Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cutting the Cord: Costs Curtailed

The great adventure began as wife and I were talking 2012 budget, and I once again suggested that we could lose cable television.  We've had this conversation before, but this year she wanted to save some more and I put my favorite sacrifice on the altar for her consideration.  This time, she said yes.

I made arrangements (more on this below) and when the time was right, I disconnected our two converter boxes and drove down to Comcast to surrender the rented equipment and terminate my service.  I must admit I was in love with this idea, because despite my hopes that cable companies would some day allow us more a' la carte options, they clearly have no intention of letting me get the Sci Fi channel without paying for ESPN 1-92 (or whatever numbers are really on the service).  The whole industry has no interest or ability to meet consumers where they are, so I'm happily jumping off the wagon and letting them ride the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers.

My kids - all teenagers - haven't skipped a beat in losing cable.  They'd really abandoned the concept a long time ago, in favor of internet options.  My wife and I, however, still want some TV on our TV.  So, here's how we broke it down:
  1. TiVo.  We got a box from Amazon (much cheaper than buying from TiVo) and an adapter from MicroCenter to allow us to use our wireless internet service instead of Ethernet for getting TiVo information.  We ordered digital antennas for both television sets.  Total hardware costs of about $140, or about 1.5 months of cable costs.  Now we have a DVR, or I should say, my wife has a DVR because I still don't use the thing, really.
  2. Roku/Netflix/Hulu/Amazon VOD.  We already had a Roku box (which has been my primary video entertainment since we got it about two years ago).  We already had a Netflix subscription.  We already had Amazon VOD (some free, some pay-per-view) as Prime members.  We've added Hulu, only to find the paid version of Hulu has fewer choices than the web-only free service.  As a result, we'll probably stop paying for Hulu.  Netflix is really the best deal all around, with more content than I will ever get to in my lifetime, and for cheap.
  3. Decided to clean up one more extra cord, and cut the landline phone service.  I called our new phone company, Century Link (which used to be Qwest, which used to be US West, which used to be Northwestern Bell....) and told them I was moving our home phone number to an extra mobile line ($5/month versus $35 for landline).  They were polite and respectful, asked if we could review the DSL service I was going to keep, and then offered me a deal to slightly reduce my costs and greatly increase my speed.  Ummmm... yes.  Yes, I'll take that.  Bonus points to Century Link.
  4. Total cost changes:  We used to pay about $200/month for these services (internet, cable, phone, Netflix, etc...) and we've brought the total down to about $70 (including the monthly TiVo service - which we may choose to replace with a lifetime service and eliminate the monthly fee).
Do we make some sacrifices?  Sure.  My wife can't see What Not to Wear anymore. We'll have to pay Amazon for a season pass to Mad Men next year.  I'm going to wait on Walking Dead until Netflix gets the new season, so I'm a little behind in that. Now, however, we're only paying for content we want and not someone else's college football needs.   We have a long way to go in this transition, but as more producers allow us to just pay for their content directly, we're going to end up with better stuff at less cost.

I love living in the future.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Amazon: Aquire a Queue Anon!

I love living in the future.  Most days I have at least one type of computer on me at all times, and my phone-computer can generate a wi-fi hotspot nearly anywhere I want to go (recent trips to the north shore of Lake Superior notwithstanding).  I have podcosts-a-plently procured, and of course, access to huge stores of video entertainment.

The world is my technological oyster.  And yet...

I've been a huge Netflix fan for the last few years, since we got our Roku box and I can enjoy the great streaming selection from on my television with my remote control.  I love the Netflix Queue, the great way to mark a movie you want to watch later.  Back when I had DVD and Instant Queues, I could mark a movie not yet available for streaming in the DVD queue, and if it became available in streaming in just showed up there for me.  A happy present; a nice surprise.

