The Value of Content

I watched “Page One: Inside The New York Times” on Netflix Sunday.  It’s a documentary that focuses on the NYT as an institution in news reporting in the United States and the world, but also discusses the changing face of media (e.g. blogs, Twitter, etc.) and the ability of just about anyone to put out “unfiltered” news directly to the general public, as in the case of the WikiLeaks debacle from last year.  The documentary is pretty interesting, though I think they “bounced around” a bit more than I would prefer without any good transitions.

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was the battle currently being waged between “Old Media” and “New Media.”  For example, you can go to practically any news blog now for your news as many people do, but practically all of them just re-word and re-post the same information that was originally presented in the NYT.  Thus, the regular consumer of news gets their information for free without every having to visit the NYT website or pick up a paper, and therefore, the NYT never gets any ad revenue or subscriber fees from the reader.

Which leads to the central question of the documentary: how long will this be sustainable?  Or, re-worded, how long can the New York Times, and institutions like it, survive in a “digital world” using their traditional economic models?

I heard a related story on NPR last week talking about Amazon and Apple (but mostly Amazon) and how the European Union is investigating them for antitrust violations with regards to e-book prices on their respective stores.  These two companies essentially dictate to the publisher how much money they will sell their books (typically around $10), while the publishing companies used to be able to charge quite a bit more than that for a hardcover new release (let alone the fact that they set the price, not the distributor).

Now, in the case of the Times, I’m not really sure what the solution is.  They have already taken steps to increase revenue by charging for their website, and I think that’s helping.  At the very least, they’re making an attempt to survive the transition into digital media.  Likely, as tablets broaden their reach to consumers, they will be able to charge for their app, or access to stories, effectively turning tablets into digital NYT readers.  There is certainly money to be had if you produce a good app, and the NYT has a pretty decent one.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of people out there don’t understand where news comes from and that most of these blogs a). don’t actually investigate their own news (they just re-post it from other sources), and b). frequently have some kind of agenda, so it may not be as objective as it should be to be considered capital-J “Journalism.”  There is a value in actual news and people are willing to pay for it: the NYT just needs to figure out how to sustain the same standard of Journalism while operating under realistic expectations of what the public will pay for it.

In the case of book, movie, and music publishers, though, I think they need to adjust their model quickly.  For example, if one considers a new-release book at Barnes and Noble, it’s likely it would cost you $20 or more.  It simply doesn’t make sense to charge $20 for a digital copy (as publishers would love to do).  The same thing goes for movies: I’m not going to spend the Bluray price of a movie for the digital version.

Now, those full prices don’t typically occur for movies and books because of the digital systems that have grown up to deliver the content for you.  For a new movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll spend $22.99 for the Bluray and you’ll spend $14.99 for the digital version, so there’s some premium for the physical copy and some discount for the digital copy.  In video games, this typically isn’t the case, however.  When the newest Call of Duty game came out on PC, it was $60, regardless of whether you got a physical disc in a box or if you downloaded it.  With games, though, there has been something of a “relationship” developed between the publishers of games and the retailers (e.g. Gamestop, Wal-Mart, etc), where the publisher could offer a discount on a digital version, but in order to appease the brick-and-mortar retailer, they keep it the same price so you still may go into their store.

Ultimately, “Old Media” needs to realize that they can’t support the distribution systems that they used for the past few decades.  This is starting to happen with books, where locations like Borders went bankrupt because they couldn’t make the transition to a digital age.  Companies like Gamestop are starting to make the transition, offering a digital streaming service not unlike Netflix Instant.  Companies like Wal-Mart will probably just stop offering games and movies, eventually, but they’ll survive because they sell other things (among other reasons).

But the publishers still have much to worry about.  Their teams of editors, binders, layout people, and so on and so forth.  Teams of people that were needed in order to lay out print for publication or to set up distribution chains for each product.  Or that were needed to design the inside of game manuals.  Or to design the cases that your DVD or Bluray came in.  These are all things that just aren’t (as) necessary in a fully digital world.  You don’t need to worry about distribution when you can just sell it on the internet to everyone.  However, publishers are still trying to charge additional money on the digital side in order to support these folks on the physical side of their product.

