2010-04-29

Language!

Americans have an unhealthy relationship to the use of colorful language, which makes interacting with them weird if you come from, say, Norway.

Of course, Norway is at the other end of the scale:  in parts of Norway the use of highly sexualized expletives is seen as a by-product of how the respiratory system works.  If you are north of the polar circle and you should happen to call a policeman a horse's penis that's pretty much okay.  South of the polar circle...not so much.

But I digress.

My main annoyance with americans and colorful language is that when americans find themselves in a context where they think it is appropriate to use colorful language they do so in much the same manner as when children discover that there are certain words that make the adults pull odd faces and go through a range of facial colorations that would make a chameleon jealous.  You know the "poop!  hahaha!"-kind.

Some people seem to be utterly fascinated by the sound of "forbidden" words carried by their own voice.

Not too long ago I downloaded a podcast that was recommended to me called "Nerdist" that exemplifies what I am talking about.  The episode featured Adam Savage from Mythbusters, which was why I wanted to listen to it in the first place -- me being a big fan of Mr Savage.  Most of the episode was interesting and fun, but it was really annoying to listen to the presenters trying to be funny by interrupting Mr Savage to utter expletives and crude references to female genitalia -- and then giggling like teenage girls.

I am norwegian so no amount of swearing will offend me, but I am offended when you keep interrupting someone who is actually talking about something interesting.  If you are so fascinated with colorful language I suggest you visit the north of Norway until it wears off.  You can say "fuck" all you want and if it elicits any response from the locals whatsoever it is probably expletive-specked commentary on your weak swearing-fu.

2010-04-27

CAM software becoming mainstream?

A fairly hot trend these days is all sorts of computer aided manufacturing gadgets. Especially the additive sort or what most people would refer to as 3D printing, but there is also a fairly broad interest in 3-axis milling machines. You have projects like RepRap, MakerBot, micRo, Zen Toolworks, and perhaps a dozen other, inexpensive hardware platforms.

I stumbled across this trend by chance.  I was looking for an interesting project to do that would involve some mechanics, some electronics and some software, and I decided I wanted to build a 3-axis milling machine.  So I did.  In doing so I discovered that for the past couple of years a lot of other people seem to have had the same idea.  There is a growing number of people, some of whom only have the most cursory knowledge about any of the disciplines involved, who all of a sudden decided they want to make machines that makes stuff.

Since my machine is almost complete (I need a beefier PSU and a PWM-driver for the spindle) I have started looking at the software side of things.  To control the machine there is a good free solution available in EMC2, but you need to feed it something.  That something is G-code.

Without boring you with too much technical detail,  G-code is a programming language that tells the machine what movements to execute.  It says things like "move to position X,Y,Z at speed S".  It is fairly simple to write a program that can interpret G-code and turn it into electronic pulses that controls a bunch of stepper motors or servos.

Now, the missing piece of the puzzle for me right now is the software that transforms 3D models into G-code.  The CAM Software.

There is a lot of "industrial strength" CAM software available.  "Industrial Strength" being code for expensive, clumsy and only available if you can bear to relate to tedious salespeople who want you to pay them lots and lots of money.  Which is entirely predictable.  This is a niche market and up until recently you would not find a lot of "civilians" who had any interest in hacking G-code in their spare time or even implement gadgets capable of executing G-code.  Most of the web sites basically tell you to get lost.  They have "case studies" and the sort of feelgood bullshit you aim at clueless procurement-types who can't tell the difference between PostScript, HPGL or G-code.

On the consumer end there's Mach3 and some of the CAM tools that are used with it, which looks like decent software.  But the problem is that you would be tied to Windows.  Anyone who has been keeping half an eye on recent trends would be able to tell you that Windows isn't exactly the first pick of the majority of the new CNC hobbyists.  Or even the second.

However, there is a lot of activity in the open source world.  Most of it still very rudimentary, but there are projects that are coming along nicely.

