Protip

"Hello. My name is 'Google Reader.'"

I’m fully aware that many believe I sit in front of a computer all day and stare at Facebook, posting articles and comments and shirking actual “work.”  In actuality, I’d argue that I only have “http://www.facebook.com” on my web browser 15 min per day, on average.  On a “busy” day, when I’m in the middle of a conversation/argument, more like 30 min.

How is this possible, you ask?  Why, it’s the power of RSS readers!

“RSS” stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” and the idea for it goes back as far as 1995, though the first official version was integrated into Netscape in 1999.  In many ways, RSS is what gives blogs the power they have today: the ability for the headline and a brief description of an article or posting to be “aggregated” for easy digestion by the reader.

Note: This very blog has and has always had an RSS function.  That’s what the cute little orange icon in the upper-right corner that pops up does.

So here’s the secret:  I’ve got 45 different blogs aggregated into my Google Reader account.  This means that my phone, my Kindle Fire, my Chrome web browser, and the Reader website itself all tie into a single repository that collects new posts from each of these sites almost immediately after a new article is posted.  I’ll wake up in the morning and have 75+ articles to wade through, to see if there’s anything interesting, and I can do this easily on my phone, swiping with my finger to scroll through the list.

Any articles I think may be interesting (based on the title, usually, but sometimes after checking the description), I will press to add a “Star,” effectively bookmarking it for later reading.  Then, I can just click “Mark All Read” and my list is cleared out, ready for re-population.  Once I sit down at a computer somewhere, or with the tablet, I will then skim the articles I found to be most interesting.  And sometimes, I’ll share relevant articles on Google+ or Facebook.

So, quite rapidly, I can skim through articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Columbia Daily Tribune without ever having to actually visit the sites themselves, thus avoiding ads and thus saving me time.

And furthermore, you can share articles to Facebook or Google+ directly from most of these blogs, as this is how they generate their traffic.  You just have to click “Share” from the page in question, or from within Google Reader.  A little box shows up and you write what you want to post, along with the link.  And you never have to actually go to Facebook.com to do this.

So yeah, a little “protip:” use an RSS reader of some kind to make your blog reading more efficient.  You are more than capable of getting information throughout the day without getting bogged down in Facebook or on blogs themselves.  You can, in fact, get work done and still provide useful information on subjects that interest you.  It really isn’t that hard…

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.

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 Year Without Cable

I realized recently that, besides the fact that we’ve now lived in Iowa for the last year, it also means we’ve lived without cable television. After all that time, what have we missed?

Not a whole lot, it turns out.

Sure, there are some things that I would like to have.  Some deficiencies I figured we would see in this newfound lack of endless channels, but there are others I didn’t expect.  For one thing, I knew we’d miss having the ability to record a program on a DVR, as we’d gotten used to having one for the previous 4 years.  I thought that we’d be fine without it, however, as most of the shows we watch were on some kind of digital service, a la Hulu, etc.  And for most shows, we were right.

Unfortunately, a select few of my shows (e.g. Stargate Universe and Sanctuary) have some silly deal with SyFy that makes them show up on Hulu 30 days after premiering.  That, my friends, is an eternity.  Those shows, however, are the only ones that seem to have this problem.  Many of the others, in fact, show up the day after premiering on television, while others show up a week later.  These are time-frames we can deal with.

One thing I didn’t think I’d miss, however, was baseball.  I don’t really watch baseball religiously, but I do like catching the occasional game on a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  For the most part, many Cardinals games are actually televised up here in Iowa, using KDSK‘s feed.  This isn’t always the case, however, and sometimes, because we’re in Iowa, we get enough wind that the TV station’s antenna is cutting in and out, making my viewing of a game troublesome.  I have considered getting MLB.tv service, which would allow us to watch any baseball game throughout the season in HD through the PS3, but at $90 per season, I just don’t watch enough to make it worth it.

Other than that?  I don’t think we miss all that much.  We watch quite a bit of Netflix, streamed through the PS3 or Wii, and we have a few “standby” shows in our Instant Queue at all times when we get that “we just want to veg out in front of the TV and watch nothing specific” feeling, such as No Reservations, Man v. Food, Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs.  The best part being that we can choose which episodes we want to watch, rather than being at the mercy of whatever theme that particular station is running on that day.  And, no commercials.

