The iPad & the Birth of Digital Publishing

First, a personal note about the iPad. For me, as I explained in my post about why I don't want an iPad, the new, thinner, lighter iPad mini is probably the only iPad I am interested in buying. This is because it is lighter, thinner, and, as Apple is quick to point out, easier to hold in one hand and easier to hold up without getting your arm tired. However, as a person who is in front of my computer at any time when at home and is happy with my iPhone as a traveling companion, I still cannot find a reason I need to buy an iPad. Between my iPhone and my MacBook Pro, there's nothing I really want to do that makes me think, "I need an iPad." The only reason I might want an iPad is for digital magazines, and that is my main topic for today.

The publishing industry is scared. They know that someday, no one will buy their newspapers and paper-based magazines. The world of paper books will probably live on longer in a niche market, much like music on vinyl still exists. In fact, many are not buying these paper magazine/newspaper versions anymore and instead just visiting the publication's website for their content. But I don't think the end of paper is coming nearly as quickly as these companies are thinking. No, this prediction has nothing to do with the apocalypse like the TV show "Revolution" or the movie "The Book of Eli". But I firmly believe there are some conveniences of paper publications that are still not solved digitally. Until these hurdles are overcome, paper will still be more universal and preferred.

The biggest problems is that publishers need to make reading ubiquitous. has done the best of this so far. I can read my Kindle books on my computer, on my iPhone, and on my Kindle itself. There's maybe a limit of devices i can load some content on, but I've never run into it. It just works, and it works everywhere. But magazine/newspaper publishers have a long way to go in this area. One of my favorite magazines was Paste Magazine, which had to stop printing a year or two ago. Shortly after that, they announced a weekly e-magazine available on their website for a couple bucks a month, and I've purchased it. But honestly, I haven't really read it much I'm just not sitting at my computer at home thinking, "I want to read about music and movies right now." I mostly read Paste in print while on long car trips or airplane flights, among other places, and I really cannot do that with the Paste mPlayer product right now. Heck, their product (last I checked) doesn't really work on my iPhone for reading either. However, they have announced they plan to have an iPhone and iPad app sometime in the future, which promises more great reading time.

Another favorite small magazine publisher of mine is Relevant Magazine. They are still committed to printing a magazine, which I love. I still subscribe and do read them. But now they also allow me to read them on their website if I log into my account, and I appreciate that. Their new website is very well-designed as well--it's amazing how it feels like a magazine, almost, with colorful graphics, enlarged blurbs from the article, and multimedia in the margins. It's one of the best publishing websites I've seen so far (much like The Verge, which I will accuse them of plagiarizing a bit). Relevant does offer a beautiful iPad app, I'm told, but since I don't have an iPad, I may never experience it. Still, though, I should be able to read Relevant everywhere. I'd read it more if they had an iPhone app in addition to the iPhone app. I'd read the articles on my Kindle if it didn't cost more and was an available option. Yes, I know, in these formats I would not get as much of the fancy graphics, the meticulous layouts, and the experience of reading a glossy, full-color magazine printing, but is that so terrible? In the end, I want to read the content, and for the most part, it is about the content, not the presentation. Don't get me wrong: the presentation is great, where available. But I would rather be able to read the words anywhere and be aware that I am missing a bit of the experience instead of not reading at all.

Another problem with digital distribution is the reader's lack of rights. If I get a paper version, I can meticulously save them on my shelf for reading whenever I want. I can easily borrow them to a friend. I can even give them to my kids, if they do not fall apart by then. I own these books. These days, when you purchase digital books, you do not own them. You are given a license to read them that can easily revoked by the seller or the publisher. You get much less rights than with a paper book or magazine. A couple weeks ago, a woman's account from Amazon was deleted and she was not told why. Most likely, she violated some parts of the terms of service, but still, she may have spent hundreds of dollars on electronic goods that she no longer had access to and very little recourse to getting her books back. The printed word does not come with a 20-page legal agreement attached--it just comes with a copyright and that's about it.

Digital distributors like Amazon have done a lot to mitigate these problems. I can read my books on numerous devices, and Amazon keeps track of where I am at on one device and lets me pick up from that spot on another device. They even have a mechanism for me to lend a book to a friend's Kindle account for a preset amount of time. You can also borrow books from the worldwide Kindle pool at your local library for a specified amount of time. But, again, all of these are subject to the agreements of and the publishers, so you may find some of this not working from time to time. That said, I love my Kindle. There's no other easy way to carry around dozens of books in one small, lightweight package that can easily be tossed into my backpack.

