Category Archives: Opinion

Are We All Thieves?

The history of advancing technology is long littered with accusations of copyright infringement along with charges of outright thievery.

The problem seems to stem from ever-changing definitions of what comprises a song, a performance, or a book. Back in the days when the player piano was invented, musicians themselves seemed to define a song as a live performance. Hence, the spreading invention of mechanical player pianos and reproduced sheet music would somehow destroy music itself.

Of course, what actually happened was that rather than being destroyed, music was promoted and ultimately became more popular.

Music is not the piano rolls, nor is it vinyl records, audiocassettes, or CD’s. These are simply physical transmission mediums. It could also be equally argued that MP3 or other digital file formats are not the actual music either, though they are heavily intertwined.

Can’t we as consumers be honest? How is it that so many of us can think nothing of illegally downloading media, yet wouldn’t think of stealing a physical object without paying for it?

Those who continue to rationalize that it’s “okay” to illegally download copyrighted music, movies and other copyrighted materials are thieves. Would you enjoy having your stuff stolen? Are excuses popping up in your mind why wrong is right and right is wrong? If so, you failed the test. If you have to make an excuse to yourself or anyone else to justify your behavior, you are wrong. If you find yourself the victim of a thief, how can you then turn around and complain? Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?

The solution to the problem is easy. Get what you want by legitimately paying for it. If you don’t want to pay for it, don’t be a thief by stealing it.

On the other hand, if you don’t like the less-than-stellar behavior of certain media-production organizations, the solution is equally easy. Don’t consume their products. Turn them off. Pull the plug. The world won’t come to an end. You will survive. The age we live in is filled to the brim with alternative entertainment and information sources that make it possible to reduce or completely eliminate the need to consume copyrighted material, if that is your wish.


Remember back in the day, when you’d find some cool picture on the ‘net, and you’d copy it’s URL and paste it in some website you ran, and then the person at the hosting site would get all mad and tell you to take it down and “no hot-linking!”  Remember that?

I learned early on that if I wanted an image, I needed to steal it fair and square, plop it onto my own server space, and then post its img src in my web page.  That’s how it was done, and anyone who didn’t want to get yelled at did that.

Then along came Facebook.  Suddenly, hot-linking became the norm.  We hot-link to articles, youtube videos, funny pictures, you name it.  I do it all the time on my Facebook page.  I don’t do it on my blogs or on my web site, but when it comes to Facebook, I never think twice about posting a hot-link to a picture or video.

And it occurred to me the other day, that I’ve not been yelled at or seen anyone mention hot-linking in several years.  Is it that bandwidth and data transfer is so cheap, and our server space is so cheap, that hot-linking doesn’t really matter anymore?  Or is hot-linking done so much these days that there’s no real way to stop it?

Any thoughts?

So Is The iPhone A Good Phone?

When the iPhone came along in 2007, many people were immediately disappointed, including me, that it was tied at the hip to AT&T. In retrospect, that set the stage for what was to follow.

Immediately many iPhone users began to complain about poor signal coverage and dropped calls. It seems that everyone assumed that the iPhone itself as a phone was as good or better than any other phone – after all, it was an Apple device, implying that it had to be good.

Fast-forward to now. The iPhone 4 comes out, and immediately some users began to complain about the new antenna design and the “ground out” effect that happens on some phones when certain areas of the external metal antenna comes into contact with human skin, resulting in signal attenuation.

Apple’s immediate reaction was to come out with a statement saying they had checked in to the issue, and discovered to their dismay that every iPhone ever sold had a signal calculation problem. Ooops, the result was that every iPhone going back to the original model happened to be displaying too many signal strength bars for a given signal level. So sorry, the calculation error meant we weren’t following the exact AT&T signal strength calculation specifications. Gee Whiz!!! We have a download that will fix that optimistic display signal strength problem and make it more realistic.

I have no doubt that there was an honest calculation error. The bigger question that remains is this – how do various iPhone models stack up to other specific phone models on the same AT&T network? Does anyone actually test these things in a scientific way? It’s well known that different phone models exhibit different performance levels in the same specific signal areas. Some phone models will work in marginal signal situations where other phone models fail to perform at all.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the iPhone has never had top cell phone performance. AT&T has likely taken a lot of bashing over the past few years that it might not have entirely deserved.

Verizon puts each new phone model through an extensive testing and certification process before they will sell them for use on the Verizon network, thus ensuring that each new device will meet a certain minimum level of performance. This way the Verizon brand and network performance reputation is protected from the bad word-of-mouth that a marginally performing device would likely generate.

If a CDMA version of the iPhone exists, and the rumors are true that it will eventually show up for sale at Verizon, this has to mean that it’s already being tested. Will the CDMA iPhone pass the Verizon tests?