Anyway, my prediction is that the incumbents are going to do exactly the same thing that Adobe did when Photoshop became a mainstream application: nothing.  This can lead to two outcomes.  Either there will be rampant piracy with an ever-escalating arms race in which nothing is gained by either pirates or software vendors -- or someone is going to catch on and there will be new players in the CAM market that offer user-friendly tools at reasonable prices.

If I lived in the Bay Area right now and had $10M I would invest them in developing a CAM package aimed at the hobbyist market with the following features:
  • Cross platform:  Linux, OSX and Windows -- in that order of importance.
  • Designed to be easily adapted to new machines (automatic configuration, machine specific vizualization etc)
  • Very easily extensible with third party plugins.
  • Gorgous UI design.   (most cam packages are...not pretty)
  • Open source
  • Build on and integrate with EMC2
  • Aggressively priced premium version with some extras ($80-$120 range)
  • Online repository of designs a'la Sketchup with features for collaboration between users and groups of users.
  • Online manufacturer integration ("click here to have 50.000 copies manufactured!" :-)
  • Open APIs to online services.
Since the existence of a really good, integrated, open source, cross-platform CAM tool would benefit all those who manufacture machines, it shouldn't be too hard to get them to ship a copy of the free tool with every machine.  Good software would also lower the barriers of entry making manufacturing a far more accessible hobby.

Also, I think a good online service for storing, exchanging, licensing, selling, sourcing designs might be of even greater importance than an integrated CAM environment in itself. 

No, I do not think that this will become entirely mainstream in the next 3 years, but if the right products hit the market I suspect that in ~5 years it is going to be huge.  Remember, the hardware is not really complicated.  It is in many ways no harder than designing a printer.  The main problem now is that the software and the service ecosystem just isn't where it needs to be.

In 5 years I expect to be able to design 3D kits for my nephew, share the designs with him and then have him print it out on a 3D printer or mill it.

2010-04-24

Zen Toolworks CNC Axis Test

I finally got around to figuring out how to hook up the A4983 stepper motor drivers. Apparently it doesn't work at all in full step mode, but in quarter, eigth and sixteenth step mode works fine. I have no idea why. The EasyDriver 4.2 worked without me having to fiddle with the microstep settings, but since it probably can't handle the juice I went for the A4983 carrier boards from Polulu instead.

I wrote a simple program for the Arduino microcontroller platform to deliver pulses to the A4983. Nothing fancy, just a program that can parse commands that are delivered over a serial connection and flip the DIR pin and pulse the STEP pin on the drivers.

Tonight I am going to start on the parallel port interface to the stepper drivers. The idea is to mount the stepper drivers on 0.1" female headers on a PCB. But I need to figure out where the headers go, the microswitches for configuring microstepping etc.

Anyway, here is a video from the first test.

Catherine Mohr is a hero.

Amidst all the environmentalists with an abject fear of numbers and anything remotely resembling analytical thinking it was refreshing to see this talk by Catherine Mohr.

I think she sums up large parts of the "green" movemen very precisely: "people long on moral authority and short on data" -- which just about covers everyone from Al Gore to the urban-dwelling organic food militants.

When you watch this, keep in mind that it isn't important that she builds houses:  it is important how she reasons.  For there to be any point in worrying about the environment and sustainability, this is the sort of mindset you need:

Skeletal Makefile for Arduino.

For some reason the Makefiles I looked at that came with the Arduino IDE didn't work properly and there was way too much cruft in the files for me to bother debugging them.  I was probably looking at the wrong Makefile as well -- probably some outdated example.  So I wrote my own minimalist Makefile to just have a quick way of compiling and uploading code to my Arduino Mega.

If you need a skeletal Makefile for hacking the Arduino I've made it available here:  minimalist Makefile for Arduino.  Note that any dependencies you have to the Arduino libraries you have to copy into the project and update the OBJECTS section in the Makefile accordingly.