Within the last month the publication Newsweek announced they would stop printing a magazine at the end of this year. Many smaller publishers have started distributing digitally first and then printing a book copy months later for the die-hard fans. I think these are signs of the times, and digital distribution is so much cheaper. But at this point, paper is still just as convenient and comes with more rights. Will Newsweek lose readers when they stop printing? For sure. Will they have a viable business in the e-publishing world? Only time will tell. But I think that digital publishers need to make their content much more available everywhere digital goods are sold in order to gain the widest audience, not just on the iPad or Kindle store. In the end, the product available everywhere will make the most money. It is a problem of building the infrastructure and standards to enable that availability.

Getting Around and Staying Fit with Nice Ride

Somewhat-reputable sources list the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as one of the "most liveable" cities in the country. I'm not sure if I believe that; I've seen many places that seem just as nice, although this is the only city I've lived in. Other places have listed the metro as a very "bike-able" area, and I'm starting to believe that. I know I've had some minor hostility from drivers on the road and some genuine hatred towards bikers from my friends who drive, so we probably still have a bit to go as well. However, a new development in the last year or two has shown that cycling is at least growing and somewhat popular and maybe even a sustainable business can be mad with it. This morning I got a chance to try Nice Ride for myself, and it seems like a valuable service to urban members of the Twin Cities.

Nice Ride Rider and Station (from cedwardmoran's Flickr)

Nice Ride is an organization heavily funded by local companies, including flagship sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, who spends a lot of money on marketing to encourage Minnesotans to stay active, and whose logo appears on each Nice Ride bike. Nice Ride currently operates 145 stations in and around both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, including the six miles or so between downtowns. From any one of those stations, you can rent a bicycle and return it to that station or any other station when you are done.

For a one-time newcomer such as myself, a payment of $6 to my credit card will get me unlimited rides for the next 24 hours. Longer-term users of 30 days or the whole April-November bicycling season pay $30 or $65, respectively, which is much more reasonable. Additional trip fees are incurred if the bike is away from a station for more than 30 minutes, so the program is definitely geared towards folks who just need to take a short ride around town, not for long-term cyclers. Monthly or yearly subscribers also receive a small, plastic key with an RFID tag for their account which gives them immediate access to a bike from any station; less frequent users have to put a credit card into a card machine at one end of the station to gain access to a bike. Many other cities across the country and the world have similar programs, so you can get locations of stations and availability of bikes data from the SpotCycle app for your smartphone.

The bicycles themselves are simple but functional. The bike is rather heavy and well-built. It comes with only three gears, so don't expect going very fast. But you can get the bike going fast enough; there's just not that acceleration that you would get from a fancier bike. The bike does not have large treads on the wheels and is thus designed for the many trails of Minneapolis/St. Paul and the city streets. The bike does come with a rack on the handlebars with the potential to carry a bag, although it seems to me you would need to have a bit more tools with you to secure something on there. Overall, it's a functional bike, but nothing you'd want o own personally. After my ride, I did read on the Nice Ride FAQ page that I'm actually a bit over their maximum weight limit, but I'm not sure that this will stop me from using the service again.

This morning, I was able to take a city bus to a nearby Nice Ride station. From there, I biked 3-4 miles into downtown to run some errands. Since my bike is currently broken, it was nice to be able to just pick up a bike, go on a ride, and then just leave it at my destination and take the bus home. There are stations nearby many bus and train stops, and especially for downtown, there is a Nice Ride station within a block or two of any location. Since I am personally uncomfortable biking after dark due to my poor eyesight, I can see myself biking to a concert or other evening event and then being able to take the bus or light rail home that night. You don't have to worry about locking up a bicycle and it getting stolen, you just deposit the bike at a nearby station.

Yes, it's a helpful service, but will I be getting a yearly subscription? Not right now. I currently live in the Highland area, a couple miles from the nearest station. If there was a station only a short walk from my apartment, I would be very likely to purchase a subscription and use it for a bit of fresh air while heading around town. It definitely makes sense to start up a service like this in the downtowns and more populated neighboring areas, but I hope it continues to expand throughout the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Another question about this service is: Can it be profitable? Yes, it is organized as a non-profit right now and is heavily supported by local corporations, but is it profitable? Could it be profitable? A non-profit can be one way to kickstart a business, but but is this always something that will be around as usage grows and the donors dwindle? It seems that most other U.S. metros that have similar programs have them set up in a similar way, so only time may tell, I suppose.


The Olympics Broadcast: Is It An #NBCfail?

It's been over two years since the last Olympic Games, and four years since the last Summer Olympics. Broadcasting the Summer Olympics exclusively since 1988 and the Winter Olympics since 2002, U.S. broadcaster NBC has cemented itself as the Olympics network. (Incidentally, NBC has already secured broadcast rights of every upcoming Olympics through 2020.) During the games, for years, they have pre-empted nearly all of their network programming to bring at least 12 hours per day of coverage over broadcast. With the advent of cable TV over the last 20 years, much more coverage has been added on various affiliated cable channels. At this point, NBC really has this Olympics broadcasting thing down to a science. And their broadcasts are great. For the past week, I've watched about 6 hours of coverage per day, maybe even a bit more. If watching NBC is your only exposure to the Olympics coverage, then you have nearly no reason to be dissatisfied. But, then again, with the latest advances of the Internet, we have been taught to demand more.

