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A Tech-Econ Mashup with a Libertarian Flavor

Awesome New Twitter Tool

First, let me preface this post by saying that Twitter is still over-hyped and full of worthless information.

Now, for those of you (like myself) who’ve fallen prey to its evil, self-aggrandizing appeal – or if you just like sharing links and stuff – there’s an awesome new tweet-management tool that I’ve been using. Hoot Suite has some great features, including:

  • The ability to schedule your tweets ahead of time (so that you can space out your tweets throughout the day, rather than clog up your friends’ feeds with several consecutive posts)
  • Multi-platform support: update your twitter, facebook, and Linkedin accounts (for those of you who bother signing into Linkedin more than once a month).
  • A built-in link shortener that also tracks clicks – see how many people click on your tweeted links.

Thanks to Cord (and Michelle) for bringing this awesome tool to my attention.

Filed under: Information Tech, Tech Biz,

Trade-offs

I’m at work reading through the grant requests for stimulus money for the federal broadband internet plan, and it’s driving me insane. Companies and state telcos are asking for millions and millions to roll out fiber and gigabit services to places like rural Iowa and Mississippi.

Listen, there are trade-offs that come with living in Nowheresville, Midwest. Iowa =/= San Francisco. In exchange for less congestion, fresh air, sprawling backyards, less crime, good midwestern sensibilities, etc., you don’t get state-of-the-art broadband. There just aren’t enough people (“demand”) to support it. In fact, there’s a whole host of things you don’t get in rural America: Whole Foods and other upscale grocers, good ethnic dining, gay culture, couture fashion, iPhones, high costs-of-living, the crazier kinds of democrats, the list goes on and on.

I mean, the very fact that there are still people living in Mason City, Iowa means that there are people who are happy to watch their television programs over their cable connections, rather than via internet streaming. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people in rural areas who just aren’t that worked up over their internet speeds. Policy-oriented technophiles ought to stop trying to turn the country’s boondocks into Tokyo.

If WiMax or Vios is so freakin’ important to consumers – and I mean consumers, not the network companies that stand to profit by using tax dollars to roll out heavily-subsidized networks that wouldn’t otherwise be supported in these locations – then move to an urban center already.

Filed under: Economics, Tech Biz,

Why Didn’t Sprint Give the Pre Away Free?

Michael at Techdirt poses the question (and answers it):

Basically, let Sprint subsidize more of the phone — which it would easily make back in service fees (since the phone requires a two year contract with its most expensive data plan). Pricing the phone at $199 makes it a direct comparison to the iPhone, and that’s the last thing that Palm or Sprint should want. But dropping the price to $1 (or, hell, give the damn phone away for free with a two year plan), would get it a lot of attention, and give people a real reason to switch away from other carriers or other phones, and give the Pre a shot. Trying to compete with the iPhone by just saying “but we’re better” doesn’t work.

My answer: because Sprint and Palm don”t want you to assume that their new handset, which presumably took a long time and a large budget to develop, is a cheap piece of crap. There are lots of cheap copy-cat handsets out there on the market, and even among the decent ones, if it’s not a BlackBerry or an iPhone, no one outside of gadget-geek circles is really paying attention to it. Pricing the Pre at $1 would signal to consumers that it’s nothing more a stripped down, crappy, kiddie version of a real smartphone.

Furthermore, I’d guess that Palm may be trying to poach the early adopters from Apple. While the iPod and the MacBook are still relatively expensive compared to other mp3 players and notebooks, Apple and it’s iCrap isn’t quite the same spendy, for-cool-kids-only brand that it was a few years ago. That you can order an Apple laptop from Best Buy’s website (really) is evidence enough that the brand has become mainstream. When priced at $500 two years ago, only the richest of the hipsters could afford an iPhone; today any Joe Schmoe with $99 can get one. All of this indicates that Apple had one damn effective business model: attract the hipsters first, then pair quirky Gen-Y advertising with steady price declines (or declines in the price-performance ratio), and watch the money pour in as more and more consumers switch to your product. Today, Apple is becoming a household name. The word “iPod” itself is joining the ranks of brand names that have lost their trademark to ubiquity, like “kleenex” and “google,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday “iPhone” becomes synonymous with “smartphone.” My guess is that Palm is trying to replicate, or at least profit off of, Apple’s get-the-hipsters-and-the-rest-will-follow strategy. Only Palm isn’t just saying “But we’re better,” they’re also saying “the iPhone is stale.”

