Apple Checkmate’s Music Labels In Purchase of Lala

For the past decade, the way music is distributed has changed dramatically–and it has been Apple pushing it virtually every step of the way.   It now seems prophetic that Apple Records sued Apple, Inc. all the way back in 1978, the outcome of which banned Apple, Inc. from entering the music industry (for a while, at least).  Oh how times have changed.

The rise of the iPod and the MP3 brought us to the final destination for music’s distribution medium–the  Internet.  CDs are practically extinct.  Sites like Pandora and newcomer GrooveShark allow nearly unlimited free music listening in streaming format.  More recently, cheap hardware devices like the iPhone, Roku, and even some BluRay players have added streaming capabilities from the likes of Pandora and Netflix.  Access to music and movies has never been cheaper for consumers.

All of this leaves me (and probably lots of musicians) to wonder, what’s the point of record labels?  Distribution costs on a per-listen basis are effectively $0, and many people are discovering their new music by streaming it.  99.9% of songs are just a URL away.  It used to be the label did your marketing, PR, and distribution, but the cost of all of those things is nearing zero as well.  Bands have a litany of tools freely available to market themselves online, the most powerful of which is services like Pandora and Grooveshark, and now iTunes’+Lala.

I ask today’s musicians, are record labels really doing anything other than stealing a slice of your hard earned money?

For music lovers, how do you feel about pay-per-listen versus owning physical media?

Google Announces Chrome OS, Microsoft Cries

Google has announced Chrome OS, an operating system built off of the Linux kernel for desktop computers and netbooks.  Are you as unsurprised as I am?  I hope to god Microsoft isn’t.  But then again, ever since the release of Windows XP, Microsoft has been running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off.

This, dear friends, was inevitable.  But many people may be asking, why?  Just like many asked the same question when Google released their Chrome Browser.

It has nothing to do with the fact that Google and Microsoft are competing like, well, Goliath and Goliath.  It runs much deeper than that.  As years have gone by, operating systems (well, Microsoft’s in particular) have gotten way too bloated, and the Internet has gotten way too fast.  You know the routine by now: every 2-3 years, you buy a new PC, with a faster processor, faster graphics processor, bigger hard drive, and with a new version of Windows on it.  And I’m sure plenty of you asked, “Why?  The Internet looks the same on all of these computers!”.  You’re exactly right.

How much time does anyone spend on their computer these days that’s not in a web-browser, using web-based email or web-based instant messenger?  The Web Browser is the new OS (well, at least the part of it you see).  Anyone still surprised that Google’s web browser and newly announced OS share the same name?

In the last few years, web technologies have gotten incredibly good at making you feel like the browser is the same as your desktop.  AJAX really opened the floodgates for web-based applications that behaved like “regular” programs.  As a result, Google Docs have gotten pretty damn good.  In fact, I don’t even own a copy of Microsoft Office anymore, I just do all of my documents in Google Docs.  I have yet to find a feature that I need they don’t have, and my documents are available to me anywhere, because they’re in the cloud.

More recent developments are pushing us even closer to a web browser OS world.

Does it shock you at all that Google has been heavily involved in providing APIs to do rich 3D graphics rendering right in the browser?

What about the HTML 5 video standard? Once codecs are decided on, embedding video will be as easy as embedding an image in your HTML.  This means Flash video will be rendered obselete.  Apple doesn’t look so dumb after all not worrying about Flash running on the iPhone now do they?

So, the web browser becomes the artist’s blank page, for software slingers to serve up applications for email, photo editing, making presentations, editing documents.  And underneath with be the OS kernel, providing access to the hardware on your device.  And that’s it.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, because you don’t need to have all your software installed locally.  It’s in the cloud, where it belongs.

Can the Pre really save Palm?

Well, Sprint has hopped on the touchscreen bandwagon in a last-ditch effort at mitigating their churn rate. They’ve entered into an exclusive agreement to sell the Palm Pre, Palm’s last-ditch effort at avoiding the use of past-tense in their Wikipedia entry. Are you noticing a trend?  The term “Hail Mary” comes to mind.

To be honest, I was pretty excited about the Palm Pre.  After all, it won the Best of CES 2009‘s “Best in Show” award.  The design was headed up by an Apple veteran, Jon Rubinstein. It sports a brand new OS, WebOS, which if it is as good as it sounds, is a huge plus.  And (control yourselves), it can multitask.

And who can deny, it looks beautiful in all the pictures!

