Category Archives: Technology

Cord Cutters Anonymous

CuttingHi, my name is Code Curmudgeon and I’m a cord cutter. It’s been 11 months since the last time I had cable TV. Actually I would have been cord cutting would have been much longer than that, but we were stuck in a contract with our provider with one of those unhappy early termination clauses.

That in itself was a contract extension which was following us complaining about service a year before that. Their response was to cut our bill, add free channels, and give us 3 months of free service. But still didn’t address my complaints that cable/satellite is simply way overpriced.

The cable cabal would have you believe that you’re getting a good deal. Offers of 100+ channels for only pennies each. Or maybe it’s a buck each, but your real cable cost is primarily for the programs you actually want to see, and secondarily for those that you’ll watch because you’re bored and there’s nothing better on – the bane of cable viewers. They funny thing is I’d be more than willing to pay $1 per month for each channel I actually watch (Apple style – .99 each), and forget the rest. I don’t need 10+ shopping channels, I don’t need 30+ “on-demand” channels. I need about a dozen channels at most. I’d even pay more, maybe $5 per month for premium. A very few channels I might pay higher, but I doubt it.

Why can’t we just get the channels we want? Well it’s a long, complicated, convoluted story, and even if you know it all it won’t make sense, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s one part greed, one part stupidity, one part legacy behavior to broadcast days, and one part luddite. Suffice to say that it doesn’t really fit todays needs and delivery capabilities.

Which is to say that the idea that I have to be in front of my TV at a specific time to watch a particular program is quite silly. I know, there are things like Tivo and DVR’s, which of course cost extra. And they still have the second issue, namely inane commercials. I’m in the middle of watching some good drama, and suddenly I’m interrupted by someone trying to hawk some strange product I neither want nor need – how bizarre is that when you think about it?

Live TV constrained by time does have it’s time and place. 24/7 news channels are a great example. At the moment the only one that really supports the internet is Aljazeera, and thanks to joining the cable crowd in America, they’ll be dropping that soon.

Sports is another great reason to have live broadcast television. By their nature, sporting events are time constrained. If you want to watch a game and be sure that no one tells you the outcome, you really have to make time for it. On the other hand, some of the internet offerings like NHL Game Center provide really great viewing without commercials if you watch after the game is over.

Sports streaming offerings are still subject to dark ages behavior like local blackouts that can even exceed the televised blackout restrictions. Why can I watch the Dodgers away games on television, but not local? And with the MLB.tv option I can’t see live Dodgers games at all. Strangely enough HBO is much the same in terms of bizarre restrictions, in that they will not accept my money for their content unless I also subscribe to cable.

Kudos to CBS for streaming the SuperBowl live – which led me to take stock of my own infrastructure in order to watch on my TV rather than a tablet or sitting in front of the family computer. For me, the basic replacements to cable have become 3 subscriptions – Netflix for .99/month, Hulu Plus for .99/month, and Amazon Instant Video for $79/year. This is supplemented with occasional purchases for things that aren’t available on the streaming plan, like $25 for a current season of a favorite show from any of the big 3 – Apple iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Let me give a brief summary of what I think of the good and bad for each, and then I’ll cover the hardware options that make life easier. Note that Apple content favors one strategy, Google another, and Amazon yet another.

Services

Netflix
Netflix has a great all-you-can eat model. They support almost every device on the planet, from Smart TVs to gaming consoles, PCs, tablets, mobile phones, etc. Easy to use, easy to pay for, easy to connect.

Content wise they don’t get the latest movies, and rarely the latest TV shows, certainly not shows currently in-season. I still have found a huge wealth of interesting things to watch. I do hear people say there is nothing to watch on Netflix, but I just don’t understand it.

The search capability to find new content is poorly done and very inconsistent across platforms. Basic combined searches are impossible – say SciFi from the 80’s. Their recommendations are complete garbage, but find your own stuff and you’ll do ok.

Completely worth the price, and commercial free.

