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April 22, 2002
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Loose Wire: Don't Bite the Hand That Pays

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 18 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I get hot under the collar over a lot of things, especially being forced to write this column in the sweltering tropical heat of Bali, when I could be in a cool, air-conditioned office cubicle. But one thing riles me in particular: the efforts of music, movie and software majors to restrict usage of their products because of pirating. How much sillier can things get?

It's now possible to download whole movies off the Internet, milliseconds after they're released (and often before). The movie industry is feeling the heat that software manufacturers have been feeling for years -- the same heat that the music industry felt, too, during the brief reign of Napster's file-sharing software.

In nearly all cases, the industry reaction has been to punish the very people it should be trying to win over: the paying customer. This is usually done by building in limitations on use of their product. In the case of DVD movies, the world is divided into zones -- a DVD bought in one zone cannot (theoretically) be played in another.

Some music CDs now often have special keys or codes built in which prevent easy or exact duplication. Microsoft has been trying out ways of forcing people to register their software; if they don't, they find the software stops working after a few weeks. All these efforts are misguided and alienate users, who feel they've stumped up the cash and can do what they like with their purchase, short of using it as a lethal weapon.

To find a solution that works, we need to acknowledge a few basic principles. First, piracy is no longer a backstreet occupation, if it ever was. A few metres from where I'm writing this in Bali you can buy the latest version of Microsoft Office for a fraction of its original price. Want a DVD of a new movie like Angel Eyes or Ocean's Eleven? Join the queue in Jakarta's main expat supermarket and you can snap them up for about $6 each, or a quarter of the price of the imported original.

The lesson from this: It doesn't pay to look at the problem too moralistically, or legalistically. If we do, we've got to get tough on half the world, which spends its time making fake Rolexes, imitation Gucci bags, sports shirts and the like, and the other half, many of whom I can see from my vantage point at the hotel bar, who spend their holidays in the tropics buying them up.

Thirdly, technology is not the answer. Industry boffins can dream up new ways of restricting copying but the copiers will always be one step ahead. I realized that MP3s were no longer the province of nerdy types when I spotted a small store in an Indonesian village selling MP3 collections of the likes of Sting and Britney Spears alongside single sachets of shampoo. The lesson: Technology finds a way round every obstacle placed in its way. For users blighted by DVD-zoning, many electronics shops will happily rejig the software in the DVD player to enable any DVD to play regardless of where it came from.

In my view the answers are simple. Manufacturers should reward the genuine user. Don't just shove a disc in a plastic box and shrink-wrap it: spend some time and effort compiling interesting sleeve notes. Offer DVD buyers a once-only code to download the sound track in MP3 form free. Enable those who register to buy a boxed set of autographed DVDs by the same director. Some of this happens at the moment, but it's not enough.

Adopt brave measures: Reduce prices, which have stayed too high (particularly CD prices), and stop annoying the rest of us with stupid restrictions on usage. Learn from companies that do things well, like Qualcomm, whose excellent e-mail program Eudora comes in a free version. This is funded by ads, which appear in a tasteful, but visible, format (and are accompanied by a polite but firm warning should you arrange your other programs to cover up the ads).

DVD-manufacturers or CD-makers could sell cheaper versions of their products interspersed with commercials: Pay more and you can get one without the ads. Let's face it, some people are never going to pay top dollar for these products, so stop worrying about them and encouraging us law-abiding folk to buy more. Now I'm off to buy a real Rolex. No, really.


April 21, 2002
[ Column: Klips ]

Loose Wire: When Push Comes to Shove

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I think I can safely say it, though others have been saying it for years: Push is dead. In which case I'd like to be the first to say: Long live push.

For those of you who weren't following closely, push was much hyped in the mid-1990s when computers were first being hooked up to the Internet in a big way. The idea was simple enough: instead of users going to Web sites to get information -- pull -- the information could be sent -- pushed -- to the user. You could then sit back and watch it all -- cricket scores, share prices, headlines -- scroll across your screen. For the corporate world it was an opportunity to also push ads, special offers and branding.

So what went wrong? First out of the starting gate, PointCast earned lasting opprobrium because its software hogged computer and Internet resources. PointCast retired hurt, and was eventually bought by EntryPoint in 1999, which a year later merged with Internet Financial Network Inc. to form InfoGate. This stopped offering its free ticker in mid-April, and now can only be found in the technology behind the subscription-based USA Today NewsTracker ($40 a year from newstracker.usatoday.com), which somewhat fittingly looks like the PointCast of old.

Actually, it's not push that is dead. It's the gravity-defying business models and catch-all products that don't offer anything other people can't offer for free. InfoGate fell by the wayside because it didn't make any money. USA Today's NewsTracker won't, in my view, attract users because you can get the same thing free elsewhere -- try the BBC's excellent Newsline ticker (www.bbc.co.uk/newsline).

Why then has yet another scrolling-ticker business thrown open its doors to the public in the same week as InfoGate closed them? Enter KlipFolio from Serence, a small Windows program that at first blush is not much different. The scrolling is familiar; the clicking on a headline to see the full story is the same. The only visible change is that each Klip contains information from one source only, so instead of one big scrolling ticker with everything in it, from CNN to your local rag, Klips are small and independent.

Below stairs, it's very different: a content-service provider (what you and I would call a Web site, whether it's a magazine, news service, an auction site or whatever) adds some lines of Klip computer code so that every time they add some data to their Web site (a news story, an updated stock price, a new item for sale) that data is added to the Klip's scrolling headlines.

Users, meanwhile, select which Klips they want to view on their screen, which will then update in real time with the new story, price or item for sale. Simple. Serence operates merely as the provider of technology to the content-service providers. For the user, the Klip software is free (www.Klipfolio.com), though Serence says some providers may charge for content in the future.

So what's so different about this? Well, first off the software looks and works beautifully. Secondly, the back end is simple enough for content-service providers to be able to incorporate it without any extra computers, technicians or PhDs. This means that Serence is just an intermediary; it just provides a site where users can find what sources are available, and it licenses the software to the providers.

Where I believe Klips might really take off, however, is in delivering more specialized content. Sure, we can monitor Web sites, get stuff by e-mail, even have stock prices sent to our mobile phone, but imagine having a Klip that monitors, say, the prices of fast-moving items on an on-line auction site, or jobs in a particular industry.

What's more, Serence has priced the product so that even individuals who produce specialist newsletters can jump aboard for about $100 a month. Indeed, as Blogs -- Web sites that collate niche news and analysis -- become more organized, Klips may emerge as a great way for individuals to provide a valuable real-time service which grateful users may pay for.

If that happens, it may well mark the coming of age of push: an information-delivery service that gives me stuff I need, doesn't take up space and doesn't go out of business.


about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

see below for subscription links -- sorry, but the columns are only available to subscribers.

companies, PR agencies etc, please send relevant news, pitches, product review requests here. happy to hear from you, but I stress the word 'relevant'.

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