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Problem Finding, Department of

There have been so many books and things about problem-solving that we figure most problems are already solved. So we need more problems to keep all those expert problem solvers busy.

Saturday, January 08, 2005


Pricing Podcasts

Ken Rutkowski asked about how podcasts could work with webcasting, given that there are problems of bandwidth and measuring audience. Peter Yorke noted that the bandwidth problem can be solved with BitTorrent (at his site, DownloadRadio.org). Rob Greenlee says that the development of Podcasting is eroding listener streaming and notes that advertisers don’t know how to value Podcasting, because they don’t know whether anyone is listening.

In this episode, I start in simple mode. Radio and TV audiences have been measured for years, even though radio waves leave no tracks. The methods (surveys, polls, diaries) are well established and widely accepted. They provide important information that is not available from web tracking: Audience demographics. Ken and Rob may be able to ignore that issue because their content will select the demographics. But even there, it matters whether the audience listening to your stream is one or five and what their specific interests are.

I think web delivery is going to replace a lot of on-air distribution (and traditional cable, too). So I checked to see what Arbitron and Neilson are doing to stay in business. Both websites have web services right up front. Here are excerpts of a news release from Arbitron. (Dated 12-4-04).

an estimate of 4.1 million people a week, age 12 and older, listening to three major online radio networks.

rated the three charter subscribers – America Online’s AOL® Radio Network; Yahoo!®’s LAUNCHcast,; and Microsoft’s MSN Radio and WindowsMedia.com – during an average broadcast week in the month of October.

These results help us validate the size and value of online radio for advertisers on a level playing field with traditional radio,” said Andy Lipset, managing partner, Ronning Lipset Radio. “Online radio must use the same metrics used by terrestrial radio to be included in traditional media plans.

Cumulative persons (age over 12) per week. Yahoo, 1.9 M. AOL, 1.8M. MSN, 425K

The comScore Arbitron Online Radio Ratings service is based on a subset of approximately 200,000 U.S. participants within the comScore global consumer panel. Using proprietary and patent-pending technology, comScore passively and continuously captures the online behavior of these panelists, including online radio listening behavior.

Consumer panels seem to work well on the web. Here, comScore has apparently arranged to track users as they are streaming. I assume that they ask permission on sign-up and use the logon to know who is there. If they are sharp, they will send a query to a random sample (about 1000) of their panel from time to time. The query will ask how many people are listening to this stream and get a few demographics.

But this doesn’t work for podcasts (or for your car radio). Yahoo doesn’t support podcasts, and I suspect the others don’t either. Actually, Yahoo doesn’t offer any voice feeds on LaunchCast. It does offer voice feeds from NPR, but through its news pages, not through LaunchCast. I suspect some kind of change is coming. I don’t think Yahoo puts ads in its audio feeds, but it must be thinking about that. Otherwise, why would it spend money on Arbitron.

But let’s imagine that Yahoo decides to go modern and offer podcasts. (Such miracles do happen. Yahoo now offers RSS feeds.) Arbitron would merely adjust the query method. Send an e-mail asking for demographics of listener(s).

So where do we go from here? I think some aggregator will start working on a plan for measuring audience of podcasts. Not the content people because they would just duplicate each other’s efforts and will not be credible without audit. The aggregator’s plan might begin by contact with Arbitron, where they say, “This is an interesting idea and we are going to follow it. If Podcasting ever takes off, we will be right on top of it. All it takes is money.”

Moving on to Plan B, the aggregator could set up the initial survey. You want aggregation and automatic transfer to your device. Become a paying member ($15 per year) or join the panel to get free service and a chance to have your feedback change things. Joining the panel means you fill out an initial demographic survey and respond to occasional brief e-mail queries asking about your use of a recent download and about commercial products of interest to you. Maybe to aggregator attaches ads to the download (like the cable companies do). The aggregator could attach ads fitted to the member. (Is Google smart enough to see an opportunity there?