Without my Elgato EyeTV USB TV Tuner and DVR software, I would probably not be watching any of the Olympics. Through the TV Guide built into the software, I can record all the Olympics I want. I can skip through the commercials. I can press pause whenever I want to make dinner or change the laundry, then come back and resume it later. Most of the world may not have this functionality incorporated with their broadcast TV tuner, but they are increasingly used to being able to find it later on YouTube, Hulu, or other services. In this area, NBC Sports is definitely a bit behind the curve. Yes, their website is full of highlights videos, so I could see the last 30 seconds of last Sunday's Women's Cycling Road Race, but I could not watch the last 10 minutes of the race on demand, which is the part I missed while I was at church. If they were to server the audience as best as possible, viewers could watch any event after it happened. The so-called "experts" at these major media companies say they cannot put the same amount of advertisements into the content, but I disagree. I just want to watch it when I want, and it shouldn't matter to Chevy, Proctor & Gamble, and Visa if I watch it in primetime tonight or during my workout tomorrow morning; I'm still a valuable customer.

One solution I've not yet mentioned is on the NBC Olympics website. They advertise being able to watch every event live and offer the ability to replay many events that are not going to be aired later on TV. However, what they don't mention is that you have to be a subscriber of one of their partner cable providers. That is, if I was buying cable service, I could watch every event live. How does this make any sense? I just checked, and for $20 more per month than I currently pay for Comcast internet service, we could get this feature, but at that price, we still wouldn't get any of the NBC affiliate channels who are broadcasting many events such as Tennis and Basketball live. So, most likely, to get most things via cable, you'd be paying $30/month for cable TV service. Most likely, NBC Universal, which is now at least partially owned by Comcast, gets somewhere between $2 and $5 of that $30 I'd be paying monthly. Apparently, I'm in the 50% of American TV-viewing households who do not pay $12-$60 per year to NBC, therefore I don't deserve access to their content whenever I want. Also, apparently I am not worth being the target of much marketing, because none of that extra money you are paying means that you get to see less advertisements; you pay the privilege to see more content with just as much advertising in it. As far as I can figure, if NBC really wanted to make money off of advertising, they would want me to watch as much content, with ads intelligently inserted. But no, I have to pay to be advertised to maximally. That makes no sense to me.

Also, today's Internet culture makes everything a real-time affair. Enough people around the world are watching live, and if you are on Twitter or Facebook at all, you will find the results before NBC gets around to broadcasting it. This was not a problem two years ago with the Vancouver winter games, where the time is the same as the U.S. West Coast, and therefore nearly everything can be broadcast live. But with a six-hour time difference, most of the night's major events are happening just after lunch on this side of the pond. Again, this works pretty well if all you are watching is NBC's broadcast, but not if you are looking at any other news sources. (Although, NBC has had a problem or two of spoiling it for fans accidentally as well.) This afternoon, when Michael Phelps was competing in the 4x200M Swimming Final, possibly his last competition at the Olympics ever, it was not broadcast live. At least one viewer (who apparently has paid for cable) was complaining on Twitter that the stream was failing. It wasn't that his local internet access was not working, most likely, it was that NBC/YouTube's live streaming servers couldn't handle the hundreds of thousands of Americans who wanted to watch the race live. This, actually, is currently an Internet architecture problem that can be fixed if companies like Comcast put up a bit of money to get IPv6 multicast working across their networks. Streaming live events to millions over the Internet is very hard today, from what I know about networking as it currently stands, and maybe that is why NBC does not want me to watch online. That, or maybe NBC is in bed with the cable companies to make sure they get their $3 from me to sell me more advertising.

Yes, that's a lot of minor problems that NBC has in today's fast-paced Internet world. In future Olympics, they are only going to get worse unless they keep working on this. But until then, I will watch 5 more hours of Olympics coverage tonight and keep watching more tomorrow. I guess I won't be watching in future years, though, NBC, unless you make it easier to catch the action between other live events of my live, which may be busier in the future.

A Basic Drupal Module

My co-worker, Joe Tower, is a designer/developer who is just getting into coding his own Drupal modules. Over at his blog, earlier this weekend, he created a basic module. I thought it needed a couple more things, so I'm gonna pick up where he left off. You might learn a bit or two about how the innards of Drupal work if you keep reading.

