Friday, 24 December 2010

Digital Music Dilemmas

I give up.  I have tried to love the digital music file as the format of the future but I cannot.  Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike the format in and of itself.  I do love having a large collection of digital music files that I can play around with in Ableton Live or Virtual DJ, but in terms of actually embracing the digital music file as a replacement for physical music, I'm afraid I can't go for that (no can do).

piracyisacrime 29-09-2005 9-51-39 PM
(Image: Dr Stephen Dann, 2005, some rights reserved)

Over the last 18 months I've been accutely aware of the amount of money I've spent on music and its related activities.  During the period in which I tracked all my expenditure, I found myself buying a number of different music formats (vinyl, CD, mp3, aac, etc) only to keep returning to the Compact Disc, due to its versatility.  I love physical formats.  I am a dinosaur.  I must be.

I came to this realisation this week after thinking through a few digital music dilemmas.  I recently presented a paper at University of Sunderland's Centre for Research in Media & Cultural Studies in which I attempted to balance the demands of copyright, the behaviour of music fans and the role of government policy as it pertains to file-sharing.  In that paper I was keen to qualify the claim that music industry is dying under the weight of illegal peer-to-peer traffic, whilst looking at some of the industry figures regarding sales in the UK (see the slides below).  
Frequently, claims are made about the size and scale of illegal filesharing and its impact on the music industry whilst ignoring the recent growth in sales overall.  Indeed, a few days after the presentation the Guardian carried a few interesting reports in which the size and scale of the 'problem' was staggering - but not just for the industry.


The first article drew on a press release from the BPI who were pushing their annual Digital Music Nation 2010 report (.pdf here). The article was full of the usual headline figures and the size and scale of the UK music industry's problem, which BPI chief Geoff Taylor employed to urge Ofcom to enforce the Digital Economy Act quickly.  Here are the big figures:

67 - the number of legal music services in the UK

3/4s - the share of all music downloaded in the UK that is done so illegally

149.7 million - the number of digital singles sold in 2009

160 million - the projected sales of digital singles for 2010

16.1 million - the number of digital albums sold in 2009

21 million - the projected sales of digital albums for 2010

370 million - the equivalent total separate tracks for 2010

500 million - all time sales of digital singles

50 million - all time sales of digital albums

82 pence - the average cost of a digital single

29 - the percentage of 16-54 year old using illegal methods to obtain music

23 - the percentage of 16-54 year old using P2P software to access music in 2010

23 - the percentage of 16-54 year old using P2P software to access music in 2009

24.5 - the percentage of the recording industry revenues generated via digital services

7.7 million - the estimated number of people downloading music illegally in the UK (source: Harris Interactive)

£984 million - retail value of single tracks downloaded in 2010 (source: BPI)

1.2 billion - the number of tracks illegally downloaded in 2010

However, there is a caveat tucked away in the 'notes for editors':

£219 million - the recording industries losses from 1.2 billion illegal downloads

Those losses don't seem quite so bad set against the headline grabbing fears that the 7 million plus figure evokes.  There is a decline in the sale of physical formats like CDs which fits with the usual life cycle of formats.  Indeed physical sales of singles (on CD) account for a tiny amount - around 1% of all single sales.  Anyone who has attempted to buy a CD single recently will testify to the difficulty of finding the format in local music stores, so this is unsurprising.

What seems apparent is that there is growth in digital music, but that piracy is still fairly constant.  The figures above seem to rely on some very strange substitution logic in which each file downloaded illegally equates to a lost sale for the industry.  I'm not convinced that this is a tenable claim.  There are many reasons why people access files from illegal sources. Personally, I own several Macbooks, desktops, iPods and iPhones - way more than the 5 that Apple let you use your legally purchased DRM-infused tracks on.  Had I bought a CD I'd be able to rip that to each of the machines (illicitly!).  Digital music isn't always as flexible as physical.

Changes in the law are unlikely to impact on the behaviour of consumers, many of who are accessing content both legally and illegally.  The way the industry tends to frame this discourse is that there are reasons to be optimistic (ie growth) but there is still a hardcore minority that are not paying for content.  It's never acknowledged that this minority are also the same people paying for music (and indeed, might even be the best customers!).

Consumer rights?

The other article worth referring to here is concerned with the rights of consumers and was published by Consumer Focus.  Essentially, customers have more rights when they buy physical formats (CD, DVD, Bluray) as opposed to digital formats which are not protected under the Sale of Goods Act as 'tangible goods'.  If a consumer buys a digital file that is not fit for the purpose (as in that the file might not be compatible on the portable device it was purchased for) they have no recourse.  They can't return the file to the store or vendor.  Add to this the fact that most shoppers aren't provided with the kind of information about their digital purchase that they might need in order to get it to work and there are some hidden problems with the shift towards digital

Philip Cullum, deputy chief executive of Consumer Focus, said:
"It's crazy to have a situation where someone who buys music on a CD has the legal right to a refund if it doesn't work, but someone who downloads the same music does not. Consumer laws on buying digital goods, whether it is streaming films, or downloading music and software, need updating to reflect the reality of 21st-century life.
There is also another glaring problem dinosaurs like myself are confronting in the shift to digital - what will happen to their rare music collection when physical formats die out completely?  It's not like Robbie Williams or [insert generic pop star here]  can sign your MP3 download after all?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

MACM03 Consuming Cyberspace Dec '10

I'm a little confused as to whether or not we have a dedicated VLE space for our MA students on the Consumption module.  As a fail safe I thought I'd post some of the material I was going to use later today in the session on here, as well as a few other bits and bobs.

