(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Let’s assume a typical K-12 textbook cost $150 and the school district can use it for 5 years before it is outdated or worn out.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.

Spotify Review

When it comes to digital media consumption in the UK, its easy to miss those innovations in the US that we take for granted. One of the first things many American students notice upon arriving here is the inability to access Hulu and Pandora. One acclaimed service that they have here but not in the US though is Spotify. Spotify is an online P2P music streaming service currently available only in Sweden, Finland, Norway, the UK, France, and Spain. Naturally, I thought I would take advantage of my presence here to try out this local delicacy. Currently, free Spotify accounts are only available by invite and even though I signed up when I first got here, I only got my invite last week. After playing around with it for a week, I think I’ve got a good feel for the product and here are my thoughts and some screenshots for those of you across the pond.

First the good aspects. The user interface is primitive but easy to use (in fact it reminds me a little bit of iTunes). The sound quality is great and there is almost no lag, thanks to Spotify’s P2P streaming technology. According to a recent speech by their CEO this reduces some of the pressure of its enormous bandwidth consumption. (On a side note I’m still a little confused on how P2P streaming works. It’s not like P2P downloading where you actually have the files on your computer. Is it just mirroring off your computer?)

The library is also pretty solid. Of course you have your top 40, classics like Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John, and some lesser known artists like Bon Iver and the a capella group Straight No Chaser. They also have a good amount of live albums and movie soundtracks. The only notable absences I could find were The Beatles and Pink Floyd but they’re hard to find online anywhere. Additional features include Internet radio and the ability to share playlists with other Spotify users. They also have a partnership with 7digital if you want to buy and download any song. Currently, the free version has banner ads and a 30 second audio commercial every 3 songs or so. It’s still a lot less disruptive and obnoxious than another UK streaming service, we7.

Now for my complaints. First you can’t just stream directly from their website, you have to install Spotify on your computer first. I understand this is technically necessary because it’s P2P, but it restricts your access to computers with Spotify installed. If you want to use Spotify on your phone, you have to pay £9.99 a month for a Premium account (also includes ad-free and the ability to store 3,333 songs locally). The radio is pretty plain and doesn’t learn like Pandora. I also want them to open the free accounts up to everyone because right now I can’t share playlists with anyone.

I’m not saying I don’t like Spotify. It’s pretty good for sampling new songs and listening to songs or albums I wouldn’t necessarily like enough to download. I was just a little underwhelmed after all the hype and wait. To me it feels a lot like Rhapsody in the US although the free Rhapsody account only lets you listen to 25 songs a month. I think it has a lot of potential once it opens up in more countries. It definitely has the right idea to move songs into the cloud whereas iTunes is going to see a decline in a few years. However, I also have doubts about its long term sustainability since according to their Wikipedia article, the company reported a $4.4 million loss in 2008. Right now, I’m just not compelled enough to subscribe to a Premium account even though I think that’s where they’re looking to grow.

What’s the final verdict? I’ll definitely keep using it for the next two and half months that I’m here. When I come home in June though I’ll probably get cut off unless I go through a UK VPN and its not worth the hassle. So unfortunately as of right now, Spotify is fun to play around with but not a long term keeper.

Tech in Britain

So last time I talked about how I’ve jumped on the podcast and netbook bandwagon since coming to London. In part two of my series on tech in the UK, I’m going to talk a little about my observations of the tech industry and tech usage in London. In general, I would say consumer adoption of new technologies is at about the same level if not slightly higher than in the U.S. However, institutional or systematic adoption seems to lag behind the States. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

