Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Joys of Children

Aaah, the joys of children.  So innocent.  So beautiful.  So contagious.  As they build up their immune system, they bring all sorts of bugs home.  You feel so sorry for them when they get sick that you smother them with love and affection while telling them that you wished you were sick instead.  Then the next thing you know, you are sicker than a dog, and they are running around playing again.  It hit me last week when my daughter Madisen came home from daycare sick with something. I held and cradled her then the next thing I know I am in bed for a couple days aching from head to toe.  Now I am playing catch up. 

I missed some good things to talk about, but there will be more.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

IEEE Event for Colorado Tech Week

Testing the Bandwidth of Your Connection

I typically use to test the performance of my cable modem link to the Internet. Since installing McAfee Internet Security Suite 9, I can no longer view results from this site. My suspicion is McAfee ISS. The site worked before the upgrade and I have had many other issues with ISS accessing other sites and blocking programs.

I was driven to this exercise because I wanted to test Comcast's new "Speedboost" feature. Since I could no longer use, I let my fingers do the Google to find a new site to test my connection. After browsing through a few sites, I stumbled on Maybe I am a sucker for a pretty UI, but this site is slick and easy to use. It displays your location, based on your IP address, along with test serers on a nice world map. The main window is Flash based. Just click on a server and the server will test your download and upload bandwidth automatically. Intermediate and final results are displayed in a speedometer like graph as well as numerically along with a one-way trip time, IP address, and server location. Previous test results are displayed in a table below the current results. Users can customize the units displayed in the table and it is probably stored in a cookie since they do not require any registration or knowledge of the user.

Speedtest even creates a small graphic for display on your web site. I was able to pull down 10 Mbit/s from their Chicago server a few minutes ago. If you want a slick, simple to use bandwidth tester, go to Speedtest.

Speedboost works as witnessed by the results above. There are not many people using my CMTS node at the moment so I can hog up 4 Mbit/s more bandwidth than currently allotted. I just wish that my upload speed would occasionally go above 384 kbit/s so my VoIP service would work a bit better although QoS would really solve the problem.

IEEE Events for Colorado Tech Week

Colorado Tech Week came and went without much fanfare the week of September 18th. I am sure that the governor kicked it off with a proclamation and it usually ends with the CSIA DEMOGala. The domain name wasn't even registered until a month before the event started. Colorado has many high profile and successful technology companies, and this week should have been the time to promote it to its citizens, potential investors, and entrepreneurs thinking of relocating or starting a business in Colorado.

Kevin Johansen of The Business Catapult The only event that I knew about was hosted by the IEEE. The local IEEE chapter hosted three days of events for Colorado Tech Week at Qwest's headquarters downtown Denver. I attended two of these excellent events. The Tuesday session on Entrepreneurship and Careers was the most useful, and the Wednesday session provided a great perspective on electrical engineering achievements in Colorado past and present.

Russ Farmer of PBC, Inc. My hope for the next administration is that they embrace Colorado Tech Week and actively promote it in and outside of the state. It is a wonderful opportunity to educate the public on the great discoveries, inventions, and innovation that our talent pool can produce.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Should Motorola or Cisco/S.A. Be Worried About Apple?

Apple did something very uncharacteristic of them in their much ballyhooed "It's Showtime" event. They preannounced a product two quarters before it will ship. Forget the iPod announcements, the product code named, iTV, has the potential to do what Microsoft could not with Media Center: replace the set-top box. There are other appliance-type boxes out in the market that download and store content for playback, but what makes iTV a serious contender is that it comes from Apple.

Anyone in marketing or technology realizes that Apple has mastered the art of marketing. They are able to gain an almost religious following because they understand the concept of whole product. For those of you not familiar with marketing and product management concepts, the whole product is not just a specific box, piece of software, or service. It includes the whole ecosystem surrounding the product that delivers utility to the consumer. Couple this concept with a coolness factor, add some mystique, and you have a category hit on your hands.

Apple's 75% plus marketshare in portable music players is no mistake. Apple successfully accomplishes what Microsoft struggles to do...they made it easy for the average consumer to buy, store, and play music on the go even with mediocre hardware quality. You do not have to be a computer genius with knowledge of MP3 and AAC encoding, USB, virtual drives, and digital rights management (DRM) to take your music on the go. All you have to do is to plug your iPod into the supplied cables, fire up iTunes, and purchase your music at the iTunes Music Store. Apple takes care of the rest. While the geeks and techies were arguing about DRM, encoding restrictions, and batteries, consumers were downloading millions of songs from the iTunes Music Store. They make cool products. Even the packaging is cool. This attention to design is a must for any consumer product. Apple's marketing genius combined with a thorough understanding of the process consumers use to purchase content makes them envy of any product manager trying to introduce a successful new product in an overcrowded marketplace. You bet several product managers in Redmond are green with envy. It is these magic beans that makes the iTV a potential market disrupter to the set-top box market.