The theme of my session is Consuming Cyberspace.  I'll talk a bit about the origins of cyberspace and some of the early pioneers before coming up to data and talk about the ways in which cyberspace has been commodified. In the mean time, this article is very useful. These are some intro slides I use with the Level 1 students on the history of the study of cyberculture:

These are the slides I prepped for last year's session:
I also like to draw on short film from the BBC's Wonderland series on Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love, in which a marriage breaks down and a relationship blossoms within the digital world of Second Life.  You should be able to find the full episode below (it's about 39 minutes long):

The session will also consider the sale of vitual goods within digital worlds, as well as some of the unique and creative play experiences enabled by virtual worlds.  I think this conference paper was listed as background reading material:
  • Mike Molesworth and Janice Denigri-Knott (2005), ‘The Pleasures and Practices of Virtualised Consumption in Digital Spaces’, Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views – Worlds in Play, available at
I also put this journal article on Warcraft up there too:
And here's a trailer for a documentary that I might use:

I've embedded episode 3 (of 4) of the excellent BBC documentary The Virtual Revolution below.  It's well worth watching before the session if possible (I know I haven't given you much notice - sorry!).  This hour long episode was entitled 'The Cost of Free' and is presented by Dr Alex Krotoski:

I'll update this post later.  Maybe.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Music Futures #2

Last night was the second in a series of 4 seminars hosted by Generator exploring the future of the music industry.  The session featured a number of established and relative new (but influential) players in the digital music market place.

Handmade Music 8/23/07 with Etsy Labs, CDM, and Make

The guest panelists include Dave Haynes (Soundcloud), Atan Burrows (mFlow), Ian Greaves (Napster) and Colin Rice (We7).  The general theme of the session was similar to the previous night: digital downloads versus streaming services, looking to address the opportunities presented by services driven by retail and those that work on an access-basis (and whether or not the two models are mutually exclusive).

In a slight departure from my last post in this series, I've attempted to precis the discussion that took place last night in a rather linear structure, adding a few observations and comments where appropriate.

Killer/filler tracks?

The first issue to be raised revolved around the decline of the album sale and the emergence of a la carte download services which permit music consumers to cherry pick individual tracks (eg iTunes).  The panel was asked to consider whether or not this has led to a position in which people now have more control over the quality of content they access rather than paying for an artist's entire catalogue (underpinning this assumption is the notion that albums contain 'filler' tracks that casual listeners may not want or need).

Atan (mFlow) responded by suggesting that shopping for music online today has become boring and sterile. The shopping experience lacks innovation - it's like shopping for groceries. Indeed, many supermarkets (like Tesco and Asda) have taken this logic and applied it to CD sales.  Shopping for music needs to be more integrated into the social life world of music fans - something mFlow aims to capitalise on.  Users can 'flow' (share) tracks they like on the service with their followers (it's also integrated into social networks like Twitter and Facebook) who can then listen to each track in full.  If they go on to buy the track the person who 'flowed' the track gets 20% of the cost of the tune - quite a unique proposition.

Colin (We7) suggested that many companies are looking at 360 degree deals as a way of taking a slice out of merchandise and live performance opportunities in the face of declining physical sales. There are now a variety of different sources from which artists can generate revenue - record labels still have a role to play (eg skilled at marketing large acts like Madonna etc) but that role has changed in lieu of the DIY ethic. They aren't dead just yet despite it being frequently predicted. Going down the major label route is useful for certain kinds of artists but there are more tools available to help empower musicians today, enabling them to have greater control over licensing their content.

Ian (Napster) also added that major record labels are good for developing artists through their career but the labels do need to see some return on their investment early on (usually by the second album).

Free or pay?

The question of whether or not people were still willing to pay for music reared it's head.

Dave (Soundcloud) made the point that the growth in digital is not replacing or making up for the decline in physical sales directly. The reason for this is largely due to the industry itself as having been the barrier to the growth of digital. Digital Rights Management (DRM) software in the case of Napster and iTunes are cases in point. Fearful of piracy the major labels insisted that digital files be encumbered with software which monitored users and limited how they used the music they had legitimately purchased often in multiple competing file formats that were not always cross-platform compatibile.  This was a headache for the typical casual music consumer.  The industry effectivly applied the brakes that prevented mass migration to digital.  In recent years a relaxation of the rules governing DRM and the growth in streaming services has acted to redress this - convenience of access should bring more people in and therefore bring in more money from smaller payments in greater volume (eg Spotify's ad-supported streams). We are seeing a shift from  a period of music ownership towards music access.

Atan emphasised that ownership is still important to many music fans, if not all of them, and catering to a diverse set of interests in a flexible manner is what is needed. People will buy content but they are becoming more discerning about what they are willing to pay for.


The chair raised the point that most music listening (80%) is done via the radio and most of that is done in cars. How do companies monetize this?

None of the panelists were able to tackle this mobile issue directly.  Colin was keen to highlight that We7 is adding more social functionality to their newly upgraded radio service which allows people to share their musical taste with friends via Last.FM recommendations, etc.  It also allows people the chance to discover and hear music related to their intersts.  One of the problems many music fans face when confronted with huge catalogues of millions of tunes is the scope of such access results in them freezing up due to the limitless possibilities - this is where profiling and recommendation radio services come in.