I wanted to make a skeleton that was a bit more complete so that you can just drop "sketches" and this Makefile into a directory and have things built, but it was late and I  just wanted to quickly be able to hack some code in Emacs and have it uploaded to my Arduino.

A good idea might be to hack a script that extracts paths and such from the Arduino IDE installation (for figuring out the parameters to avrdude, the device type, device speed, patchs to the AVR-related toolchain etc (or gives you the choice to use the AVR tools you have installed on your computer instead so you don't need the IDE installed to build) and then use that to generate settings for the Makefile.

I also thought about creating a skeleton that just comes with its own copy of Wiring and the Arduino libs, but I am not sure this is a brilliant idea.  Again, if I hacked a script that just extracts the pertinent parts from an Arduino IDE installation that might be better.

In any case, the Makefile that comes with the Arduino should be cleaned up.  It is way more complicated than it needs to be and there should never be code in a Makefile.  Write small external scripts or programs instead of cluttering Makefiles with sed-snippets etc.

2010-04-23

Hypocrisy

Some clown in Germany got his knickers in a twist over the fact that the Google streetview car also scans and collects information on WLAN access points.

It is funny that when Google does this, it is considered an evil invasion of privacy -- but when volunteers do this in a systematic manner and then publish the data online it is suddenly a laudable collaborative effort.  And it isn't like this is anything new.

The practice of wardriving has been a common one for the better part of a decade and today there are even apps for smartphones that turns your phone into a scanning device.

That horse has long since left the barn.

2010-04-21

Performance lost.

One of the exercises I usually do when learning a new language is to write a web crawler.  A web crawler represents a nice cross-section of the sort of features I care about in a language:  handling lots of data, handling network IO, handling disk IO, concurrency etc.  If I can write a decent web crawler in a language without too much friction then it is likely that I will be able to use it for other types of servers as well.

(The one thing this test is not good for is testing the sort of latency issues you can run into when dealing with managed memory and lots of data / operations.  To do that implementing some sort of search engine with various forms of caching is probably a better test.  A crawler is a completely different type of problem where you just need throughput -- the individual network connections will by nature have high, and highly variable, latency, but since you have lots and lots of them, the throughput can usually be quite high).

The other day I stumbled across a web crawler I wrote in plain old C.  At the time I needed a very rapid crawler for a specific purpose and I had some novel ideas on how to solve some of the hard problems in crawling.  I can remember not being too pleased with the initial version of the crawler so I re-wrote significant portions of it a couple of times.  In the end I had a relatively simple crawler prototype that I was rather pleased with.  It ran on a dual 500Mhz P3 with about 1Gb of memory.  At full blast it saturated the network interface on the machine (100Mbit card).  If memory serves it could crawl about 1100-1200 documents per second with an average CPU load of between 12% and 15% -- leaving lots of CPU headroom for any document processing one might want to do.

All crawlers I have written since have been resource hogs in comparison.  (Curiously I have never written a reasonably complete web crawler in Java.  I should do this one day, but for now there are no projects I'm working on that needs a fast web crawler and I am sure the ones that exist are more than good enough for most purposes.  But if I were to write a Java web crawler I would probably have a look at MINA to see if they have succeeded in creating workable abstractions for NIO).

The absolute worst performing crawler I have ever written was in Ruby.  I spent about 1 month learning and hacking Ruby in 2006.  Some of that time was spent writing a web crawler.  I'm a bit fuzzy on the numbers, but what I remember was that the performance was apalling: on a 1.8Ghz machine with 1Gb of RAM the thing initially consumed all available CPU crawling tens of documents per second.  After a day of optimizing (including modifying the network libraries of Ruby) I was able to get the CPU consumption down to about 35%.  I would expect that Ruby has gotten a lot better since then.  In all fairness I might have done something stupid to get such sucky performance.  Who knows.  It just annoyed me immensely that I would actually have to hack the network libraries because they were horribly naive.