Would there be other commercial uses for data on what products some people want? Is there a patentable technology here?)In the long run, Arbitron would be needed because advertisers would want an independent audio of the stats. But if the aggregator has a good working system or patented methods to fit things to Podcasting, the aggregator will be able to offer the whole thing to Arbitron. With the comment, “All it takes is money.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The War of the Satellites

Ken Rutkowski asked whether satellite radio can be a profitable business, noting that the revenues for Sirius are well below what is needed to cover its debt service. Here is what I think:

Several questions here. First, can the two major players in this field survive the competition with each other? One possible outcome is given by the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat:

Second, of special interest to stockholders: Can either player survive without bankruptcy? If Sirius is overburdened by that debt service, it can use bankruptcy to solve the problem. Various airlines will assure that companies can survive bankruptcy.

Third, is their future business in satellite transmission or content? In two years people may be saying that the main assets Sirius has are contracts with people like Howard Sterns. Even now, Sirius offers online streaming services to its subscribers. It could morph into an online aggregator of marketable content, with satellite service as an incidental adjunct.

Fourth, what are the competing transmission alternatives? Right now, I can download valuable content and move it to a Creative player that straps on my arm. I can drive to the gym, jog, workout, and eat lunch while listening to KenRadio, Adam Curry, WebTalk guys, and great presentations by David Kaye at IT Conversations. And if I want more, I can check Ipodder.org.

And these programs will play when I want to hear them. They will pause when I want to talk to someone. They will replay when I can't remember something Ken said. This sounds a lot like TiVo for radio.

But what about future alternatives for transmission? Even now, there are lots of places where my PDA could access a Wi-Fi net and run a podcast aggregator. How long will it be before the transmission costs on a mobile phone are cheaper than the cost of satellite transmission? How will WiMax fit into the picture?

I think there is more room for smart content aggregators than for satellite transmission. The three major online broadcasters (AOL, Yahoo, MSN Radio) already have 4 million listeners. I think the future will be the battle of the aggregators, not the war of the satellites.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004


See you later, aggregator

A problem is just an opportunity that’s being mismanaged. Here I am going to mull about some opportunities. In case anybody is interested in how to mismanage them.

One of the biggest problems the web presents is a low barrier to entry. People who want to enter, of course, don’t consider that a problem. Until they realize that they also want to be heard. People who want to find things soon see the problem created by a low barrier to entry. What you want is of no use to you if you can’t find it. And something is not cheap if you have to spend a lot of time finding it. (Unless your time is cheap.)

Years ago, long before the web, people warned of the information explosion. Now people hardly mention it. Probably buried in all that information. But we have not been overwhelmed by information because our species long ago developed a two layer defense against information overload: Ignore and aggregate.

Aggregators have a great history in human progress. We are, after all, descended from hunter-gatherers. (You are entitled to wonder which of these roles is the most like aggregating.)

The web has created problems for many previously comfortable aggregators. Some earlier discussions here mentioned the established book publishers and the established labels of music CD’s. They used to control the gates to their markets by their expensive production facilities. The web offers alternative, and cheaper, production methods. That doesn’t mean aggregators are not needed. It just means that new aggregators can enter the market without production facilities. I’ve been trying to think of things aggregators do to add value when there are no expensive production facilities. Here are some ideas. (Conjure up a vision of traders on the Great Silk Road before you continue. Then conjure up visions of the produce section of your local grocery market.)

Evaluate. The web increases demand for evaluation and lowers the cost of entry into that field. The web is also open to multiple ways to evaluate. Google evaluates by counting links. Other sites evaluate by counting votes. Or credentials. Or reviewers. Perhaps there is a role here for different kinds of aggregators. For example, one that aggregates evaluations.

Organize. If a person’s time is valuable, there is value in organizing things so people can easily find what they want. Search organizes by words. That is better than nothing, but not by much. Google has added other qualifiers (search in domain, Google Scholar). There may be room for a site that aggregates the kind of qualifiers people want to use in search. And probably room for many sites that specialize in topics of interest and support aggregation in ways that are specific to that topic.