Ian claimed that when Napster started (as a legal service!) people didn't really 'get' what a monthly music subscription service meant. Clearly we've moved on since then. Historically people used to trust formats (radio, CD, etc) as you knew where you were - a CD played in a CD player - the proposition was simple. A subscription service didn't always make sense to people and took a while to become simple enough for casual users.  Formats have largely been static. Going forward you'll want to access your music that you've selected wherever you want, whenever you want - that will be where digital will innovate.

Dave returned to the point that early services crippled by DRM that involved platform specific third-party clients installed to Windows partition drives on Apple Macs, where users regularly had to make the effort to reset all the DRM licences on one machine in order to take the music on the go. As an early adopter, he was willing to make the effort for the benefits but he was not typical of the casual market. The dream is a cloud-based solution which includes a mixture of tracks owned alongside those leased via a service in much the same way that Spotify works now; combining a users personal iTunes library with that of the cloud-based service.

Recommendation and discovery

The chair posed the question asking how important recommendation engines will be in the future for music discovery?

Atan talked about some of the research mFlow have put into various algorithms.  This showed that people like to talk to each other about music and share their thoughts. This (sharing) aspect is one of the most important issues that couldn't be talked about a few years ago, when the industry associated sharing with giving away content for free, piracy and the fear of declining sales.

Colin claimed that personalisation is important part of the user experience. If a service feels personal and  less mechanistic or pushed at you by the industry, then music fans relationship worth music changes. We7 is increasingly looking at social media integration.

YouTube Fear?

The chair recounted an anecdote about how his 13 year old son consumes music, typically via YouTube, and questioned whether or not the audio quality of the service of the content itself was worthwhile. For him YouTube is primarily a video platform.  As one of the key spaces for new music discovery amongst the youngest demographics is YouTube a threat to digital music distributers?

Dave took umbrage at the chair's intonation that YouTube may be full of 'crap' or questionable content, or even that it is just a video platform rather than music. However Dave sees the platform as an essential creative outlet irrespective of how professional the content is. In this instances YouTube is a democratising tool that allows people outside of the mainstream system to gain some traction. Some smaller acts are seeing 4 figure sum monthly returns from their YouTube content alone. Companies are increasingly hiring youth teams for advice on how to generate more subscribers and connect with music fans. YouTube gives good control to labels or acts in that there are various controls offered to users (eg around video embedding, uploading and playlist controls).  Companies or acts can generate money around their video content by taking advantage of Google Adwords and links to buy.

Atan suggested the reason why YouTube is successful with kids is that it just works.

Ian highlighted a problem within the industry which seems to have a bizarre distinction in how they view video.  They view video as a marketing tool, partly due to legacy reasons associated with promotional campaigns, and often are not overly concerned if music videos leak to YouTube before they've secured an audio distribution deal or licensing with digital retailers.  But the digital start-ups trying to make headway in the audio distribution space -  companies like Napster -  they aren't allowed to carry these promotional releases in audio form until an official release date has been agreed. Even users uploading tracks and videos to YouTube are viewed by many in the industry as an adjunct to marketing.

Dave suggested that it would be in the best intersets of digital retailers to close the release window gap. The industry is configured to work over a staggered release window with their eye on promoing tracks in print or waiting for confirmation they've made it to Radio 1's playlist. A release date may be way off but the viral nature of the Internet means tracks can leak quickly, circumventing the often slow processes of the industry. Some music journalists (the NME was named) still insist on review copies on CD so that journalists can make some money from selling them! This has led to a recalcitrance regarding digital as they'd lose this perk.


The question turned to whether or not the freemium business model was a feasible one?  Typically this is often described as giving away content for free (often ad-supported) to the vast majority of users whilst offering a paid-for premium service taken up by around 10% of users.  The paying customers typically offset the costs of the free users.  I've discussed this model a few times on this site so regular readers will be familiar with the idea.

Ian started by describing Napster's early attempts at dabbling with it a few years ago in the US but they struggled to make enough money required to pay the labels for the licenses from the ad-funded service.

Colin's company, We7, currently works with both freemium and subscription models. They have around 10000 UK paying subscribers with millions more accessing content for free. Back in April We7 announced that they had managed to make the ad-funded model work for them.  This is important as much of their funding is still reliant on venture capital.  Their recent switch to the  radio stream makes a lot of sense as it typically cost 30% less than the licences for subscription services.

Dave pointed out that being free allows you to get heard when radio playlisting isn't working for artists. Soundcloud is less of a consumer destination, rather its a space where musicians (both amateur and professional) can upload and share their content with certain controls, circumventing traditional radio.  Even if you give content away for free you have to be savvy about the social contract involved and get something back - eg data on users, geography etc. This can help musicians targe certain geographies for  live tours or related campaigns. Soundcloud is built of the premise of the social share: ensure you get something in exchange for the download.  You can give users of the service the ability to download tracks providing they tweeting or embed the content in Facebook for increased presence. Location-based data is increasingly important and there is promotional potential in this area.  Recently James Blunt gave away music to people that checked in to a certain place at a certain time using the GPS in their phones and a location-based application like FourSquare, Gowalla or Facebook Places.