Now, my solution to this problem is to increase the cost of the physical media and further decrease the cost of the digital one.  If there’s anything apps on the iPhone or Android have shown developers, it’s that selling your product for $1 means that you’ll sell to additional people, and you’ll make your money back on volume.  I mean, if you could just buy a new release movie for $5, would you do it? Would you even think about the purchase?  Would you care if you only watched it one time?  That’s cheaper than a single ticket to go see the movie in theaters.  If new movies, digitally distributed, without any special features were $5, I think they’d sell more.

But again, publishers should still hang on to their “physical media” production scheme, as there will still be people that want an actual Bluray disc.  And I definitely know that there will be people that want a physical book, rather than an e-reader form.  But wouldn’t more people buy books if they were $5 for a new one, rather than $20?  Sure, pay the premium if you want a nice, hardcover, bound, indestructible copy of a book for your collection, but don’t make people that just want to read the book help finance other people’s need for a physical copy.

There’s a somewhat longstanding psychological “principle” in gaming related to the $100 price point.  Once any gaming console hits $100, then many consumers won’t even think about the price.  It’ll become an impulse buy.  A similar phenomenon happened with the Wii when it released, and it cost $250.  But at that price, it was cheap enough as an impulse buy for many people just to play Wii Sports.

“Old Media” publishers need to find the “impulse buy” price for their products.  In the case of movies and books, I think $10 is a fair price to charge, but $5 is the “impulse buy” price.  Once publishers start selling their wares down there for a digital form, I think they’ll make their money back on volume, and only then will they survive.

Edit: I read this article from Slate today, discussing Amazon and its tactics that end up hurting brick and mortar bookstores.  I particularly liked this line:

But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.

Yup.

Jolicloud

This is what the desktop screen and apps look like in Jolicloud.

I’ve mentioned previously that we’ve got a Dell Mini 10 netbook.  To be honest, it doesn’t get as much use as it did a few years ago when we lived in St. Louis and our desktop computer(s) were on a different floor.  Once we moved to Swisher, and now back to St. Louis again, the desktop is only a room away from the living room, so there isn’t much of a need to have a laptop constantly running…let alone the fact that we both have Android smartphones now, where it’s even faster to look something up quickly if it’s needed.

Thus, I get to “play” with the netbook a bit more than I used to.  I find Windows XP to be extremely slow on the system: slow to boot, slow to open programs, slow to do just about anything.  Therefore, I’ve toyed with a few different alternative operating systems.  Because Ubuntu 11.10 appears to have some serious issues with the graphics chip on the netbook, I decided to give Jolicloud a try.

Jolicloud is based on Ubuntu, incidentally, but runs quite a bit differently.  It’s designed to do everything within a browser as much as possible, though it is capable of having stand-alone programs installed as well.  In the desktop screen pictured above, most of those programs are opened within the Chromium web browser.  You can listen to music, edit documents, use maps, check your status updates, and browse the internet just as you can from any other computer.  The benefit here, though, is that the netbook is much more responsive because all it’s effectively doing is loading a web browser.

I guess the main downside is that it really requires an internet connection of some type, so if you aren’t on wifi anywhere, you can’t use the OS (to do anything productive, at least).  But hey, where does that happen anymore, anyway?

I’ve referred to cloud computing in the past.  Like many things, I think it works remarkably well, but you just have to know what you’re getting into before you boot the system.  Know what the strengths and weaknesses are before even trying to go that route.  You can’t expect to run Photoshop using low-powered devices that are designed to only operate within a web browser.  At the same time, though, you can get away with cheaper hardware with remarkably fast boot times and functionality.  So yes, a trade-off.

I’m enjoying it for now, though.  It’s always fun to install a new operating system and see what it can or can’t do.  At the very least, it gets me to use the netbook more often.  Still a good piece of hardware that has a few more years left in it due to software like Jolicloud.

“Khaaaaaaan!”

Best. Movie. Ever.