First of all, I took his basic my_menu_module_form_content_type_form_alter() function and made it a bit more general. This version of the function, using the less specific hook_form_alter() function, is defined as my_menu_module_form_alter(). This code below searches for any content add/edit form and sets the checkbox to default to checked:

function my_menu_module_form_alter(&$form, &$form_state, $form_id) {
  if (substr($form_id, -10) == '_node_form') {
    $form['menu']['enabled']['#default_value'] = TRUE;

I'm pretty sure that's not exactly what we want to do, though. This is where Drupal's built-in variable system is very helpful. Using the functions variable_set() and variable_get(), you can set/get small bits of data very easily. In this case, we're just setting "1" or "0", which is synonymous in this case to TRUE or FALSE. Therefore, this is the version of the above function where we get the content type name from the form id and then check a variable that is specific to that content type.

function my_menu_module_form_alter(&$form, &$form_state, $form_id) {
  if (substr($form_id, -10) == '_node_form') {
    $content_type = substr($form_id, 0, -10);
    $form['menu']['enabled']['#default_value'] = variable_get('my_menu_module_' . $content_type . '_enabled', FALSE);

Now, we need to create a checkbox on the Content Type edit page. To do that, we'll use another form_alter function:

function my_menu_module_form_node_type_form_alter(&$form, &$form_state, $form_id) {
  $form['menu']['my_menu_module_enabled'] = array(
    '#type' => 'checkbox',
    '#title' => t('Default the "Provide a menu link" item to checked.'),
    '#default_value' => variable_get('my_menu_module_' . $form['#node_type']->type . '_enabled', FALSE),
  $form['#submit'][] = 'my_menu_module_type_form_submit';
function my_menu_module_type_form_submit($form, &$form_state) {
  variable_set('my_menu_module_' . $form_state['values']['type'] . '_enabled', $form_state['values']['my_menu_module_enabled']);

Also, as you can see, I added a submit function that saves our custom variable. You'll also notice that the variable_get() function always expects a second variable which is the default value if this variable is not set. So, now you should have a much more functional module that has a checkbox on each content type's admin interface to decide if this will be defaulting to true on your site's content types.

Update: My co-workers have created a Drupal module out of this idea. Check out the Default Menu Link module. It might just help you out.


Blue Like Jazz, Christianity, and the Movies

Blue Like Jazz Movie PosterOver eight years ago, a young man named Donald Miller released a soon-to-be bestseller, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I read it a couple months ago, and I found it to be a non-conventional set of reflections on what God, Christianity, and religion is in this modern world. In the same way, I'm happy to say that the story and characters in Blue Like Jazz: The Movie will get you thinking about these ideas and discussing them with your friends.

In the film, we find Donald Miller's character getting ready for college and finding himself disillusioned with the Texas Baptist church he grew up in. He decides to go to a whole different world -- a free-thinking institution in Portland, Oregon called Reed College. Despite meeting a whole bunch of new friends who dislike Christian culture and religion, he finds his beliefs and Christ's love still may have a place in his life. It's a good screenplay with plenty of drama, humor, and engaging discussions written by Donald Miller himself. The film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz is also well-directed and produced by filmmaker and former musician Steve Taylor and his Nashville-based crew.

The film, although created by Christians, is far from what anyone considers a "Christian" film. The film premiered to agreeable audiences at SXSW a month ago, and contains almost nothing of what is often associated with Christian films. There is no scenes of preachers talking to the camera. Blue Like Jazz has no "conversion" experience or anyone praying over another person for them to be "saved". The acting is well-done and none of the sets look like they came from a soap opera. Instead, homosexuals are treated as just a character and not preached to. In addition to the rigorous academic atmosphere at Reed College, drug use, drinking and other activities on campus are portrayed as well. There are some scenes that poke fun at the insular Christian sub-culture, which may also disturb some believers who are proud of being apart from the rest of the world. The film is rated PG-13 and is distributed through Roadside Attractions, which also released Winter's Bone, Margin Call, and Biutiful.

While Blue Like Jazz is not the best film I've seen in this past year, it is definitely worth a look. Also, as a Christian, I like to support films that portray Christianity in a genuine and realistic way. This film does this the best I've seen in a widely-released film created by Americans in years. I was fortunate to see an early screening a couple weeks ago, and after the film was shown, director Steve Taylor urged Christians to support the film. Roadside Attractions, a small independent distributor, has taken a risk on a type of independent film that often does not see the light of day. (In fact, the film was partially funded by fans on crowd funding website Kickstarter, of which I gave $50 to support the film.) Taylor stressed that if the film does well in the first 24-48 hours, it can give a message to Hollywood that there is a market for films made by Christians. So, by all means, if you're interested in supporting films made by Christians or are intrigued by the film, please visit a local theater playing Blue Like Jazz.