Hulu
Hulu is the place to go for a replacement for basic network television. Many current TV shows are available there. So if you’re a big fan of the big TV networks, this is a good option for you.

They also have some old movies available, such as the Criteria Collection. Personally, I find that while there are same good old films in that collection, they’re a pretty small proportion of it.

They have a wealth of BBC content that is listed as exclusive. I’m not sure how exclusive it actually is, but there are a lot of interesting shows that I”ve never watched before, like Misfits and Black Books that are fun. Other good british programs such as The IT Crowd and Doc Martin are available from other providers.

On the downside it has an ever increasing number of commercial interruptions, and the search capabilities are so bad it makes Netflix search look good. And beware their clips – they may have 50 videos listed for a particular program, but you’ll find out that half of them are short clips of just a couple of minutes. I’d prefer to somehow separate or even completely block the clips, but it can’t be done.

In short, if you need current network shows or are a BBC fan, it’s worth the money, otherwise I’d give it a pass. I can watch old TV shows on Netflix without commercials.

Amazon
Amazon Instant Video is part of the Amazon Prime membership. Like many others, I originally just signed up for the shipping. Until I had a box that would connect it to my TV, I never used it.

Some of the service is “all you can eat” like Netflix. Other pieces are rental or purchase, more along the iTunes model from Apple. Content is smaller than the other providers, but growing at a reasonable pace. I wouldn’t live on it alone, but it does have content I like. And since I already had it for the shipping, it’s basically a freebie.

Note that the content doesn’t work everywhere. It has a flash-bashed browser client that works on some but not all devices. There are recently more clients for smart TV’s and game consoles as well. Roku support and iOS support are there. The missing piece is non-Amazon android tablets. If you have a Google Nexus tablet or Samsung tablet, then getting Amazon video is tricky, and is only available online, so not when you’re on an airplane. Not a big deal for the “all you can eat” but painful if you’ve paid money for content, like the latest movie you thought you’d watch on the flight overseas.

A good value, but man cannot live by Amazon alone.

Itunes
iTunes is essentially a rental/purchase model. Yes, there is some free content there, but nothing to speak of. This is a place to go when you want to buy or rent a movie or TV series that is unavailable elsewhere or for offline use.

Note that it’s heavily DRM’d meaning it works well in the Apple ecosystem of Macs, PCs, iPads, iPhones, and Apple TV. Others, forget about it.

Easy to use with a reasonable selection, but remember you can’t watch it on your android, etc. And when you are buying or renting, check Google and Amazon as well. I always pick the cheapest one if I can.

Google Play
Like iTunes, this is Google setting up a place for you to buy and rent content. They work great on android devices, and you can actually get content on others by using a browser. Not as slick as iTunes on Apple, but a very reasonable alternative.

Like Apple there is DRM and you can’t use the videos outside the Google ecosystem. In some cases you can download for offline viewing, but not on all devices.

Personal content
If you have your own content, you need to either store on your game console, or share it from your PC, as below. One reasonable solution that doesn’t require a video cable to do this is to setup some kind of DLNA server, ie Plex that will make your video and music available to your game consoles and smart TV.

If you’re ripping your own DVD’s make sure to use a high-quality format, or you’ll be getting a poor experience.

Hardware

And now onto the hardware that will free you from watching on your tablet or sitting in front of a computer like a 1990’s computer nerd. Note that the big sports packages from MLB, NBA, and NHL are available almost everywhere, but NFL is trickier.

Dedicated computer
Obviously you can connect your PC or Mac to your TV using a cable. For some people this is a very reasonable option. Upside is it’s little additional cost. Downside is it’s a PC and isn’t as easy to use as the options below. Plus not all solutions will work as well this way.

If you’re serious about this, buy a small self-contained PC and put it in your entertainment center with all your video and music loaded on it, and it may be worth it for you. Machines like the Mac Mini are a good solution if you’re inclined in this direction.

Beware dangling cables and make sure you connect using HDMI for a quality picture.