Kristen came and visited this weekend.  Now that we live in St. Louis again, it’s a much more reasonable drive for her to come visit her niece, whom she hadn’t seen since last May.  Around the time we figured out that she’d be coming in, I was also made aware of a new Star Trek exhibition being displayed at the St. Louis Science Center.  The exhibition will be there until May, so there wasn’t really a huge rush…but, on the first Friday of each month, they run a special deal where they cut the cost of the exhibit in the evening and they show a movie in the Omnimax theater.  And the movie this month?

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”  Largely considered the best “Star Trek” movie.  As Khan said, “In my estimation, you simply have no alternative.”

We went to the exhibition after dinner and after we dropped Brooke and Meg off at home.  The exhibit itself was pretty neat, though I would have preferred fewer “replica” props.  Sure, they had actual uniforms worn by the various cast members throughout the series.  They had uniforms from each of the members of the crew from the newest movie, Spock’s robe from “Star Trek IV,” General Chang’s uniform from “Star Trek VI,” and  representative uniforms from all of the captains across all of the series.

There were a few ship models and some of the original props, but there were quite a few of the aforementioned replicas, mostly in the realm of communicators, badges, phasers, etc.  They definitely had some real ones and, to be honest, I’m sure the difference between the replicas and the real thing (which were only props, never truly “real”…) is minuscule.  Still, seeing more actual props that were used on the various properties would have been nice.  They did have scale models of a transporter and the Enterprise-D bridge from “The Next Generation,” mostly so they could take a picture of you and charge a ridiculous amount of money.  Still, it was cool to sit on the bridge of the Enterprise.

In the end, however, the real attraction for me was seeing “Star Trek II” in the theater.  It came out in 1982, the year I was born, so I’ve never actually seen this movie in a theater setting.  To be fair, it wasn’t ideal because they were projecting what looked like the DVD version of the movie up on a screen that is meant to wrap around you.  So, the image was kinda “curved,” and projected a bit higher than I would have liked.  The contrast was a bit “off,” as well, especially when the crew was shown on the bridge in very dark lighting.  But hey, when you’ve seen the movie countless times, you can forgive such things.

What I can’t forgive, however, is the omission of certain, key scenes.  Specifically, those regarding Scotty’s nephew.  As in, we see the kid, but certain lines of dialog that establish his relation to Scotty (as opposed to him being Random Engineering Cadette #7) are completely missing.  It’s just really weird as it’s been in every other version of the movie I’ve seen, so I just wonder where the heck they found this one.

However, seeing the movie with a crowd of people for the first time just brings an extra “magic” to a movie I’ve seen more times than I can count.  Once you’ve seen a movie you love enough times, there isn’t much else you can do to bring anything fresh to the viewing experience.  However, watching it with 200 other fans, some of which dressed as Starfleet crew or Klingons, is definitely unique.  Hearing cheers and jeers throughout was somewhat distracting, but still pretty great.

Overall, I think we had a good time.  Glad I got to see some bits of “Star Trek” history, and that I got to share it with my sister.  In the end, we came, we saw, we lived long and prospered.  It’s all I can ask.

Nostalgia

Ah, it’s like I said: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

— Quark, speaking the final line of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

The third Star Trek series, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” is now on Netflix Instant Queue.  I don’t want to dwell on the series or the franchise as a whole, but I do want to say that I’m looking forward to re-watching the series.  I have seen all of “Next Generation” and all of “Voyager” twice (or more…) when they’ve been in re-runs over the years, but “DS9,” for some reason, hasn’t been re-played as often since it left television 12 years ago.  At the time, I didn’t like “DS9” as much because, especially in the latter half of the series, they moved to more of a “serial plotline” structure where each episode tied into subsequent episodes.  Back then, I didn’t like it, but now, in the wake of excellent shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” I think I may appreciate “DS9” more than I did.  Today, it seems like practically every drama on television is doing it.  As my Mom always says, “everything goes back to Star Trek”…

Nay, the real reason this post exists is because we visited St. Louis this past weekend.  As has been mentioned before, Brooke has been living down there four days a week while Meg and I have been in Iowa, only seeing each other on weekends.  This past Thursday, however, I went down to speak with a potential employer at Washington University.  No details to write on that front yet, but hopefully it’ll pan out in the near future.