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie opens in major markets this Friday, April 13. I, along with a couple friends, will be going out to screen the film at the Block e theater in downtown Minneapolis. Please watch the trailer and find a theater near you if you're interested in joining the discussion. If you do go and see Blue Like Jazz, please tell me what you think -- I'd love to hear your thoughts.


How NBC and Warner Killed "Chuck"

A couple years ago, I watched the Pilot of "Chuck", a TV show where a common computer geek gets a supercomputer installed in his brain. It's got geek references, real spies, and lots of fun. It's equal parts drama, comedy, and action, sometimes even a couple of those in the same scene. I haven't seen a tone of television in my years, but it's easily my favorite show currently on television. But that won't last for long, because the show's finale is just over a week away. The finale is not coming as a surprise; the end of every season always contained the question of whether it would be renewed and this current season being the last season was announced over 6 months ago. However, this fifth and final season, while it's been lots of fun and looks like it will come to a great ending, has been less than impressive with viewership. In my opinion, it's clear that NBC and Warner Bros. (who produces/owns the show) did as much as they could to intentionally kill Chuck once and for all.

First, the show was moved from Mondays to Fridays on the weekly lineup. Friday, along with Saturday, are the weakest nights in TV viewing, excepting maybe sporting events. Geek TV fans know that shows like Dollhouse, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica have aired on Fridays and never did amazing in the ratings. It's just a fact that many folks go out on Friday and Saturday instead of staying home and watching TV. If I didn't have a DVR, I would've missed probably half of the episodes so far this season. Mondays worked much better for most viewers, I'm sure, because all folks want to do after a "case of the Mondays" at work is to sit at home, eat a pizza, and watch Chuck and then Castle.

Second, for the first four seasons of Chuck, there was plenty of content available online. Throughout the first four seasons, the show was available to stream on Hulu the next day, just like other NBC programs. Intermittently, the show was also available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon VOD as well. However, for unknown reasons, season five has not been available on Hulu or any other video providers online. This, combined with the Friday problem, means that anyone who misses an episode may just wait until the end of the season to rent it on DVD. Either that or the fan without a DVR is forced to pirate the show, such that this viewing is not counted in ratings nor any revenue is gained by the show. It seems that the folks at NBC/WB didn't want the fans to come back if they missed an episode because they gave them little choices. This is not what a show like this should do. Look at shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica: they made it easy for folks to catch up with episodes they missed online and even did promotional materials to get fans caught up with the major plot points quickly if they didn't have the time to watch all the episodes. These are things that NBC/WB should be doing to keep the casual Chuck fans watching if they wanted to coax decent ratings out of the end of the show.

Third, a planned ending to a show should be an opportunity for the networks/producers to experiment and possibly gain new viewers. Many folks got into Lost just before the last season because the entire show was available for streaming on Hulu, Netflix, and other outlets. In fact, after hearing about Chuck and deciding to give it a chance two years ago, I found the pilot available on Hulu and then watched the next six episodes on If I hadn't gotten the opportunity to watch those early episodes right away, I might not have gotten hooked. After watching those online episodes, I used my Netflix subscription to rent all the later episodes of Chuck to get up to what was currently available. What Warner Bros. and NBC should have done was put all four seasons on Netflix streaming this past summer. I have no doubt that there would be thousands of viewers that would watch all four seasons and would now be watching NBC every Friday, had NBC given them a chance. Just a couple months ago, CBS's hit sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" was put up on Netflix and there's been a small bump in ratings since then. Also, all my friends who watch most of their TV on Hulu and Netflix are watching "How I Met Your Mother" and talking about it for the first time despite the show having been on for seven seasons.

In the end, it seems that the folks at WB refuse to do these internet streaming things because they fear it will eat into their DVD/Blu-Ray sales. However, I don't believe it. I may not be the average customer, but I didn't buy the Blu-Rays of every season of Chuck until I had watched every episode available. If I cannot rent the disc or view the main feature content online, I will not purchase the product unless it is ridiculously cheap. For me, I see Chuck as something I may want to re-watch in a couple years or share with friends (and I have already), and that's why I want the Blu-Ray. But I would have never bought the discs if I had to search the show's back episodes out illegally. The show needs to be accessible in order to increase viewership and sales, and especially in the last six months, this seems to be the farthest from NBC and Warner's minds. If these ideas were better executed, the show would not be the only thing going out on a graceful note; the folks who own the content would be happy with a sound investment not squandered.

Vote Zaphod T-Shirt

Vote Zaphod Beeblebrox 2012 T-Shirt Design

In these trying times for America, they need a charismatic President that knows what's going on. Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two-headed humanoid from the vicinity of Betelgeuse, is probably not that man. But he has been the President of the Galaxy. But, oh wait, in that version of history, the Earth has been destroyed to make room for a hyperspace bypass.

