The Internet is a Cellphone

The last post I wrote was a lament that the internet-as-a-cellphone wasn’t being fully explored from a technological standpoint.

Today we have the opposite problem: The internet-as-a-cellphone is being legislated as a cultural standpoint. Specifically, Domain Seizure has become the tool of choice to shut down “infringing content”. What is this content? Movies, games, pirated apps, etc.

How did we get here?

The old mode of piracy required a fair bit of infrastructure. A person would typically mail some money though the snailmail and they would typically get a stack of CDs or floppies in return with cracked apps and games on them. Things plunked along this way for a good while as the popularity of usenet declined due to AOL and eventually things went viral to the point where IRC was the mode of distribution. The IRC bots evolved to the point where if the bot didn’t have the software you were interested in, groups had agreed to cross referencing to other bots. The decline of USENET and the rise of IRC corresponded roughly from RadioShack and Circuit City not selling software or parts anymore to advertising software being pre-loaded on the pirated applications.

The movies thing I don’t think anyone saw coming. VHS piracy was as simple as going to blockbuster and renting whatever you wanted for $1 and then going home and wiring up the VCRs. As media moved into the digital realm, it meandered back to mail order DVDs (or the guy on the street corner selling questionable copies in strange languages), CD-Video (popular in asia, never here), MPEG copies on IRC, and the unfortunately named DivX video codec. DIVX players attempted to stem the tide with their dial-up DVD service but I would guess most of them ended up cracked.

Let me digress for a second and point out we forget who or what came before. The chinese looking to circumvent the firewall could learn oodles from the old US piracy market. How many books fit on a DVD? Actual text, I’m talking about, not ebooks. How many cameras come with an SD card now? Who checks all these things versus how much electronic stuff moves in and out of china? The great firewall doesn’t currently censor email as I recall, what about a wget service or a newsnet service with UUENCODED files? This is how the US used to do it and people wrote special mail handlers to reassemble these files, it would work in china. Its how it used to work. I had a DXR2. I bought it after my alpha died with which I used to rip DVDs. Nostalgia.

Somewhere along the way someone figured out the space requirements even for compressed, pirated materials (movies, games) was somewhere around 4GB.  Things plodded along at the 4GB limit for a bit and the movie industry responded by packing “HD Content” into 9GB DVDs with double layers, and finally the whole weird push to blu-ray and HD-DVD came around and blu-ray won because Sony’s pockets are deep enough to pay for a loss leader like that.

Suddenly, things came full circle. TV stalled. Gimmicks for TVs haven’t impressed consumers much because who cares about 3D content if it’s not on demand. Movies suffer the same problem. The issue is the world simply got busier. No-one has a two hour chunk of time to go to the theatre anymore. We don’t even have time to take books off the shelf. Why should we? We read books on our laptops, then the laptop became a tablet, than the table became an ebook reader, then the ebook reader stopped existing and became software on a cellphone. We scaled up the cellphone screen to a tablet again, but these new tablets had enough bandwidth and CPU to do something interesting – they could surf the web, and they could watch video. How big is the new HD AVATAR? 1.2GB. How big is the new HD INCEPTION? 1.4GB. This for full, 1080p content. Samsung said as much with it’s cellphones with the screen, but more importantly the line-out to your actual TV.

This is the other side of the convergence that the new internet is a cellphone.

Now we look at Megaupload and GMAIL and such and 8GB is the norm. 8GB used to be just under what it took to store a DVD. Now 8GB is just enough to store 7 full movies. What’s important is that it’s the norm. It’s an artefact from a time when things were bigger and they could be bigger because we weren’t trying to consume content down small pipes. The movie companies know this but how could they legislate how much storage a particular user has? YouTube doesn’t even care. GMAIL? Why should they make it smaller? MegaUpload? 200MB, but how hard is it to keep a list of 5 URLs to unpack a RAR of a movie? Therein lies the problem. This is basically a bandwidth problem versus a content control problem. Since they (the MPAA/RIAA) can’t control the bandwidth they’ll try to control the content. What’s the best way to do that? Take away their cellphone. One man’s ZIP is another man’s video-codec, what’s the difference between cat and zcat? Compression, but they work the same way. The MPAA/RIAA already subscribes to this new model where the internet is a cellphone, and so everyone crying FREE SPEECH over the whole seizure of URLs doesn’t get it.Taking away a sites URL is like taking away their cellphone. It doesn’t impinge on their free speech, it just takes away the radio tower. Get another cellphone, learn the IPs. Your OS has a hosts file for a reason. It’s no biggie.