We are still watching Hulu through the computer, but it seems to work alright.  I’d prefer to have it on the TV, but I don’t want to run a cable that far, and the 19″ monitor we’re using is “big enough” for our purposes.

In the end, I don’t think we miss cable all that much.  We can find little things here and there that would be nice to see live, but more often than not, we’re living without it.

Not something my parents could have believed they’d ever say, methinks…

A View From The Top

While I was sitting at my parents house over Easter talking with my Dad, it suddenly dawned on me that Linux had finally gained supremacy over Windows and Apple, something that I never thought I’d see.  However, it wasn’t able to pull off the feat using a traditional PC: instead, it used mobile devices via Android OS.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a new idea.  The thought has been broadcast across the interwebs over the past few years, though only recently did Android actually surpass iOS in adoption across the phone and tablet markets.  Seeing the range of new products coming out on the horizon, this trend will only continue upwards as multiple companies release products using the Android OS as the backbone for their software.

What some forget, however, is that the core of Android is, in fact, the Linux kernel.  My HTC Inspire 4G, running Android 2.2.1, is using Linux kernel 2.6.32.  My Linux box at home runs Linux kernel 2.6.35, a slightly newer version.  I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of differences in kernels (nor do I care…), but let’s just say that there has been some disagreement between Google and the maintainers of the Linux kernel as to whether Android OS technically counts as “Linux,” though I believe most would say that it absolutely does.

I guess I just find it fascinating that this “Little Operating System That Could” finally found an audience and most people don’t even know it.  Dad introduced me to computers when DOS and Windows 3.1 were king.  However, once our family started having multiple computers, he toyed with other operating systems, including OS/2 Warp and Red Hat Linux 5.2.  While he purchased a copy of OS/2, he frequently picked up copies of Linux from the Public Library, installing different flavors of Linux for free on his system(s).  As I was curious about these different systems, I learned more about it and once I went to college, grabbed an old Gateway 2000 computer and put Red Hat 6.1 on it, followed by various other iterations of Linux.  Over the past decade, it’s been my desktop operating system of choice, always getting better and better.

But few people know how good Linux has gotten.  It’s an excellent operating system, as it has been for years.  Sure, it still doesn’t run Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or a multitude of Windows- or Mac-only video games, but it does do one thing remarkably well:

Web-browsing.

And if you want to make a device that is constantly connected to the internet, and don’t want to pay high development costs or licensing fees to Microsoft or Apple, which operating system makes the most sense for you to use?

Linux.

As we all move further toward cloud-based computing, and companies like Google keep focusing on Linux as their technology of choice (as it’s behind Android OS and Chrome OS, which will power netbooks and tablets beginning this year), further adoption of Linux will take place in populations that never thought they’d ever use it.  Part of this is because the Linux kernel has always had a remarkable “efficiency” to it that Windows has never been able to re-create.  You always needed newer hardware to run the most modern Windows systems, while you could run a modern Linux system on practically nothing.  Mobile phones, especially, use relatively slow processors when compared to the quad-core monstrosities powering many desktops today.  Heck, it was just revealed that an early version of Windows 8 will be the first one to run on an ARM processor, the technology powering practically every mobile phone sold today.  Up until now, Windows hasn’t even been capable of running on anything like that, unless it’s the feature-poor Windows CE.  Windows will ultimately make it to tablets, but not before Android and iOS have a massive foot-hold on the market, as they already do on phones.

It’s just fascinating to consider how far Linux has come and what ended up actually pushing it “over the top.”  We all thought Dell offering Linux on laptops would do it, or the multitude of governments, schools and companies across the world that switched from Windows (or Unix) to Linux would do it.

It was the telephone all along.

F2P – Part II

In “F2P – Part I,” I discussed the two primary forms of making money on media in today’s day and age: advertising and microtransactions.  In “Part II,” I look more into how this all applies to other media and where I see things going.  Of course, as I am no expert in any of this, you should take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Where’s It Going

Long-story-short?  Who knows.  The beauty of the internet is that everyone’s trying different things.  I think there are interesting trends, however, that are worth considering.

