Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Which Finger are they Pointing?

Media companies really aren't getting it. The Proof (NYTimes.com Registration Required) continues to roll in.

I'll admit my views on this subject seem a bit radical. But I think it's imporant to analyze why exactly we accept that media has a right to control content, simply because they always have and they tell us that they have this right. There are two sides to this argument and I tend to focus on the loosing battle of the theoretical basis, and this is because fundamentally most people (and to some degree myself included) believe that people who create content have a right to control that content. I realize that record companies spend a lot of money to produce, distribute, and promote music. I don't think that I have a right to copy that music for free, but I do think that record companies have completely abused there position as content providers. I do NOT think that a CD should cost $20. I also do not think that record companies deserve unrestricted rights to capitalize music. But there is also a functional argument: that in a world of digital everything, suing everyone who copies a music file, just like they copy a text file, generates a lot of ill will. My biggest complaint about media companies is that they had showed no interest in moving to an internet distribution channel until after Napster showed the enormous interest of music via download. I know these guys are playing it safe, but if they want us as customers, they need to carry their weight as service providers. Sure, they CAN sit back and say "that's not fair, that's mine", but I respond much better to people out there saying "look what I can offer you". Those are the places I want to put my dollars, and my attention for that matter.

I look at my relationship with iTunes more as a service relationship than a goods relationship. Before iTunes, I had almost completely stopped buying music. As mentioned above the price seemed excessive to me, especially after several experiences of spending $15 or more dollars to discover that the single I liked was the only worthwhile song on an entire album. A few times a year I would spend money on a select group of artists that I felt I could trust to deliver an album of worthwhile music. However, iTunes does 2 things right: they make it easy for me to find and purchase music that I like in the right amounts (singles only), and they charge what I consider a fair price in return for the convenience of having the music I want download to my computer with no hassles. The musician delivers the goods, iTunes delivers the mechanism, they both receive revenue for the transaction, and the record company receives a cut because I cannot cut them out of the deal, plus the important thing is that I'm happy with what I receive for what I provide.

Why do I choose to pay for my music rather than download it for free? Is it because it is illegal? Actually no, it's because it's a pain in the butt. I have to spend hours of my time searching for the stuff I want, downloading what may or may not be the song I asked for, and opening my computer up to spyware and viruses. iTunes saves all those headaches, at a fair price. I only purchase a few tracks per month and the number has been steadly decreasing since I acquired some of my long lost favorites. However, with the current model I still find that iTunes is the best way to get music that I am willing to purchase.

Another thing that has decreased my desire to purchase music lately is my increasing consumption of podcasts. Things like The Gillmor Gang capture my attention more than the latest single. And to top it all off, they are FREE! Podcasters realize that to compete for your attention, paying for content becomes a hurdle rather than a revenue stream. Or to put it differently, pick any price you want and multiply it by zero customers and you get the same revenue as if you take zero dollars and multiply it by any number of customers. What's the difference between these two equations? The number of people you can reach, the viewpoints that you can advance, the way you can change the world one listener at a time is only in the second equation.

So, for those who don't have a NYTimes login, the short version is that the record companies are pushing to increase the price of popular songs on iTunes. This is a great way to go out of business! IF I decide to purchase any more music (remember I said I practically stopped buying CDs, I'm a fickle consumer), I will divide the amount I'm willing to spend by the price of songs. The revenue is flat and the amount of music I have is less, which makes me less likely to continue my end of the relationship, so eventually even that number declines. Corporate thinking at it's finest.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Quick Friday Update

If you are a Geek and you haven't listened to The Gillmor Gang or haven't heard the Archives from IT Conversations, stop reading this and go listen to them. In fact, even if you aren't a Geek, go find out what's important to Geeks...

Finally in Geek News, Justin turned me on to Experts Exchange, which is going to save me hours of frustration. So far I've only been reading, but starting Monday I have a few questions for those so called experts!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Back in the US of A

Home sweet home, I had a relatively easy and completely safe trip home.

To update on my previous post, I was able to solve all of the problems we were having and the wrap-up meeting concluded that we are ready to move to the next phase of development on the software.

I spent my last night in Germany with Georg and his wife, Agathe, enjoying a nice meal and then I drove to the airport. I woke up @ 5 to check-in, then returned to the hotel for breakfast a shower, the big benefit of staying next door to the terminal. I slept during the flight to London, then watched movies most of the flight to LA: The Interpreter (well done with limited violence and lots of thought provoking politics, B+), The Upside of Anger (good writing and acting, a few "over the top" moments, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment, A-), Cheaper by the Dozen (missed the very beginning, nothing special but cute, B-). Getting through the airport was easy and I didn't mind the traffic home because I was in the car with Andrea.

I slept 12 hours on Saturday night to get back on schedule and yesterday was a pretty quiet day. Now it's back to work and some design documents for new features. Tonight back to Martial Arts and try to work off some of that German food...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Not just a good idea...

It must be a law of nature that regardless of the length of my stay in Germany, or the purpose of the trip, the last day that I am here everything breaks! Of course today was no different, except that things broke both here at Multitest and back at home.

First I checked my email because Tim agreed to be responsible for creating the Install package for the new (and improved) version of ProWorks. Instead of the expected "Here you go and have a safe trip home", I get an email that basically says "I put it on the server because I said I would, but we found a bunch of problems and I don't think you should install it anywhere...". Alrighty then. So I dive into fixing these problems and face the fact that I will not be here long enough to see the software rolled out to the rest of the company. Then I get pulled over to see some tests that they are running here involving a feature we spent a long time on recently (and was working in test versions). This feature is now broken again. It's the type of feature that takes specialized equipment to test and reproducing the Multitest environment in Pomona is practically impossible. So now I'm scrambling to try to debug and fix these problems while I'm still here.