(As a comparison, the original PHP network libraries were atrociously bad, but after a rewrite some time in the early 00s or late 90s, they had pretty good performance.  Given how horrible PHP is language creators should at least have a goal of beating PHP.  I also wrote a socket implementation for a JavaScript VM that Markku Rossi did in the 90s, but the project caved (disappeared) before I was able to submit my socket library.  I did manage to write a simple web crawler in JavaScript before I lost interest in the project.  The API looked like a very simplified version of NIO (which didn't exist yet) and had good support for multiplexing.)

One thing that struck me while looking at the old C-crawler was how horribly bad a lot of our "modern" tools have become.  In particular things like Tweetdeck in Adobe Air.  When it isn't doing anything it consumes a few percent CPU.  When it is doing something I regularly see its CPU usage jump to 90% whilst gobbling up hundreds of megabytes of memory.   And it isn't like it is doing anything that is CPU intensive:  it is making some API calls and it is handling a negligible amount of data.

Either Adobe Air is a piece of rubbish or the people who made Tweetdeck have no idea what they are doing.  You tell me.  Either way it does make you think when an application like that consumes such enormous amounts of CPU and memory.

PS: The reason you would want to use something like MINA to write a web crawler is because I have yet to find an HTTP client library that isn't shit, so you would have to roll your own anyway.  It amazes me how clumsy these things tend to be.

2010-04-14

Oracle should hire Joshua Bloch

Java needs a stronger and clearer leadership and so far we haven't really seen any convincing efforts from Oracle to address this.  There is a lot of work that needs to be done.  Not least in the realm of figuring out licensing and removing fear, uncertainty and doubt around Oracle's intentions. 

I think Oracle should make Joshua Bloch and offer he can't refuse.  Hire him and put him in charge of shaping the future of Java at Oracle.  Give him the freedom he needs and supply him with a competent staff to support him.  Since the future of Java is what is at stake I think this would probably be the best thing for Google as well:  to let Mr. Bloch have a go at helping Oracle do the right things.

2010-04-10

No, screw you, Adobe.

Under the heading "Apple Slaps Developers In The Face" Lee Brimelow has a little hissyfit over the apparent "hostility" of Apple is displaying towards Adobe.

Official communiqué from Adobe.

Before I say anything I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear.  At the top of the blog posting there's a disclaimer that says that the opinions expressed below are not the official view of the company.  Now, usually I would respect that and not ascribe any opinions expressed in a personal blog to the company for which the blogger works.  Common courtesy dictates this.

The problem is that in the second paragraph there's the following: "sentence regarding Apple's intentions redacted at request from Adobe".

Congratulations Adobe, now the blog posting is, for all practical purposes, an official communiqué from Adobe and I will have no reservations with perceiving the line "Go screw yourself Apple" as an official message from Adobe to Apple.

You redact it, you own it.

Draconian terms.

As a developer myself I find the license terms from Apple to be rather draconian so I would be inclined to side with anyone who has some beef with the terms.  Steve Jobs' exquisite taste and product design instincts have paid off handsomely and he has created a gold mine.  Sure, you can come and mine some gold at his mine (if you dress nicely and behave), but you can only have the gold dust and none of the nuggets.  Those nuggets Steve Jobs gets to keep.  And if it turns out there are diamonds in there, well, then those belong to Steve as well, because Steve gets to rewrite the rules whenever he wants to.

Which is all fine and dandy.  It is Steve's company.

For me as a developer the iPhone platform has next to no appeal.  The device itself has plenty of appeal, but I could never justify investing money, mine or that of investors, in developing software that you can never be sure if you are allowed to sell or not.  It is a simple, cold, and dispassionate business consideration.  Every app makes into the app store at Apple's discretion and the rules governing this process aren't clear.  I wouldn't bet my money on it, but if you want to bet yours then I'd be happy to help you spend it.

As a consumer I am glad that there are others that are more willing to gamble with their time and money.  As a consumer I love the iPhone, the iPod Touch and I am looking forward to playing with the iPad.  But not as a developer.