The iTV picks up where the set-top box leaves off. A consumer can purchase this box, available 1Q07, for $299, plug it in, turn it on, and start enjoying rich multimedia on their TV and audio system. No external clunky PC with Microsoft's Media Center is required. Just a nice, neat appliance with a sexy user interface delivering movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos. Nothing from Motorola or Scientific Atlanta even comes close to date. TiVo and Moxy are contenders but they are missing the mobility/portability factor.

Content comes through the iTV's built-in wireless network interface, probably based on 802.11a/b/g until 802.11n is fully standardized, so it can be placed in the entertainment center without trying to figure out how to run Cat5 cable to it. Apple did not disclose whether a hard drive was built in to the unit so I assume that a modest one is included so it could store and display content without the help of another PC. If not, then one can easily be connected through the USB 2.0 port on the back of the unit. Otherwise, media can be streamed from any PC or Mac running iTunes sharing their content. It has component video or HDMI connectors for connecting to a conventional or High Definition TV set.

The user interface is characteristically Apple. It looks like FrontRow supercharged and crossed with Media Center. Movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and photos on the iTV or any other computer running iTunes are available without DRM worries. You can purchase a TV show from the iTunes Music Store that downloads to iTV but you don't have time to watch it all. Just fire up iTunes on your PC and move it to your iPod. Maybe you can connect the iPod to the iTV. Take that Comcast! I do this all of the time with podcasts. I start listening to them on the PC, then move to the living room where they are streamed to my AirPort Express before finishing them up on my phone while doing yard work.

So what makes the iTV a threat to the traditional set-top box? There are technical, marketing, and business reasons. Let me explain:

  1. Apple's ability to sell a whole product or whole solution is a proven formula for success. They provide the complete ecosystem from providing access to the content all the way to enjoying the content in a simple almost non-technical way that brings the product into the mainstream beyond the early adopters.
  2. Apple is a name brand with a reputation for cool and quality products. Their reputation for quality and innovation is beginning to surpass Sony's! Can you say, marketing muscle?
  3. Movies, TV programs, music, podcasts, and pictures can be enjoyed on a PC, iPod, or iTV. It is truly portable and mobile. The cablecos and telcos are still wrestling with the mobility/portability problem. Verizon is just beginning to lighten up and allow recorded programs to be viewed on multiple TV with their new Motorola set-top boxes, but not on computers.
  4. They provide integrated content delivery beyond video. Apple is not dependent on cablecos or telcos to provide access to content. They have their own deals with content providers like Disney. Although this may threaten cablecos and telcos, they are missing real-time content.
  5. The iTV is similar to a set-top box so users will immediately understand how to connect it to their entertainment system. No external PC with Microsoft Windows OS that requires constant care.
  6. Internet content will now be available on the TV. Listen to downloaded music, podcasts, and video content from the Internet. Only TiVo has this capability now.

If Apple's marketing machine can leverage these benefits without directly taking on the video content distributors, then they will have their next hit on their hands and drive content revenue through iTunes. I know that I will buy one if they do it right. Also, I'll cancel my NetFlix subscription and stop purchasing OnDemand movies.

Adding a tuner and supporting OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), or minimally CableCARDS, would provide real-time video content that the iTV is missing. With the DVR and on-screen program guide, Apple now has a superior solution to Motorola and Cisco even with their TiVo and Digeo partnerships. The cable companies will quickly jump on the bandwagon because they would no longer have to supply costly set-top boxes; thereby, reducing their capital and operating expenses. This is the objective that they have been driving towards for years. Consumers would love it because they could save on their cable bill and most importantly have a choice where to acquire content. If the cable companies are worried about Apple cutting into their content revenue, I am sure that Apple would create cableco specific branches of the iTunes Music store that integrated with the cableco on-demand content.

I am confident that Jobs and company have already thought of adding these features, and they will include a version with integrated cable with the release of iTV. Apple's understanding of marketing combined with content mobility gives them the opportunity to be the first successful consumer purchased set-top box. Motorola and Cisco have a long way to go to catch up in features and cost. Look for some serious competition in this market in 2007-8.

If Apple can strike a deal with Comcast, I will gladly relinquish my Motorola DCT6412 (soon to be a DCT3412) and move my AirPort Express to the bedroom. Can I have it by February Steve?

All pictures in this article courtesy of Engadget.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Seeking Alpha Arrives on Yahoo! Finance

Seeking Alpha announced (link) today that its content will be included in Yahoo! Finance. Seeking Alpha provides stock market opinion from a variety of quality sources divided into vertical industries. This author is one of the contriubtors to the site for the telecom sector. Seeking Alpha is a great aggregator of information for and from investors, analysts, and industry insiders seeking information on their industry or particular companies. Their content will add a large quantity of quality analysis to the Yahoo! Finance site. Take a look at the site from my link to the right, and you will probably end up subscribing to its RSS feed.

Simpler Is Always Better

Some of the best inventions, and most successful, have been the simplest idea or at least the simplest to use. There are countless examples of this principle. Portable media players have been around for years before Apple came around with the iPod, but it was the simplicity of its single purpose design, complete ecosystem for easy use by the layman and brilliant marketing that propelled it to a generic noun in our lexicon today. In the last month I have had the privilege of talking to two companies with great potential with a very simple service.