As part of the visit, I decided to stay down there through Sunday (with Meg, of course), getting a chance to see some people that I haven’t seen in awhile.  Meg and I went by SLU on Friday morning, then I went out to lunch with some friends from there.  We went apple picking on Friday afternoon (more on that in another post) with other friends, and then had dinner with them Friday night.  We checked out a potential place to live (assuming I get this job soon…) on Saturday, then went out to dinner with Brooke’s family on Saturday night.  And finally, we went to our old church, Webster Hills, on Sunday morning.

And that brings us to the apropos quote from above: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Things at SLU had definitely changed a bit.  Some new construction, some new faces.  Dr. Westfall will be retiring sometime late next year, so more changes are definitely in store for my old department.  New progress on research that has carried on in my absence, which is the way of things.

Oh, and in news where change isn’t so good, it seems like every light on Kingshighway now has a “Photo Enforced” sign on it.  Very bad.  I’ll be doing my best to avoid those shenanigans.

At church on Sunday, though, in many ways, it’s like we’d never left.  They did an acoustic “service in the round” where all the folks in the congregation were in a circle surrounding the altar area (this was our idea a few years ago, for the record).  The music was mostly stuff we knew, but there was a newer one we hadn’t heard before.  They also interspersed Bible verse readings between the verses of some of the songs: a nice addition.  There weren’t many new faces there, but there were quite a few people there we hadn’t seen in a long time, so that was excellent.  Basically, being there felt like “home” again.

I guess this separation of our family is just getting to me.  While I don’t mind moving forward with life, getting to do “bigger and better things,” in many ways, I just want to go back to the life we had when we lived in St. Louis: just with a baby along this time.  We ate out on the patio in Soulard on Friday for lunch and all I could think of was how I missed living down there.  It was a spectacular day, after all, and with the leaves starting to change color, it made me wish I could walk home rather than have to drive 5 hours to get to my real house.

It will be interesting to look back on our time in Iowa in 12 years like I’m looking back on “DS9,” whether I will dislike it because of our most recent experience(s), or whether I will grow to appreciate it more.  Right now, though, to continue the analogy, I just want to go back to “The Next Generation:” I was happy with it.

You Can “Like” and “+1” Now

So, I realize not everyone wants to comment on these various posts (especially mine… :-P), but looking at traffic data, I can tell that more than a few people are actually visiting this silly blog of ours.  Thus, I’ve wanted to set up some way for people to express something about a post without actually commenting on it.  This solution has been available for awhile, but I’ve been too lazy to do anything about it.

Therefore, I have set up a “+1” button (for Google+ users) and a “Like” button (for Facebook users) at the bottom of each post.  It will include the number of people that have “plussed” or “liked” each post, giving me some idea of whether people are actually reading anything when they visit the site.

Just a friendly public service announcement.  🙂

Top 5 Google+ Features

I’m not one to do “Top #” lists, but after today’s announcement that Google+ is now available to any and all, I thought it would be useful to recount a few of the features that I’ve been using on a nearly daily basis (well…some things…not everything, of course).

1). House Hunting – When we moved up here, I came up alone and brought along our Flip Video camera so Brooke could get a “feel” for the different options, at least in some virtual sense. This time around, Brooke is taking pictures with her phone, then allowing the Google+ app to automatically upload the pictures to her profile so she can share them with me. Then, I can comment on each picture and she can answer all my questions. This is done without anyone else having to see the conversation(s) or the pictures.

Here's a picture of a living room for a place we're considering

2). Gaming Communication – In the past, we have used Skype to make VOIP calls between Josh, Ryan and Mike so we can voice chat while playing whatever game we’re on at the time. Skype works well, but one person hosts the call and then has to call each person once they’re ready (much like a telephone). Now, with Google+ Hangouts, you can simply “Open A Hangout,” which is basically an open invitation with whatever group you want that can join in at any time. So, if one of us isn’t ready, they can join in whenever they want. Much more convenient, and the voice quality is nice, too.