Package. Would you believe that grocery stores can make money by packaging chopped lettuce, tomatoes, onions, celery, and the like into a plastic bowl? Believe it? You’ve seen it. Editors figured how to do that with short stories. The Reader’s Digest figured out how to do that with magazine content and with music of the ‘50s. Yahoo and podcasting are figuring out how to do that with the web. RSS feeds let people set up their own aggregation. Anything more needed? Probably not in Geeksville, but over in Elsewhere there may be a market for customized packaging. For example, a site that lets you specify your interests and offers you packaged feeds from people with similar interests profiles. Sort of like a Amazon.com, but further downriver.

Deliver. The web solved all the delivery problems, didn’t it? Well, no. Every solution opens up new possibilities. Every possibility exposes new problems. You could download mp3 files. Then all you had to do was get them to your mp3 player. That’s another one of those things that worked in Geeksville. That problem got managed effectively when Podcasting arrived. Now there are several aggregators that will feed you Podcasting selections and send them to your mp3 player. PC magazine offers a webpage aggregator that lets me load a whole group of web pages are once. “One click does the trick.” Soon there will be efforts to develop a video aggregation scheme. (Meaning VOD with user direction.) The twilight of the networks.

But notice, in this delivery mode, the assumption box: Users want only audio. Or only video. Or only text. Suppose I want to hear about what happens when the oil runs out (as Ken Rutkowski recently asked). Suppose I don’t care about the format. Just the content. Then what I would need is a content site that can locate and deliver relevant content in various formats. Including blogs.

Market. Here I mean “get something in front of people who might want it and show them why some people would want to buy it.” Amazon and Ebay have figured out how to market physical products, at least when people have a good idea of the product they want. They are also trying to give people a roadmap to the specific product that suits them, by providing evaluations, reviews, and samples. But there is probably room for content-specific aggregation, particularly if it can gain credibility with visitors.

Present. I hadn’t thought about this until I realized that a lot of non-fiction (magazines and books) is a kind of aggregation. So are review articles in professional journals. Put one of those professional articles next to a general interest article on the same topic and the role of presentation will be obvious. Both may show suitable presentations for their intended audiences. But they have to match presentations to the audience. (This works a lot conversations in Geeksville and those in Elswhere.)

Websites have to do the same kind of audience matching. There may be room for several websites with similar content, but with presentation for different audiences. Does Amazon.com offer a presentation that suits all English speakers? If not, who is unsuited and what do they need?

Exchange. A market deals with exchange. We usually think money. But anything of value can be part of an exchange. Part of the money exchange on the web has been aggregated by Pay Pal and similar services. But people bring eyeballs and earbuds. Advertisers pay big money for such things. People also bring opinions. Vividence.com has figured out one way to pay people for opinions. One of the strengths of the web is that it can change marketing from a monologue to a conversation. There may be some big opportunities there for people who figure out how to make that work.

Customer wants. Entrepreneurs work by aggregating customer wants and finding a way to satisfy them. The web offers new opportunities for aggregating customer wants. Aggregating customer wants and presenting them in a useful form the appropriate marketers is a service that might be the basis of a valuable web business.

The above is just preliminary mulling. I think I may have some better ideas next week. Probably somebody will send them to me. Then maybe I can get more specific about website models.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


RSS overloads and the shush index.

A recent podcast at ITconversations.com was concerned about the large amount of information people can get when you cross weblogs with RSS. The discussion was mostly G2G (Geek to Geek), But technicals aside, the main issue was how to filter the results to keep what you want and discard the rest. I don’t make heavy use of RSS, so I am not overloaded yet. But I am getting a lot of my news from Pluck and the Beta RSS from Yahoo. And I have noticed that I would like to be able to filter out a lot of news feeds.