From this point on the panel took questions from the audience.  It became clear that one of the biggest barriers preventing start-up companies from joining to what seems like an already overcrowded digital retailing space is the cost of licences from the major labels for delivering digital content to music fans.  The majors seem to think that cannibalisation of the existing business models will occur if the costs they charge come down. Digital Music News recently carried a feature listing 100 companies that have tried to make it and have failed.

Dave noted that some labels' business models revolves around ensuring they extract as much venture capital money as possible from new startups.  This focus on short term economic gains undermines the ability to develop, nurture and sustain new platforms and opportunities for growth. Initially the industry didn't think it needed these new digital startups but the decline in paying customers has forced a redress of the balance somewhat.

The panelists where in agreement that there will still be innovation in the technology going forwards despite the licensing barriers, notably around the ability to build API's around limited types of access to free services.  Features like this helped to sustain Twitter's growth and it isn't inconceivable that something similar could happen with music catalogues, creating interesting data mash-up services.

One current problem that many digital services face is a lack of standardisation around metadata, eg things like playlists, top-rated tracks, etc - a playlist created on We7 cannot currently be taken to Spotify if a user decides to switch music services.  This will become increasingly important as more services will be built upon the same 11 million or so tracks currently licensed.  The prediction here is that metadata will be more important that tracks owned.

You can catch up with the event via the video on the Generator site here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Music Futures #1

I've just got out of the first Musical Futures seminar (the event can be watched again via that link). I'll try to blog my thoughts and responses after each one this week.  Thanks to Generator North East for putting these events on.  This session was themed around the question as to whether or not digital distribution can save the music industry. The session was chaired by Paul Brindley from Music Ally.  The panel was consisted of Scott Cohen (Music Orchard), James Healey (Universal), Tim Hadley (Omnifone) and Chris McLellin (The Music Void).

The session opened with a representative from Music Ally stating that, despite some recent success (digital accounts for around 25% of sales), most of the markets in the industrialized world are beginning to stagnate, notably in the US and France.

Much of the discussion orientated around questions of technology, access and licensing issues. The general feeling from the panel was that the current pricing model of subscription services did not seem to correlate with the willingness of customers to part with the cash for such services. Currently services offered by the likes of We7, Spotify, SkySongs, etc retail around the £5-10 per month for a mixture of packages. Some include the ability to transfer tracks from PC so they can be played over mobile devices, while other deals occasionally include the ability to download and permanently keep a handful of digital files. The panel suggested there are about 2-3 million of these subscribers globally - not a terribly large figure.

One of the issues which didn't seem to get raised or addressed fully was why these services were not always popular. There was some general acquiescence that music listeners are getting content for free from P2P services or from sites like YouTube. It was also acknowledged that free services from the likes of We7 and Spotify might be enough for younger consumers who have grown up with digital services.  One of the reasons I've never been satisfied with these services is that more often than not there are way too many artists I like missing from the vast majority currently on offer.

Several times the conversation circled around the questions of access over storage. Several panel members (whose business model revolves around providing technology delivery solutions and infrastructure support) were insistent that streaming was the future of music consumption. However, they were less sure as to how these services should be priced or how long it would take for these services to become ubiquitous? It was noted that much music is consumed in the car yet the technology in these are frequently outmoded when compared to current modes of music consumption . Wifi enabled cars are not yet a common occurrence - hell, DAB isn't even commonplace yet. The design lead-in time of in car audio tends to be quite long so changes need to implemented sooner if it's to gain traction.  However, wifi enabled cars with some decent sized storage drive would enable 'over the air synching' of future music services.

One of the panelists was very keen on the idea of streaming and the willingness of music lovers to convert to paid-for services given the right incentives. The underlying assumption was that music fans will not be concerned about owning content in the future, especially as the young grow up. He compared subscription packages to the average spend of a BSkyB customer (which is something like £500+ per year). For him this was symptomatic of people not being bothered about owning content, but this is a strawman argument. BSkyB took a long time, almost a decade, to capitalise on it's market position and become profitable (there are many competing music services). It is also in a monopoly position earning large revenues on the back of its live sports offers. BSkyB is a very different proposition to a music distribution or subscription service as it is almost the only place go to watch Premier League football. It's not clear how this kind of model can be used to work in favour of the music industry. Bundling of services does already exist (eg Virgin Media's triple and quadruple play of TV, mobile, broadband, landline) but as many users of subscription services will testify, there are frequently glaring gaps in the music catalogues of subscription deals. Maybe this is how it relates to BSkyB - after all not every football game is ever shown?

Much was made of the next generation of 4G mobile broadband. It will be able to deliver much greater bandwidth and thus provide a revolution in terms of music consumption across a much bigger range of internet capable devices than currently exists. As for who will pay for these networks to be rolled out and how musicians, labels and music fans will benefit - these were largely ignored.

Overall, the panel was quite skeptical about the long term future of physical formats like CD and vinyl. However it was noted that physical formats will always have niche appeal in terms of collectors items or gifts for family and friends.  Very little consideration was given over to the various uses people put their music to that streaming fails to support (notably DJs and music creative who remix, edit, mash-up content).

More to follow tomorrow hopefully where the session will be broadcasting or distribute...

