Google Pack — colour me confused

I don’t like to think of myself as being a stupid guy, and the billions of dollars that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have would indicate that they aren’t stupid either, but I have to admit that I share Paul Kedrosky’s puzzlement about the rumoured Google Pack that Larry is supposed to be announcing at CES — at least according to the Wall Street Journal.

What the heck is the point of bundling all that software and branding it as the Google Pack? Sure, Firefox is great — I use it all the time, even though it still has a memory leak problem that drives me nuts. Trillian is another favourite of mine, and I recommend Ad-Aware to everyone I know. The pack will also have Google Earth, Google Talk, Desktop etc.

But why Adobe’s PDF Reader? A nice tool, many people will likely never need it, unless Google has some other plans I don’t know about. And Real Player from Real Networks is a bloated piece of cling-ware that loads so much crap that I wouldn’t install it if Larry and Sergey paid me to. As for Norton Anti-Virus, it used to be a great tool but has become an intrusive irritant for many people I know.

I’m at a loss to explain what Google hopes to gain. The idea that this bundle is somehow a competitive blow against Microsoft is almost laughable (InsideGoogle is also bemused). If all you looked at was Google’s RSS Reader, Orkut, Froogle and even Google Talk (although it’s still early), you would be right to wonder — as Paul does in his poll — whether the search giant has “jumped the shark.”

Why on earth would Google do a PC?

There’s been a mountain of chatter on the Web about rumours that Google might announce a Google PC – rumours that got a new lease on life from a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, although they have been around for a while. Those rumours, which have been tracked by CNet, have now been denied by a spokesman for the search giant, and by Wal-Mart, which was supposed to be the company’s partner (along with Wyse Technologies).

It’s a tempting rumour in part because people seem to lust for a strong competitor for Microsoft – and what better competitor than a cash-rich company with a great brand and a market value that is bigger than Coca-Cola and Cisco Systems, and just behind IBM? A little Google cube with a version of Linux on it and some Web-based office software sounds so great, doesn’t it?

The only downside is that it seems like a pretty stupid idea in a lot of ways, as Carlo at TechDirt and John Battelle have both noted. Why should Google bother selling such a system, when it can just avoid all the cost and hassle by distributing software that does the same thing on other people’s computers? I just don’t see the point. Neither does Alec Saunders, (who invokes the ghost of Michael Cowpland).

Bill censors a Chinese blogger

Blogging is more than just something that geeks with a lot of time on their hands do for fun. In countries like China, blogs are one of the few ways dissidents can try to exercise a little freedom of speech — something we in the West take for granted. In that sense, they are a little like the “samizdat” newsletters that were photocopied and handed around in the USSR under Stalin.

That’s why it’s so depressing to see a company like Microsoft’s MSN censoring a dissident blogger in China, as described by Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center who specializes in international media, and in particular Internet usage in China. She describes how the blog of a noted dissident named Zhao Jing — also known as Michael Anti — was taken down by MSN.

Robert Scoble of Microsoft says he too is upset by his company acting as a “state-run thug” in cases such as this, and that he has raised it with a senior MSN executive. Others have also said they will be raising the issue. No offence to the Scobleizer, who seems like a nice guy, but I can’t say I’m optimistic about such efforts having any real effect.

Microsoft isn’t the only one to engage in this kind of thing — Yahoo has already helped identify a dissident to the Chinese government and Google has been accused of filtering its search results in China to avoid dissident material. Everybody wants to do business in China, and no doubt they justify their government-friendly attitudes as being better than having no Internet at all, but that doesn’t make MSN’s behaviour right.

Vongo to Canada: get lost (updated)

Vongo, the newly-announced downloadable video service from Starz Entertainment (a unit of John Malone’s Liberty Media), sounds like a pretty cool idea — it would let you download Hollywood movies, concerts, TV shows and other content to various devices, including portable video players (although maybe not iPods, according to the New York Times).

There’s just one problem — at least for someone like me, who happens to live in the Great White North (i.e., Canada). Vongo is restricted to U.S. residents. Here’s what I got when I went to the webpage: “You need to be in the United States to view this site.” On a somewhat redundant note, under the heading of Minimum System Requirements, the only requirement is that you be “located in the U.S.”