Netflix since split the services and I can no longer put movies in queue that aren't currently available, so now I have to keep a separate list of movies that I want to see that *may* someday show up for streaming (p.s., thanks, IMDB, for letting me create a comprehensive watch list).  Not a good solution.  A real first world problem, for sure, but just the sort of imperfection that wrecks my dream of living twenty minutes in the future.  It is just enough of an irritant, as long as I have to make queue of movies I want to watch elsewhere, maybe I can just move the whole kit and caboodle?

Right around this time comes the announcement of the Kindle Fire, and the promise of tight integration to Amazon Video on Demand/Prime Streaming.  I have also been a huge fan of Amazon since it became my primary way to get new episodes of Dr. Who.  A fair amount of the content I've been seeking is available in Amazon as well as we Netflix, so if I could get a Wish-List like function and enter all my movies to watch once, then I could ...

Ah, rats.  Nevermind.

Amazon doesn't have any kind of queue, let alone what I need.  If the Fire and Amazon Video on Demand are going to be a success, they need - and they need fast - to:

1.  Allow me to create and manage discrete watch lists.  One for me, one for my wife, one for the both of us when we want to watch things together.  MultiQs does this for Netflix, and better than Netflix.  I can be done.
2.  Give me a Wish List for videos not yet available, so I can add them once to Amazon and they appear in my watch list when Amazon gets the license.
3.  Negotiate new content based on Wish List demand.  Not just what studios think we want, let us tell you what we really want.
4.  Let us manage the lists from the web, from the Fire, and from our TVs via Roku and other streaming boxes.

We love you Amazon.  We're rooting for you.  Let's get going on this, let's communicate that it is coming, and let's move the future twenty minutes back to the present.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

“Limited” lacks legal legitimacy

I recently completed my Master of Nonprofit Management degree from Hamline University.  It was a great experience, certainly worthy of well-written wrangle.  Another time, perhaps.  I’ve been thinking more about the work I did in the final phases of that degree; a capstone project on how nonprofits talk about value of intellectual property (copyright, patents and the like).

I was privileged to present some of these thoughts at TEDx1000Lakes, an event sponsored by the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids.  My talk was entitled Freeing the Value of Ideas, and focused on how we might create a new means for valuing open-source decisions.  I think the idea is worth spreading and hope you do, too. A key concept in my talk is the length of copyright protection.  The definition of "limited" in this context deserves a little more thought.

The Congress is empowered to create laws around intellectual property protection by Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution.  The specific language reads:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The idea here is creators (artists, authors, inventors and other muse-inspired people) are only going to make things of value if they have the ability to get people to pay for them, and people are only going to pay for them if they can’t just get it for free.  I think Kickstarter may have some things to say about that, but let's take that for rote right now.  The flip side of this pretty, pretty coin is the public domain.  The Congress has been empowered to makes laws which protect exclusive rights for “limited” times. The definition of limited in the copyright realm has changed quite a bit.
  • 1790 – 14 years plus a possible 14 year extension
  • 1909 – 28 years plus a possible 28 year extension
  • 1976 – Life of the author plus 50 years
  • 1998 – Life of the author plus 75 years, or 120 years for works for hire

So just what is a “limited” time?  When do we in the public domain get our crack at your great idea?  We are killing the ability to riff – to build on another idea and make a new one.  We are suffocating our collective story in favor of silos of individual stories with no connection.  In short, we’re asking the golden-egg goose to get in the gallows.  It is short-sighted and petty, and we need to knock it off.

We can fight for a fair definition of exclusive use and a fair balance of public domain.  We can do it by going back to the constitution.  No reasonable person is going to say that 120 years is a “limited time” to secure a work.  Technically, yes, that is a limit.  So is one billion.  It is very clearly not the intention to use such a high limit –and an ever expanding limit – to keep works out of the public realm indefinitely.  Intellectual property protection is broken in many ways, but redefining limited is a place to begin.  I'll suggest 28 years is plenty, roughly seven times longer than the average length of employment at any one job in the 21st century.  I'm willing to negotiate the time, but let's make it something that includes the public.  A practical definition of limited - as in limited to the foreseeable future - is a great start.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Daily deals deliver disinterest

This morning was not unusual in one way:  my email inbox greeted me at a very early hour (along with my beagle, Selby) with the standard fare of seven or eight deal offers.  80% off of this service in this place you never go!  50% off this thing you don’t want in a suburb you’ve vaguely heard of!  Two-for-one vacations to a place you have no interest in seeing!

