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Stream On: As Bob's Online Video Premiere Approaches, He Is Beginning to Have Delusions of Grandeur. Also, Stupid Microsoft Tricks

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Last week's column on Microsoft's Palladium initiative provoked a strong response from readers, most of whom were concerned about the issue as I presented it and a few who thought I had gone off my meds. It would be logical, then, to follow up with another column presenting Palladium in an even broader technical and business context. At least that's what I would normally do. But in this case, I won't. Please go, instead, to the Links of the Week button on this page where, as always, you'll find five links. The first link is my original Palladium column and the second is a FAQ written by Ross Anderson in the UK that does such a good job of explaining the whole Palladium issue that there is no way I could improve on it. As Ross explains it, Palladium is just Microsoft's version of an Intel plan to maintain microprocessor supremacy. The only thing I might add to this is that the participation of AMD in Palladium is Microsoft's way of taking away control from Intel, once again making it more important to be Windows-compatible than Intel-compatible. Read the FAQ. It is chilling.

So rather than rehash Palladium, I want to jump for just a moment to another Microsoft-related issue that is bothering me, then move on to something more pleasant. Did you hear about this week's critical security update for Windows Media Player? Did you go to Windows Update and dutifully download it? Did you read the End User License Agreement or just click on the "I agree" box? Of course you didn't read the license agreement. Nobody does. Well, they changed it a little since the last time you clicked it. Here is the text of the second section:

*Digital Rights Management (Security). You agree that in order to protect the integrity of content and software protected by digital rights management ("Secure Content"), Microsoft may provide security related updates to the OS Components that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer. These security related updates may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer. If we provide such a security update, we will use reasonable efforts to post notices on a web site explaining the update.
Wait a minute! Did you just give Microsoft the right to go inside your computer and change pretty much anything they like even if it disables applications from other vendors — applications you paid good money for? And if they do mess with the inside of your computer they don't have to ask permission or do anything except post an explanation on some web site somewhere?

Yup.

Talk among yourselves.

Turning to something pleasant for a change, this week I want to look forward to the next version of I, Cringely, which will appear sometime in September. I have written two previous columns about this flirtation with online video (Links of the Week) but the passage of time has brought with it something vaguely resembling wisdom that I'd like to share.

Come September, this page will have a whole new look. Those who come seeking this column will find it there along with an MP3 audio version for those who'd rather hear my voice than read my writing. There will also be a downloadable video feature in which I'll interview big shots, and smart people, and interesting people, not that those categories are mutually exclusive. The video feature will also be available in an MP3 audio-only format for those who have already seen more than enough of my mug. We'll also be posting a transcript of the interview. Everything on the site (well, everything NEW, that is) will be available as text, audio, and video.

It is really a modest effort, nothing fancy, but as the project develops, it has become clear to me that what we're about to do is something quite new and different. In a modest way, we're redefining a medium and coming up with more questions than answers in the process.

It takes a long time and a lot of mistakes before an entertainment or information medium finds its stride. We can see this in the development of printing, broadcasting, and now the Internet. The daily newspaper is a tightly-defined product that came to have that particular definition over 500 years. The first 300 of those were spent just getting the cost of the technology down to where it was economically feasible to create, duplicate, distribute, enjoy, then wrap fish in a product all in one day. Broadcasting, too, has found its niches in breaking news that can't, by definition, be covered in the newspaper, and in shared experience as though we were all sitting on the same sofa before the same TV the night before. It is only by dividing the cost of that experience by the very large number of heads watching that TV is economically feasible.

But the Internet isn't printing and it isn't broadcasting, so it is not really like a book or a newspaper and it certainly isn't like TV. Both of those other media are successful because the cost of the marginal user is so low. If it costs $X to produce a million copies of a newspaper, the cost of an additional copy — the 1,000,0001st copy — is a lot less than one millionth of the total budget. In the case of television, that marginal user is literally free since there are no extra materials, production, or distribution costs at all. The fact that we are willing to pay a little for the newspaper (usually less than the cost of manufacturing and distribution) makes up for that price discrepancy between newspapers and television. Newspapers are expensive to start, but cheap to keep going while television is REALLY expensive to start, but almost free to keep going. This reality shows in the ad rates charged for both media.

The Internet is different. Here the cost of developing the content is lower — comparable to the content costs of a newspaper — but the cost of a marginal user is high. In the case of video, especially, the economics are dismal. The Internet advantage that each performance is presented at the convenience of the audience is balanced by the fact that customization has its price. With one video stream per viewer, the Internet provides no distribution economies of scale whatsoever. The first viewer and the millionth viewer cost exactly the same — too much to be supported by ads at typical broadcast rates.

This cost problem is why, as things stand today, television has nothing to fear from the Internet.