Smart TV
Most current high-end televisions come with some apps. At a minimum get something with a DLNA server so you can share your own content in your house. In my experience though, all of these have pretty barebones servers. Smart TV can save you some money and setup, but currently aren’t as slick as the standalone boxes from Apple, Google, and Roku.

Apple TV
Apple TV is an obvious solution if you have a strong Apple investment. It’s key points are that it’s got a very easy to use interface, and it let’s you stream your iTunes content straight to your television, as well as stream from your iPhone and iPad without a cable.

If you use Netflix or Hulu, their best apps currently are on Apple TV. The experience is very different than others like the Playstation or Roku.

If you plan on using Google Play content or Amazon streaming video, then this isn’t the best choice for you.

Roku
Roku is a slick little box like the Apple TV. It has a channel store where there are tons of free channels – mostly they are wrappers to existing online services, such as the content from Comedy Central.

It happens to have a nice Amazon Instant Video client, as well as Hulu and Netflix. It even has a Plex client for streaming your own video from your computer. The interface is mostly consistent across all the applications, making it easy to use, though not as full-featured as the Apple TV.

My only complaints are that I like a more full-featured UI and it doesn’t seem to have a good browser I could use for the Google Play store. Not a bad choice for the non-apple ecosystem. I personally would have skipped it if the Amazon client had been available on others when I bought mine, but I have an investment in Apple content.

The Roku can also play games but seriously, don’t buy it for that.

Google TV
I bought the Sony version of Google TV for streaming live web content, such as the SuperBowl last weekend. It worked well for that. There is a lot of overlap with my Roku, but overall it’s just not as slick as the Roku. I suspect I’ll only use the Google TV for Google content and for when I need a browser. I’m a bit disappointed, I was hoping to replace my Roku, but whatever aged version of android is on this device just isn’t up to the competition.

Gaming Consoles
The Playstation and Xbox are primarily gaming consoles and I won’t get into which one is best for gaming. But if you have one how much can you use it for other video purposes. Currently it seems the big apps are there, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

The drawback is that all of the gaming console client’s I’ve used are miserable. If you’re a hardcore gamer, this won’t bother you. But don’t buy it for your parents, they won’t be happy.

If you have Apple or Google for content, then this isn’t an option for you.

Summary
As you’re surmised, I have all of the above options setup in my house. Once upon a time the whole house was centered around the Sony Playstation, but they never really progressed in this area, and the Apple TV was the first to replace them. We have a lot of Apple TV series and movies, os this has worked well.

Then the Roku came along. I had tried jailbreaking my Apple TV for Plex, but wasn’t really happy. Since the Roku had both Plex and Amazon Prime, I picked one up. There are lots of other little channels on it, but we mostly don’t use them very often. We liked it enough to buy one for each TV in the house and I can recommend it to friends, with the cavets mentioned above re web browser and Apple content.

Hopefully this will help you make an informed decision. I wish that the Google TV was better, and I wish that all three big content purchase providers would make their content available on all platforms, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Microsoft Windows Reboot Silliness

I know there is a lot of talk going on right now about Microsoft Windows 8, but I just ran into something very funny on my Windows 7 virtual machine (VM). Those who know me know that I expunged Windows from my daily life over 10 years ago, but I still need to access it from time-to-time.

I stubbornly insisted on using Windows XP for the longest time in my VM, since Vista was such a pain, and Windows 7 never really called to me. Now with end-of-life coming for XP, I’ve been calling on my Win7 VM for the few things that I need windows for. It has become so rare that typically starting the VM leads down a long path of not-yet-installed Windows updates, one of the many reasons I left the Microsoft ecosystem.

Windows Update can't reboot because Windows Update is running.
Windows Update can’t reboot because Windows Update is running.

What happened is another – just general Microsoft silliness. As you finish downloading updates, you frequently need to reboot (far more frequently than you should have to, one more reason…). When you go to reboot Windows checks running applications and tries to decide if it’s safe to restart. If you have an unsaved document in Word for example, it prompts you to save it before you lose something, a very reasonable behavior.