This morning was unusual in how I responded (to the deal sites, not my dog – he still got his standard morning walk).  I would normally just mark them all “read” and move on to interesting things.  Today, I made the decision it was time to nuke them all.  I started to find the unsubscribe links and got off the roller coaster.

I’ve bought some great deals on these sites in the past, and I’ve unsubscribed from some who just ticked me off for unrelated reasons.  (Groupon – and your tasteless campaign of trivializing important causes for your own coy marketing – I’m looking at you).  I subscribed to deals from the Saint Paul Winter Carnival that, as it turns out, kept coming all summer and had nothing to do with Saint Paul, Winter, or Carnivals.  How many manicure offers for places 30 miles from me do I need before I realize these folks have lost any sense of personalization they may have claimed to have?  I’m guessing the answer was 8, but I lost count.

Daily deal sites have flooded into the market and I’m happy to consider a contender who actually wants to match me to deals that are relevant to things I need in my life.   I’d happily take a site that simply waved me on for the day if they didn’t have a deal that really and truly had interest for me.  “Nothing for you here today, so no email for you.  Move along, move along….”  Got two-for-one golf at a course I can actually play?  Let me know.  Two-for-one golf sixty miles away at championship courses is nothing of note for me.  Don’t bother me with extraneous stuff.  As it turns out, I can and eventually will unsubscribe.

My advice to the intermediaries who are running down all these deals:  do what the web does best and personalize the experience.  Let me select real areas of interest, real geographies that matter, and then let me opt out of the rest.  Until then, I’ll go back to only buying stuff I need rather than things which appear to have added value but I really can’t use.

Friday, February 18, 2011

We must all hang together...

President Obama has presented his 2012 budget proposal to congress. The congress is debating cuts to existing 2011 spending and of course permanent cuts to the 2012 budget and forward. The result of these proposals is predictable: I get email.

I've received email from public radio, the lung association, planned parenthood supporters... and it will just keep snowballing from here. The theme of each email is similar. We do really good and important things. We can't withstand this cut (optional sub-theme: we save the government money in the long run), and we need you to contact your legislators to save us.

All of these emails are true, but I think they all miss the point. Each organization or cause which contacts me is advocating for the congress and president to save them. Each individual organization is trying to salvage their own government support, thinking they alone are a very small portion of the budget and saving just them won't cost much so if enough people just contact their legislators, they will be spared.

Problem is, every other good cause in America is working to save only themselves. Amid the cacaphony of separate voices, no one message will be heard. Almost certainly very few specific organizations will actually be successful in saving just their own financial hide.

I have a suggestion: let's all line up on one common message. The message isn't "spare program X from cuts." The message is "okay, if you refuse to have a fair tax system and raise revenue from things like estate taxes that worked for years, then let's cut where cuts will matter. Military spending goes first."

A brief digression to the numbers. The president's budget shows total discretionary "security" spending for 2011 at $891 billion. All other discretionary spending - everything else that all my friends in nonprofits want to spare from elimination or amputation - is listed at $496 billion dollars. Military spending is nearly twice the budget of all other categories of discretionary spending combined.

The president proposes a 2012 budget that reduces the military and related budgets from $891 billion to $881. And then every projected year after that increases those line items. Remember, we are broke and can't afford to educate our kids or feed the hungry. But we are increasing military related spending. The one year cut for security amounts to just over one percent of their budget. And then it goes back up.