The Twitter hashtag for the event is #musfutures in case you want to follow proceedings although it must be noted there seemed to be some issue with the wifi signal in the basement of the Northern Stage. I ended up tweeting via text message in the end. It might have just been me?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Tracking Playstation Plus: October

Low and behold, I do believe I'm actually beginning to see some real value start to emerge out of the Playstation Plus scheme.  Whatever do I mean dear reader?  Well, read on....

This is the content that featured as part of October's Plus content:
  • PSN: Street Fighter 2 HD Remix
  • minis: Aero Racing; Yeti Sports
  • PSOne Classic: Kula World; 
  • Full Game Trial: Ferrari The Race Experience; Tomb Raider Underworld
  • Exclusive Discounts: Burn Zombie Burn – 50% discount; Trine – 50% discount; Alien Breed: Impact – 20% discount; Gravity Crash – 50% discount; Ace Armstrong Vs. The Alien Scumbags – 20% – day 1 discount; Shatter soundtrack and Dynamic Theme – 50% discount
  • Exclusive DLC: Fallout 3: Point Lookout; Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta; Fallout 3: Operation: Anchorage; Fallout 3: Broken Steel; Fallout 3: The Pitt
  • Dynamic Themes: Exclusive Move ‘Start the Party’ theme; exclusive ‘Halloween’ theme
  • Premium avatars: Pain: Jarvis and Le Toot Avatars; SingStar: Wannabe and Rising Star Avatars; Exclusive Plus Halloween avatars
  • Burn Zombie Burn PlayStation Home item
In anticipation of the release of Fallout: New Vegas, the DLC for Fallout 3 was released. Sony also released a Killzone 3 theme, the first 5000 to be downloaded scored the lucky lot a slot on the beta of the game.  I was fortunate enough to be one of the first 5000 and have been playing Killzone 3 since the last week of October.  This is what I was (partially) referring to when I said I could see some value in the service, especially as the alpha build of the multiplayer is pretty darn good.

In addition, new subscribers get an extra 3 months worth of Plus for free - 15 months for the price of 12.  There was more value to be found in a subsequent announcement that the zombie-tinged DLC for Red Dead Redemption was going to be discounted for Plus customers.  Nice.

This is what October's spending looked like for me:

Hmmm.  Had I bought all the things I downloaded they would have cost £80.87!  However, I already owned much of what was given away in October.  After I remove these the October savings come in around £18.65.  I'm not convinved I would have paid for the minis or the PS1 game.  Last time I checked in the value of savings came in at £64.56.  After four months these savings now amount to £83.21.

The real value came in the discounted price for Trine and RDR's Undead Nightmare - a saving of £5.29 in total.  It's these kind of discounts I'd like to see more of in the future in order to say Plus is worth the money.  

Oh yeah, that and the Killzone 3 Beta ;-D

Thursday, 21 October 2010

What will Apple do with that $50 billion?

File this one under 'thinking allowed'....
Image courtesy of Ben Stanfield, 2007, Flickr
Steve Jobs Keynote

Yesterday Apple had their 'Back to the Mac' event in which they unveiled a new series of MacBook Airs and updates to the iLife suite of software, as well as Face Time for Macs. They also made some impressive sales announcements regarding the success of iPhone 4, despite falling a little short of the iPad sales they were hoping for. You can watch the full event by clicking this link.

However, yesterday's event was all about the Mac computer range.  The US market share of the Mac is 20.7% and the machine makes up 33% of Apple's revenue.  13.7m Macs sold in the 2010 financial year, bringing its revenue to  more than $20 billion.  There have been 7 billion downloads from the app store to date and they to launch a similar store for Mac software.

These reveals all came on the back of an earlier report which claimed its quarterly profits leapt by 70% to $4.31 billion and its revenues increased by 66% to $20.34 billon as it sold 14.1m iPhones, up 91%, and 4.19m iPads (they had expected to shift 5 million iPads).  So much for 'antenna-gate' harming sales.  Their last quarter revealed turnover of $20 billion and they are sitting on a cash reserve in excesses of $50 billion.  Based on their market valuation, Apple are set to overtake the oil company Exxon within a year (after already having overtaken Microsoft's value).

Money from Apples

What I'm really interested in is what Apple are going to do with that $50 billion.  Steve Jobs has hinted that there may be some big acquisitions in future.  What could Apple realistically buy?  It seems unlikely that they are going to go for a shares dividend and their real success in the last decade has come in the guise of harmonising hardware and software, so it wouldn't make sense for them to buy a certain troubled search engine would it?  This seems doubtful as that would pit them against one of the other tech behemoths with whom it is already fighting on the software front, namely Google (Android vs iOS4).  There were rumours back in April that Apple were interested in ARM for their CPU business, but that no longer seems likely given the success of their own A4 chip.

It would seem logical that Apple would build on their strengths (hardware+software integration), design principles (usability+simplicity), and their recent successes in the gaming sphere (iPad+iPod Touch+iPhone+Steam for Mac+Game Centre) and enter the next-generation gaming market place.  Both Sony and Microsoft have announced that they expect their current generation of systems to last another 5 years before being replaced which would give Apple ample time to design and build a system that would be ready for launch in time for the next console cycle - they might even be able to steal a march over their rivals...

Apple are a savvy organisation and Jobs has a keen eye for market opportunities.  They've had great success with their portable gaming devices and must be acutely aware of the rapid domination of the gaming sector when it comes to home entertainment.  They already have infrastructure success when it comes to direct selling of entertainment direct to consumers (iTunes and the App Store), and the industry is currently awash with talk of cloud-based gaming services.  How long will it be before Apple realise that they can take a bite out of this sector?