In this case, the only things running were Windows Explorer (not IE, just the file browser) and Windows Update – the application doing the update itself. Note that the below picture behavior happened repeatedly one more than one machine, sometimes being blocked by only Windows Update.

So take a look – Windows Update can’t reboot because… wait for it… Windows Update is running. Hilarious.

If you don’t see why it’s funny, let me know. If you have your own funny stories about any OS, especially with pictures, please share via the comments, twitter, etc.

Whacky Rumors – Will Microsoft Subsidize the Surface?

The Microsoft Surface tablet computer.
As I’ve written before, I’m generally opposed to all the silly tech rumors that fly around, such as what features may or may not be in the next Apple or Android device.

However, this idea is just too juicy to let go. Massive disclaimer upfront, I haven’t read this anywhere and have absolutely no proof whatsoever that Microsoft (MSFT) has any such plans. That being said, I’ve certainly wondered about it.

From the day the Surface was announced rumors have been flying about what the thing will cost. Microsoft said:

Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM (ARMH) tablet or Intel (INTC) Ultrabook-class PC.

This has lead a lot of people to speculate that the Arm version will be about $500 and the Intel version about $1000 give or take a hundred bucks. A few people asked about them going low like Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN), say in the $299 price range, but conventional wisdom seems to be the higher figure, say Apple (AAPL) price range for Arm and Notebook price range for the Intel.

Personally, I immediately started thinking about the Microsoft strategy for X-box. Give the thing away for as close to cost as possible, even less if you can find a way to do it. Spend a few years subsidizing it and then make it back after you’ve clawed your way up to major market share.

For the most part this worked for X-box. Recently the division has had downturns, but so has the gaming industry on the whole. Overall most would say it’s been a successful strategy for Microsoft. In fact, many point to X-box as proof that the Surface will be successful, although I haven’t seen any such commentary that mentions the pricing strategy that was used. Note also that recently Microsoft began offering subsidies, further lowering the price of the hardware.

It’s undeniable that Microsoft has some work ahead of them if they want to make a dent in the tablet market. Apple has a pretty good lock at the moment. Amazon has gained some traction although with their method of sales reporting it’s difficult to get an accurate count. Google appears set to put some heavy competition on the low-end and small-device market with their Nexus. The Surface is exciting to Microsoft fans because of the OS and because it’s from Microsoft, but aside from that, for tablet customers there is nothing really new or outstanding about the Surface. This is evident from the obviously heavy attention given to the fact that it has a keyboard and a stand, both of which aren’t core issues and are available for every other tablet on the market. I’m not saying it’s a bad tablet, to the contrary it appears to be a decent machine. But nothing special to make it stand out, which is what you need if you’re going up against the iPad.

This is why I keep thinking about the pricing strategy. Microsoft could price it high and call it a premium device. This will keep the margins high, but undoubtedly limit its potential sales. Or Microsoft could go on and really attack the new market like they did with Xbox. This has the risk of alienating their OEM partners, but the upside is capturing real market share. Tell me Microsoft hasn’t at least discussed it internally.

This brings me to the rumor that I never actually heard but have thought about. Microsoft recently announced their Q4 earnings. In their 10-K filing with the SEC Microsoft says:

We may not achieve significant revenue from new product and service investments for a number of years, if at all. Moreover, new products and services may not be profitable, and even if they are profitable, operating margins for new products and businesses may not be as high as the margins we have experienced historically.

This got me thinking again about Surface pricing. If Microsoft is warning that they’re releasing a new product and it might cost them money, it may just be that they’re doing the fiduciary duty in warning investors. On the other hand, maybe they’re expecting to lose money on Surface initially, and if that’s the case, is is the price?

Maybe, just maybe, Microsoft will lowball the price of the Surface and following Amazon and Google’s lead, blow the tablet market wide open. This might not be good for Apple, but a tablet pricing war would be great for consumers. Cross your finger!