The mobile industry here is quite possibly better than in the U.S. I can’t speak to 3G coverage here because I don’t have a smartphone, but regular call services are definitely superior to the U.S. First off, there are more carriers than back home so the industry is much more competitive. The major carriers are Vodafone (parent of Verizon), O2 and Orange, but there are also second tier carriers like T-Mobile and 3 and smaller players like Lyca Mobile. Unlike the duopoly that AT&T and Verizon have in the U.S., these carriers all have about equal market share so they all have very strong networks and consumer-friendly deals. I’m currently on a recurring 30 day contract with Vodafone (who, no surprise, have the best coverage here) with 100 minutes and 500 texts per month for just £10 a month ($16). What’s better is that you don’t pay to receive incoming calls and texts. Therefore, I essentially get 200 minutes and 1,000 texts assuming my incoming and outcoming usage are about equal. There also seems to be a greater selection of fancy phones here outside of the iPhone and Blackberry (although most study abroad students just get a cheap basic phone). The iPhone is going to be on multiple carriers soon (Vodafone and Orange are introducing it early next year) and

Android phones seem to be more popular (although that could change with the Droid). Overall, the competitive landscape of the mobile industry here seems to be a big gain for consumers.

Other technologies are on a similar level to the U.S. as well. At LSE, I see an equal amount of PCs and Macs, although Macs are not officially supported by IT services here. TV is a little different because they don’t really have cable here. Everything is either broadcast (which you need to pay a TV license for) or satellite (Sky box, which gets you lots of American shows and even some American sports). There are some things that they don’t have here, namely the Kindle. It’s also annoying that I can’t access things like Hulu or ESPN360 because of broadcast restrictions. A small aside here: I think going subscription is a horrible mistake for Hulu. If my situation right now is any indication, there’s always a way around if content isn’t easily accessible through legal channels. Any sensible businessman would realize that some revenue is better than no revenue.

One interesting site they do have here that’s not in the U.S. is Spotify. I first heard about it on This Week in Tech; it’s basically a legal, ad-supported peer to peer streaming service. It lets you listen to as many songs as you want on your computer and mobile app and then links you to traditional music stores if you want to purchase the song. Right now, its invite only for free use or you can pay for the premium subscription. Unfortunately, Spotify seems just as bad as Google Wave when it comes to giving out invites, as I still have not received mine for either. This thing sounds more innovative from a technical aspect than a consumer aspect. From what I can tell it sounds a lot like any other streaming service.

I also want to comment briefly on Internet here especially in light of the net neutrality debate that’s been going on recently in Congress. Publicly, there are plenty of wi-fi hotspots around London and the ethernet connections (at least at LSE) aren’t bad. However, I don’t think the UK has net neutrality. LSE’s website, for example, actually states that it prioritizes school related content over “social” sites (although Facebook has worked fine). I’m not sure how exactly they differentiate this or how much this is actually implemented, but I’ve definitely experienced more problems with Internet here. For example, for the first few weeks here I couldn’t get CNN or ESPN videos to buffer at any reasonable rate. Then magically they started working fine. Of course this could be because these are American sites and it has nothing to do with net neutrality. However, I’m still a little skeptical of this whole situation.

The disparity in institutional tech adoption is much wider. LSE definitely weaves less tech into its infrastructure than BC. For example, LSE doesn’t have an equivalent of Eaglebucks or any type of electronic currency. Everything in the dining halls is paid for in cash. Also, if you thought class registration at BC was bad, its a lot worse here. Some universities, such as King’s, don’t even have electronic course selection. LSE does let you add/drop online, but I’m pretty sure the actual adding/dropping is done manually by a person because it only updates about once a day. There’s no Laundryview here (although they have a version of it for computers on campus) and the machines are the old models we had at BC which were replaced this year.

There are a few things they do well here as a school. The library has these cool self-checkout kiosks where you can just pop the book on a scanner and it automatically senses what the book is and checks it out for you. The NHS also uses a touchscreen self check-in system for appointments, thus freeing up receptionists to do other things. Believe it or not they actually do some things efficiently. And like a lot of countries I’ve seen around Europe, the credit and debit cards here have a little chip in them so you can stick it into the machine instead of swiping it. I’m not really sure what the advantage of this is because any time you save from the physical motion is negated by the few seconds you have to keep the card in to verify it, but it looks kind of cool.

I’m sure more observations and comments will come up over the next few months. I will also be doing a post on entrepreneurship here so keep an eye out for that. I’ll try to get back to the strictly travel/London related posts too, but I honestly haven’t been anywhere the past few weeks so there’s not much to say.