No, screw you, Adobe.

What I have said thus far might lead you to expect I would side with Adobe.  And I would.  If it wasn't for one, tiny thing:  Flash sucks.  Not only that, but the whole attitude of Adobe sucks.

From a purely technical point of view you would have had to be Richard Stallmann or have hidden under a rock for the past decade not to know what an annoying resource hog Flash is.  And when it isn't gobbling up resources, it is crashing your browser or enabling the inept web duh-signers annoy you in ways you hardly thought possible.

You would think that having been so lucky to gain a huge market share in blinkyflashyware, Adobe would pour money and talent into making The Suck go away.  Either they didn't bother or they were not good enough; because The Suck is still here.

And no, I am not really interested in sob stories about how Adobe enabled video on the web.  The way I see it, by having a bad, stop-gap solution such as Flash video, progress in this area has been slower than it needed to be.  The net "contribution" from Adobe in this area is a negative one, so don't wax on about how it made all these great services possible because it came at the cost of severely delaying even better services.

The reason I am not going to side with Adobe on this one is that I think Jobs is perfectly reasonable in wanting to keep Flash off his mobile devices.  Adobe has had years and bloody years to improve their technology and they have not done so.  The last thing the world needs is yet more surfaces for Flash to cling onto to distract content creators from paying more attention to standardized, open and less clunky technologies.

Flash needs to go and I wholeheartedly support any and all efforts towards this goal.  I want a better web.

And to those of you who are are environmentalists: how many gigawatt hours of electricity do you think have been wasted in Flash?  Even as I write this on my desktop machine, the Flash elements in the browser on my laptop is making Firefox gobble up 40% CPU while it is doing exactly nothing.   You could probably power all the search data centers of all the search engines in the world on the power that Flash needlessly consumes all around the world at any given moment.  And that is an extremely conservative guess.  Try to play with the numbers some time.  Give the result in, say, number of Hoover Dams you would need to generate the equivalent power.  (Hoover Dam has an average annual output of about 4,200 GWh. The Three Gorges Dam has an estimated annual output of 100,000 GWh.  How many of those would you need to produce the equivalent amount of energy Flash is wasting due to inefficient resource use?)

No, screw you, Adobe.

2010-04-07

Transportation

I was so unbelievably bored during my flight to Oslo this morning I spent some time thinking about trains again.  In part prompted by the pathetic state of the train service in Norway and in part by the inconvenience, discomfort and over-all misery of air-travel.

I've been thinking about trains for a few years now.  In my not so humble opinion almost everything about trains is wrong.  I find it odd that trains have not changed significantly in 100 years.  Most trains still have the same basic (flawed) design.  In addition the way trains are operated is unnecessarily limited.

What depresses me is the stubbornly short-sighted approach we have taken to railways.  Right now there is much talk about fixing the current ailments of our railways.  Sadly there is very little talk about attacking the problem at a more fundamental level:  having a fresh look at the problem and in light of the past 100 years of innovations actually building something that reflects our current technology AND attempts to solve problems rather than just patching up the old rubbish.

Norway can afford the research and development effort needed to bring about radically different train systems.  But in essence, we insist on behaving like some odd third world country.  We piss on our innovators and lean heavily on our fortunate winnings in the lottery of natural resources.  The government would never be prepared to inject the needed capital.  And they would make damn sure nobody else is tempted to do it either.

Deep down I know it would be futile to take a weekend to write down my thoughts on how to fix trains.  But I still hope I'll find the time to do it anyway.

And yes, the train from the airport was delayed this morning.  Causing me to arrive late for my meeting.  Trains in Norway are a joke.

2010-04-06

Superflous


Earlier today I skimmed a report on the the issue of free downloads of music from the Internet and the consequences for artists and composers.

I tend to differentiate between the "music industry" and artists and composers.  In my use of the term the "music industry" is used to refer to the companies and people who do not necessarily contribute to the artistic content, but the entities who own and manage the rights to music, distribution, promotion and to some minor degree, production.