This idea isn't new; games analyst, Michael Patcher, predicted something similar back in March this year, however, Apple have never been in a stronger position.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Future of Higher Education?

In a few hours I'm about to be in the audience for a BBC Radio 3 recording taking place at the National Glass Centre during which the future of Higher Education will be discussed.  This is part of the BBC's Free Thinking series presented in association with the University of Sunderland.   The event is being billed as bringing together "an outspoken panel to tackle one the most pressing issues for future generations" - namely how cash strapped universities are to cope with impending cuts in public funding.

This comes on the back of the recent publication of the Browne Review which calls for the present cap of £3290 to be lifted in the face of removing the current regime in which the public pays a proportion of the true cost of a university degree.  A video featuring Lord Browne's proposals can be found below, as can the full report.

There have been numerous criticisms of the report, some of which suggest that middle income families would be hit hardest by the newly proposed funding ventures, whilst others have claimed that the huge increase in fees would out off potential students from the poorest backgrounds.

 I'm sure that this Radio 3 debate might get a little heated.  Hopefully I'll be able to tweet from the audience after 7pm GMT.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Future of TV: Google?

This month Google has released a new video highlighting their new proposition for revolutionising television.  It seemed like only yesterday that Apple were making big noises about their TV proposition. Michael Gartenberg (Engadget) has blogged about this Apple/Google assault on TV here.

Quick Tour - Google TV
(Image: Chris Messina, 2010, Flickr)

In case you didn't already know Google are planning on releasing their take on TV in two forms: a new internet-enabled set-top box which plugs in to your high definition TV as well as hardware deal with Sony (TV) and Logitech (peripherals). The hardware is due for imminent release and will be based on the Android software which runs on many smartphones and upcoming tablets.  It will also use a version of the Chrome browser.

I've embedded the latest video below, so go ahead and take a look.

Right.  Did that make you want to buy one? Me neither. I'm not sure I'm going to benefit from having stocks and shares info displayed down the side of my screen.  I'm also not sold on going to my TV to read Twitter - personally I like to use Twitter on a smaller device whilst watching TV.


However, there did seem to be a number of interesting features hinted at in the video.  The presence of the search bar that should help web-TV users locate audio/video content on the web and quickly display it on the screen could be useful. Google's killer app is still its search dominance and if it can find a way to bring that to searching for TV-on-demand content then they might just oust FilmFlex (Virgin), Lovefilm or Sky's on-demand services.  However, I strongly suspect that Google are not going to provide their own platform for video content (other than YouTube) and will partner up with services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in order to deliver that content.  This seems similar to the Apple TV proposition.  Come to think of it, even Microsoft and Sony are playing around with this type of delivery via the Xbox and Playstation platforms.  Suddenly, the space under the living room TV is seeming a little over-crowded.

The ability to stream audio/video content to the "best speakers in the house" (er, they would be what now - the 5.1 system or the hi-fi?) seems like a decent proposition especially when many HD TVs come with underpowered audio.  Also, the Android Marketplace seems like a great idea for providing a platform that can grow and evolve as time goes by.  There are rumours that Apple are planning the same thing with Apple TV (especially as it runs a version of iOS4 - the software that powers the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch).  But the biggest issue that needs addressing here is advertising revenue.


Google has got to where it is today by being able to harness the power of search and attach relevant targeted advertising to the several hundred million search requests it receives daily.  If Google can manage to break into the TV market place and gather information about viewing habits it would have another feather in its cap.  It could deliver real time targeted adverts to TV viewers in a way hitherto impossible for mass broadcasters.  This seems to be a logical reason why Google would want to enter the TV market place.  Who else has the power to disrupt existing arrangements between broadcasters, content makers and advertisers?  If Google are successful, they could transform the way in which advertising revenue funds the commercial television model by taking the funds needed to support investment in expensive content out of the hands of producers and broadcasters.

I'm not sure that this is such a good idea, but there's no guarantee that Google TV will actually be successful.  After all, Google has a track record of products that haven't gone on to change the world (Wave didn't transform email).  Perhaps, their TV venture may not succeed, but it's built on a platform (Android) which is already proving its worth.  The future of television looks a little cloudy from here...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Tracking Playstation Plus: August and September

I kind of forgot to review the Playstation Plus proposition for August so I figured I'd bundle that month in with September. It's been a while... since I last updated this series of posts but in the last one I covered the content on offer for August.

Below you should be able to see a little table charting the content I grabbed and an overview of the estimated value for that month...