Perhaps more importantly to some, are the iPhone CDMA testers with their black horn-rimmed glasses hanging out in bars shouting “Can you hear me now?” into mysterious phone models disguised to look like Droids? Is there an app for that?

Waxing Nostalgic

The year was 2005. The month was November. The setting was the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, California. The event was the first podcast media expo. The phenomenon of podcasting, brought to life by Adam Curry and Dave Winer, was a bit over a year old. At least a couple of thousand podcasters as well as many podcast listeners showed up from around the world to meet each other face to face for the fist time.

Looking back in my own mind and the minds of many others who attended, it was as if there was a special magic that happened at Ontario. This first event brought a bunch of strangers together, yet it had the happy feel of a family reunion. Soon enough it would be over and time for us all to go our separate ways.

The Ontario Convention Center turned out to work especially well for in-person social networking for people who were heavily involved in this brand new form of social media. It was very easy to identify other attendees because of the convention badges. Most people were staying in the nearby hotels, particularly at the Marriot across the street from the Ontario Convention Center. People ended up milling back and forth between the convention center and the Marriot. Many people ended up meeting each other and striking up conversations at random as they accidentally met each other while walking around or just hanging out.

I was always up front about the reason I attended these podcast expos. I was there to meet people and hang out with podcaster friends. I did not sign up for or pay money to attend any of the expo’s sessions. I was there to socialize. I don’t believe I was the only podcaster who thought this way. From a social standpoint, the podcast expos held in Ontario were a tremendous success. Sadly, from an expo-promoting business standpoint, perhaps they weren’t so successful.

There would be a total of three of these expos held at the Ontario Convention Center before the gathering was moved to the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada starting in 2008. The 2008 expo ended up being sort of lost in the middle of a mega-building probably most well known for housing the annual (and gargantuan) Consumer Electronics Show every January.

With literally thousands of Las Vegas tourists, combined with other conventions going on at the same time, meeting and socializing with the reduced number of podcasters that did make the effort to show up in Las Vegas in 2008 and later in 2009 became difficult. Gone were the happy accidental meetings. Pretty much gone was the accidental social networking aspect that had happened every year at the convention center in Ontario.

Those three magical expos at the Ontario Convention Center will never be repeated. Many of those early podcasters have moved on to other interests, as well as many of the early podcast listeners that also made a point of showing up. The social aspect of podcasting has seemed to wane a bit as larger commercial and educational organizations expanded into the space.

Podcasting is alive and well in 2010, and is taking its place in this new and continually evolving world of Internet-distributed digital media production and distribution. There are more podcasts available for download than ever before. Priorities change, and people move on.

Those first three podcast expos at Ontario, California were exceptional social networking events where many exceptional friendships were formed.

Mobile Broadband – Not Quite There Yet

Yesterday I helped my mom buy a new laptop.  Her ACER had finally bit the dust in a blaze of fiery wireless glory (don’t ask, it will just make you sad).  I bought her a shiny new HP G-series laptop with all the bells and whistles.

Now, if we could just manage to get reliable, affordable reasonably fast wireless broadband for her, we’d finally be set.  My mother is a nomad.  She has a place in Florida for the cold months, and a small RV that she lives in the rest of the year as she travels around.  This month, she happens to have herself parked at an RV park about 20 minutes from my house.  And while she doesn’t mind heading down to the local Panera Bread or Barnes and Noble to use their wireless services, and I don’t mind if she hangs out at my house for small periods of time to use my wireless, this is far from ideal.  Two years ago I talked her into getting an AirCard from our cell provider, ATT.  You can imagine how that went.  If she could get a signal at all, it was as slow as dialup.  Most of the time the signal dropped or was simply unavailable.  And she was paying an exorbitant amount of money for the privilege of not being able to connect, around $70 a month.  My mom is retired, that’s a big chunk of money for her.  It would be a big chunk of money for me, too.  When the contract came up this week, she canceled it and is now without any type of service, other than what she can get for free.

I get my home-based broadband at a cost of $30 a month.  I have seven computers on that network on a normal day, more on others.  I get speeds around 10 mbps down and 5-6 mbps up.  That home-based broadband is brought to me by the fine folks at AT&T.  Why can’t I get something similar, wirelessly, to take care of my mother’s internet needs, at a price that won’t send her, or me, to the poorhouse?

This is the most frustrating thing for her, and by association, for me.  When she has a sleepless night and wants to get online to chat with a friend on the other side of the world, or check her email or play an online game, she can’t do it, because she has no wireless broadband available that actually works.  She is unwilling to pay $70 a month for service that is intermittent and incredibly slow, and I can’t blame her.  She has looked into other plans, from other providers, and there’s just not much out there.