Here are some of my favorite candidates for the discard pile: wardrobe malfunction; flu vaccine; wearable computer; Vioxx; global warming; gay marriage; stem-cell research.; mad cow disease.

I don't want to read any more news items about these things. I think some of them are hypernews (more hype than news). Some are important, but I think all the useful news has been covered. Anything more and my cat will want to cover it. Some of topics will have significant news once in a while, but I want to hear it from better qualified sources.

The technology for this kind of filtering is already available. It is routinely used to exclude items in search. Yahoo, for example, could easily offer this exclusion as a feature on MyYahoo! pages. No just for RSS, but also for their regular news. A little more personalization. And Yahoo could use these lists in a feedback report. It already reports on search terms (Buzz index) and the most read items. Maybe people would be interested in a weekly list of the shush index: the items that people least want to hear about. I'm guessing that the news media would be interested. Editors might benefit. They might even use it.


Monday, November 15, 2004


Is book publishing caught in the web?

Somebody asked how the future of book publishing looks in the shadow of the web. Here is how it looks to me.

The web makes a nearly perfect market from the view of economists. Perfect price information obtained at almost no cost. That makes the perfect storm from the standpoint of retailers. Anything that can be a commodity becomes a commodity. What makes a commodity is perfect product information. If all products with same identifiers are interchangeable, they become commodities. The market settles into price competition. Cue the Wal-Mart.

As I started thinking through the implications of this for the publishing industry, I first thought in terms of the standard parts (Author, agent, publisher, retail, customer). How will retail change, for example. That, I eventually realized, was my usual horseless carriage thinking. ("Put them new gasoline engines in carriages and all you have is a horseless carriage. A few minor changes, that's all.")

So now I'm thinking a gedanken redesign. What are the essential elements of what we now call the book publishing industry? How were those elements provided in the past? How could they be provided in the world of the web? Assume self-published e-books as a low cost starter.

What functions have books served in the past? I wish I had an exit poll from Barnes & Noble with percentage breakdowns: Why did you buy this book? Publishers probably have some information on this.

What book functions require a physical book? I have not subscribed to a newspaper in years. They used to provide me with news. Yahoo now does that better. Books provide information. Is that function challenged by web resources? A book is a tangible gift. How strong is that function now that people use gift certificates from Amazon?

What processes will be available for delivery of a physical book? Local retailer, remote shipping, print-on-demand service, or print my own copy from an Adobe download. Note that the last two allow great possibilities in personalizing. For example, as a gift.

What technology will be available to replace a physical book? I am in the process of replacing all the physical magazines that I read for information. I have an online subscription to Consumer's Reports. I use KeepMedia.com as my main window to the general magazines. I still want paper for content I read while relaxing. I haven't seen any suitable technology to replace that yet, but it might come soon. Google just gave me 17M returns from: digital screen, including an item: Next digital screen could fold like paper. Connect a digital screen to my Wi-Fi net or to a 20G audio player. Maybe you get technology for lounging around.

What might replace the specialized help you get from specialized retailers? Here (drumroll, please) I have an actual idea: Specialized websites that give the same kind of help. They sell links and clicks. They leave to retailing to Amazon and Wal-Mart. For self-published e-books, they may offer the download, handle the transaction, and take a part of the payment . That’s just like publishers. Yeah, publishers are the middle-men in this story. Think of them as a new version of Willy Loman.

What might replace the editorial, filtering, and credentialing functions of publishers? Aside from printing books, a known publisher represents a brand. They are not going to put "Woman Gives Birth to Space Alien" on their non-fiction list. At least not yet. Here, I have an idea again. That's two in a row, although it is the same idea. If anybody can publish, people will want a responsible (branded) website that gives some assurance of qualifications and quality.