Of course, copying a strategy that relied on bringing a revolutionary new product to market requires that, um, you actually have a revolutionary new product to bring to the market. The iPhone had a stylus-free touchscreen and an intuitive user interface. While I’ve heard good things about the Pre, it still has a friggin’ keypad(!) for crying out loud…

Filed under: Tech Biz, , , , ,

Starbucks Ban Laptops?

That’s the question posed by CNET, as apparently several NYC coffee shop owners are restricting the time they allow their patrons to squat on their wifi networks, sans-beverage:

Some coffee shop owners in New York even cover up electric outlets, so that the enterprising, the impoverished students, the merely very lonely or the merely very brazen cannot boot up, sip java, and take up valuable table space all day. Which leads one to wonder just how painful it would be if Starbucks took their lead and banned laptops throughout its vast network.

So, should Starbucks follow suit and place limits on the amount of time customers can hook up to their wifi? My answer is an emphatic “heck no!” Give me your geeky, your parched. If I owned a coffee shop in a neighborhood where my competitors were kicking people out, I’d add more outlets, more seating, and more drink options at various price points to encourage all-day websurfers to approach the counter again. $6.50 for a coffee, with free refills all day? The customers spend their money upfront and stick around for as long as they like. $1 sodas or iced teas? That’s a ridiculously good deal when making a decision at the margin. Food-and-drink specials? Whatever gets a customer to spend their money and have a good experience at my coffeeshop. There’s no need for  some snooty barista to shoo them away once their drink is gone.

There’s an obvious market demand for “free” wi-fi (by “free” I of course mean at the point of use – obviously the costs are hidden in the price of drinks and food). Any enterprising business owner would seek to meet that demand, especially when his or her competitors turn a blind eye to it.

Filed under: Economics, Tech Biz, , ,

Verizon: Saying One Thing While Doing Another

When I blogged at OpenMarket last month about four US Senators’ probe into wireless handset exclusivity deals, I argued that exclusivity agreements between wireless carriers and phone manufacturers are good for both producers and consumers, and that they bring prices down and speed up innovation. Imagine my surprise when I read today that Verizon plans to limit its exclusivity contracts to a mere six months:

 In a letter today to key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Verizon Wireless’ President and CEO Lowell McAdam announced “Effective immediately for small wireless carriers… any new exclusivity arrangement we enter with handset makers will last no longer than six months – for all manufacturers and all devices.”

How generous and selfless of Verizon, right? Actually, it turns out that the “small wireless carriers” that McAdam speaks of are companies with fewer than 500,000 subscribers. From PC World:

How many people do you know who use such companies? The top four U.S. carriers make up a whopping 86 percent of the market, according to research by the CTIA, a nonprofit wireless industry association. Even within that remaining 14 percent, the number of carriers with fewer than 500,000 customers on-board is miniscule at best; in fact, one report suggests only seven networks exist in America with subscriber bases below 7 million. Translation: This isn’t exactly something with wide-reaching impact.

Verizon didn’t get to be one of the leading wireless service companies by having idiots at the helm.  Nor by embracing a corporate motto of selflessness and caving to the pressure of uninformed public officials. Instead, they’re just playing the PR game: announce that we’re making a compromise, without really compromising anything. 

As for the idea that handsets shouldn’t be tied to certain carriers: Please. This is such a trivial consumer gripe. Big freaking deal, you subscribe to the wrong wireless carrier and now you can’t get a “crackberry.” Let’s change the rules for the entire industry – which has given us newer and better phones at even lower prices year after year – just so a few rural technophiles can get their hands on the latest new shiny toy.