OK, enough nonsense. But Zaphod Beeblebrox is a loud, party-loving, idiotic character from Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and now he's on the only political T-shirt that I will admit to owning. (A couple other political shirts may be used as pajamas but have never been seen in public.)

Thanks to my apartment-mate, Joe, for giving this to me as an early Christmas present. Maybe next week we'll go have dinner at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe....


Netflix's Big Gamble

This morning, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings took what may possibly be the biggest gamble of his life. Netflix has been a successful company for over a decade, starting as a DVD-rental-by-mail service since 1998. Ten years later, they started offering streaming of movies and TV shows over the Internet, no longer requiring the DVD-by-mail. In the last six months or so, some Internet statistics companies (which are a bit spurious) claimed that as much as 40% of prime-time Internet traffic was Netflix Instant traffic. Netflix was a force to be reckoned with, but the last couple months, they've been struggling with that status and may be losing their footing.

Recently, many casual Netflix customers have been threatening to cancel their service due to Netflix's termination of their contract with Starz. Starz was providing access to a limited amount of new-release movies on Instant, but it was a drop in the bucket of the streaming content. But those of us who like quality in movie presentation were nonplussed with the Starz contract, as most of the content was not in HD and sometimes in a full-screen presentation instead of the original widescreen. Personally, I believe the cancellation of the Starz Play deal was a great move for Netflix because it allowed Netflix to spend that money to make deals directly with the studios.

The next big move was Netflix's announcement a couple months ago that September would bring two different feature sets to the service. Streaming, which started as a free bonus for DVD customers just over 3 years ago, was now to cost $7.99. If you wanted to keep the DVD service as well, that was an additional $7.99. From a business point of view, I think this made sense to some extent. As Hastings says, each of these products has their own business model and set of costs. But, while I was happy to pay $7.99 in August, I'm not happy to pay $15.98 in September. The Instant service has drastically increased in value to me with the inclusion of many more great TV shows and some movies, but to suddenly pay twice as much for Netflix service is a hard pill to swallow. And while there are days and days of content I want to watch on Instant, there's no way to watch that movie that I just recently missed while it was in theaters if I cancel the DVD-by-mail service. Long-time Netflix customers either have to choose to pay the big bucks or cancel one half of their services. This would have been easily mitigated by offering a discount of $3 or so when both services were included. And, honestly, when I got an e-mail from Netflix (which is much like this post from their official blog) this morning apologizing, I was expecting that kind of discount. But what we got was much more confusing.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings apologized not for the price hikes, but he apologized for not really telling us why the price hikes were happening. Funnily enough, that was not something I thought he needed to apologize for. I already explained why the pricing was separated; the services are really two separate products and should be treated as such. I was on board with that. In fact, just a few days ago I canceled the streaming service because I was worried I'd spend all winder watching every episode of Star Trek and getting nothing productive done while online. No, the real reason the price hikes were apparently happening was much more puzzling.

As Hastings mentions in his blog post, he firmly believes that streaming movies and TV shows to your home via the Internet is the future. I believe he's right. Once the Internet is fast enough to deliver high-quality content to the masses on a just-in-time basis, the movie disc will disappear. (While the technology to deliver content this fast exists, it seems that most of the developed world is still years away from achieving this.) Also, as Hastings says, for five years, he has feared that he'd miss that point. He doesn't want Netflix to become the next AOL or Borders, where the business model died and they went down with it. For years I've heard him talk about this and thought he was on the right track, but today it has become apparent that Hastings is no longer healthily fearful of the future, he's foolishly obsessed with it.

The fact is, Hastings's Netflix is far from missing the trend. In reality, Netflix has done most of the work to make the trend happen. Before Netflix Instant appeared, almost no one was streaming movies online. YouTube had only been around for a couple years. Heck, Hulu had just started a year before. Netflix brought streaming video from a thing the computer nerds might do to millions of American households in the span of a couple years. Their streaming service is still built into thousands of different TVs, Blu-Ray players, and Internet-connected boxes and phones besides your computer, more than any other competitor. Without Netflix, Blockbuster would still be going strong and we'd still be going there every week to get the next disc of 30 Rock for a week. There would maybe not even be a streaming video market.

This morning, Hastings announced that the reason the pricing was changing was because the Netflix DVD service was being spun off into a subsidiary called Qwikster. Apparently it wasn't enough to have two separate products, but each product had to be under it's own brand and company in the name of bringing "simplicity for our members". (Speaking of which, I think many companies would like to have just two products -- many companies Netflix's size have hundreds of products.) For gamers, there was the addition of disc-by-mail game rentals via the new Qwikster product announced, so at least some customers may find a silver lining. But for the majority of Netflix users, it seems like the only result is more confusion and pain.