Just for reference: I do believe the megaupload files were seized improperly. I think everyone who was using it as a legitimate document repository should sue. I just don’t think the URL seizure is illegal nor amoral and reveals a profound misunderstanding of how the internet works.

Mobile Apps and I Wish I Was Anthony Bourdain

I wish I was the Anthony Bourdain of technology. William Gibson came close with No Maps for These Territories but it lacked the right vibe. I think it was because of Bono. Anyway, a tech tourist show with a post modern host is something I would love to do when I retire. Drink beer with project managers, wear dark sunglasses, smoke their clove cigarettes and just jam out with the platform. Who cares if it crashes? Shitty local bands provide the backdrop in the smoke filled bars as we just brainstorm cool stuff over the local deep fried dish.

We’re at the cusp of a new revolution, we’re at the cusp of the old revolution. Sun Microsystems said 10 years ago “the network is the computer”. We saw the tadpole notebook die. “Who would run UNIX on a laptop?”

Who would run Linux on a cellphone?

Solaris and Linux are old news, crushed under the terribly irony of their own success and android is really the dragon risen. Solaris did oracle so well that oracle bought it and made it from a wonderful garden into a toaster. Linux continues on as a desktop, or a server, but Nokia championing a full Linux on a phone never materialized with any success. Google came in the night and hammered it into a legitimate mobile platform by throwing out the trappings of the OS while keeping the enterprise level Java ideas (something lost on Apple) and what do we have now?

We have a mobile app delivery platform. Mark my words, this is huge. It’s so big Ubuntu has been pretending it was their idea and completely missed the boat. Protip guys – your desktop browser doesn’t belong on a tablet. But who’s to say thats not going to change into a mobile browser through theming? Who knows what goes on in their heads at all?

The new internet isn’t going to be made from webpages, it’s going to be made from applications. There’s two particular forces here which caused this: HTML is junk and the OS always got in the way. Cellphones, today, aren’t that different from enthusiast computers of yesteryear. They play games, they capture video, they play music, they take pictures and they do it wirelessly. Think about that for a moment. To make a computer do this, you need a webcam, you need a graphics card, you need fast storage and you need sound. The computers biggest problem was that it didn’t come with these things. Windows always insisted it needed updates, driver disks, etc. The problem was always the OS. Apple ended up going way over the mark and also branded the heck out of an OS. People line up around the block for it, it’s completely bizarre to me. Apple too misses the mark, applications you purchase on your device don’t work on your computer. In a lot of ways apple did these things, but I also think they priced themselves back into the enthusiast market. There’s no reason to use them when only a small minority of people have these features. We were missing the important part of the puzzle – Cheap, Complex Devices.

You get cellphones which do these things for free. Sign a two year contract, pick the carrying case color of your choice and out the door you go. It plays video. It captures video. It’s a camera. Its an audio recorder, a music player, and it surfs the web, all wirelessly.

Why doesn’t it do this on the web? HTML.

HTML has made awesome strides over the years for client side execution, the problem is that the clients have made great strides over the years not to be the executors. Phones are still ARM9, 1ghz (if you’re lucky) devices with processors the size of your thumbnail. While things like terga have gone a long way towards specific work units (nVidia’s GPU, etc), there’s no hardware accelerator for HTML. It just doesn’t exist. Dalvik, of course, is hardware accelerated. See what google did there? Instead of using a presentation language for applications and trying to accelerate that, full well knowing MS was going to stomp them to death with IE, they accelerated the language you can write your presentation layer in. Suddenly, the camera, the audio, the recorder, and the phone don’t require a stack of driver disks. They have very elegantly end-run the presentation problem by making the OS go away. They catered to the idea that no-one cares what their phone runs. A phone is a phone the same way a TV is a TV or a car is a car, except when your TV can play on your phone because of the netflix app and your car gets it’s maps from google via bluetooth. People don’t care, per se. It’s a phone. Netflix is a neat trick. Netflix keeps your eyes on the phone. How many ads does Netflix run? Zero, you pay for it. How many ads does the CNN app run? A lot. You pay for the service with ads like TV, but instead of channels now you have apps.

This is uninspired, insipid horseshit. It doesn’t change how we do things, it merely reassigns TV channels to applications. Instead of tuning to the channel, you click a button. All that’s done is make the phone into the remote control and the TV, or you could think of it as a TV without a remote control. It’s boring. It’s the thing legislation is made of to “protect the rights of consumers” because the MPAA and the RIAA don’t get it, they don’t come up with new ideas.