3). Selective Sharing – I post a lot of stuff on Facebook. A lot of stuff. Google+ makes it easy with their Circles function, allowing me to share with people from Columbia, or people from Truman, or people from St. Louis, or all of them all at once. This is done really easily, both from the web interface and from within the Google+ Android app. Facebook has started adding in some of this functionality, but it’s nowhere near as helpful. It’s obvious it’s a “stop gap” measure to provide some of the same functionality, but is very much “tacked on” to their existing, convoluted infrastructure. Circles is just easier to use.

Photos taken with the camera are geo-tagged and dated. Select the ones you want, and then click the green "Share" button!

4). Full Integration with Picasa – I already use Picasa to post pictures online, partially for display on this very website.  Because of the integration between Google+ and Picasa, any pictures from my phone are automatically uploaded, and then I can share them on Google+ with whoever I want.  But also, they are made available under Picasa, so I can copy them into any albums I want, and either keep them private or share them.  In short: it’s free cloud storage and organization for any picture I take with my phone (though, you can still manually upload them from a camera if you want).

Here's what the main screen looks like.

5). Separated Streams – Right now, I have 287 people in my various circles on Google+.  A lot of those folks are Gamers With Jobs people.  There are times, however, I really just want to see the news updates from my Friends, rather than the GWJ crew.  Thus, Google+ makes it easy to choose which Circle (or “news feed”) you want to view.  Moreover, the Android App lets you set feeds so you just have to swipe from side to side on the screen to switch between feeds, making it much easier to follow the people you want without seeing updates from everyone else.  Again, Facebook implemented something similar in recent weeks, and while their web interface works alright for this, the Android app just doesn’t have the same functionality.  Believe you me, when you have over 500 people on your Facebook friends list, it’s a daunting task to scroll through everyone’s stuff every morning…

So now that Google+ is open to everyone, I hope more people check it out.  Really, anyone that has a Google account for e-mail already has a Google+ account ready and waiting.  It’ll get more integrated over the coming year, anyway, especially with Picasa (being renamed to “Google Photos”) and Reader.  You may as well get used to it now!

Plus, you may find that you like it.  🙂

On Netflix

There has been a reasonable amount of vitriol on the interwebs with regards to Netflix in recent weeks.  First, it was the price increase and separation of DVDs and Instant Queue into separate plans.  Then, Starz pulls out of negotiations to keep their content on the streaming service, including Disney movies and TV shows, meaning that a lot of content will disappear in February.  Finally, today, it comes out that Netflix will begin enforcing its rule to only allow streaming to a single device on an account at one time (or two devices if you have a two-DVD plan, and so on).

I’ll read comments from folks on blogs saying that they’re going to cancel their accounts over all this.  That Netflix isn’t adding enough new content to justify their $8/mo.  That they are screwing over their consumers.

Well, folks.  Get used to it.  The cost of doing business with Netflix will keep going up, and they aren’t alone.

Hulu famously created “Hulu Plus,” a separate entity that you pay $8/mo to use.  Hulu carries shows from ABC, FOX and NBC, as well as many of their affiliates.  Some shows appear the day after airing on TV.  Other shows appear after 30 days.  Hulu Plus gives you the ability to watch some of these shows on your television, but the nature of the deal that Hulu was able to work with The Powers That Be dictate that not all of Hulu’s content can be sent to your TV.  They still want you to watch that content on a TV, through your cable provider, rather than do it through the internet.

Oh, and Hulu Plus still contains ads.  You pay $8/mo extra for different content than you get through their website, and you still get ads.  All just so you can watch it on your TV.  Because an LCD TV is different than an LCD monitor, apparently.

The content providers in the motion picture and television industry want a large piece of the proverbial pie, and they have entrenched interests with the cable providers that have built and “maintained” that infrastructure for decades.  They see upstarts like Netflix to be a threat.  A company that provides a really nice service to their customers that the vast majority of people are happy with.