Hey there sexy ;-).
Hey there, sexy ;-).

I mean, jeez, I want the phone just to hold in my hand.  The screen looks so big, bright, and beautiful.  Goodbye iPhone!  Helloooooooo Pre!

I walked into the Sprint store yesterday afternoon, after eating Chipotle for probably the 5th or 6th time in a week (it’s only an addiction if you don’t admit you’ve got a problem, I admit it openly).  I saw it there, on it’s wireless charging pedestal, practically floating like the magical amulet that those crazy unicorns are after.  I walked right up to the demonstration model of the Pre and took it into my hands.  And…

WTF.

I have never been so misled in my life about a piece of technology.  The Pre is a Preice of shit.  First of all, it’s screen is not as big as the iPhone’s, despite many of the pictures floating around on the web.  Exhibit A:

Objects in image may not be the same size as they appear.
Objects in image may not be the same size as they appear.

Head on over to Gizmodo’s Smartphone Comparison to see the real thing side by side with the iPhone.  The iPhone’s screen is 3.5″, the Pre’s is 3.1″.  That may not sound like a lot, but there’s a reason all of the icons on the Pre are tiny.  That screen real-estate does matter.  I wouldn’t have thought so, but as I was playing with the Pre in the Sprint store I started to feel honestly claustrophobic (something I never feel), and it wasn’t because the store was crowded–the Pre’s user interface was.

Next, usability.  I couldn’t figure the damn thing out.  I am a hardware engineer, with software experience as well, and I hate having to read instruction manuals.  I usually don’t need to, in fact ever since I was little I could always figure out electronics without them.  The Pre stumped me.  I even sat through the incredibly condescending “Demo” the phone had on it to teach me how to use it.  Isn’t the point of multi-touch screen phones to not need to learn how to do anything?  Shouldn’t I just touch what I want (giggle)?  I didn’t have to re-learn how to use the mouse when I switched from a Gateway computer to a Dell.  I mean, yea it (usually) would respond when I tapped it with my fingertip, but I just really wasn’t sure how to get what I wanted done quickly (browse the web, make phone calls, open a new tab in the browser, etc.)

I think maybe part of the problem though is that I’ve had an iPhone for over a year now.  It’s user interface is so obvious and so simple, I think it has sapped any patience I might have for even slightly cumbersome user interfaces.  I get angry with ATM machines and gas pumps nowadays, thanks to my iPhone.  I find myself asking random pieces of electronics, “Don’t they have an App for this already?” or “Jesus why is this thing so damn slow!”.

What about the web browser?  It was OK.  It was better than my old RAZR, that’s for sure.  But navigating around big web pages just wasn’t nearly as smooth, precise, or easy as on the iPhone.  They rendered fine and everything, but hey, what’s what WebKit is for…you can’t really fuck that up.

The slide out keyboard is a joke.  The keys are about half as big as the ones on the BlackBerry Curve (already pretty tiny), and they remind me of miniature versions of those puffed up stickers my sisters used to have when we were little.  I practically had to use my thumbnails to type properly on the thing.  Thankfully I hadn’t trimmed my nails in about 2 weeks or I’m really not sure what I would have done.  And I don’t have that big of hands.

Honestly, I am so disappointed, I’m just gonna stop my little review right here.  There are plenty of them out there.  But honestly, people, the iPhone has changed the game forever, and they may just be way too far ahead (for now).  I never really appreciated how good Apple’s touchscreen technology was until I played with the Palm Pre.  I had many occasions with the Pre not registering my touches properly.  That has never happened to me on the iPhone.

So, can the Pre really save Palm?  I don’t know.  Everybody used to think the RAZR was a cool phone.  And for it’s time, it was.  But I can promise you this, anybody who tries an iPhone will see the Pre as a childish, cheap-feeling, slow-running, and more expensive knock-off.  Oh and about that “multitasking”?  Yea, not so much.  Unless you consider multitasking “minimize current application, slide finger over to scroll to the other application I want, touch application I want to be running now”.  Oh wait, that’s exactly the same finger motions I make to open a different application on the iPhone.  Except it happens faster.

Google Adwords Epic Fail!

Artificial intelligence is still a ways off :).

Each year there is a competition known well by those in the field of artificial intelligence called the Loebner Prize.  The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence is to make it indistinguishable from real intelligence (so someday geeks like me can just code up a friend in C++). In the 1950s, Alan Turing proposed a test–cleverly named the Turing Test–to measure an AI’s level of intelligence, which the Loebner Prize competition uses to select their winner.  The contestants basically write software to implement their artificial entities, and then judges chat with both real humans and the artificial entities and then guess which ones are real humans and which ones are not.