But the good news is that even the broken stuff seems to be breaking in consistent ways [Pounds repeatedly and vigorously on wooden desk]. I've already fixed the list of bugs from Pomona and have a good idea about what is going wrong here.

With any luck I'll be able to wrap these items up within the hour and then Georg and I can have the two meetings that have been put off until today. If not, these meetings can be done over the phone. I choose to focus intensely on the bright side. And hey, I would never say the end of a trip was boring!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The More Things Change...

It's Thursday Morning in Rosenheim and it looks like it's going to be another very productive day. We've made excellent progress on rolling out the latest version of software here and the final Release, with a few kinks smoothed out, will be distributed around starting tomorrow.

My big realization for the day is that the more technology can do, the more we expect! This is not the first time I've realized or pondered this fact, but I was reminded of it this morning as I struggled to make a reliable call home. Unfortunately the phone system at the hotel is not accepting the toll free number that allows me to use my company calling card. The only explanation from the front desk staff is "I'm sorry, you'll have to use a direct connection and pay the hotel rate".

I've been avoiding this all week by using an amazing program that's gotten a lot of press in the last year called Skype. This program allows you to connect 2 computers in a voice chat that is just like a phone call, just using the computer. Skype isn't the first company to offer a service like this, although I will say that they have been more successful than their predecessors at making the system work well. The biggest factor seems to be the quality of your internet connection. There is a time delay factor when we call the ECT facility in Hudson, NH, but when I connect to Multitest's wireless network and "call" my boss in Pomona, it sounds clear as a local telephone call. The best part... it's absolutely free. Or rather, there is no additional charge. You have to pay for a high quality internet connection like they have at Multitest or ECT Pomona, but no charge for using that internet connection to create a voice chat. As I said before the New Hampshire facility always has a slight delay when we call from Pomona. It's not bad every time, but there have been occasions when we've disconnected the Skype session and switched to a telephone, never a good sign for this type of technology, but so far it has not been bad enough on a consistent basis for us to turn away from it completely.

However, the advance that Skype has either made or made popular (I don't know if anyone could do this feature before, and that's my point), is called SkypeOut. It allows you to make a connection between 1 computer and 1 telephone. This means I can substitute the computer on my end, but call our house phone. There is a fee for this service because Skype is obviously paying the telephone company to connect from a computer near home to our home telephone. However, the rates are incredibly good. The cost for a call between Germany and the United States (either direction) is .017 Euro per minute. That's two Euro CENTS for a minute. Considering our corporate calling card rate is somewhere near a DOLLAR per minute, this is a huge savings.

Now if any of you are asking either a) why do I care about all this? or b) didn't he start off saying that he'd had a frustrating time, why is he rambling about software? then the answer is either a) maybe you don't, you don't have to read this or b) I'm telling you how far we've come, now I'll tell you about my disappointed higher expectations...

Tangent completed I'll jump back to the idea that I've been using Skype to sidestep the hotel telephone. The hotel offers a T-Mobile service that is wirelessly available in the hotel room for 2 Euros per 15 minutes. Even a 2 Euro overhead combined with paying cents per minute makes a 3 minute Skype call less expensive than a 3 minute telephone call and the savings gets better by the minute after that. However, the internet connection at the hotel is not what I was calling a "high quality internet connection". When I first got in to Rosenheim on Monday, the hotel telphone and internet system was down for an hour (just long enough to miss my chance to call Andrea before she went to work), then it took half an hour to configure, but then it worked and I left Andrea a message on our answering machine. Tuesday it worked OK for a SkypeOut call, although 3 or 4 times the sound would drop out for about 2 seconds and then come back. Wednesday I again spent about 30 minutes getting the wirless connection to work, but I was rewarded with another 15 minute "call" with only a few 2 second blanks. However, I must have run out of luck, because this morning it was horrible. I could hear Andrea just fine, but she could only hear every other word from my end. We fought with this for 15 minutes, closing and restarting the session every few minutes to try to get a better connection over the internet (unfortunately that wasn't the problem, the problem was the connection on my end). After hanging up the last time, I promptly switched to the telephone in the room and tried the calling card number one more time. With no luck, I broke down and dialed the international number directly and profusely apologized to Andrea for the frustrating time of trying to talk for 15 minutes when she could never hear a full sentence.

We kept the call short, having no idea what rate the hotel would charge, but fearing the worst. On my way to breakfast I asked the front desk to tell me the charge for our call. I didn't time the call, but it was probably between 2 and 3 minutes, and the cost was 3,30 Euro (the comma is a nod to the German convention, mentally substitute a decimal point). Basically one Euro per minute, which at the current exchange rate is only marginally worse than the calling card that I was insistent on using.

So what's the point! Now that I've experienced a crystal clear Skype call for no cost to me (our company is paying the internet line, but my usage isn't directly increasing the bill), I expect this. I want to talk without interruption without paying anything extra for it. I am willing to pay a few cents per minute for SkypeOut because of the convenience for Andrea to use the house phone rather than sit at our computer and it's so much less than before that my mind can justify it. But I will not accept a bad quality connection. I expect my bits and bytes to travel from Germany to California and back fast enough that I cannot tell it wasn't instant. And the funny thing is that in many cases, they do. But when they don't... well, let's just say that I'm going to stick to calling from the office at the end of the day and not deal with the hotel lines for anything but email for the rest of the trip.

I'm sure in 25 years, a sound exchange between any 2 points in the world will have become a trivial thing and my child will not understand how I could ever have struggled to make a call overseas. But my guess is, he or she will be frustrated because a videochat between 5 college friends in different states and countries dropped some frames. The more things change... you know the rest.