Netflix and Qwikster, for those who really enjoy movies, are not two separate products, they are two parts of the same whole. If I find a movie I want to watch, I add it to my Netflix Queue. It's my "what I want to watch" list. It's been great that Netflix says, for now, "Instead of waiting for you to get to this in your queue, you could watch it right now via Instant." But, as described now, a subscriber to both Netflix and Qwikster would have two separate queues with no interaction. If Qwikster offers a similar developer API to what Netflix offers, I"m sure someone will write an app to sync the queues, but it will inherently not work as well as a first-party solution. Two separate services do not provide as comprehensive a solution for their most devoted customer, I believe.

One unified company also seemed to be a good place to negotiate with studios. A streaming-only Netflix service is entirely dependent on the whims of the major studios. If the major studios pulled all their content off of streaming, Netflix wouldn't have much content to speak of. Netflix does give the studios substantial money for the rights to stream their content, but it's not as substantial per viewer as the studios selling it on iTunes or Amazon or via DVD or Blu-Ray. It's much less. Many content properties are worth more than the earnings the studios get from Netflix, and if they want to make more per viewer, they can cut Netflix off. In short, if the studios want to shut Netflix Instant down, they definitely can now because Qwikster is no longer a built-in bargaining chip. That doesn't seem like a better spot to be in to me.

In the long term, I think it makes sense to relegate Qwikster to a separate service, company and brand. Qwikster may thrive for a number of years, but it is a dog that has seen its day and will not grow. Netflix is where the exciting stuff is. But I think that Reed Hastings has, overcome with fear, split them off a couple years too soon. Even he admits in the blog: "It is possible we are moving too fast – it is hard to say." He's right, it is hard to say. I think the next few years will be tough for Netflix and its subsidiaries to regain the momentum that it has lost in the last couple months, but they may be able to keep the car running. Or, we may be witnessing Netflix flying through the air, about to crash into a concrete wall. Only time will tell.


The App Store Problem

Starting with the iPhone and it's brethren the iPod touch and the iPad, Apple only allows you to download and purchase apps via their App Store, which requires approval from Apple to sell them. In the last year, Apple has also made it an option to buy apps for Mac OS X through their sanctioned App Store as well. This has some inherent benefits, most notably a level of security and a trust party to collect payment as well as an easy way to get updates to apps. But, in the end, there's still many shortcomings in the App Store model.

For example, take my recent purchase, the Reeder app. Over the last couple years, I'd tried out a couple apps, such as NetNewsWire, which used the Google Reader API to provide an app interface to reading your Google Reader subscriptions. (I've been a longtime Google Reader user and have been happy using the great web interface for reading RSS subscriptions both at home and one the go.) NetNewsWire, being free, seemed pretty full-featured, but there were a couple things that it didn't do, like not giving a way to mark an item as Unread in case I started reading and found I couldn't read it right now. Reeder's short list of features on the App Store on their website included that feature, so I was intrigued.

With the App Store, there's no way to try out the app. For the iPhone, the app is $2.99. Reeder for Mac has been heavily featured in related areas of the Mac App Store, which usually means it's a quality (or at least popular) product, but the desktop app is $9.99. In the era before the App Store, if this app existed, it would probably have a free trial for a week or two. Then, you'd have to purchase a license key from a sketchy website and hope that it worked to validate the product.

If there was a free trial, I would have found that besides the good looks that show up in the screenshots, there's also a plethora of customization options to customize the reading experience. You can customize the main text size, update the color scheme, and share posts with almost every service imaginable from Evernote to Delicious to Instapaper (and more). The iPhone app also seems to sync all your items to a local cache (including images), so that you can read your posts when you've got no internet connection. The features are all I wanted and the price isn't bad.

How did I find all this out without a free trial? I looked at the Reeder app a couple times over the last month or two but I didn't buy it. It was only this past week when tech podcaster Tom Merritt listed it as a "pick" when guest hosting on This Week in Google that I decided to take the $2.99 jump for the iPhone app. If it wasn't good enough, I was going to be out $3, but I figured it was a decent gamble. After 15 minutes of using the iPhone app and browsing through the extensive Preference panel for the app, I immediately purchased the Reeder for Mac app because I figured if the iPhone app was this good, it'd make my on-computer reading experience much better, which was definitely true.

Still, to make the App Store really beneficial, I think there should be a couple things to be done. First, Apple should give developers a way to allow users to try the app for free, if the developer chooses to do so. This would cut down on the number of negative reviews for an app because users didn't do their research and thought the app did something completely different than it actually does. Second, every app should have an extensive website that documents every feature of the app. Some videos of the app in action could be helpful too. A half-dozen screenshots and a dozen bullets in a "features" list don't give us an idea of what an app really does.