I know there are probably all kinds of perfectly reasonable legal requirements for that kind of thing, but I have to confess that it still pisses me off — or maybe it’s just the suggestion that living anywhere other than the U.S. constitutes a “geographic failure.”

vongo

Update:

As you can see if you read the comments, someone from Starz responded to this post within about an hour of it going up, which I have to say is pretty good, considering I don’t get a lot of traffic. Alesya Holick said the U.S.-only requirement is necessary because the company only has the U.S. distribution rights for the content it will be distributing (which is pretty much what I figured), and that Starz would change the description on the website to make that more clear — and remove that nasty “geographic failure” part.

Nice to see a company responding so quickly to a post by a puny little Canadian blogger like me.

Update 2:

Rafat over at PaidContent notes that the Vongo terms of service carry a number of restrictions — which makes Thomas Hawk wonder why anyone would want to use it instead of just recording or torrenting whatever they want to watch. A fair point.

Update 3:

As the latest comment on this item shows, Vongo hasn’t changed the page that first comes up when you hit the site, so top marks for quick response to my blog, but subtract all those and more for not doing anything about it.

Wi-Fi shouldn’t be a toll road

I don’t fly to Boston much, but I’m still interested in the fight going on between Logan airport and Continental Airlines over public Wi-Fi. The airport — which is run by the Massachusetts Port Authority — shut down Continental’s wireless network last fall, and the airline has asked Congress to intervene.

Massport says it wants to avoid interference from a bunch of competing wireless signals, but the airlines (including American Airlines) argue that what it really wants is a monopoly on Wi-Fi, for which it charges $8 an hour. I’m with Fred Wilson (and others) on this: Wi-Fi should be a form of public infrastructure, like roads or bridges.

I also like an analogy I first saw in a Wired article by Paul Boutin: Wi-Fi is a condiment, like sugar or cream, or salt and pepper. Providing it is a service that you hope will make people want to come back to your establishment. Hardly anyone charges for the use of their washrooms either — not even airports.

There’s more discussion at WSJ writer Jeremy Wagstaff’s blog and at WiFi Networking News. Dana Blankenhorn at ZDNet has also posted on it, as has my friend Rob Hyndman.

Coldplay’s label — loser of the year?

Okay, maybe the first day of the new year is a little early to be calling someone the year’s biggest loser, but I’d like to start the bidding early by nominating Coldplay’s record label, which as far as I can tell is EMI (the record company the Sex Pistols made infamous).

A note inserted in the band’s latest CD — a label you can’t see until you buy the disc — has a laundry list of places you probably won’t be able to play the new CD you paid so dearly for, a list that includes many portable music players, most computers, CD players in cars, and other incredibly common places for playing music. Arif in Hyderabad found the note after buying the disc.

What is a company thinking when they do this? It might not be as bad as the comically inept DRM exploit that Sony tried to foist on an unsuspecting public, but it’s still a ridiculous way to approach your market or your customers. Assume that they are thieves, and tie their hands in every way imaginable so that they can’t enjoy their music as they wish — after they’ve already paid money for your product. Nice.

I’d like to hope that we could chip away at that kind of dinosaur thinking this year, but I’m not optimistic.

Jason McCabe Calacanis = Bubble 2.0

Does the fact that Jason Calacanis — of Weblogs Inc. — is successful again mean that we’re in another Web bubble? For many people in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s, Jason was a dot-com poster boy, as a profile in Wired points out. He built a photocopied and hand-delivered gossip sheet into an industry-leading magazine, and also had a reputation for throwing lavish parties. (Wikipedia has the abbreviated version of his bio).

Now, Jason works for AOL, which paid an estimated $25-million for his network of about 80 blogs. While that seems like a large enterprise, only a dozen or so of those blogs — such as Engadget.com and Joystiq.com — appear to get much traffic, and according to the Wired article the company had about $1-million in advertising revenue when AOL bought it. As the piece notes, “it’s not clear that $25 million is a sane amount for 10 disconnected employees and a network of bloggers who could jump ship at any moment.” That’s putting it mildly.