Criticisms of the accuracy of the Turing Test aside, today I saw something that reminded me of just how far off truly intelligent artificial beings really are.  I was watching a video on YouTube from Bill Maher’s TV show and he threw out some statistic like “8 kids are shot and killed with guns every day in America.”  Since that seemed like an awfully high number I decided to check into it.  So I pull up Google and type in “kids shot”.  Not my best Google search query ever, but I figured it would get the job done.  Google dutifully returned a saddening number of news stories about kids being shot by guns.  It also came back with a single advertisement generated by good ‘ole Adwords…

Adwords Epic Fail
Adwords Epic Fail

Not only is the statistic true, if you click on that advertisement, it goes to a toy gun that Target is selling!  If Target ran a TV ad for toy guns right after a news story of a kid getting shot, they’d have a PR nightmare on their hands.  Lucky for them, you can’t yet blame a computer for doing the Adwords equivalent.

Blu-ray, shmu-ray

Apparently the Blu-ray Disc Association (wow, their parties must be legendary) believes that the high definition discs are poised to breakout into the mainstream with Chinese manufacturers getting in on the action.

Not to get sidetracked or anything, but are they implying that any of the Blu-ray players purchased thus far were not, in fact, manufactured in China? But I digress…

I continue to be completely baffled by the push to cram yet another optical disc format down consumers’ throats.  Since I downloaded my first MP3 in 1994, I’ve thought to myself, “gosh, it seems like an awful waste to make all those plastic discs and ship them all over the world when people could just download music from the Internet.”  Fifteen years later, where do most people discover and obtain their music?  Online.  Despite the movie industry’s penchant for lagging the music industry by about 3-5 years in their transformation to “digital”, the studios don’t see the writing on the wall?

Video has gone streaming!  Netflix, Hulu, CBS, ABC, NBC, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube.  Even your cable company’s OnDemand service.  People are streaming video, and they’re doing it on the cheap.  And if they’re not streaming it they’re downloading it.  And if they’re not downloading it, they’re TiVo-ing it, which is just like downloading it (albeit very slowly :-P), and saving it to watch later.

So, with my $9.78 a month spent on Netflix, I can watch unlimited movies streaming live online.  Sure, they don’t have everything.  But they have a lot.  And it’s plenty to hold me over until my next DVD from my queue arrives in the mail the following day.  Honestly, how many movies can I watch?  I’ve got more than enough from Netflix alone to keep me happy, fat and unproductive sitting on my couch or in my bed.  Yet, there’s always more if you want to grab something off of iTunes.

I’ve done the math.  I own about 75 DVDs.  That’s roughly $1,500.00, or $20 a DVD.

Netflix costs me $117 a year, and I can watch 72 DVDs a year, plus, let’s say conservatively that I watch one movie a week streaming for free from Netflix.  That’s 124 movies a year, which works out to 94 cents a movie.

94 cents.  It cost me $20 per DVD.  I’m pissed!!  You say, “oh but you watched them more than once.”  Yes, that’s true.  But not much more than 3 or 4 times.

Blu-ray discs cost even more.  They certainly have come down in price, but I’m sure as hell not gonna buy movies that I have on DVD all over again.  Especially when I’ve got an upscaling DVD player.

Another thing to consider, Blu-ray is obnoxious to watch if you don’t have a TV with 120 Hz refresh (which I don’t).  My friend was showing me “how cool” HD looked on his new player, and I didn’t want to say anything.  Yes, the image quality was great–no argument here.  But on a 60 Hz refresh rate screen, the image quality was too good.  I could see the gaps between the frames, it was difficult to watch.  I’m not going to go shell out another $1,500 for a new flatscreen, at least not for a couple more years.  By then, streaming HD video will be pervasive (it nearly is now).

Blu-ray, you’re fighting a losing battle with time.  The limited utility of owning a movie on a physical medium (except, perhaps for those who are absolute diehards), plus the significantly higher cost just makes buying Blu-ray a poor choice.  If you can spend $100 on hardware that will play Blu-ray discs, versus spending $100 on a Roku, or perhaps (for a bit more $) an AppleTV and setting up Boxee, you really would be foolish to go with Blu-ray.

Maybe if those Chinese manufacturers can make the players for $0.01.  I don’t think they’ve gotten their labor costs that low ;-).