owners to click a TV listing on Yahoo’s pages and automatically record shows on their PVR. This gave a small boost to TiVo’s somewhat beleaguered shares, but unfortunately the warm glow of the deal didn’t last for very long — the shares lost ground on Tuesday, the day after the announcement, and are still down by more than 50 per cent from their peak early last year.

Not surprisingly, the deal with Yahoo renewed the speculation that TiVo might be an acquisition target — if not for Yahoo then for Google, or Microsoft, or AOL, or maybe your Aunt Phyllis (that last one is just a joke). It might be stretching things a little to say that behind every TiVo takeover rumour there stands a disgruntled shareholder, but at this point an acquisition of the company seems to be about the only thing that might breathe some life into the share price. Although it more or less invented the PVR market, TiVo hasn’t been able to capitalize on that “first-mover” advantage, and so has been forced to watch the world pass it by.

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Yahoo and Tivo dating?

So Yahoo and TiVo announced a deal in which users of TiVo (why is the “v” capitalized? just wondering) will be able — under certain circumstances — to click a listing at Yahoo’s television-listing portal and have their TiVo record a show (if you’re Canadian, or any non-U.S. resident for that matter, don’t plan on having this ability until you are old and grey, unless you are already old and grey, in which case you will have to wait until you are dead). They will also reportedly have the ability to view Yahoo Photos on their TV and to see traffic reports, news and other services as well.

My colleague from the National Post, Mark Evans, theorizes that this might be the precursor to a Yahoo acquisition of TiVo (and Russell Shaw at ZDNet thinks so too, apparently), but I have to say that I don’t really see the logic. It’s obvious why TiVo might be interested, since the company has been struggling on its own, especially since its major partner DirecTV cut the PVR-maker loose and decided to see other people (the new services won’t work on DirecTV TiVos). And I can see why Yahoo might want to find more eyeballs for their content — but that doesn’t mean it has to buy the whole company. TiVo is losing market share to regular cable boxes with PVR functionality, and it’s not clear that aligning itself with Yahoo would change the situation dramatically.

Om seems skeptical as well, and notes that this feature has been available to AOL users for almost two years, something also noted by Good Morning Silicon Valley and Real Tech News.

MSFT ahead in AOL game?

My old pal Richard Siklos, whom I used to know way back before he got all famous because of his book on Conrad Black, has a story in the New York Times (via the International Herald Tribune) that says Microsoft is leading Google and Yahoo in the three-way wooing for America Online, which has gone from also-ran Internet has-been fiasco to belle of the ball in a relatively short period. However, Richard goes on to say that the talks have been difficult and appear to have bogged down over the issue of control. The discussions have been rumoured for some time, but Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons confirmed last week that the company was in talks with several major players about a partnership of some kind

Is quantum mechanics wrong?

Anyone remember “cold fusion?” The Guardian is running a piece about a controversial claim by a Harvard University scientist who says he has developed a power source that is orders of magnitude more powerful than conventional sources — and defies the laws of quantum mechanics: “Randell Mills, a Harvard University medic who also studied electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have built a prototype power source that generates up to 1,000 times more heat than conventional fuel. Independent scientists claim to have verified the experiments and Dr Mills says that his company, Blacklight Power, has tens of millions of dollars in investment lined up to bring the idea to market. And he claims to be just months away from unveiling his creation. The problem is that according to the rules of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs the behaviour of atoms, the idea is theoretically impossible.”

The ever-watchful gang over at slashdot.org note that Dr. Mills has been making these claims for some time: there’s a Reuters story from 1997, and a Village Voice story from 1999 which led to more skeptical comments on slashdot, and there is also a long entry in Wikipedia.org about Dr. Mills’ so-called “hydrino” theory. Still, the debate continues.