The New York Times, for example, instituted their “pay wall” recently.  According to them, most people only look at maybe 20 articles on the site in a given month, so they are preserving that service for those people.  For everyone else (that doesn’t have a subscription to their newspaper), they will make you pay for the service after you have hit your 20 article limit.  The idea is very similar to the microtransaction: the relative few that use the service the most are subsidizing those that use the service the least.  There are other newspapers looking at doing something similar – my hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has already implemented similar plans.

I think television media is the more difficult anomaly.  Hulu, for example, pulls quite a bit of its content from NBC and FOX, and has a good deal of “back catalog” viewing.  In some cases, you will get commercials that show up during the breaks, typically either one or two.  Sometimes, you’ll get a choice at the beginning of an “extended commercial” that may be 2 min long, and then you won’t get any more commercials for the rest of the show.

Their Hulu Plus service, however, is a crazy hybrid that was released in 2010.  The licensing behind these television shows is set such that you can watch them on a computer, or you can watch them on your television through your cable provider (or your antenna), but legally setting up a system so you can watch these shows over the internet and then display them on your television is much more murky.  They invented Hulu Plus as a way around this, where you have a subscription service that then allows you to watch some Hulu content on your television, including some current-run shows (i.e. you can watch all of this season’s “30 Rock” over the service).  However, there are other shows on Hulu that you can’t watch through your television, including practically all USA Network shows and SyFy shows, to name a few.  That means you not only don’t get access to their current-run shows, but you also don’t get access to the same shows that are running on Hulu through your computer.

Let alone the fact that you are paying the $8/mo to get this content on your television, yet you still get commercials to help subsidize the licensing.

Needless to say, the New York Times and Hulu are two separate examples of different ways media are trying to figure out how to get viewers and users over the internet, and make money doing so.  In my opinion, the New York Times has a much better strategy for it than Hulu does, yet Hulu is constrained by the “Old Media” way of licensing their content, written when there was no such thing as an “Internet.”

Now For Some Speculation

As I said before, no clue, but it still fascinates me, especially as companies try to find new ways to make money using the internet.  I think they all see the writing on the wall and they are doing their best to stave it off as long as they can.

In a relatively short amount of time, there will be no phone lines or cable lines: it will all be fiber optic (or wireless) and we will not only communicate through it like a telephone, but we will also get information and entertainment from it like a television.  Your news content will no longer come on paper to your doorstep unless you pay a lot for it.  The Internet represents a complete merge of all “Old Media” into something new, and it’s been happening very slowly for the past 15 years.  Very soon, however, new houses won’t be built with copper lines or coaxial cables: they will have a single fiber optic line that serves the purpose of both.  And old houses will be retrofitted with the same technology.  The house we currently live in has that fiber optic line running right up to it, and we live in the middle of nowhere in Iowa.  There’s a good chance your houses are next.

And while all that is happening, the companies that make the content will have to merge along with it, and deal with the other companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft that have been in the game and have figured out how to make money on the Internet.  Google made a great search engine, but they made their money on advertising.  Advertising, I might add, that you barely notice as you browse their various web sites.  To the point where they can afford to provide you with web-based office software, Google Earth, Picasa image editing software, Chrome web browser, and even whole operating systems in the form of Android and Chrome OS – for free.  They figured out what they needed to do to get you to use their search technology, and they did it with advertising and made a lot of money doing it.

Effectively, whether they like it or not, cable companies aren’t going to have cable going into houses much longer.  They need to get their content on the internet, and soon.  Personally, I’d rather see this happen along the lines of the New York Times: allow a certain amount of programming for free per month over your web browser or an internet-ready TV, and then charge individuals on a per-channel basis.  This should have been done years ago (a so-called a la carte plan) by the cable companies, but they chose to create larger and larger cable packages instead.  Now it’s coming back to bite them.

Wrap-Up

How the “Old Media” guard will end up surviving, only time will tell.  But there are plenty of companies out there providing free content, subsidized by a fraction of their users.  Zynga and Turbine are developers making high-class games and making millions doing it.  And they do it using a model that provides services for free to the masses, making money on volume.

Once the “Old Media” groups figure out that they can’t continue doing what they’ve been doing for the last few decades and survive on the Internet, they’ll be better off.  Until then, they will continue to lose customers and money.

And the rest of us will simply move on.

F2P – Part I

I’ve been toying with thoughts on the “Free 2 Play” movement (“F2P”) for a few weeks now, as I find the whole thing to be fascinating.