Netflix has almost single-handidly destroyed the DVD industry.  In the early-2000s, I bought tons of DVDs, but now that I have Netflix, I have no need.  I can order a DVD and have it the next day, any time I want to see a movie.  Half the movies I own are on Netflix Streaming.  I still prefer the video quality of popping the disc in rather than using the internet to watch it, but still: if I want to see it, I can with only the most minimal of planning.  There was a time where I would rarely walk out of Wal-Mart without a DVD in town.  Now, I can safely enter and browse DVDs without fear of actually buying one.

Thus, these companies will charge Netflix exorbitant amounts of money to license movies and TV shows.  They will keep increasing the licensing costs, not because the content is actually worth that much, but because they want to destroy Netflix and keep their business model intact.

This is all aside from the fact that cable seems to have less and less that I want to watch.  Whenever Brooke and I are at our respective parent’s houses, we’ll flip on the TV and see what’s on.  Invariably, the answer is a resounding “nada.”  The only thing I miss having is the occasional sporting event.  So if I cared about sports more, we’d have to have cable.  Other than that, we just don’t watch much on TV anymore, at least stuff that isn’t available digitally through Hulu or TV.com, or that will eventually be available through Netflix in some form or fashion.  Part of me wants to get the basic “Family Package” of 30 channels when we move just so I don’t have to deal with bunny ears anymore, but thankfully, St. Louis gets a good number of channels over-the-air, so even that isn’t as big a deal.

Netflix provides me with a good service.  I have almost no desire to return to cable.  I can watch what I want and there’s plenty of material available, with new content arriving frequently.  My Instant Queue has 63 items in it, and it should be longer except that I know I barely have enough time to watch what I already added.

Keep on going, Netflix.  I’ll continue to support you.  And I imagine most people will, too.

Living In The Cloud

I find myself getting less and less patient with having to move data around between devices.  I want to have access to things where I want them, when I want them.  A lot of this has been building up over recent months, but I think the recent death of my old laptop (it’s GPU died…sad, sad day…) has brought it to a head.

Once the laptop died, I transferred some games to a desktop PC, but one I don’t leave on all the time.  This computer used to be my Linux web server, so this 5+ year old system is hardly up to heavy gaming…but that’s another story.  The new Linux server runs all the time, so it provides what we need for internet use, but there are a few key things it won’t do:  card reader functionality and iTunes.  I only have one device that has an SD card reader in it now, and it’s our netbook (Brooke has a USB card reader…somewhere…).  That, and iTunes is Windows and Mac, exclusive, so I can’t use it under Linux.

This means I’m relegated to using the netbook until I get some replacement parts to help speed up what is currently serving as my Windows machine.  And that netbook only has a 10″ screen, making it less than ideal for any kind of photo editing, or messing with an iTunes library.  Sure, it’s fine in a pinch, but netbooks weren’t really designed for heavy use.  Also, this poor netbook apparently won’t run Picasa: it actually “Blue Screens” Windows XP every time I try.  Because of these shenanigans, I haven’t been able to move pictures from our Nikon DSLR from the SD card up to the interwebs because the Picasa program is how I generally do this.

Which brings me to the point at hand: I love me some cloud computing.  Products like Dropbox (or Ubuntu One) to act as online storage, allowing me to share my files between the netbook, my Linux server, my work computer and my phone on the fly.  Google Music, so I can sync music from the cloud with my phone, and never mess with iTunes again.  Google+, which will automatically upload my photos from my phone to their servers (including Picasa) without me having to do anything.  Google Docs, which is where I’ve been typing countless cover letters and maintaining a spreadsheet of various jobs I’ve applied to, giving me access from anywhere on any device, including my phone.

Case in point: I could have transferred those pictures from the SD card to the netbook, and then in turn to a USB stick, and then to the Windows desktop that’s capable of actually running Picasa (or I could have found the cable to plug the camera directly into the computer…but seriously…who knows where it is…), or I could just transfer those pictures to my Dropbox folder on the netbook, allowing them to “magically appear” on whatever computer I wanted to use.  So much easier, and just as fast.

In short?  I’ve become too lazy for USB sticks and SD cards.  The act of physically connecting one thing to another has become a chore.  I’m in the 21st century and want everything, including my hard drive, to be “wireless.”