Still, there is a certain power in using the Internet as a video distribution mechanism, but that power can only be realized if you are willing to show some imagination and flexibility, which is what we are trying to do with I, Cringely. The Internet frees us from the tyranny of broadcast schedules. If you think about it, a TV network is run very much like a railroad. Programs (trains) arrive and depart on a strict schedule and the network's (railroad's) profit is maximized by serving particular destinations at particular intervals with trains of a certain size. It's a big operations research problem, the point of which is to attract as many viewers (riders) AT THE RIGHT PRICE as possible. The difference between a network and a railroad, of course, is that the train has a finite number of seats while available viewer slots are infinite. Still, everything comes down to the schedule, but not on the Internet.

The Internet doesn't require a schedule for broadcast transmissions and, in fact, it is actually RESISTANT to schedules. Just look at Broadcast.com's disastrous attempt to show a Victoria's Secret lingerie show on-line. Because viewers could only see it at a certain time, more viewers tried to watch the show than could be accommodated. The network failed and the experience was ruined for everyone. So for Internet video, not having a strict schedule is better, since it forces viewers to discover content and watch at random. This suggests, too, that it is probably not a good idea to make your Internet TV show available every Thursday at noon, since that, too could lead to traffic jams. Finally, a reason for indulging my innate flakiness!

Animal studies have shown that the best way to reinforce behaviors is through intermittent rewards. It is more effective to reward your dog occasionally for doing the right thing than to reward him every time. The same thing probably applies to Internet broadcasting. Since we are freed from a broadcast schedule, we are also freed from length requirements and rigid once-per-day or once-per-week frequencies. So the show we start in September will be just as long as it needs to be, whether that is 10 minutes or an hour or three hours. And it will appear at least once a week, but sometimes more frequently if there is a lot to say. And if the psychologists are right, you dogs will like it all the better for this.

Another advantage of the Internet is that old shows can be kept available. If you come looking for the latest show, you can also get any other shows you've missed. And there are probably components — technical primers for example — that can be reused as needed. By definition, then, you can never miss a show. You may see it later than someone else, but that's all. No Tivo required.

If Internet television isn't defined by a particular time or a length, it is defined by a location. You'll come right here to get the show IF YOU ARE A HABITUAL VIEWER (more about those caps later). And if a show is identified with a location or URL, what is the difference between a show and a network? There really isn't one. Once you get in the habit of coming here to find an interview show that matches your interests, it is just as easy to use the same URL to offer other shows you might like. We plan, for example, to do a computer history show available at the same place. In fact, you could borrow dozens of program templates from cable TV channels and just do similar shows aimed at a Cringely audience. Look at E! (True Silicon Valley Story), MTV (Cribs, 'er Cubicles), etc. In this sense, one successful show can beget a video portal, with portal having a much more salient meaning than it does when we are talking about Yahoo.

But we're still faced with the problems of video quality and the high cost of distribution, both of which we propose to solve by encouraging viewers to make copies of the shows and give them to friends. This wouldn't work with traditional streaming, but in order to mandate a particular minimum level of video quality, we'll be downloading the show, not streaming it. Downloading means that modem users who are willing to download during dinner can get the same video quality as broadband users. It also means that anyone who watches the show HAS THE SHOW ON THEIR HARD DRIVE. They can delete it, make it available through a peer-to-peer file sharing system, make it available on their own website, or e-mail it to a friend. As a guy who seeks new viewers and readers, there is no downside for me in this. I will gladly accept anyone's bandwidth. And I'll accept new viewers, too — viewers who would never have found me had a friend not shared their copy.

The extension of this copying thing is that people might alter my work, sending on only excerpts or even recutting whole shows on their PCs. Great! In fact, I want people to do that. To make it easier, we'll be including unedited video for those who would really rather do it themselves. Obviously, I would never make it as a TV network executive, but the point is to share information and get people talking, and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

The logical question that follows, of course, is how I'll deal with those folks who recut my shows to make it appear as though I am in a compromising position with Ms. Brittany Spears or telling Bill Gates exactly where to shove it. That's where the concept of a reference model comes in. With the source video available online at any time from anywhere in the world, it is very easy to compare the recut version to the source. Anything that is in the edited version and not in the source, well, somebody made that up. Just as quickly as rumors fly, so do corrections.

This leads us to the topic of copyright, which too many people confuse with patents. Copyright deals with expression, not knowledge. I could copyright a show containing great knowledge and it wouldn't be a violation of the copyright for some other broadcaster or webcaster to repeat that information. It is the video of me imparting the information that would be protected. And if I want to give away a 320-by-240 20 frames-per-second version of a show on the condition that you can do anything you like with it as long as the PBS URL remains embossed in the corner, well, that has no copyright impact on the full broadcast version of the same show sitting back in my tape library. I am not stupid.



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