In typical Calacanis fashion, he isn’t content to bask in the glory of a bubble-style takeover of his company — he’s convinced that he could become chief executive of AOL if he wanted to (an idea that, sadly, might not be as much of a stretch as it should be). Paul Kedrosky gives Jason props for bouncing back from his first popped bubble, but others will likely see his return as evidence that the bubble mentality is back with a vengeance.

Comments — the new search frontier

Among the blizzard of year-end predictions and forecasts on various blogs — some interesting and some not — is one that caught my eye from Steve Rubel over at Micropersuasion, who said that one of the things he really wants is a way of searching and tracking comments on blog posts. That’s something I’ve been thinking about too.

As Steve notes, sometimes the best thing about a blog post is the comments, but there isn’t an easy way to search or track them — although he notes that Elisa Camahort tags any post she comments on with del.icio.us so she can track them. Where are the searches from technorati.com or bloglines.com or icerocket.com that focus on comments? (Come on, Mark . You can do it).

Fred Wilson over at A VC expands on Steve’s comments with his thoughts — including the fact that it would be nice if there was a way to elevate the best comments on a post, something I’ve been waiting for as well. (Come on, Matt. You can do it). As Fred puts it: “Bottom line – blogs are conversations. We need to start treating the comments like the important content that they are instead of an afterthought.”

Well said.

Blog plagiarism — Steal this blog!

As usual, Mike over at TechDirt has what I think is a nice take on the blog plagiarism (or ‘splog’) problem that has afflicted some top bloggers, including Om Malik and TechCrunch. Mike’s response boils down to this: Ignore it (and it’s worth reading his reply to some of the comments his post got too).

Is wholesale blog-copying wrong? Obviously. Is Google making money from the AdSense ads that run on such sites? Yes. But I don’t think that means Google needs to police the problem, as Jeff Jarvis and some others believe. Do we really want Google to become a de facto website-content policeman? I would argue that we don’t.

Even Om isn’t sure what kind of response he wants to see. I have a hunch that Mike is right — anyone who matters will quickly realize that such sites aren’t adding any value, and therefore any AdSense revenue they gain will be fleeting at best. Maybe there’s a touch of Pollyanna in that, but I think the “reputation economy” — or whatever you want to call what we’re all doing here — should be more of a self-regulating mechanism.

As James Robertson notes, the issue of “fair use” is definitely a very grey area, since it covers feed aggregators as well as plogs. So what should be done? By all means, send the splogger a threatening note mentioning the DMCA (although be aware that you are using a badly-formed law that plenty of people dislike for plenty of very good reasons), but leave Google out of it.

Google changes the RSS landscape

One reason why people pay so much attention to what Google does is that it can change the landscape with a single move. Take the whole RSS feed-syndication thing, which — despite the relative popularity of Bloglines.com and NewsGator.com and their ilk — is still in its infancy as far as the bulk of Web users are concerned. That’s why things like Yahoo adding RSS support to its email app (much as I dislike having feeds in my mail) make a difference.

Now, the ever-diligent Niall Kennedy has managed to reverse-engineer the API (application programming interface) that Google uses in its Reader application, which sparked the interest of a couple of Google staffers — who said the company is close to releasing its API for public use. (Paul Kedrosky says the API announcement is also a way for Google to deke around criticism of its reader).

I’m not a programmer, but I think this could change things dramatically. For one thing, it could make it even easier for a few smart people to come up with easy-to-use feed readers — apps that are light-years ahead of Google’s own reader, which I happen to think is lame. As Niall has pointed out, Google has already made it relatively easy to come up with an Atom feed for your blog of choice, since Google’s app takes whatever feed it is given and converts it to Atom.

As more than one person has pointed out, RSS (or Atom) is plumbing — hopefully Google’s move will make it easier for people to just use the facilities instead of worrying about what format the equipment is based on. Phil Wainwright says he expects that RSS readers as we know them will eventually disappear (or be absorbed). So maybe Scoble is too late in his attempt to get Microsoft to buy NewsGator.