I have fully embraced the cloud.

The only thing keeping me from going “all the way” is my iPod Nano.  As our Kia Sportage doesn’t have an auxiliary jack, I can’t plug my phone into the stereo system.  My radio transmitter will only accept iPod-like devices: not my phone.  Thus, in order to listen to 8 GB of music or podcasts in my car, I have to use the iPod, which means I have to use iTunes, which means I have to use a cable to switch things around and update the playlist.

That, or I spend $250+ to get a new car stereo with an auxiliary jack, or $20,000+ on a new car.

I think I’m just spoiled…

A Bit Conflicted

A few months ago, Amazon launched their own Appstore for Android phones, however it took me until a few weeks ago to actually get it.  Long story short, Android users have the Android Market pre-installed that allows them to download free and paid apps to their phones, and the Amazon Appstore is a separate entity that does the same thing: just through Amazon.  AT&T, in their infinite wisdom, denied users the ability to install apps that weren’t from the Android Market (including the Amazon Appstore), but they finally reversed course at the end of May and decided to start allowing such things.  However, it took over two months for the update to finally make through AT&T’s network to my phone that would allow the change.  I was in constant contact with AT&T and my phone’s manufacturer, HTC, trying to get this stupid update.  They even sent me a replacement phone, but no dice.

Finally, one day I checked, and I had the ability to install the Amazon Appstore.  All of the sudden.  Lovely.

Since that time, I have grabbed a few apps and checked out some others.  There are some apps that are exclusive to Amazon’s store, and others that are only available through Android Market.  The killer feature of the Amazon Appstore, however, is their “Free App of the Day,” where Amazon allows you to download one free (normally paid) app during that 24 hour period.  Sometimes it’s a productivity app (like, today, it’s “iCooking Barbeque,” which gives you recipes.  Normally, it’s $0.99).  This past Monday, however, the free app was a game called Guitar Hero 5, which normally sells for $8.

You can hopefully see why I was anxious to get this appstore.  Sure, there are frequently things I don’t want, but sometimes, something comes along that’s normally $8 that you can get for free.  You don’t even have to install it: you just have to “buy” it and Amazon will remember that you own it.  If anything, you can just get everything and never use any of it, and not even take up the virtual space on your phone.

I am, however, at odds with what Amazon is doing with their appstore.  Sure, as the consumer, I like free stuff.  It gets me to use their service and I end up purchasing more through them than I would otherwise.  This is Amazon’s strategy in doing this in the first place (and they are paving the way to release their own tablet at the end of this year, with full integration of their own appstore, effectively bypassing Google).

But what happens to the developers of these apps?  You know, the folks that actually made the app that Amazon is giving away for free for that day?

There are more than a few horror stories out there on the internet.  One company put their app up on the store and would get a few hits a day.  Amazon offered to host their app as a free app for the day, and they decided to go ahead and do it (so, yes, it’s voluntary).  Amazon tells the developer that “We have seen tremendous results from this promotion spot and believe it will bring you a great deal of positive reviews and traffic. It is an opportunity to build your brand especially in association with a brand like Amazon’s. The current price of this placement is at 0% rev share for that one day you are placed.So, basically, Amazon gives the app away, and neither Amazon nor the developer makes anything for it on that day.  And this is what happens:

This particular developer was making some money from a few sales a day, and then effectively gave away 100,000+ copies of their app.  Almost $55,000 of product, given away.  After that sales spike, the developer says the sales returned to the original levels.

And this developer is not alone, In another case, the developer ended up giving away 180,000 copies of their app, but they ran into a separate problem from the first example.  The Amazon Appstore apparently doesn’t discriminate between Android phones, so in some cases, a given application won’t be fully compatible with your phone…and Amazon may not tell you this.  If you download the app and it doesn’t work, you tend to review the application unfavorably.  This particular app didn’t work on a certain set of Motorola phones, which meant that anyone that downloaded it gave it a bad review.  All the sudden, these guys ended up with thousands of bad reviews for their application, on a product that shouldn’t have been on some phones in the first place.

