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?

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.

iThoughts on the iPad

I wasn’t planning on writing another post this week, but after watching and reading all this stuff about today’s iPad announcement, I couldn’t help but have all these thoughts about the business implications of Steve Jobs’ latest creation. With most of the dust settled now, here are some of my reactions and questions:

The iPad looks really neat and I’m sure it will work really well, but I don’t think it will be a revolutionary product that will define both the PC industry and Steve Jobs’ career. Most people will not be giving up their laptop for an iPad. For one, it doesn’t look like you can’t do any serious work on it. As good as the on-screen keyboard may be, I can’t see myself writing an essay or making spreadsheets on it. It’s definitely more of a portable/media machine, but I’m not sure it has a competitive advantage there either. If I want to tweet or Facebook on the go, a smartphone will do just fine. It doesn’t do flash. I’m not sure I would watch a full length movie on it either because with a screen of less than 10″, it’s smaller than most netbooks.

That’s not to say the iPad’s completely irrelevant. It’s great for simple, portable, visuals driven tasks. There are rumors that the iPad could appear on 24 and I think it makes a lot of sense. I can easily see the iPad being used by law enforcement and firefighters to view maps of a city and respond accordingly to 911 calls. It could also be a great tool for salesmen and real estate agents to show clients pictures and demos.

If anything, the iPad will force Amazon to step up its game with the Kindle. The most promising aspect of the iPad is iBooks because it definitely looks nicer than the Kindle and it more functionality without being that much more expensive. In fact, $499 is a very reasonable price for Apple. The key here will be whether or not Apple can get the content to  compete with Amazon’s library. I don’t see how this will help newspapers though. If Apple and publishers think they can force consumers to pay for news articles, then we’ll see a quick death of both print media and the iPad.

Taking a step back and looking at the industry as a whole, I think we will quickly see all sorts of imitators and competitors pop up within the next year. They will try to undercut Apple on price and try to match its features with varying degrees of success. Most of them will fail but some may become viable alternatives (think Blackberry or Palm in smartphones). One potential competitor I’m going to keep an eye out for is Google. I think it’s only a matter of time before they come out with a competitor to the iPad. From a business standpoint it makes a lot of sense because a device like this is meant for cloud computing. Google already has the software with Android and Chrome OS. It even has the hardware experience with the Nexus One now, although a third party is more likely. If there is an announcement down the line, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Of course, my opinion may change completely when I finally see and touch an iPad in person. In fact, I can’t wait to go try it out when it arrives the Apple Store. I’m also jealous of all the TechTrekers who will obviously have plenty of great questions to ask at Apple this year.

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.

Mobility pays

Hi all, sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Really not much has been up. I’ve spent the past week or so battling a killer sore throat and then a persistent cough that’s still with me as I write this. I started taking an absolutely disgusting British cough syrup. It’s so bad they don’t even have a flavor, it’s just pure chemicals. At least its helping me sleep at night.

So no exciting stories about London and UK, but I did want to share some thoughts I have about technology in this country in two parts. Today I will go over some personal realizations I have had about technology adoption. Part two will focus more on my observations about tech use in London.

Living here has really converted me to two technologies I initially blew off: netbooks and podcasts. I understood the cost aspect of netbooks: most casual computer users could get all the computing power they needed for email, Internet, and word processing from an inexpensive netbook. I never thought I would use a netbook though because I need something more substantial both in terms of size and processing power in case I needed to do more advanced computing. To an extent that’s still true; I can’t imagine forsaking my Thinkpad completely. However, lugging this thing around London (it’s heavier than usual because I opted to go for the entry model) along with the rest of my books has convinced me that a netbook is a worthy investment. I bring a computer to class with me because I want to check email, read articles, and work on homework in between classes. LSE is too far away from my dorm to go back between classes and LSE’s computer labs are always packed and really slow. The Thinkpad is a great computer for typing long essays or doing some prolonged reading, but honestly all I really need when I’m at school is a netbook that can get me on Outlook and Facebook for a few minutes.

I’m a firm believer in netbooks now. Commercially I think they’ll be incredibly successful because they appeal not only to new computer users but to existing desktop or laptop users like me who want an ultra-portable companion to their larger, more powerful machines. In the near future, I can see computer labs as we know them being replaced by docking stations where people can plug their netbooks in to do more serious work on a larger screen. I would definitely consider purchasing a netbook to use alongside my Thinkpad. Perhaps one that runs Chrome OS when it comes out?

The other technology I’ve really begun to appreciate in London is the podcast. Yes, I know I’m a little behind the times on this one, but in my defense I never listened to radio. I had my mp3 player and playlists for music and the Internet for news. Radio just seemed like an outdated medium that had no appeal over TV and Internet. Living in London though has changed that because I actually have a reasonable commute. Listening to music all the time though gets a little repetitive and mindless. At the same time, I have a need to keep up with what’s going on in the world and as described above it’s not easy to whip out the laptop all the time. Thus, podcasts have turned out to be the perfect remedy for boredom on my walks and desire for information.