In the past recording and then marketing and distributing music was expensive and complex.  You needed expensive infrastructure and you needed a whole army of specialists just to create a technically acceptable recording.  Studios were packed full of really exotic and expensive gear and you had recording engineers to man the controls.  You also needed to address the immense logistics of producing physical media and distribute it to retail outlets.

During the 1990s this started to change and by 2000 it was entirely possible to create recordings that were on par with what the professional studios were capable of at a cost managable to anyone.  Today, for about $2000, you can set up a very basic home studio capable of quality recording.  If you manage to pony up $10,000 to $15,000 you can have a great home studio -- most of it consisting of the same tools that are used in the traditional recording industry today.

This means that for actually creating the works, most musicians can get a lot done on their own given very small budgets.  There are still some specialist jobs involved in making a record, such as mixing and mastering tracks.  However, given the extreme availability of professional grade tools to the masses there are also far more amateurs who are capable of filling this role.  And even if you do use professionals to master your recordings, you have a lot of choice and it is not very expensive.  Trade rags for music production are full of ads for people who specialize in everything from mixing and mastering to re-creation of musical samples to get around the obscene royalty fees you would otherwise need to pay.

As for the distribution of music, it is possible to sell your music online and not bother with the distribution of physical media at all.  There are lots of companies that will take care of this for you if you choose to use their services.  They'll make sure that your music turns up on popular services such as iTunes and Spotify.

What I am getting at is that significant chunks of the "music industry" is largely superflous.

However, there is a huge imbalance here:  the traditional music industry is in control of the legal aspects. Their control over the intellectual property rights as well as their political power means that they are not only capable of making a nuisance of themselves;  they do.  They aren't dumb and they know that their role in bringing music into the hands of consumers is a diminishing one.  So they do everything in their power to force artists and consumers to provide them with income.

They are sort of like the "facehugger" in Alien.  Latched onto the face of artists and consumers alike.  When the victims struggle to free themselves of the parasite, the parasite just tightens the hold and threatens to strangle the host organism.

2010-04-05

Key differentiator.

With China owning a huge chunk of the world's cost-efficient production capability (if, for a moment we ignore any concerns regarding sustainability and environmental issues) and gradually owning more and more US and European debt, it is hard to ignore that China will have more of a direct influence on the west.  If these trends are allowed to develop, in a decade or two, the west will be beholden to China -- whether we like it or not.

I think a key question for us in the next two decades is "what are we good at?".

The other key question is "what are we going to do about it?".

With the digital revolution and then later the Internet revolution, we've had lots of opportunities to study what happens when industry leaders fail to spot trends that threaten their business early enough.  Even though disruptive change has been part of the industry management lexicon for at least as long as there has been industry, top management in many industries are curiously blind to this.  Or perhaps more correctly: they appear to be in denial.

A common pattern seems to be that as a threat emerges, some incumbents rather arrogantly believe that they are invincible.   By the time they realize that the threat is real and that it is eating away at their bottom line, they are already losing so much money that it is too late to deal with the threat.  The initial phase is usually about how to protect their existing business.  By the time they realize that saving a doomed ship may not be the best way to survive and prosper, the competition is either too far ahead, the coffers are empty, or both.

And of course, even though we see this pattern over and over, do not think for a second that this rather half-assed and clumsy way of approaching such problems is a "known bad".  There are huge companies all over the, world right, now who are about to have their lunch eaten by aggressively innovative challengers,  and they will approach it in exactly the myopic manner that is eventually going to, if not kill them, at least ensure that they are missing out on what could be a great opportunity for growth.

I think it is a given that China will eventually dominate the world economy.  And I think that right now is when we should be thinking about how we carve out our role in that economic future.

2010-04-02

"The collapse of complex business models" commentary.