And for the record, I could care less whether Verizon gets the iPhone or not.

Filed under: Politics, Tech Biz, , ,

FTC Investigates Apple and Google Boards for Possible Antitrust Violations

The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation Monday into the ties between the boards of Google and Apple. Eric Schmidt and Arthur Levinson each sit on the boards for both companies, although according to antitrust law, a person may not sit on the board of two companies if it decreases competition between them.

As if it needs to be said, Apple and Google aren’t really competitors, not in any meaningful sense, anyway. Google is an information services company that specializes in internet search, advertising, information organization, and not being evil. Apple is primarily a hardware company that manufactures PCs (called “Macs,” though technically they’re still personal computers), mp3 players, cell phones, and “edgy” urban hipsters. In effect, Google is the top company for geeks with mathematics PhDs, Apple the haven for geek-wannabes with horn-rimmed glasses.

If the two company’s compete anywhere, it’s in the wireless marketplace, albeit indirectly. Google’s entry into the smart phone market (through its open-source Android operating system) has no doubt spurred this investigation. Android runs on T-mobile “smart” handsets, which compete with the AT&T iPhone (both of which compete with Blackberry, HTC, Palm, etc). Here’s the rub: Apple itself only has about a 1% share of the cell phone market, and about 6% of the smartphone market, while the Android phone is about 4% (smartphones make up about 12% of the entire cell phone market).  Google also has a deal pending with HP that would put the Google OS on a new line of HP netbooks, which would bring Apple and Google closer to being true competitors, but rumors aside, Apple appears to have no intent to enter the netbook market.

While I don’t object to the FTC’s goal to promote a competitive marketplace, this investigation is unecessary. The tech market has historically been the least regulated, most competitive, and fastest advancing sector of the economy, while tech prices have come down year after year after year. Let’s chill out and leave it alone.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Tech Biz, , , , ,

Facebook Allows Developers to Access User’s “Streams”

Facebook announced today their new “Open Stream API,” which will allow 3rd-party developers access to users’ “data streams” (i.e. status updates, posted links, pics, wall posts, and anything else that could show up on a user’s Wall). Privacy advocates, take heart:

Users will maintain control of their data privacy, [platform designer Dave] Morin noted, and applications will be able to access streams only with individual users’ permission — largely the way Facebook’s current on-site application system works. The data harvested by new applications will be subject to the same privacy strictures as any other data on Facebook: Even if it’s on other websites, it will still be visible only by your friends, not the public at large.

Facebook is taking a step closer to what I suggested right here last week, in opening up and allowing other networks and developers to more easily interface with users’ profiles and data (I love when I’m on the right track without even realizing it). Facebook is on track to becoming a ubiquitous technology – imagine if ten years from now, people refer to all online social networking activity as “facebooking” (similar to how performing an online search is commonly called “googling,” something Google has been fighting for some time).

Now, if only Zuckerberg & Co. would end this senseless “Twitterization” of facebook’s appearance, there’d be no stopping them.

In related news, MySpace has hired Owen Van Natta, a former facebook executive, as its new CEO (does this mean Tom is no longer my friend?). My $0.02: cleaning up the MySpace cesspool and turning it back into a company that anybody will take seriously is one of the most difficult jobs a web entrepreneur could have.

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Tech Biz, , ,

How to Improve Social Networking

OpenID is onto something.

Apart from Facebook, neglected LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and some Delicious.com bookmarks, I haven’t embraced social networking to the fullest because I don’t want to bother with 75 different accounts, profiles, usernames, etc. I’m already keeping track of about 4 different identities (or “brands” as those so-called “new media gurus” would call it) across the internet that I’ve created over the years, and I’m not looking to add more complexity to my life at the moment.