The OMB goes on to describe a cut in all other domestic discretionary spending from $496 billion in 2011 to $462 billion in 2012 and then cut again in 2013 to $444 billion and then held to an inflationary cut of $444 billion in 2014. (Remember, in these out years military related spending is increasing again, to $895 in 2014 and breaking $900 billion in 2015). So while the bigger-by-nearly-two-times section of the budget gets about a 1% cut, the smaller section of the budget - which includes all these groups doing amazing work - is being slated for about a 7% cut.

A 7% cut is the best case scenario. Congress is calling for wholesale program eliminations.

So, even the less-extreme proposal from the president calls for huge cuts to social needs while largely holding military-related spending harmless and increasing that spending before investing in kids and families.

Okay, end of digression.

My point is we cannot defend the real needs of our communities one program at a time. We are guaranteed to come out overall losers - even if we save one or two programs - if we are scattered everywhere and not addressing the real issues. Those issues are:

1. We as a nation have enough money to meet our basic needs. We have just been chosing to spend it for things like oligarchical transfers of wealth and nearly unlimited wars.

2. If we agree we are going to cut government spending, let's start with the biggest chunk of the discretionary budget. If we can really make the decision to cut spending on such critical needs as housing for people without shelter, we can spread that pain at least equally in both real dollars and percentages to the security industrial complex.

3. Whenever any specific interest comes to us and says "contact congress to save X program" we should respond, I will contact the president and congress to save us all. My message: I will only accept cuts in social goods when all discretionary budgets take the same cut.

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Drinking the Chrome Kool-Aid

The end of December brought a special holiday surprise to my house. My family had just returned from a short vacation, coming home right before the Christmas. Amid the mail that had piled up in our absence was an inconspicous box, which I assumed to be a late arriving holiday present I had ordered.

I was almost right about that.

It turned out that my desperate pleas to the folks in charge of the Google Chrome Netbook distribution plan were heard after all. I had been given a Cr-48, the test computer for the new Chrome operating system (Chrome OS). I had no advance notice from Google that I had gotten a golden ticket, it just showed up. I am the only non-press person I know with one of these machines, and I was (and still kinda am) ecstatic.

In exchange for getting one of these units, I pledged to use it as my primary computer, which means living exclusively in the Chrome web browser. For those not familiar with the ChromeOS vision, there is no software on this machine in the traditional sense of the word. The operating system provides you with a web browser, and everything else you need comes to you via the browser. Word processing in the browser, presentation software in the browser, and of course, the web in the browser.

With the help of some key Chrome Apps and Extensions, the experiment thus far has been a rousing success. My primary, non-work needs have been met very well. There are bugs, to be sure, as with any beta product not yet released for purchase. I wasn't able to use the Slide Rocket for a presentation in class, for example, because I couldn't get the remote mouse to advance the slides. Everything else with the presentation worked.

Here's where it gets fun.

Last week, my PC refused to boot into Windows 7 properly. I'm not sure what I'd done, but I break operating systems through unadvised tinkering on a fairly regular basis. So I decided to install a clean copy (I hadn't done that since Windows 7 launched, probably about time anyway). I got my nice, fresh copy of Windows running and then began my usual software installation process. I got Office 2010 on and updated, as there are some times I still really want the full Office product. I installed Chrome beta, and it synced to everything that was installed on my Cr-48, as it promised to do.

Then I stopped.

Did I really need anything else? I installed my printer. OK, really, what else, now? Microsoft Security Essentials. OK. Anything else? It was two days before I discovered I had failed to install a .pdf reader, so installed that. And Dropbox. And my PC has been humming like never before. No bloated software demanding unnecessary updates. No extra anything in my task manager. Just Chrome, a few essentials, and I'm on my way.

I should note that I've had a particularly good year for getting new tech toys to play with. I won an iPad at a conference Tweet-off. I got a new Android phone. So it occurred to me I have Windows 7, Ubuntu (dual boot on my PC), iOS on the iPad, Android on my phone, and ChromeOS on my netbook. With all those options, what I really want is my browser that syncs across every device. I even gave up using Outlook for home (I still have it at work) and live in the Apps email client.

I've moved to fanboy status. Kool-Aid = consumed.