I just read a blog posting titled "The collapse of complex business models" by Clay Shirky. His blog posting succeeds in articulating the underlying, fundamental problems that incumbents in numerous business sectors are experiencing today, and which will only be exacerbated in the forseeable future.

Last year I needed to figure out what I wanted to do over the next years, so I made a list.  I made a list of the business sectors where I firmly believed the incumbents to be, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed.  Mainly this list consisted of the newspaper industry, TV, the movie industry and telcos.

The aforementioned industries didn't end up on the list because I knew a lot about them.  They ended up on the list because I don't think you need to know a whole lot about how they operate to start addressing the issues they have and reason about what needs doing to create a future for them.   In fact, it is probably better if you know as little as possible about these industries if you aspire to be a positive influence in them.  It is only too easy to get sucked into their arcane worlds and actually start to think of the artificial and outdated constraints in the same axiomatic manner as veterans of these industries tend to do.  If you start to take these constraints seriously you have compromised your chances of having a positive influence.

What all of them have in common is that their future is shaped by the Internet -- meaning that these industries are led by people who, by and large,  seem to have no deep intuitive understanding of the technology and the cultures (plural) they are now faced with.

The blog posting starts with a question Clay was asked by TV executives:
When, they asked, would online video generate enough money to cover their current costs?
My immediate reaction was: well, right now the TV industry is in no position to expect revenue simply because they haven't bothered to sort out even the most rudimentary prerequisites for succeeding in peddling their content on the Internet. 

One prerequisite is to get rid of regional licensing.  The Internet is global and immediate.  It has no regions and thus it does not make sense to artificially limit distribution just because the industry is too chicken to rip off the band-aid that is regional licensing.  Regions is an artificial construct that is no longer relevant.   Yes it'll hurt to undo, but regional licensing provides just the sort of demand that is so lovingly satisfied by enterprising pirates. Big and small.

For example, last year there was a veritable cottage industry of people who set up proxying solutions and sold access to the BBC coverage of Formula One (This was, of course, completely illegal). A lot of people all over the world did not have live coverage of the F1 events and so they paid these hucksters in order to watch BBC's excellent live coverage.  
Let me repeat: they were obviously willing to pay, but there was no real alternative available to them.  Other than not watching F1.

Another prerequisite is that the TV industry realizes that consumers want convenience.  This means that they want to be able to consume the content using the device and mode of operation most convenient to them.  The baseline for this has already been established.  By the pirates.  In the form of downloading content.  In high definition.  With no real technical limitations as to where and how the content can be consumed.

Meanwhile content owners try to push their own half-assed solutions and waste time quarreling with companies that offer popular services (such as iTunes) -- leading to a fragmented marketplace.

Just look at how the Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD battle scared consumers away -- and then, when Blu-Ray finally prevailed, the victory was a hollow one because everyone had realized that the future is in downloads anyway.  And that was with only TWO competing systems to choose from.  The download/streaming industry has hundreds of contenders with little or no interoperability -- and if anything, the TV and movie industry is doing their best to contribute to the hopeless fragmentation.

I saw someone running the numbers on online distribution, though I can't remember the details or how well these numbers were grounded in reality, it seemed obvious that if most of what is TV today went to a completely Internet-driven distribution model, their revenues would not increase, they would increase explosively for the studios.

Of course TV stations would have to figure out what value they can bring to the equation.  Studios have nothing to worry about -- TV stations have everything to worry about. (Of course, this could be solved by distingushing between license fee for content and service fee for delivering it, but that is something I've ranted about for a decade now, so I am not going to repeat myself).

Clay finishes by summarizing what most incumbents think, and in some cases, say:
“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”
If current incumbents want a future they need to understand that their "years of experience in the sector" is not going to save them.  They also need to understand that the time to execute dramatic changes is while they are still comfortably solvent.