Back in September Sony released the following content for Plus subscribers:
  • PSN: Sam and Max: Devil’s Playground (entire season)
  • minis: Vector Tower Defense, Echoes
  • PSOne Classic: Abe's Odysee
  • Full Game Trial: Warhawk (Plus exclusive 50% discount for Plus members on purchase), Inferno Pool
  • Exclusive Discounts: LittleBigPlanet Ico and Shadow of Colossus costume pack - 50%; Metal Gear Solid (PSOne) – 50%; Warhawk – 50%; Pixel Junk Shooter – 20%
  • DLC Exclusive: UFC Undisputed 2010
  • Dynamic Themes: Exclusive PlayStation Move theme; Exclusive ‘Fish Tank’ theme
  • Premium avatars: Eye Pet Blue Goalie Avatar; Eye Pet DJ Avatar

On top of that there were a few additional add-ons.  New subscribers to the annual package were given the full game (digital download) of Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty to keep permanently.  Early access to the following demos were also given: God of War: Ghost of Sparta (PSP),
 PES 2011 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.  If that wasn't enough on the 27th of September Plus subscribers were also given exclusive beta access to the multiplayer version of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - this was something worth having! Oh, and an exclusive Infamous 2 theme, although that wasn't much to shout about.  Below is the table of content I downloaded:

The total monthly savings for August (£20.34) and September (£29.45) had I paid for this would be £49.79.  If we include the £14.77 from the month of July then the running total quarter way through the year stands at £64.56.

It's very difficult to measure how much the exclusive content costs, especially as the beta for Assassin's Creed has been rumoured to go on a more general release for non-subscribers at a later date, but it certainly did sweeten the deal.  It's also not the last beta to be announced - read on.

October's content

The following material has been announced by Sony for October:
  • PSN: Street Fighter 2 HD Remix
  • minis: Aero Racer, Yeti Sports
  • PSOne Classic: Syphon Filter
  • Full Game Trial: Ferrari The Race Experience; Tomb Raider Underworld
  • Exclusive Discounts: Burn Zombie Burn  - 50% discount (inc. free exclusive Home item for Plus members who buy); Trine – 50% discount; Alien Breed: Impact – 20% discount; Gravity Crash – 50% discount; Ace Armstrong Vs. The Alien Scumbags – 20% – day 1 discount; Shatter soundtrack and Dynamic Theme – 50% discount
  • DLC Exclusive: n/a
  • Dynamic Themes: Exclusive Move ‘Start the Party’ theme; Exclusive ‘Halloween’ theme
  • Premium avatars: Pain: Jarvis and Le Toot Avatars (2); SingStar: Wannabe and Rising Star Avatars (2)
October did look a little underwhelming in terms of content (with the exception of the acclaimed Trine at half price) until the announcement that Killzone 3 would be an exclusive beta for the first 10,000 Plus subscribers who sign up on October 13th.  This is a real draw as Killzone 2 is one of the best FPS games on the system.  Also, any new annual subscribers get an extra 3 months of Plus for no extra cost. IS ta enough to make you buy?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

ACS:Law pwnd by anonymous/4Chan

Anonymous at Scientology in Los Angeles

Image by Vincent Diamante, 2008, Flickr

Over the past week ACS:Law, a legal firm named and shamed in the House of Lords due to the number of complaints made about it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, suffered a DDoS attack orchestrated by 'anonymous' users of the popular image board 4chan as part of Operation Payback.  This was one in a number of attacks which sought to target organisations and groups who many have thought to have been rather heavy handed in their dealings with the enforcement of supposed copyright infringements. I use the term 'supposed' here purposefully as several of the accused in this case deny any involvement in downloading illicit material at all (see the comments at the bottom of this BBC story)

For background to the story it's worth visiting TorrentFreak and the Guardian coverage for a decent overview.  Suffice to say, following the attack ACS:Law jeopardised the privacy of its intended targets by exposing its entire email database which has since been downloaded, archived and distributed across the web via sites like The Pirate Bay.  Data about 8000 internet customers solicited by ACS:Law on behalf of the copyright owners from internet providers like BT and Sky and several others firms (Plusnet) was passed to the legal firm in an encrypted form (passwords to the data were issued via telephone), only for this data to emerge unprotected when the website was restored.  This is something the Information Commissioner might take an interest in.  They have the power to levy a fine of up to £500,000 on the law firm.  Yesterday they posted a statement (.pdf)  claiming:
The ICO takes all breaches of the Data Protection Act very seriously. Any organisation processing personal data must ensure that it is kept safe and secure. This is an important principle of the Act. The ICO will be contacting ACS:Law to establish further facts of the case and to identify what action, if any, needs to be taken.
Reporting on yesterday evening, Josh Halliday noted that BT have serious doubts regarding the integrity of the process being used by rights holders to enforce copyright infringement claims.  They join TalkTalk and Virgin Media in expressing in their lack of cooperation with ACS:Law. When the ill-considered processes brought about by the Digital Economy Act start to be implemented next year, in which IP addresses accused of copyright infringement are issues gradated warning letters, these service providers may have very little choice but to comply with firms like ACS:Law, despite the problems associated with the veracity of the methodologies employed for data gathering (never mind establishing who is individually responsible for each supposed infringement).

Punitive threats at a national level to the identity of internet users accused of sharing copyright controlled content aside, the identity of the anonymous group of 4chan remains difficult to pin down. They did however include the following message bundled with the archive of emails:

Homepage of Operation Payback:
(Valid as of 24/09/10, things may have changed from then.)


To whom it concerns,

Over the past years we have seen an technological revolution. One where you are free, in the most extreme anarchistic sense, to share ideas. Some of these ideas are shared behind proxies, darknets, or similar "closed doors", but the ideas are out there. This kind of revolution is of the mind, and its effects on respective societies is all but surprising. While the people embrace this revolution, this new "anarchy" of freedom to share, leaders have crushed and seek to crush it before it even begins in earnest. 