What do YOU think? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

[Update Aug 14, 2012]
Today Engadget is reporting to have a source that says the Surface RT will be $199. Hmm… maybe I was right?
[/Update]

The Ins and Outs of Opting and Privacy

There has been another rash of security and privacy issues by major internet companies. Actually it’s more of an ongoing issue than it is a recent outbreak. And much of the ongoing trouble is related to a poor understanding of “opt in” vs “opt out” methodologies, and some pretty poor business choices in that area.

Keep Out © by Aaron Jacobs

Google (GOOG) just announced that wireless network owners can no “opt out” from its Wi-Fi geolocation map database. Many have greeted this as good news and responsible behavior on Google’s behalf. Others, myself included, view this as a classic case of a business doing essentially nothing to change it’s behavior, and then promoting the non-effort as a valuable security benefit to their customers and the world at large. Google believes that once you’re using any of their services, you’ve essentially opted in to anything they want to do. More on that in a minute.

Another consumer favorite, Facebook appears to be tracking 90 days of everything it’s users (and some suggest even former users) browse on the web. This is beyond just tracking what you’re doing inside Facebook itself. And there are also allegations over whether or not they actually are storing profile information about people who have not even joined Facebook. This is another company that believes in a policy of opting you in to anything they want and then letting you opt back out. They know that a lot of people aren’t savvy enough to understand, others too lazy, and others will never even be aware of the issues.

Verizon (VZ) tracks everything you do with your phone, so do pretty much all the cell phone companies. Recently Verizon started allowing people to opt out. Josh Constine at TechCrunch mentions that at least they don’t call it “Greater Choice” like Google does. But his take is everyone is saying “Why can’t we be evil too?”

Strangely enough, AT&T (ATT) takes the opposite move of letting people opt in. Pretty ironic for a company who’s logo resemble the Death Star, but commendable.

The problem with “opt out” is that it works well outside of privacy areas. It also works in areas where you have an explicit relationship. For example, if I create a Google account it will keep track of what I search, unless I opt out. Most companies that have web accounts work in this way, for example with their email lists. This is a very reasonable method – you contacted me, so you don’t mind if I contact you. You see this normally as little “send me your junk email” boxes. You can judge the company based on whether the boxes are clicked or empty by default on their sign-up forms.

The stakes for things like this are low – the worst case is that some web site sends me a bunch of junk email, and if they’re a responsible company, they’ll respond to my “stop that” request.

The difference with privacy issues is that the stakes are much higher, and the awareness is much lower. If someone decides that by using their website I agree to let them track my every move on the web, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever figure it out. And they may end up being privy to something I didn’t want to share with them. Opting people in by default to such things is unethical behavior at best. What’s the rational connection between me using your website and me giving you permission to spy on all my web activities? There is none of course.

In the case of the Google Wi-Fi mapping they’re collecting your data whether or not you have a relationship with them. This is one step worse than the Facebook issue. In this case they’re literally driving the streets of the world looking for Wi-Fi (we used to call this warchalking) and then adding you to a database. You may not even be aware they’re collecting your data. In fact, the odds that homeowners ARE aware are extremely small. And yet they’re using on opt out methodology, just to cover their butts. Which essentially means that they’re opting you in to something, without your permission, without your awareness. And they justify that because their company motto is “Do No Evil”.

The truth is that it’s a very questionable practice to collect someone’s information without their knowledge. If they want to build a database, then can simply switch to an opt in method. Instead of my changing my SSID if I happen to know that they might drive by someday, (which is inconvenient because I have to reset all the devices using my network, including frequent guests devices) they can go to a method where they only collect data from those who indicate willingness by changing the name. Instead of changing my SSID from “mynetwork” to “mynetwork_nomap” to opt out, I should be able to change to “mynetwork_map” to opt in. Anyone who doesn’t want it doesn’t have to do anything. Anyone who is unaware will not be unintentionally opted in. Anything less is not only unfriendly to consumers, it’s just plain evil.