Here’s an idea, take the device and do something with it. Make an Autozone app which lets you pay for a mechanic to connect to your phones camera so you can show him where you’re stuck on the project. They can sell you special phone soap when you’re done because you didn’t wash your filthy hands before touching the display. Make a social network app which lets you define public content you will share with people in an area, then walk around the building with your GPS on to define an area people will exchange info with you. Enjoy the particular vibe of a movie or song? Why not a music player which correlates where people hang out to enjoy the music? People who list their activities as “sports” and listen to upbeat jazz while running a route may have a route which attracts amateur athletes who don’t enjoy complex terrain but want to run for fitness outside.

What we have driving this is association. When we coalesce these different technologies into a single platform, we need to realize that they stop being technologies unto themselves and they can be used in a complimentary fashion. At very least I am surprised that banks haven’t set up internet tellers. Not only do people enjoy talking to tellers, etc face to face but in terms of verifying the security of the account, seeing the customer (and having a picture of them) is worth the security alone. The customer feels like the bank takes a personal stake in them, the queue can be managed by the application instead of standing in line at the bank and the bank has strong identity verification. Phones can scan barcodes too, have them hold their drivers license up to the camera to be scanned for another layer of security just in case they’re some sort of Max Headroom puppet.

The internet presentation is dead, its bones pave the way for the new internet presentation. The future always feels like it’s right around the corner.

Impressions of Verizon’s FIOS Internet and TV

I’ve had Verizon FIOS providing me with internet and TV for about a month now. The good: The UI is great. The bad: The internet tends to feel slow. The ugly: The set top box for HD content has some weird issues.

The Good: The bundles are stronger than comcast, so you get more channels for less money. The set top box UI is great but the menus sometimes require you to hit “left” and sometimes “OK”. Hitting “options” doesn’t always bring up what you’re expecting, but hitting OK on a program lets you select options. This is all covered in the manual, and the video help, so while it can be goofy it’s at least well documented goofy. The signal quality is fantastic. Even my TV upstairs (SD set) looks good. The menus are snappy and responsive, which is more than I can say comcast ever gave me. The 802b/g/n router is OK, but more on this in a bit. The point here is that they give you a free router, which is a darn sight better than comcast which wants to lease you their router and refuses to support anything else. The widgets channel is just damned cool and you can post what you’re watching to facebook, play sodoku, get news, traffic, weather, anything really. Watching youtube videos is pretty easy. The remote control app for android expands this further and lets you share pictures and other phone media right on your TV. If I had the DVR option, I could also control it through the website or the phone. (With on-Demand, I don’t feel like I need the DVR).

The Bad: Their router has really, really high latency for a connection. I’m not sure why. I think it’s related to DNS but I’ve been wrong before. Also the bandwidth throttling is done at the router which makes for occasionally interesting problems when there’s bandwidth contention. (Tip – need more speed? Go into the ON DEMAND menu of your set top box and leave it there). Finally the router is just sinful with how bad the setup is. They want you to use their disk on each computer to set it up, but the reality is if you want more than WPA encryption over your wifi you need to set it up manually. In addition to an inconsistent UI, it displays the WPA2 password once you set that up on the options screen. This isn’t as bad as those unusable walmart cisco waste of money appliances, but it’s pretty bad.

The Ugly: Their website is just about unusable. There’s a friggin commercial video in the left hand pane when you’re trying to log in. Even when you log in, you’re just logged into the presentation side and the content doesn’t really change. Also single sign on is weirdly absent and their site requires you to log in again to see billing. Their routers implementation of WPA2 is weird, and devices which are too strict (my wifes laptop) or wonky themselves (the wii) won’t sign in the first time. The set top box (not the DVR) for HD has some weird issue where sending an HDMI reset request results in losing the audio. Physically unplugging it from the TV or cycling the power fixes it. This is a known issue with verizon and they’re “working on it”. The workaround is to use RCA cables for audio but that’s a whole separate mess because your TV doesn’t know which HDMI is supposed to get the line-in.

Now for all I’ve complained, it actually doesn’t suck. I really like the service. I like the signal quality. The internet leaves a bit to be desired with the connection latency but it’s nothing you’re going to notice for 90% of your surfing. Also once you actually make the connection it’s plenty fast. The only real pain is the HDMI audio problem and they’re fixing it, but if you’ve spent any money on speakers anyway (and you probably have given the terrible audio quality of flat screens today) you’ll have line out/in anyway. Even with these small complaints, it’s still a step up from comcast. And heck, you can even bundle DirectTV in there if you don’t want Verizon’s lineup.