How Sports Broadcasting Should Work

I was watching the French Open this morning on the Tennis Channel when the live coverage suddenly ended and I was told to switch over to NBC to catch the end of the Djokovic match. Now I understand the two companies must have had some agreement on how to split the coverage at Roland Garros, but it seemed arbitrary and unnatural, not to mention annoying

So this got me thinking: wouldn’t sports broadcasting be better without exclusivity? For starters we won’t have to switch channels in the middle of a match. More importantly, we can actually have real competition over quality of commentary, production values, and most of all price. If you like Marv Albert and Steve Kerr’s commentary over Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen you can watch the game on TNT instead of ESPN because they will both have it. Broadcasters will no longer be able to extort money from cable and satellite providers (I’m looking at you ESPN) because there will be multiple sources for the same content. Overall I think it would encourage more choices and a better end product for users.

Of course, it would be equally silly to have five or six different camera crews all physically competing for the best camera angles and positions. That’s why the actual camera work needs to be decoupled from the broadcasters. At most major sports venues, the camera locations are pretty much set; some of them are even built into the arena or stadium itself. These cameras are always on and there’s little innovation or variety that can come out of how this raw footage is captured. What leagues can then do is license this feed out to broadcasters to overlay with their own graphics, commentary, etc. They can decide which camera to cut to for each play and when to go to commercial. I haven’t crunched any numbers, but financially it may not hurt the leagues that much. Sure they lose out on their current lucrative TV contracts but they could make that up by working out smaller licensing deals with multiple networks. It doesn’t even have to be a network- they could potentially choose to democratize it and provide the feed to anyone who’s willing to pay. That way amateurs can compete with the big boys to provide the best viewing experience.

The only real losers in this scenario would be the incumbents who will have to work for their audience instead of relying on their exclusive contract.  They will most likely see their margins shrink as they will have less bargaining power over cable and satellite companies. However for a network that is weak in sports and wants to air more NFL or NBA games, this could be an attractive way to break in. I understand this is a very idealistic proposition and the status quo benefits a lot of stakeholders. But like anything in sports, there’s always next year, right?

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Yeah, RIM is dead

When I started working this past fall, I was given the option of several smartphones to use for work, ranging from Blackberry and iPhone to Android, Windows Phone, even Palm. At the time, I had just gotten my Incredible 2 so I was hoping to take the opportunity to try a different phone out. After some debate, I decided to go with the Blackberry Bold 9650 from Verizon. My reasoning at the time was I already had a fun, touch screen phone with the Incredible, so I just needed something that could make calls and do email for work. Blackberry is known for its email, security, and keyboard. Plus a lot of people around the office had one of these so it seemed like a good idea.

While I haven’t been disappointed by the Bold, it also hasn’t exactly impressed me. The email client is fine but that’s about as much it has going for it. I used to think that a keyboard would be important for emailing, but I’ve gotten used to typing on a touchscreen (the buttons on the 9650 are a little small too). A lot of people raved about Blackberry Messenger, but I’ve never found a use for it. What really brings the phone down though is the software. Blackberry OS just feels too much like a feature phone OS from the mid 2000s. The web browser is horrible and the app ecosystem is weak. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but even for work, apps can be important. Deloitte has a couple of proprietary apps that are either exclusive to or better on the iPhone.

I know newer iterations of the Bold have a touchscreen and a better keyboard, but unless they drastically improve the OS and app environment, I will probably get an iPhone next time I’m eligible for an upgrade (just to get some variety). I finally believe that RIM is dead now. Even if the new OS is as good as iOS and Android, it will already be too late and it surely won’t be enough to attract new customers. The only viable strategy I see for RIM (other than selling itself) is to focus on being the smartphone for the poor. RIM has had some success in developing countries and lower income consumers. If it can get its price point down and offer some of the functionality users want (messaging, Facebook, Twitter) RIM can become a niche player. The days of RIM being the corporate king though is over.

(Not So) Recent Tech Roundup

It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, but I finally got around to posting here again. A lot of tech announcements have come out during the last few months and instead of doing the in depth analysis of one or two news stories, I thought I would do a rapid fire quick reaction to each item and go back to them in the future if I think they warrant more discussion:

Spotify– I’ve been a vocal fan of this service before it came to the U.S. since I got to try it out in the UK. However, I’m still a little hesitant to pay for the premium streaming service. I admit streaming is very nice, but think about this: if you ever stop paying the subscription for any reason (cash is tight or Spotify goes out of business, which is entirely possible) you’re left with nothing. Yes buying a lot of music can be expensive too, but most people aren’t starting from scratch. You already have a decent mp3 library and maybe even some CDs still lying around. Also, unlike video, music is something that has a lot of replay value. Therefore you’re not constantly seeking new songs to listen to. Finally, Spotify’s library still has a lot of holes, and I’m not just talking about obscure indy music. Coldplay did not release their latest album on Spotify because they didn’t like the financial terms. So you still have to buy some music anyway. For now I’m using Google Music, which lets you upload your music and stream it on any laptop or Android device. It gives me the convenience of streaming while maintaining ownership of my music without a monthly fee.