The three podcasts I usually listen to are BBC Global NewsWall Street Journal This Morning, and This Week in Tech(thanks to @codykieltyka for introducing me to this one over the summer). Global News does a pretty good job of highlighting the major events going on around the world each morning. It also usually features a special report on global issues that don’t necessarily get coverage in the U.S. WSJ This Morning is one of my favorites. It’s almost like the audiobook version of the WSJ. It covers U.S. political and financial news. The downside is that because of time zones,This Morning is really This Afternoon for me. Also Gordon Deal can get a little too editorial with his hosting. Still it helps me keep up with U.S. news because the WSJ here focuses almost exclusively on European news. Plus they have some pretty sweet background music (mix of recent stuff like Matchbox Twenty and Keane, Billy Joel, and 80s guitar riffs). It’s like they took my favorite playlists and inserted them into the transitions.

I’m not sure if I’ll maintain my podcast habit once I return to the U.S. After all, you can’t really listen to that much while walking from Lower to Fulton. I definitely understand its value for commuters though. If I took a bus or train to school everyday, I might even go with a video podcast.

There’s one last piece of technology that I sorely miss here, and that’s mobile Internet. As imperfect as it may be, my LG Voyager would really be a great asset here. Not only is it much easier to text with, it would nicely complement what I said above. It fulfills part of the function of the netbook: I can check email, news, and Facebook without having to carry a laptop. It would also make podcast management much easier as I can download and listen to them directly. I get a little jealous when I see people with their iPhones and Blackberries here, but data just isn’t worth it. I’ll live.

I didn’t necessarily have to come to London to make the following discoveries, but I certainly needed the lifestyle change (namely commuting to school and having to take everything I need for the day with me). Who knows what other realizations I’ll have as the year goes on! Check back soon for part 2 of my tech in London series!

Computers and modern life: Reflections from being without a laptop

So the video card on my laptop has apparently died. On the surface it’s been a very annoying ordeal: I was unable to start on my 25 page paper that’s due next week, I have to use a crappy old Dell laptop right now (I didn’t realize how much I loved Thinkpads until now), and I may need to fork over a couple hundred bucks for a new video card/motherboard. On the other hand this has been an interesting case study for technology use and the impact it has on my life.

Even though technically I was without a laptop for about 12 hours (6 of which were spent sleeping) the experience even for just those few hours was striking. First of all, it made me realize just how much I needed my laptop for work. I couldn’t work on my paper. I couldn’t access lecture notes and slides. I couldn’t go on Google. It almost made me wonder how people (including me) went to school before computers. And it wasn’t just that: so much of my routine throughout the day is centered around a computer. I just didn’t know what to do without it.

Which brings me to my second observation. Disregarding the fact that Verizon’s service is nonexistent in 66, I actually didn’t miss that much in terms of communication because my phone has web access. Therefore I could still do a lot of the things I did on my computer: Check e-mail, check the stock market, check sports scores, check the weather, check Facebook, and read news articles from CNN and NYT. Basically if I didn’t have the paper, I would not have noticed too great of a disruption in my communication with the outside world (except reading everything on a smaller screen). This for me was more incredible than anything else. It really goes to show that our mobile phones are no longer just phones anymore, and with Moore’s Law that will only become more and more true in the future. I completely understand now why so many companies are looking to mobile as the future of consumer electronics.

Before I get to my last realization, I want to step aside for a moment and criticize how poor and cheap Dells look, work and feel compared to my Thinkpad (I’m leaving Macs out of this conversation because I haven’t used them enough to get past the learning curve). In particular I miss the full sized keyboard and the full sized Trackpoint button in the middle. Without those two, operating this machine just feels uncomfortable.

To be fair, this laptop is OLD. It still has a square screen and 512MB Ram. In fact, I believe my dad had this laptop when I was in high school. In addition, since it’s a school laptop, I’ve been saving any work I do to my flash drive. So after thinking about this for a bit, I realized that I am basically using a netbook right now (it even runs XP). Now granted it’s not small or lightweight like real netbooks, but functionally it’s a netbook. The only applications I’ve opened up are Firefox and Word. Everything is saved on a separate location. All this machine is really good for is its screen and Internet connection. Incredible. I understand the netbook phenomenon now.

Last comment: One other thing I miss from my Thinkpad is Outlook. I love e-mail, so right now I’m going back to what I did before I got Outlook: opened tabs in Firefox to my BC and personal e-mail accounts, just like I did through most of high school. Speaking of throwback computing, check out this Colbert clip.

P.S. I also miss Google Chrome. As solid as Firefox is, Chrome is just so much cleaner and easier to use. Please hurry up BC Hardware Repair.