In the end, the Apple Mac/iOS App Store is a benefit to most users. But in streamlining the purchasing experience for the mainstream it has lost much of the details that more discerning buyers have expected and required for years.


Why I Don't Want An iPad 2

Yes, the iPad 2 is not for me. The iPad may be the future of mainstream computing, but at this time, it's not for me. More on that in a minute, though. First, here's the skinny on the new iPad 2, announced by Apple yesterday in San Francisco by Steve Jobs and his snappy presentation crew.

The iPad 2 is the same price but definitely packs some new features. The amount of storage space is the same as the previous iPad but it is 33% thinner, has both a front and rear camera, and still has 10 hours of battery life. Apple claims the hardware of the iPad 2 is an "all-new design", but that seems to be complete hyperbole -- the design is improved a lot over the original iPad, but it still looks much like the same device. Never content to keep it just as fast as the last model, Apple is also introducing an A5 mobile chipset with the iPad 2 that they claim is twice as fast as the previous A4 chip and boasts that graphics rendering performance is 9x faster. Early reports from journalists say that it is noticeably snappier.

Also, some improvements to existing iPad, iPhone and iPod touch devices are going to be included iOS 4.3, including better JavaScript rendering in Safari, some minor tweaks to the AirPlay functionality (although I've been unable to tell exactly what is new from their descriptions), an option to how the switch on the iPad functions, and the ability to use your iPhone 4 as a Wi-Fi hot spot (if your cell carrier lets you do so). One minor feature I'm excited about in iOS 4.3, though, is iTunes Home Sharing, which allows you to stream music and video on your computer's iTunes across your wireless network to your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch. Thus, you don't have to sync everything to your device, at least not when you're near your computer. Both the iOS 4.3 update and the iPad 2 will be available on Friday, March 11th.

Ohh, one more feature for the nerdier folks in the audience: Apple will now sell a $39 dongle that will give you an HDMI output that mirrors the iPad/iPhone's screen on your TV. They talk about this being for schools and such, but I'm thinking it's mostly so that companies and TV talk shows can demo iOS programs on screens without jail breaking their device. (Because, of course, the obvious jail breaking can make Apple look stupid.)

It's clear that the iPad is taking off more than anyone, including Apple, expected it to. Apple announced that in the 9 months it was available during 2010, it sold 15 million units. That's nearly twice what the most bullish predictions were just one year ago before the original iPad came out. And there's no wonder: it takes the ability to use a computer and makes it dead simple. There's no figuring out how to use a touchpad or a mouse. There's no "What folder did I put that file in?" moments. It's just simple to browse the web, play a game or watch a video. In the 11 months it's been available, it's been adopted in record numbers by younger kids and senior citizens who have never touched a computer before and they "get it" a lot easier than older technologies. Most likely, computers of the future are going to be something like the iPad.

But, at this time, the iPad is not for me. I'm not down on Apple; I have two Macs, an iPod, and an AirPort Express. My iPhone 4 is rarely more than a couple feet from me; I think it's the perfect size for watching videos and browsing Twitter and the web on the go.

One of my Macs is a MacBook Pro. Yes, it's a bit bigger than the iPad 2. It's also a bit more expensive. But it allows me to do much more. My livelihood is programming websites and the built-in keyboard helps out with that. I can install thousands more apps on my MacBook, including ones that allow me to browse and modify files to my heart's content. I can even install Windows if I want to for gaming or more business-oriented applications.

But personally, the MacBook Pro is much more of the right form factor. I have bad eyesight from birth, such that I'm barely above legally blind. I can read and see things just fine, but I have to get 8x (or something like that) closer than most people. When most people enjoy their laptop computer or iPad sitting on their lap on the couch, I cannot enjoy that. If I am forced to use it in that position, I either wear out my arms holding it up to eye level or destroy my back scrunching by body together to get my face down to the screen. Not at all comfortable or ergonomic.

For me, the optimal working and even media consumption pose is seated on my ball at my desk with the laptop elevated on a stand at eye level. I even sit there to watch TV, although I might watch TV on a couch if I had a really big TV. If I anticipate wanting more than my iPhone on the go, I will carry my backpack with my laptop and a more portable stand. On the off chance that I was on a flight or longer bus trip on my own, it would be kinda cool to watch videos on the iPad's bigger screen, but I do neither of those enough to warrant such an expensive purchase.

To sum up, I think the iPad is truly revolutionary and may be the future of computing. Maybe I'm being a bit slow to catch on to these trends, but I don't currently see the iPad as a viable option in my experience. I should maybe try one more thing with my iPhone 4, though: there's some settings that can be changed to make the iPhone/iPad usable for blind people. Maybe one of those days I'll try to turn some of those things on and see if that helps me at all.