Apple Education announcement– Many people know that I have always been critical of Apple and I was skeptical after hearing this announcement. Will it be successful for Apple bottom line? Sure it’s Apple. But will it really improve and revolutionize education as they claim? Not necessarily, especially since a large part of the problem in this country is the gap between wealthy and poor school districts. I did some quick back of the envelope type calculations and it’s hard to see how this will save school districts any money.

Let’s assume a typical K-12 textbook cost $150 and the school district can use it for 5 years before it is outdated or worn out. Let’s say a student takes 5 classes each year. Therefore, the annual cost per student under this traditional model is $150.

Now let’s see what happens if a school district decides to supply iPads to its students. We will assume that each student will get their own device and each student will have to pay for a copy of the e-textbook every year. I’m also going to be generous here and assume the iPads will be subsidized, either by the government or Apple, to a very low $300 for the 16G Wifi model  and the price ceiling on e-textbooks will remain at $15. In this scenario, we get an annual cost per student of $135.

This is a slight saving of $15 per student annually which could really add up for large school districts. However, we left out a few things from this quick exercise and made very optimistic assumptions about others. First off, there’s no guarantee educational iPads will be subsidized at all, much less by $200. Nor will e-textbook prices remain at a low $15. If these sales start significantly cannibalizing print sales, I can’t see the publishing companies just standing by idly. In addition, we’re assuming that an iPad will last 5 years. Aside from usual wear and tear (which you know will happen when you’re dealing with kids), tablet technology is progressing rapidly. If Apple continues its release cycle of at least one a year for iPads, the current iPad 2 will long be obsolete by 2017. And let’s not forget that not all schools have Wifi and schools will still need money for traditional computers. I don’t care how good the iPad becomes, there’s no way you’re writing an essay on it. Financially, it’s hard to see this model working in its present state.

Changes to Google search– A lot of hoopla was made over Google’s privacy policy change, but I think people should be more upset about Google’s efforts to make search social and individualized. To me, a big part of Google search’s appeal was that it was agnostic. It didn’t matter who was doing the search, you would all get the same results because its what Google’s algorithms objectively believed were the most relevant. If Google has its way though, everyone would in theory have different search results even if they looked up the same term. This is fine for a social network like Facebook, but for a search engine it just seems wrong. If not done properly, it could seriously erode the value of Google. Imagine how detrimental it would be if I used Google to look up a certain product, explore vacation destinations, or research a political candidate and I only got one side of the story. Philosophically, it represents a greater danger of “socializing” everything. In my opinion, part of the beauty of the Internet is to explore new information and ideas outside your worldview. For example, you can spend hours using the random article feature on Wikipedia to learn all sorts of random facts about anything and everything. By filtering the Internet based only on what you already know and like, you’re creating something that may be comfortable but closed minded.

Facebook IPO– Yes, everyone’s asking two questions: Will Facebook’s IPO soar like Google’s and should I get in on it? From an outsider’s perspective, I would say “yes” and “maybe.” I’m sure Facebook will pop like most IPOs, but there’s almost chance you will get in on it if you’re an average investor. Most of these shares will be going to employees and large institutional investors and by the time you get your hands on them, you will already be paying the post-pop price. Long term, I don’t think Facebook will fizzle like Linkedin, Zynga, and Groupon. It’s too big and demand is too high to run out of momentum. I don’t think we’re going to see run away growth a la Google’s early years either, at least not yet. Remember, Facebook did a lot of its growing as a private company and is already really saturated in its existing markets. However, I think they have two trump cards that can give them a long term boost. First, Facebook currently does not serve ads on its mobile site and apps. As mobile becomes ever more important though, I have no doubt they will monetize it eventually and see a financial windfall from it. Second, Facebook has yet to crack China and several other Asian markets. While American tech companies have had a mixed record in China, it would be one of the few ways for Facebook to significantly grow its user base. For Facebook shareholders, it will all be about timing and patience. Wait for the initial buzz to subside to buy in and then hold for one of these major events to happen.