2010-04-01

The movie industry is a bunch of whining incompetents

Sony claims that Spain is on the verge of no longer being a viable market for their home entertainment products because of the wide-spread practice of unauthorized downloading of movies from the net.  The same article notes that servies like iTunes do not offer legitimate movie and TV-series downloads in the same region.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of talk about how the movie industry is using its influence to strong-arm politicians into passing laws that threaten the very foundations of a modern democracy.  The movie industry wants laws that enables them to monitor private citizens and to take Internet access away from those suspected of involvement in unauthorized distribution or consumption of content without due process.  In many cases they want privileges that have traditionally only been available to law enforcement subject to court order.

What is so frightening is that a considerable number of politicians are willing to entertain such notions -- which makes one wonder how these myopic lightweights ever thought themselves fit to represent us; and what dimwits we are to allow them to continue to hold public office.  Even in Norway we have seen politicians and public servants eagerly engaging in behaviors that can easily be interpreted as working on behalf of the movie industry.

The root of the problem is the movie industry itself.  For decades the large studios have been able to operate as vertically integrated monopolies.  Not only have they controlled the production and distribution of content, but they have also played a major role in determining what we are allowed to see and when.  They are used to dictating the terms.  They feel entitled.

The world changed around them and it changed more quickly than they had anticipated.  Rather than trying to understand the changes that were taking place, the movie industry reacted as they have always done:  by resisting change and by exerting their considerable political influence.  In fact, they have been so busy lobbying politicians and abusing the legal system that they have failed to come up with solutions that the consumers want.  The movie industry has ended up making enemies of their most valuable customers.

I can't think of any other industry that, on one hand, turns down customers wanting to buy their product, and on the other hand spend so much time making sure the product is kept out of the hands of would-be customers.  This makes absolutely no sense except in a scenario where you want to create artifical scarcity and want to encourage circumvention.

As the article linked to above notes, the premier service for distributing digital content, iTunes, does not offer movies via their service in Spain.  This is important.  It illustrates how frightfully naive the movie industry is:  there is clearly a demand, yet the movie industry refuses to do business with its consumers on terms acceptable to the consumer.  If the movie industry is so reluctant to do business with Apple, probably for fear of Apple gaining too much power, why have they not made any serious effort over the last decade to offer their own digital distribution channels?

In Norway there are services that provide legitimate access to digital content such as movies.  But the experience is fragmented and mostly of poor quality.  It has often been noted that the user experience provided by pirated content of, for instance, movies in 1080p HD quality is far superior to that of most on-line movie rental services with a limited selection of movies and late availability of recent movies.  With pirated content the consumer has more choice.  More choice with regard to devices for playing back movies, more choice with regard to how and when the content can be consumed.

The real danger of what the movie industry is doing is that they are creating a generation of consumers who will be used to getting their content for free.  If you look at the young adults of today, they grew up in a world where music was available as MP3s in their formative years.  The same is now happening to movies and TV series.

By insisting on regional licensing, on stringent terms that greatly reduce usability and convenience and by exploiting spineless and irresponsible politicians and civil servants to erode the rights and liberties provided by the legal system, the movie industry is, in effect,  at war with the very principles that are supposed to ensure liberty and safety in our society.

Personally, I do not think the movie industry has done anything to deserve special treatment.  Their failure to adapt to the changes that have taken place over the past two decades are their failures and their failures alone.  It is so obviously wrong that we allow these special interests to be exempt from the principles upon which a proper society and legal system rest.

Disruptive change is nothing new.  It has been studied and described and it is part of the curriculum in any decent business education.  One would think that the expensive Ivy League educations of industry leaders and advisers would be good for more than CV-fodder.

It is time for the movie industry to pull itself together, quit whining and start focusing on more fruitful solutions to their ailments.  It is time for politicians to grow a spine and to tell the movie industry that we aren't going to sacrifice our principles for their incompetence.  It is time for voters to identify and eliminate politicians, by not voting for them, that are willing to sacrifice important legal and democratic principles for the temporary relief it can afford multinational businesses that would do just fine if they were not so damned lazy and incompetent.