So, am I happy I have the Amazon Appstore?  Absolutely.  However, I’m also conflicted about it.  I have heard folks on podcasts that watch the store for updates in order to hear about new products, and if a particular app comes up that they want, they wait until the next day and go ahead and purchase it in order to make sure some revenue makes it to the developer.  Amazon also offers a nifty “Test Drive” feature for many of the apps they host that allows you to actually try the app out for 30 min on your Windows PC before buying it.  Thus, you can try it out on the free day, and if you like it, choose to wait to buy it the next day.  Others will get the free app, and then if the developer makes another application, they will be sure to buy that one also (which is kinda the whole purpose of this model…you get a free app, decide you like it, and then go to the developer’s page and buy more apps from them.  Doesn’t always work, obviously…).

Just something important to keep in mind.  What’s free to us, as Consumers, isn’t free to the people that made it.  Someone is losing money when we are given things for free.

 

Who Needs Another Music Player?

Spotify just launched in the United States this week, yet another music player entering the digital ecosystem. This time, however, we get one that has been around for awhile in Europe, and quite popular.  In short, it’s an audio program that lets you stream millions of songs to your device, and has other functional features including Facebook integration to check out your friend’s playlists.  One of the key features is that it functions much like Apple’s iCloud will, scanning your personal MP3 library and “mirroring” it on their servers, allowing you to stream that same library to any computer without needing to carry the physical media around with you.  It will do the same thing with your mobile phone.  Spotify’s library is substantially larger than many of the others (Pandora has maybe 800,000 songs, while Spotify has 13 million available), and most reviewers simply think it provides the better service for the money.  You get about 20 hrs of listening time per month for free, $5/mo gets you no ads, and $10/mo gets you other features, including the ability to use the service on your mobile phone.

Digitaltrends has a good summary of the pros and cons of a few of the popular options.

Spotify is not alone in this venture, though it’s new to the U.S.  Grooveshark is another, alternative, web-based application with a mobile version, though I question its legality.  Like Spotify, it has a massive library, but it works a bit more like YouTube in that other users have uploaded music that you then stream to your computer or to your mobile device.  While Spotify has high-quality, licensed music, your experience is more “hit or miss” with Grooveshark, as some people may have uploaded high bitrate versions of music (i.e. good sounding) while others uploaded lower bitrate versions (i.e. very, very bad sounding).  Of course, Grooveshark is free, so most people don’t complain when the song selection is that good.  They also charge various amounts for their services above and beyond the base service, but it doesn’t sound like many people do.

Pandora is the main competitor that folks in the United States have at least heard of, if not used.  It’s much more of a radio system in that you select a station and then music will come up almost at random that you can then skip or “Thumbs Up” so that more music like it ends up in your station.  You have no real choice in what the next song played is, though, while you can make your own playlists in Spotify and Grooveshark.  Pandora also has a very nice mobile app and has been integrated into a wealth of home devices, including Bluray players.  Their only paid plan is $36/yr, removes all ads, and grants you higher sound quality.

For now, I’ll give Spotify a quick go-round, though I doubt I’ll get much use out of it.  The only computer in the house with good speakers attached is a Linux box, and as there is no native Linux client available, I can’t use it.  I will probably try their “preview release” for Linux – thankfully, Linux is more popular in Europe, so this company actually has an incentive to make a client.  Obviously, this is where its competitors, Grooveshark, Pandora, Google Music and Amazon MP3 shine, as they are almost completely multi-platform.

That said, the Spotify client under Windows is silky smooth, unlike iTunes.  It’s nice to see iTunes finally getting some viable competition (and no, Windows Media Player is not “competition”…).  It navigates similarly to iTunes, so if you’re familiar with its style of getting around your library and making playlists, you should feel right at home.

In the end, I’m glad there are plenty of options out there for your digital music needs.  Gone are the days where you would walk down to the record store and thumb through various discs until you found something interesting, then bought it for $20.  Now you can get your music in the comfort of your own home, or on-the-go, and it’s great that there are countless ways to do it effectively.

And legally.