Here we are, arguably the richest, most powerful nation on the planet, and we can’t seem to solve the wireless broadband question for people like my mother.  It’s hard to tout how wonderful technology is, and what’s available to all of us, when we can’t fix this very basic element of our connection to that technology.  As savvy as I am, I cannot answer the question my mother asks, about why there isn’t anything worthwhile (and economical) available. I just know there isn’t, and I don’t think I can even picture a time when this will be resolved.  And this is unfortunate.

Why I Don’t Trust Online Voting

Every fall, we start to hear about a bigger push for online voting for our major elections.  I am one of those in the category of being firmly against online voting.  There is too much room for things to go dreadfully wrong, with even less hope of fixing a problem if one occurs.

I mean, we can’t even get online polls right, for the most part, even if procedures and methods are in place to prevent spamming the vote count.  This week’s controversy involves Oprah Winfrey’s “Your OWN Show” contest, a voting event that allows visitors to the site to submit votes for different people who’d like to compete for their own show on Oprah’s new television network, OWN, set to launch next year.  For several hours, a particular contestant’s vote button script was “different” than the other contestants, allowing her to rack up votes at 1923 votes per minute, bringing her quickly and questionably in the lead.  Oprah’s people are, of course, “investigating” the incident, and the script has been adjusted to match the other contestants’ scripts, thereby leveling the playing field.

But who’s to say that the script couldn’t be altered again, for one contestant or another?  This kind of hacking is not particularly difficult, it seems, which leaves these types of contest open to all kinds of discrepancies in actual numbers.  Anyone who watches and votes for American Idol knows what an unfair process it is; a single person can send in as many votes in the overnight hours as they want through SMS messages from their cell phone.  Each vote is not necessarily a unique person.

And even if the intent is to keep the votes to one per person, there are always ways around that, and I don’t see online official voting to be immune from such practices.  There is always a way to hack, always a way to game the system.  Online voting for our government officials doesn’t sound any more legitimate than all the “voting” on websites to rank web pages or choose winners of contests.

And honestly, I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a point where we can trust online voting for elected officials.  It just doesn’t seem possible.

The eBay Problem

When eBay was fresh and shiny and new, I spent a lot of time there. I bought things that I needed, sold things that I didn’t need, and had good experiences. It was like going garage saling without having to get in the car, with a few perks like the ability to search for something I wanted, and to compare prices on comparable items. When I got married ten years ago, I paid for my wedding dress with proceeds from eBay sales of things I didn’t need anymore. eBay was the first place I looked when I was looking for a specific item.

Ah, those were the days. Now, when I head over to eBay, it’s mostly “power sellers” that are really just big warehouses of closeouts, lots of over-priced Chinese knock-offs, and plenty of businesses in the business of buying crap at flea markets and reselling it on eBay. It’s not the first place I go to anymore when I’m looking for something. Searches I’ve done recently for simple items like netbook cases or sewing patterns have brought up mixed results at best. One of the things I dislike about the eBay search model is that it doesn’t allow you to search within your search results to narrow down your choices. And what I really dislike is how overpriced things seem to be. In my search for a netbook for my daughter for Christmas, I of course took a look over there, but found that the prices were higher than purchasing the same item through a more traditional online retailer (I ended up with an HP Mini 10.1 from OfficeMax for an unbelievable price, for those that are interested). I haven’t seen a reasonably priced computer on eBay in years.

I don’t doubt that eBay still has its value. If I’m looking for a particular thing, like extra-long jeans of a certain brand, or a collectible teapot, eBay is still a great resource. But that is so specialized, and I don’t believe that that is where eBay is making its money in sales fees. A $400 netbook when I can get the same one for $250 delivered from a big-name retailer is not a bargain, and dilutes the value of the eBay brand, in my opinion. Yes, everyone wants to make a dollar or two, I understand that, of course, but when making a dollar borders on gouging, I have to wonder about the business practices of the organization running the show.

What does eBay want to be? Is it ready to devolve into a place full of out-dated closeouts and overpriced Chinese knock-offs? Because that appears to be where it’s headed. And how do they fix what is broken to clean up their act (or the act of their sellers)? I wouldn’t know where to start, but if they want to be Amazon (their main competitor at the moment) then they need to find a way to fix what is going downhill in a hurry.

Ah, eBay. I knew you when…

Charging Us More For Your Failures Won’t Make us Like You Better

verizon logoVerizon announced yesterday that they are doubling their early terminations fees, to reach as much as $350 for some users. I have never understood the use of early termination fees as an alternative to providing service people want in the way that they want it. I also do not buy into the claim that all those long-term contracts are supporting expensive hardware that users are getting at a reduced rate.