An example of how to properly incorporate social networking into your business: Netflix now allows users to interface their accounts with their facebook profiles, so that any film that a user rates on Netflix will show up as a little blurb in their facebook feed (typically a short line reading “Libby rated Swingers 3 out of 5 stars”). Admittedly, the only useful purpose for this is that I can now broadcast my taste in film to my facebook friends, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than maintaining a Netflix account for my movie rentals, PLUS rating everything I’ve seen on facebook’s Flixter app. My life is now a wee bit simpler.

I feel like facebook has an opportunity to become a huge internet launch pad for people, the biggest thing since Google. Imagine if, instead of every niche social community each starting up its own separate social networking website, they instead were able to build off of facebook’s? I’m not talking about setting up a “fan page” (who really ever reads those updates, anyway?). Think of how easy it could be to set up a new social network if users could just login to these new separate, smaller networks with their facebook profiles, similar to how I can leave comments on my friends’ Blogspot blogs with my WordPress ID. Again, life is made simpler.

Does anybody have more examples of integrated social networks?

—–

Afterthought: at some point in the last couple years, it seems like we’ve begun moving away from the old wisdom of never putting our personal information online, towards making our personal information freely available, even so far as using our real names as our cyber-identifiers. Thoughts?

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Tech Biz, , , , ,

Idea vs. Execution

Techdirt’s article on marketplace losers who litigate compares the economic value of an idea vs. the business execution, citing Facebook’s recent settlement with ConnectU, a failed social networking site which accused Mark Zuckerburg of stealing their idea.

Well, we keep seeing scenarios where winners innovate, but losers litigate. That’s because the market “losers” claim that they had the “idea” that allowed the winners to innovate and succeed in the market. But, of course, that overvalues the idea and greatly undervalues the actual execution. Anyone who’s built a successful business recognizes that it’s the process and execution that leads to success — not the idea. But, with courts all too often rewarding the losers, it’s simply too lucrative for marketplace losers not to sue… Imagine being handed millions for failing in the marketplace? Why wouldn’t you litigate? But, if you believe in basic free market capitalism, you should recognize how this is rewarding exactly the wrong behavior. It punishes those who best served the market, and rewards those who couldn’t serve the market.

How do we determine the economic value of a business idea in the first place? Or of intellectual property in general? Should there be protections in the form of copyrights for the original “idea people?” Could not having such protections in place inhibit innovation – by making it riskier and hence less attractive?

I’m open to arguments from all sides regarding IP.

Filed under: Economics, Tech Biz,

Protecting “The Children” ain’t easy.

Technology alone can’t protect “The Children” from online threats. So says a report released yesterday by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Some highlights:

  • Most minors who are exposed to pr0n have actively sought it out. Also, much “problematic” content is actually created by or shared among youths themselves (who else would have popularized “2 Girls 1 Cup?” Your mother?)
  • Social networking sites are “used primarily to reinforce preexisting social relations.” Writing “WHORE!” on a myspace page is similar to how you used to make obscene phone calls to your archnemesis. (You remember, the girl with perfect hair, great clothes, who eats whatever she wants and stays skinny, who stole your boyfriend in 8th grade, and who beat you out for the lead in “Alice in Wonderland.” Whore.)
  • Minors are not equally at risk. A child’s psychology and family dynamic is a much better indicator of their likelihood to chat with 40-year-old creepers than the type of chat protocol they use.

This is undoubtedly disappointing news to those who put their faith in technological safety-measures, such as robust and impossible-to-bypass age -verification systems or filtering software. Conversely, this is great news for the web companies who’ve been shouldering much of the blame for all of the internet’s evils.

It’s also good news to the reasonable among us who think that parents are responsible for, you know, being parents. The fact that children who are already at-risk are more likely than their peers to be exposed to threats on the internet is a pretty good indication that this is a problem that should be tackled by parents, not regulators.

Further reading: Ars Technica says the biggest online threat to kids is… other kids. /feigned shock.

Filed under: Information Tech, Tech Biz, , , , , ,

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