Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Unbeknown to most, today is Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace Day is "an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology."

I think that this day of recognition, albeit minor, is important and increasingly pertinent. In general , all of technology only benefits by the presence of women in the field, writing critically and contributing in a public manner about substantive topics. 

Creative Commons choose a worthy individual to highlight, distinguished law professor, Pamela Samuelson, a major proponent of (much needed) copyright reform. 

I would personally like to highlight two female attorneys, both of whom contribute extensively to the field of IP/High-Tech law and maintain a substantial web presence. 

Denise Howell, the host of 'This Week in Law' ('TWIL', an adjunct podcast to Leo Laporte's 'This Week in Tech'), who also regularly blogs and is active on Twitter

Collete Vogel, of Vogel Law, who keeps a sporadic blog, Twitter's, and is also a regular contributor on 'This Week in Law'.  

Both of these women embody the spirit of Ada Lovelace Day, and have both been indirectly inspirational to me as a first year law student.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In-Application Purchasing: The Power of Micro-Payment

Last week, Apple announced a major update, introducing their new OS, iPhone 3.0.  All the added functional abilities are impressive and will be welcome additions to users of one of the most popular smart phones on the market (and for those Touch users willing to pay for the upgrade). Yet the standout update could be the added ability of users to make purchases within applications. 

This feature has potentially major implications; in-application micro-payment purchasing power could revolutionize the mobile application industry in numerous ways. 

Ben Parr, at Mashable, writes about the possibilities of in-application purchasing to transform the developer-user relationship. He foresees a transition for the current "one-and-done" purchasing model, to a model wherein users will keep returning to make purchases from the same developer, so long as the product is worthwhile, and the developer maintains their end of the bargain.  I agree with his assessment.  This new business model will benefit both developer and the user, as users will be in a position to demand a higher quality product, and developers will have incentive to deliver, so as to exploit a continuous source of income

Two categories of applications could be influenced the most by in-application micro-payment; gaming applications and news service applications.

News services developers/publishers could experiment with an app that gives the user a sampling of the news, and then allow them to choose what broad topics, or what specific articles, they would like to read, or receive more information about.   Users would demand, and pay, for the specific news items in which they have interest.  Publishers could exploit the "long tail" of marketing, thus allowing publishers of niche stories to be profitable, and accord general interest news services the opportunity to better serve their consumers. 

Game developers could create an in-game market for certain objects.  Imagine being surrounded by countless zombies, only to see a 'killer gun' enclosed in an illuminated glass case...if want to use the uber-gun, you can! And it only costs $0.99!  Or, developers can focus on releasing game applications sooner, and developing additional levels or maps later on.  If the game proves to be popular, developers can invest the resources to create new levels.  If the game is a commercial failure, the developer has not wasted any extra time or money. 

The ability to purchase items, in-application via micro-payment, is an intriguing technological advancement.  I anticipate that this function will see widespread incorporation into the booming application industry. 

The ability to exploit the "long tail" of marketing, the prospect of catering to individualized consumers, fostering a profitable long-term economic relationship, and the capacity to institute micro-payments as a mechanism to profit from impulsive purchasers are all invaluable reasons for any developer to adopt in-application purchasing. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

UPDATE - No DRM on Latest iPod Shuffle?

BoingBoing Gadgets  has updated the iPod shuffle DRM'ed headphones story, and are now reporting that although the new shuffle headphones do use a proprietary encoding chip, its role is not one of digital rights management.  

A spokesman for Apple is describing the technology as a 'transmission' or 'control' chip.  However, Apple will still charge a fee (reportedly $1 per chip) to vendors in order to include the chip in their own headphones.  "As part of the Made for iPod program, we make sure that third party headphones work properly with the third generation iPod shuffle," the spokesman said.  "...it's not even authentication. It just gives us a way to control the iPod."  Apple will continue to implement the Made for iPod program, their method of indicating when certain specifications have been met, and implicitly sanctioning iPod accessories.  Of course, the Made for iPod label is only available for those manufactures who have paid the "Apple tax" and have properly licensed products. 

It will be interesting to see whether vendors will able to circumvent the Made for iPod program, and reverse engineer the chip, and whether or not Apple will pursue any legal action against those who do so.  The fact remains that the headphones will require this particular chip to function in use with the new generation shuffle.  This chip, although not encoded with DRM, may ultimately have the same circuitous, negative effect. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Apple's Love Affair with DRM Continues

Apple's newest generation of the iPod shuffle certainly has the stunning aesthetic that has become synonymous with every Apple product.   However, the design poses some basic functionality problems for users.  The shuffle is so diminutive, that it, in fact, has no control buttons on the unit.  In order to skip, replay, fast-forward or rewind through songs, the user must utilize the control set built directly into the headphones.