There are a dozen reasons why someone might need to cancel a phone contract. A job transfer could take them to a location that doesn’t have good service on their existing plan. The loss of a job can mean that the cell thing is the first thing to go. Poor customer service, or not getting full value out of the service you thought you purchased could be another reason to drop a plan and go with another. Cost can also be a factor; comparing your current plan against other carriers can often show you where you can save a little money. None of these things are unusual, unexpected, nor should they be punishable. If I change brands of cat food, I don’t get penalized. If I stop eating at one restaurant in favor of another, I am not penalized. We like to change our minds, and we like to have the freedom and choice to do so.

Adding hefty early termination fees to already ridiculously inflated service plans isn’t the best way to get me as a customer. You can market me until you’re blue in the face, but if I feel like I’m going to be taken advantage of, I am going to walk away. I don’t mind paying a fair and reasonable price for decent service, and I don’t mind that wireless carriers are making a little profit. What I do mind is that wireless carriers are making billions of dollars in profit, yet fuss that they do not have the capital to invest in expanding their infrastructure and wireless architecture to give us better service. It is like the brother-in-law who borrows $300 to pay his electric bill, doesn’t pay you back, but shows up at your house the next month with a new car. I don’t have much sympathy for that kind of economic game-playing in people, I certainly don’t want to see it in my wireless carrier.

When wireless carriers can show me that a cell phone, even a smart one, costs several thousand dollars to produce, then I might change my mind. But until then, I am going to ride my carriers hard and expect a lot out of them. That is what I’m paying for, and I expect to get it. Doubling up on early termination fees just took one carrier out of the running, in my mind.

Customer Service – You’re Doing it Right!

thumbs upAs a followup to my post from yesterday, I wanted to talk about customer service being done the right way. As tech-geeks who work directly with users, doing customer service the right way is something we should strive for.

Along with my trouble yesterday over and old purchase order, I had another one to follow up on. This one was for a software upgrade to an existing piece of software our audio/video engineer uses. His job is to take mountains of videotaped events and turn them into usable bits of digital uploads. One piece of software he uses is called Trapcode, from the folks over at Red Giant Software. The engineer needed to upgrade the product we already owned, and I put in the purchase order to do so. Turns out, the company only takes purchase orders for anything over $1000, anything less than that, and you need to use a credit card. Our purchase was going to be under $100. Well, this is a giant bureaucracy here, and we don’t have credit cards, or access to credit cards, so we were stuck. I explained the situation to the customer service representative I was talking to, and quickly received an email resolving the issue. They were offering us a complimentary upgrade to our existing product, since we weren’t able to purchase with a credit card. Of course, the email came with a little sales pitch at the end about how we could use the software in an academic environment, but I can’t complain about that.

The fact is, my problem was resolved, within minutes, without excuses, and with a resolution better than I could have ever hoped for. Resolving issues quickly, and satisfactorily, should be the goal of anyone serving an end user of any type. I now can go about my day worrying about other things, than waiting for an email or a phone call to resolve an issue. As of this moment, my request to the vendor from yesterday has not been answered. Guess which company I’m apt to be spending more money with in the future?

Customer Service – You’re Doing it Wrong

"no" imageI spend a lot of time at my daily J.O.B. following up on orders with software/hardware companies. Most of the time, my experiences are good enough, even pleasurable, although I’m not really big on having to make phone calls in the first place. But today when following up on an order, I ran across something I thought was a bit unusual.

Two months ago I placed an order for a piece of software. It was relatively inexpensive, but highly recommended to me by some colleagues in my industry. I decided to give it a try, and sent off the purchase order per their website instructions. Two months later, I still don’t have the software, or anything from them saying that there is a delay or any other issue. So I trot off to their website and look for a customer service number I can call. To my surprise, there wasn’t one. Instead, on the page with their mailing address, was a clickable statement, “Why our phone number is not listed here.” Of course I clicked it, to be taken to a page that, in five paragraphs or so, said to this effect: We would love to talk to you but we are too busy and it costs to much to talk to people on the phone. So, email us, and we’ll get right back to you. And this quote pretty much sums it all up for me: “We think you’ll agree once you’ve tried us, we’ve decided to offer the best email support on the planet. Every email is answered within 24 hours.”

This does not bode well for me trying to figure out where our order is. It also does not bode well for me recommending this company, or their software, to others. Ironically, I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews for the product, a text-to-speech software that can be used by disabled (or non-disabled) people to read email, web pages, text files, etc. I can give it no such reviews, as I’ve not yet been able to try the product, and don’t know when I will be able to. I don’t care how small you are, if you are offering something for sale, then you’d better be able to back it up with at least minimal customer support, and not some long, drawn-out excuse for why you won’t provide that service. As a busy tech-geek, I don’t have time for excuses when I’m trying to get the job done. It’s unfortunate that this company can’t see that their behavior now can hinder their future success. They’ve already lost me as a future customer, and I won’t be able to say anything good about them to anyone who asks, either.

It isn’t always about the product; sometimes it’s about how we get the interaction we need as we’re going along.