Jeremy Lin– Not a tech story at all, but couldn’t resist. First off, I like this kid and I hope he succeeds. He’s smart and plays his heart out. Despite beating the Lakers though, I still think he’s overhyped and unlikely to be the Knick’s savior by any means. Let’s not forget that he’s putting these numbers up on a Knicks team with their top 2 scorers out. They’re desperate for any positive signs in an otherwise disappointing season, and he plays for D’antoni whose offense is really friendly for quick PGs who can shoot and make good decisions with the ball. We don’t know if he’ll still be effective once Carmelo and Stoudamire return, we don’t know if he can sustain this kind of effort over a full season, much less multiple season and probably most importantly he’s had a lot of turnovers, sometimes as many as his assists. I still think he can be an effective backup because of his smarts and handles. I can see him having a solid NBA career an energetic spark off the bench like J.J. Barea or Leandro Barbosa, but I wouldn’t bet on much more than that.

Incredible 2 Review

Well, after reading about and even critiquing smartphones for the past few years, I finally got one of my own, the Droid Incredible 2 by HTC on Verizon. I’ve played around with it for a few weeks now so I feel like I can give a fair assessment of the device. I admit the name is a bit pretentious, but bottom line you’re getting great value for the price you’re paying. If only they were a little more modest and called it the Droid Really Really Good.

For various philosophical and financial reasons, I do not own any Apple devices and I wasn’t going to start with an iPhone 4. Android may not be as neat and clean as iOS, but it’s better for people who want to tinker with their phones and customize it for their own needs. It has great integration with Google services like Gmail and Voice and in many ways the Incredible 2 is better than the iPhone 4 both in terms of hardware (better camera) and software (iOS5 just got notifications).

If you’re going with Android on Verizon, you have a lot of choices. The Incredible 2 certainly isn’t the most flashy option. It doesn’t have 4G LTE like the Droid Charge or Thunderbolt. It doesn’t have a dual core processor like the Droid X2. However, what you do get is reliable performance in a lean, mean package. Unlike the 4G phones, the Incredible’s battery life is solid and won’t die after a few hours. I can get through a day of regular use (some phone/texting, 1-2 hours of music/podcasting, some web, social networking, and Youtube) without recharging. Unlike the X2, it won’t look (too) ridiculous in your pocket because the screen is only 4″ but that’s all you really need. If you really want to do heavy duty reading/watching, get a tablet. I wanted a phone that could make calls, browse the web, play music and casual games. The Incredible 2 does it beautifully without breaking the bank ($199.99 with contract right now).

That being said, there are some downsides. The biggest problem is Verizon. They’ve loaded it up with free trials and their crappy VCast apps. It’s like buying a PC back in 2000, except you can’t delete these. There’s also the issue of media management. Whatever criticisms I may have of the iPhone, its media management system via iTunes is the best out there. On Android, I’ve tried several options from the default HTC music player to DoubleTwist to Google Music (Yes I got a Beta invite! Look for a post about it!). All of these have their strengths and weaknesses but none of them work as well as iTunes on iPhone. Maybe as Google Music gets better Android will have something comparable. Lastly, I upgraded from a keyboard phone and the touchscreen typing initially took some getting used to. I’m okay with the onscreen keyboard now and Android does give you other options like voice input if you hate typing, but I still miss blazing across a full QWERTY keyboard sometimes.

Finally, I have to address the 3G v. 4G debate a little more. My choice ultimately came down to the Incredible 2 and the Droid Charge. The two phones have very similar specs. The big difference is one is 4G and one is not. We’re currently in a stage of development where there isn’t a clear cut better choice between the two. Let me be clear: LTE can be very fast and it certainly is the future. Also, Verizon’s 3G and 4G data plans cost the same so if you live in a 4G area it can be a pretty good deal. However, LTE is still a very new technology. A lot of these new phones are very expensive ($300 for the Charge) but have terrible battery life. In 2 years everything will be 4G, but right now it’s a tossup. Many places still do not have 4G coverage and the places that do may suffer outages. It really depends on where you live and how you use your phone.

So to recap, I’m really happy with the Incredible 2. It isn’t state of the art but the technology behind it is proven. You’re getting great bang for your buck. I would argue it’s the best 3G Android phone on Verizon, and perhaps even better than the iPhone 4. Don’t take my word for it though. Go read other reviews and go to your local store to play around with one.

Digg: What Went Wrong?