These "anarchists", who are only anarchists in the minds of leaders seeking to destroy this freedom, have succeeded en-mass in distributing content to the poor, the underpriveleged, the restricted. The most popular pirates are the chinese, whose content filters restrict a vast amount of content from them. The second most popular, the poor, who cannot afford things like college books or entertainment. Indeed, while mostly ignored, a vast amount of educational literature is available to the everyday pirate. Enough that saw me through college, even, when I otherwise could not have afforded it.

It is no different, though, than when these powers that be tried to silence the record player, the cassette, the CD. The same claims were made then, and they were ignored, so why now are they listened to? This flawed application of extremist capitalism upon what is considered sacred by any culture - knowledge - is treason upon every human. All should have the right to listen to that beat, experience that twist in a plot, or learn from the mass volumes of literature now made available.

You already know this, however. You know it when you freely give your unused software, illegally I might add (remember: You don't own the software you buy [1]), to a friend or acquaintence. You know it when you give that old college book to a persin in need. You know it when little girls are basically raped in the name of "justice" [2]. You know it when thousands of bullshit legal letters are sent to SCARE money out of people [3]. You know it when such organizations lie through their teeth, produce false documents, and spread misinformation about its opponents [4]. You know that this is not right when your leaders inexplicably support massive capitalist enterprises over the majority opinion of their own people [5]. You know they are wrong when they use illegal means to get what they want, while simultaneously bashing us for doing the same [6].

If you were to assume the propaganda of various community-reputable organisations such as...

    The Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]
    The Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA]
    The British Phonographic Industry [BPI]
    The Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft [AFACT]
    Stichting Bescherming Rechten Entertainment Industrie Nederland [BREIN] would have heard many a story that if you say, 'pirate' a film or an album, you are depriving a simple artist, actor or crewmember from their rightful wage. They won't be able to break even for their next lot of groceries - and YOU robbed them of THEIR money. Money that they only see a small percentage of, they carefully omit. Do they ever tell you how small of a percentage most script writers, novelists, etc, actually make? No, and there is a reason why. Do they tell you how much THEY, the anti-piracy organizations, make? No, and there is a reason why.

In the end, our DDoS efforts have been compared to waiting for a train [7]. What do we have to do to be heard? To be taken seriously? Do we have to take to the streets, throwing molitovs, raiding offices of those we oppose? Realize, you are forcing our hand by ignoring us. You forced us to DDoS when you ignored the people, ATTACKED the people, LIED TO THE PEOPLE! You are forcing us to take more drastic action as you ignore us, THE PEOPLE, now.

We will not stop.

We will not forget.

We will prevail.

We are anonymous.

[4] We DID NOT attack the pirate party, we ARE NOT affiliated with anti-scientology activism, and The Pirate Bay has not organized this.

I await future developments in this story with baited breath

remedial thoughts: Discuss the future of music (in Newcastle)

remedial thoughts: Discuss the future of music (in Newcastle)

Post mirrored over on MySunderland

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Discuss the future of music (in Newcastle)

One of my interests is the music industry especially the impact of digitisation and digital distribution, and this frequently spills over into the modules I teach at the University of Sunderland.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover a series of events being hosted by the popular music development agency Generator in Newcastle from November 15th-18th. These free seminars will feature a number of industry professionals, writers, journalists and entrepreneurs discussing various aspects of the music industry, and should appeal to anyone with an interest in the future of music distribution.  Spaces are limited so check the details of each daily session and get signed up ASAP

15th November Will technology revive the industry?

This free seminar looks at new technology and delivery models and what they mean for distribution and retail in the music industry. Chaired by Paul Brindley from Music Ally, the panel will look at whether mobile applications or cloud based delivery offer new business models or revenue streams and whether digital distribution is strictly relevant for all markets.
In particular the panel will look at how different markets are reached by differing media and whether the means of delivery is as important as the product itself.

Panelists will include:

16th November Digital Platforms: Broadcast or distribute?

This free seminar looks at the range of platforms for music online whether streamed or sold. The range of services available vary between those who look to get music heard and those who purely use online as a retail base but are these two mutually exclusive, how can music plays be monetised and do these platforms provide a good service for artists and labels?
The panel is made up of representatives of some of the largest platforms whose products have different applications for businesses and artists from sharing your favourite tracks to streaming original music.
Panelists will include:

17th November New markets for licensing and brands

This free seminar looks at how music can be partnered with brands and sponsors in mutually beneficial agreements. Associations between products and music are growing, with endorsements now requiring more than a soundtrack for an advert. These partnerships can mirror 360 publishing deals with tie ins for live performance and physical releases and can go beyond synchronisation deals.
The panel is led by Rachel Wood from Woodwork Music and will look at real life examples and new tie ins to explore how artists and labels can work with brands and what the benefits are for all parties. Panelists will also look at the value of these partnerships to the industry.
Panelists will include:

18th November Is online media the industry's gatekeeper

This free seminar looks at how the music industry engages with online media. Do bloggers now fulfill a tastemaking role which was once undertaken in traditional A&R roles or are artists filling the gaps themselves with streaming, videos, podcasts and updates?
Is this a means of keeping fans updated and building a fanbase or can it provide something more? If this is the case are labels paying online media the respect it deserves?
Panelists will include:
This promises to be an interesting set of seminars.  They run from 6pm-8pm.  Click on the session titles above to book tickets for each daily event.

The venue for the seminars is:
Northern Stage, Barras Bridge, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RH

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