Apple has decided to technologically implement DRM (Digital Rights Management) into the headphones/controls on the new shuffle, borrowing a page from Lexmark's DRM'ed printer cartridges (or think of this move as a high-tech version of the razorblades sales model; only the appropriate (and expensive) razorblades will attach to a particular razor). 

Through the use of DRM, Apple has programmed the newest shuffle to only recognize, and operate properly, with  Apple "approved" headphones.  This drastically hampers free competition, making it impossible for opposing companies to reverse engineer the headphones/controls unit, and market their own (a cheaper or a higher quality) version.  Instead, these companies are forced to license with Apple ($$) in order to produce a compatible product. Sure, any headphones will plug into the device and play music, but there is no way to control playback. A music player without user controls is not only impotent but plain nonsensical (in my opinion the latest generation shuffle is ridiculous in its entirety, but that is an additional point) .

Coming from Apple, the blatant use of DRM to stymie competition and create a hardware monopoly is seriously troubling.  

First, you would assume that Apple would learn from its past mistakes, most notably the backlash surrounding the heavily DRM'ed Apple store.  Since the removal of controlling DRM from content sold at the Apple store, it is arguably more popular than ever.  Why revert to controlling technology that is a proven failure?  

Second, while the iPod shuffle may not be a "flagship" Apple product, the issue looms as to how far Apple's future use of DRM could reach.  Say that Apple discovers they can make an extra $5 per hardware unit through the licensing of specially approved headphones on the shuffle.  What is to stop them from  incorporating controlling DRM technologies into future releases of their more popular products? 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Google: Behavioral Targeting Ads Make Sense (Cents)

Recently, the online mega-conglomerate Google launched its behavioral targeting ad campaign, labeling it as "interest-based advertising".  The new marketing scheme is, in essence, a more sophisticated and refined way for Google to strategically place targeted ads into its myriad web-based services/products that it offers, most notably into Google search.  

Privacy is a major concern here. Information about how you use the web is collected, stored and associated within a cookie on your web browser.   Google can potentially track your cookies, and follow a user across different websites and online services.  Although clearing out and deleting cookies regularly can help, it is not a panacea, as new cookie are always re-recorded the next time your browser loads a banner ad. 

Still, I believe that a full blown call to arms against Google's invasion of privacy is neither warranted, nor entirely rational. 

First, many companies already monitor behavior, collecting data to provide select "interest-based" services to its clientele.  Every time you use a "shopper's club card" at a grocery store like a Safeway/Wegmans/Giant Eagle, or at wholesale seller such as a Costco, that corporation records data about which particular items you are purchasing, and at what quantity and frequency.  Some seller's now choose to exploit this information to aim weekly advertisements at certain customers, or to print-out coupons for related, "interest-based" products, and then distribute these coupons directly to the consumer immediately following the sale. 

Further, the largest and most successful online seller, Amazon.com, not only replicates the grocery store model in tracking purchases, but goes further. They also collecting information about what items you are viewing while in their store [imagine a grocery store with the ability to track what items you are browsing, but do not actually purchase] .  Amazon then uses the monstrous amount of data they constantly accumulate on each customer to continually provide new "interest-based" recommendations and suggestions.  

Arguably, the grocery-store model and the Amazon model constitute invasions of privacy, but they are also beneficial to the individual customer. These privacy threats are tolerated and even celebrated.   The grocery store model potentially provides the consumer with discounts on the products they buy most often, and are likely to purchase again in the future.  The Amazon model often provides (what I consider) excellent recommendations, allowing users to discover a world of new content they would not otherwise have stumbled across. 

Google is simply following suit. Granted, the benefits of Google's new ad program are not going to be as pronounced as with either the grocery store or Amazon model.  But since advertisements are always going to be present, they might as well be "interest-based."  Who knows?  You might actually find some good deals. 