In short, F2P is exactly as it sounds: you get a game, a program, or a web-based service for free, and then your free use of it is subsidized in some way.  In some cases, it can be through advertisements.  In other cases, it’s in the form of “micro-transactions.”  I’ll hit both of those separately, as I think they both contribute in different ways to how the internet is changing, or has already changed, e-commerce.

It should be noted that most people would look at “F2P” as applying solely to the realm of online video games, yet I think its trends extend into other media and have for a long time.

Advertising

The ad-supported model is probably the oldest form of these changes, as we’ve all been exposed to it for generations now.  Very few of us could pay for all the programming on any given television channel, yet the advertisements and marketing that go into each program help subsidize it to make each program cost practically nothing to us.  In the early days of the internet, when web sites like Yahoo! and AOL were trying to figure out how to make money from consumers and not rely as much on investors, we started getting ads displayed on pages.  They started out being banner ads at the top of the screen, and were mostly un-obtrusive.  Then, our good friends Adobe established Flash as the go-to web media platform, allowing for moving advertisements.  Combined with other web-based technologies like Javascript, the dreaded “Pop-Up” ad gained popularity.

Most large web sites will tell you that their advertisements don’t make a large enough dent in their revenues to fully cover their services.  We have come to understand this primarily in the “old media” sense, including magazines, television networks, and newspapers (more on the latter in a few days).  In the case of television networks, while Hulu still displays ads during commercial breaks on their programming, the revenue they make from those advertisements barely puts a dent in the costs of production and marketing of a TV show.  Quite a few people use the service, but it isn’t exactly paying for new shows.

Enough people got annoyed with pop-up ads (and installed pop-up blocking software in their browsers…) that their development has slowed down, however advertisements still subsidize quite a few web sites, and now, mobile phone applications.  You can buy Angry Birds for $1, or you can download a version for free that has small ads on the bottom.  Amazon recently announced that they’ll knock off $25 from your purchase of a Kindle e-reader if you get an ad-supported version that displays advertisements on the home screen and screen saver (thankfully, not between pages of your book).

Microtransactions

This is the new way of making money.  And it makes quite a bit of money.  Mostly, microtransactions have shown up in “the game space,” including free-to-play MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online or Free Realms, and free-to-play games on Facebook, including FarmVille.  In general, these games are all free, so you can usually play the majority of the content of the game simply by downloading it, or loading it up in your web browser.  However, there are some portions of the game that you can pay a small amount for.

In Lord of the Rings Online, for example, you can “die” and resurrect yourself where you died once per session – after that, you can only resurrect at the nearest town, requiring you to run back to where you were, potentially taking from a few minutes up to an hour.  Or, you can pay a small amount, like $0.50, to resurrect yourself again in that location.  To many players, that $0.50 is well worth the cost to not have to spend the extra time running back to that location.

In FarmVille, you are growing your crops and getting your friends to do things for you.  You need to water your crops in order to earn in-game currency, and this must be done within specific time restrictions.  Having your friends visit your farm for you, however, can help take some of the load off your tasks.  Of course, you can also visit your friend’s farms and carry out tasks for them, as well.  If you don’t want to wait for your friends to do things for your farm, you can pay a small amount to have it done sooner so you don’t have to wait.

This is the idea of the microtransaction.  You spend very small amounts of money, or you don’t spend any at all.  Statistically, this ends up working quite well for the company.  Zynga is the company that makes FarmVille, and more recently, CityVille.  The latter had 61 million monthly users last December, helping contribute to the company’s $850 million revenue in 2010.  For Lord of the Rings Online, their developer, Turbine, released statements saying that their revenues tripled since going free-to-play.  Where players were once spending $15/mo to use the service, they increased the number of people playing the game and actually made more money, having the users spend less.

Effectively, this is the idea of “selling on volume:” get more people to use the product by making it free, and you actually make more money doing it.  When interviewed, Turbine will tell you that almost 50% of the users for Lord of the Rings Online pay absolutely nothing, with only a small subset paying a little…and a smaller minority paying a lot.  The extreme minority ends up paying for the extreme majority’s fun.

Stay tuned for F2P – Part II, appearing on Friday.  I’ll try to apply these two models to media in general, including newspapers, television, and so on.  Then again, I’m no expert in these matters, so…take it as you will…