You may have heard recently that news sharing/ranking website Digg had to lay off a third of its staff after a relaunch of its site flopped. Two years ago when I visited Digg on TechTrek, Digg was a darling of the Web 2.0 generation of startups. It had a charismatic founder in Kevin Rose, a veteran of the first dot-com bubble in CEO Jay Adelson, and an innovative idea that was poised to change how we consume news. Those Digg icons were all over the web. It turned down lucrative acquisition offers from Yahoo and others. Digg was the kid that was too cool for a million dollars because they had their eyes set on bigger things.

Well things have unraveled since then. Digg had trouble with mainstream adoption and lost its core users to Reddit. More importantly, Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s “Retweet” buttons have replaced Digg on most websites. This latest round of layoffs is the largest but certainly not the first as they’ve cut 10% of staff twice since 2009. Jay Adelson left the company earlier this year. Even the company’s major revamp, Digg 4 (which I reviewed favorably in beta), was poorly received. Digg appears to be a dead man walking now eclipsed by its rivals and its core fan base is in revolt. With such a dramatic fall from grace, one has to wonder: Was Digg’s fall inevitable, and if so should we be concerned about many of today’s social and mobile startups?

The answer to the first part of the question is a resounding no. Just look at Reddit, which has thrived during the same period of time. Reddit is a favorite of the hip, quirky, tech-savvy community. In other words the same group that made Digg cool. However, as a mainstream consumer, I would never use Reddit because its UI is unpolished and most of the top stories are kind of odd. Again, I said the same things about the original Digg. Digg knew it had to become more mainstream in order to compete with the rising popularity of Facebook and Twitter. Yet when Digg tried to change, its fanboys revolted. This brings me to my first conclusion about many startups these days:

The business interests of a social startup and the community’s interests are sometimes at odds. Niche fan bases have limited value and in the long run may actually be a constraint.

Few companies have successfully made the leap to mass adoption. Most companies have fallen to their deaths or are too timid to try. The last outcome is fine if you sell out. Reddit is part of the massive Conde Nast publishing empire so it has no pressure to grow and give its investors a payday all on its own. Digg turned down acquisition offers and tried to build its own empire. Its competition was Twitter and Facebook. The problem is news sharing is a feature on Facebook and Twitter while on Digg it is the entire product. This brings me to my second and more important conclusion:

A feature is NOT a product and definitely NOT a sustainable company.

This is what really worries me. A lot of startups I hear about these days are very narrowly focused. They have a novel way of doing something but they compete against one feature of someone else’s product. The current environment makes it possible for these companies to get funded and move their ideas to market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is some real innovation going on here. However, it’s foolish to think there are any fortunes to be made with most of these startups, and founders and investors alike would be wise to sell sooner than later.

I don’t think there’s going to be another bubble like 2000 because this boom is not driven by the stock market. Even if a lot of these companies fail, there will be a much smaller impact on the overall economy. However, you do have to wonder how many of these companies have a future. For example, I’m worried about Foursquare and Gowalla. Although they’re slightly differentiated and have strong communities, they are merely features on Facebook. With Facebook Places and the inevitable check-in fatigue setting in, they could risk becoming the next Digg.

Twitter Habits

So if you keep up with the news at all in the past year, you’ve probably heard about something called Twitter. It’s supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate or something. I’ve been using Twitter for over a year now and it’s become a regular part of my life. Looking back at some of my older tweets, though, I can definitely see my tweeting and Twitter usage habit change over time. Like Twitter itself, my tweets have adapted to my environment and matured in the past year.

First of all, it’s important to note why people use Twitter. People call it a social network but I really think this is misleading, because people think Facebook when you say “social networks,” and Twitter is very different from Facebook. I would argue Twitter is a mass communication tool for individuals. Unless your name is Shaquille O’Neal (who I follow) or Ashton Kutcher (who I don’t follow), you’re not going to be using this as a tool to carry on a sustained conversation with your followers because, let’s be frank, you don’t have that many followers who are actually your friends. Except for niche groups like the tech community, the majority of your friends and colleagues are on Facebook or Linkedin and even if they are on Twitter, there are much better ways to carry out an extensive dialog.

For ordinary people, Twitter is basically a way to build a customized news feed. You can follow the accounts of your favorite media outlets as well as brands and people to get up to the minute information that is relevant to you. For example, I used to check CNN several times a day to find out what was going on in the world, but now I can get up to the minute updates not only from CNN and the New York Times about current events, but also the Wall Street Journal and CNBC for business news, ESPN for sports news, TechCrunch and Mashable for tech news, plus updates for specific news about Boston College, Wimbledon, or The Office. I can even discover interesting articles or videos by following celebrities and other influential individuals (such as journalists or business leaders).