Also, it is important not to forget that Google provides numerous free services.  Google gives us free search capability, G-mail, Blogger, Google Reader, Google Earth, etc... This does not justify an increased privacy threat, but I think it does, at least, partially vindicate Google in their behavioral monitoring activity. And, rest assured, Google does provides a choice to opt-out.  Although the program should presumably be opt-in, like the grocery store and Amazon models [you choose to enroll in a shopper's club program, or to create an account on Amazon], it still demonstrates a good-faith effort on Google's part to respect privacy as much as practicable.  Plus, you do not have to use Google's services (Yahoo!!!).

The technological structure and character of the Internet inherently creates an increased opportunity for behavioral monitoring.  However, you are the one making the decisions concerning your cyberspace behavior. You choose what services you use, and what content you access online.  This instills a sense of individual responsibility to counterbalance and compliment the good-faith obligations of online entities such as Google. 

As long as we collectively assume accountability for our online behaviors, while still making sure that Google does not abuse the power they hold as a provider of online services, we can all safely function online without fears of privacy invasion. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

In the City of Brotherly Love, Big Brother May Be Watching...

According to ESPN, the Philadelphia Eagles football organization has terminated the employment of a stadium operation worker, Dan Leone, for a status update that he had posted onto Facebook.

Dan was a part-time staff member who worked as a "west gate chief" [I assume he was a ticket-taker, or some other relatively minor level stadium employee].  On his Facebook profile, Leone updated his status to read:

"Dan is [expletive] devastated about [Eagles' running back Brian] Dawkins signing with Denver ... Dam Eagles R Retarted!!"

Granted, Mr. Leone's status update posting was certainly unwise.  It was not only derogatory and crude, but was highly improvident.  Surely his employ as a ticket-taker was an at-will arrangement, and the Eagles (as employer) most likely maintained the legal right to terminate his employment for such a remark. 

However, this incident personifies a common contention, that Facebook is "destroying privacy".  Case-in-point: people are losing their jobs (in these troubled times) for supposedly private remarks amongst their Facebook friends.  If Dan Leone had made the same remark to his buddies at a bar, his (enviable) position with the Eagles organization would not have been terminated. 

But Dan didn't make this comment to his buddies at a bar.  He knowingly posted them onto Facebook.  Leone is aware of his error, admitting"I shouldn't have put it up there. I was ticked off, and I let my emotions go...".  His mistake was plainly an short-sighted underestimation regarding the scope and nature of his audience.

People need to recognize that what they are doing and saying on sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are only semi-private, at best.  Statements published online not only reach a potentially infinite audience, but they exist in perpetuity for a veritable infinite amount of time. 

Mr. Leone's firing may be questionable on the part of the Eagles organization itself (from a free speech/right to criticize standpoint), it cannot, however, be viewed as the fault of Facebook's platform.  

People publishing content using social media should simply know better (John Dvorak has even suggested we need to license all users, as we do for automobiles).  Just take responsibility for your online footprint(s), as much as you would in the real-world. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gone Phishing

Phish officially ends their seemingly endless hiatus (more like 4+ years) with three shows this weekend, March 6th, 7th and 8th, at their old stomping grounds, the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia.

Naturally, this is a highly anticipated event, and tickets have been sold out for months.  Thankfully, for the majority of us who are unable to attend the actual concert, Phish is providing free MP3 downloads of every second of music performed this weekend. The band claims their limited-time offer is being  made "to show...gratitude to all the Phish fans for their support...", yet the move reveals a keen sense of business savvy. 

In effect, the band is adopting a business model utilized by authors, like Cory Doctorow and James Boyle, the comedic troupe, Monty Python, and other bands, most notably Nine Inch Nails (NIN). By giving away content for "free", Phish actually promotes their music and the current tour, and further encourages fans to purchase additional content that is conveniently for sale at the same location where they can procure the free download

Phish will concurrently allow fans to purchase higher quality FLAC versions of the concert(s), and will eventually sell CD's, packaged with artwork and photographs from the event.  Later, concert tee-shirts and downloads of other shows from the tour will become available for purchase.  Clearly, the fans will have plenty of options and opportunities to actually purchase merchandise. 

The point is that although Phish may be seemingly "losing revenue" and "potential profit" from possible sales of MP3's, the showing of good-faith on the part of the band will only pay dividends in the immediate future.   Phish will earn more than it gives away. 

The business model works; fans don't simply gobble up free content and then never return to support the artist, or author.  The popularity and sales of NIN's album(s), Monty Python's 23,000% sales increase, and Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" debuting on the NY Times Bestseller list, are three emphatic examples of success. 

Hopefully, this model can evolve into the predominant and favored distribution method amongst content creators.