The first one is H2West. Their PayNow service allows a consumer to pay for a purchase with just their cell phone. It works like a debit account without any extra devices, credit cards, or complexity. All a consumer has to do is send a text message with their PIN to H2West and they will send back a 4-digit PIN and their account balance. The consumer provides the PIN to the merchant that enters it into their point-of-sale terminal that generates a receipt. It is that simple. Consumers love it because it is quicker than a credit card transaction and it allows them to budget better. Retailers love it because it costs much less than credit card transactions and it is secure.

This service has the potential of being a real market disrupter because of its simplicity. The retailer only is required to have a new point-of-sale terminal and the consumer can use their existing cell phones. No new smart cards, RFID tags, Bluetooth, or any other chip is required to be implemented. In a matter of minutes a consumer or merchant can open an new account and start processing transactions. The consumer links their bank account or debit card to their account to keep a cash balance. This is a perfect tool for parents to use as a way to teach their children how to budget money. Periodically they can add money to their kids' account, and let them figure out how to spend that fixed amount. No more rampant credit card charges to surprise parents at the end of the month.

The real question is whether H2West will be able to successfully market the product to consumers and retailers. If I was a major credit card processor, I would be looking very seriously at this company.

The next potential market disrupter is MailCall. MailCall uses a standard telephone or cell phone to read and send e-mail messages from any POP or IMAP mail account. The beauty is that e-mail messages and attachments are available from any phone without any extra equipment or the fear of having secure information sitting outside corporate firewalls. Most mobile e-mail solutions require additional equipment like a Blackberry or Internet connection; not MailCall.

E-mail has become an indispensable tool for business and personal communications, but accessing it isn't always easy. Security concerns with personal mobile devices, traveling with laptops, and using public Internet terminals inhibit the utility of e-mail. MailCall eliminates all of those concerns using a standard telephone with its text-to-speech synthesis. Listen to a message and any attachment then decide whether to listen to the next one, delete it, or respond to it just as you would in the e-mail application. You can even send a message or attachment to a fax number if a printed copy is necessary. MailCall can even read web pages. These are just the most important features of the product. See their web site for more information.

Just like PayNow, MailCall's disruptiveness is in its simplicity. Users utilize their existing e-mail accounts and any telephone; no new equipment is required. The cost of maintaining a mobile e-mail system is eliminated along with the security headaches. A mobile workforce can manage their e-mail from anywhere on the road so they are more responsive to their customers. They challenge that Great American Technologies has is how to market this great concept where there are so many opportunities in the enterprise, carrier, and government segments.

These excellent technologies have the potential of disrupting their respective markets because their user interface is simple and their utility great. They utilize complex technologies to solve some very simple problems just like Apple focused on playing music with the iPod. Neither one of these companies has the marketing muscle of an Apple, so their success lies in their ability to market themselves or find strong recognized partners. Keep an eye on them or better yet, open an account and give their products a try.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Fall VON is Upon Us

Many interesting conferences and conventions begin today in our industry, but the one valuable conference that has real value begins today in Boston. Of course I am talking about Fall 2006 VON. Jeff Pulver's efficacious meeting that brings together traditional telephony with new media and the Internet. There will be the usual waxing on about IMS and convergence, but the real action will be around IP peering and IPTV. There is revenue and real business models around these topics. Jeff threw in a session on Net Neutrality which is near and dear to our hearts although I am not sure that the panelists will generate that much productive discussion or controversy. The blogger session at the end of the conference expects to be interesting, but isn't it just more industry perspective? Hopefully they will discuss how they utilize blogging to affect the industry. All in all expect for a very informative and productive conference. I always look forward to attending especially Jeff's parties.

I started using the new Windows Live Writer software to prepare my articles. Its basic features allows me to focus on writing on the article instead of formatting it. I ran into a glitch when I upgraded my blog to the new beta version of Blogger. Unfortunately, Live Writer does not yet support Blogger beta. I hope to see a new version of Live Writer beta that supports Blogger beta. The Live Writer forum indicates that it is coming soon!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

UN Treaty to Stifle Free Speech

Cory Doctorow published an article Saturday on Boing Boing about a treaty that the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization is drafting that threatens the fledgling podcasting industry. It aims to give broadcasters more rights to control works that they do not own. The treaty also creates a new tier of copyright confusion for podcasters. The result of this treaty will be for countries to enact the provisions into law, and podcasters will have less rights to use non-infringing material in their podcasts than they do now. Innovation will be stifled and the only beneficiaries will be the traditional media and large Internet companies like Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft that can afford to license and pay for the content.

The EFF has prepared an open letter rejecting the webcasting right. This treaty smacks of intervention by old school broadcasters trying to protect their business models. The WIPO is suppose to protect intellectual property creators, not provide shields for big business. Find out more about the open letter to be submitted to the next WIPO treaty committee meeting on Monday. If you are a podcaster or organization supporting podcasting, there is a link for you to sign the letter.