Of course, there are still some rough edges to sort out. For example, because I follow several mainstream news sources, I often get redundant tweets when news breaks. It would be nice if these news flashes could be collapsed into one single tweet. I only need to hear that the bailout passed once. It doesn’t matter if I get the headline from CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNBC, Boston Globe, or Morning Call. It only matters if I want to read a more in depth analysis. Still, I think news is the greatest value of Twitter for ordinary people.

So why do I tweet? I have around 130 followers, which is solid for a random college student, but by no means influential. Of all those people, the small portion who are my friends can be more effectively reached through Facebook. The rest are typically companies or marketers hoping to gather feedback or data from me. So aside from complaining about customer service, why should I, or any ordinary person tweet?

My answer is brand building. It might sound self absorbed or hyper-commercialized, but I think in this day and age, it’s something everyone should think about doing. It’s very common for friends, colleagues, employers, colleges, and anyone else to Google you and learn more about you based on your web and social media presence. Just like multinational corporations, you can be passive and let others say whatever they want about you (see BPGlobalPR) or you can be proactive and write your own story by crafting your own public image. This is why I take care of my Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts as well as write this blog.

With this in mind, the differences in my tweets over time make sense. At first, it took some time to figure out how to actually use this service. Early on, my followers were a few early adopter friends and a bunch of random, mostly spam accounts. As a result, my tweets were fairly uninspiring, usually commenting on mundane things like the weather, waking up early, and dining hall food. I first became conscious of my Twitter habits when I started using Selective Tweets. This allowed  me differentiate my tweets and Facebook status updates. Twitter remained the more frivolous, spontaneous updates while Facebook statuses were more important and thought out.

This setup basically stayed the same until I went abroad. All of a sudden, I was relying much more on social media to communicate with friends and family back home. In a way, this meant a return to the more frivolous postings of my early days on Twitter, but because I was in a different country, it carried more value for my followers. Getting lunch, taking a walk, or even talking about the weather was interesting because I was in doing it all in London. In addition, I began to blog more actively when I went abroad and Twitter was a great way to publicize new posts. While WordPress analytics indicate that Facebook is still my top referrer, it’s always a good idea to push through as many channels as possible to reach more potential readers.

The most recent change has come in the last few months. I’m starting to build up a meaningful follower base (I broke 100 last summer but most of those were spam bots that Twitter later deleted). I have two significant active peer groups from TechTrek and TEC, in addition to various (real and active) marketer and enthusiasts. I’m being followed by organizations like Boston College and True Ventures, as well as a few members of the VC community and controversial personality Jason Calacanis. I doubt they scrutinize my tweets too much, but just knowing my 140 characters could pop up on their Tweetdecks makes me think before I tweet. I do a lot more retweeting now of interesting news stories or websites that I find to project a more mature and professional image. I use more hashtags to make my tweets stand out, join larger conversations, and hopefully get retweeted. Like successful corporate brands out there, I’m building up the value of my personal brand by producing interesting, thoughtful, and curated content.

Paid to search?

It may be nearly two months since I was last in London, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get emails from LSE and UK merchants still to remind me of my time abroad. When it comes to innovation, I’ll give the Brits one thing: they’re not afraid to try crazy stuff. Here’s one email I got earlier this week that really intrigued me:

For those of you unfamiliar with UK commerce, Nectar is a point based reward card system used mostly by Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s biggest grocery chains, but also various other e-retailers like Amazon and eBay UK. You collect points for every pound you spend and redeem those points for rewards like coupons and discounts.

If I understand this ad correctly, you’re getting free points to download and use this Yahoo search bar, which you can then redeem at your favorite retailers. So basically Yahoo is (albeit indirectly) paying UK consumers to use their search engine.

That’s pretty sad. It’s not the first time a search engine has done this before though. Early on, there were gimmicky search engines like iWon which quickly flopped. More recently, Bing had its cashback program when it first launched, but that was limited to shopping. Speaking of Bing, I wonder if this idea was cooked up by Yahoo search’s new Microsoft overlords or if this is a last gasp attempt by the people at Yahoo. Either way I’m skeptical of the impact it will have for the search engine market share battle.

I do wish they came out with this sooner though. I had over 200 points which were just idling (and probably will forever) because you had to have a minimum of 500 to redeem them for anything. Could’ve saved £2.50 ($3.75) on my last grocery bill.