Who will provide the marketing and promotion? Is this going to be three in a row? And how often can I reuse the same idea? Those specialized websites can do only part of the job here. I used to hear book reviews on NPR (ATC). Now I listen to KenRadio, WebTalk Guys, IT conversations, and Adam Curry. I never hear book reviews. A specialized website could probably get access to NPR archives and organize playlists to produce a 20 minute podcast on, for example, recent (nontechincal) books about cancer research. (Note the importance of credentialing here. NPR will probably pick qualified reviewers.) If there aren't enough reviews, the website could ask for reviews from university faculty. One in the technical field and one in the English department. Or put them together and let them argue like Siskel and Ebert.

Well, that's the best I can do for now. One of the great things about being alive is that next week I'll know more. I’ll even think of things I left out. Some of them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Picks in a Pod

One important thing about the web. Low barriers to entry, as the economists would say. Or in the words of the sage, when everyone talks, no one listens. Take music for example. Those record labels, Wolfman Jack, and even payola did serve a filtering function. Now anyone can get their music out there. But few will get noticed.

Somebody suggested the concept of stock in artists with potential. (Potential means you ain't done it yet.) Somebody suggested perks that might go to fans who are early adopters. I prefer to the Hollywood motto: "Ask not what you can do for your fans. Ask what your fans can do for you."

So imagine this new band, the Turtles in the Garage. Set up in their garage under a bare light bulb. Burlap on concrete floor. Plastic foam stapled to the wall to cut the bounce. Known for their ability to blend Texas Swing with Memphis Blues. And for their occasional venture into swallowing live frogs. (What do you expect of turtles?)

If you ever get to hear them play, you may think they are going somewhere. This is the earnest prayer of the neighbors.

If you believe in them, you can invest in them by working as a free publicist. They want to make that easy for you. They want to offer you perks that make you glad and will help you to publicize them. The first (cheap) level is web-distributed materials. Pictures on a web site for downloading. The band set up in that garage. Or individual photos. They carry the current date and "---- we love you." You get to choose from a set of common names. Including pet names like Honey, Babe, and Beauttiful. (These pet names work well with young males, who can send them to all the girls they know.)

Yes, there are music downloads, too. Some of their best work, with the reminder that you can pass the file on to your friends. But not too much of that. Instead, they post practice sessions and out-takes (clearly identified). Gives it a personal feel to hear performers make mistakes. And if they ever break out on American Idol, that clip may be worth money.

Next level: Sell a little. Maybe enough to finance a little studio time. What they sell is dedicated pieces. You pick the piece and get a personalized file that starts: "We want to dedicate this song to ....." You select from a list of common names. Your own name or someone you want to impress. You can also get personalized practice sessions in which the name is mentioned in several breaks, along with pseudo-personalized comments (using the established tricks of astrology). Maybe for a high enough price, you get a genuinely personalized session. That file could make you money some day. Anyway, you'll send it out to everyone you know.

For a tangible equivalent of a stock certificate, they will send really active fans genuinely autographed memorabilia, along with certificate of authenticity. Twenty years from now it may be as valuable as those old Superman comics my mother threw out.

But the Turtles still need visibility. So maybe there is the "DeeJays in a Pod" site. Aspiring deejays make podcasts (delivered through Rob Greenlee's downloadmedia.org, of course). Visitors can pick any of them and listen to the product. At the site, registered members can comment and vote on the deejays, on the artists, and on each piece of music. They can sign up as fans of particular deejays and artists. That takes them to a page where they can find products and memorabilia. (Note that the podcasts are designed to drive traffic to the site. This may help in working with advertisers.)

When you sign up as a fan, you get a question: "Who first recommended this artist to you?" There will be some arrangement like Ryze that lets you identify and contact your friends on the site. You will probably identify another site member in response to this question. Of course, the personal network feature will also help to build fan clubs.

Later you want to recruit other fans. You get a FanDangle point for each new fan you recruit. You may get various perks for being a productive fan. If one of your choices gets big enough to be in a concert, you may get a free ticket. If one goes Platinum, you get a Colonel Parker award. That will probably get you a walk on the stage at some concert.

Meanwhile, of course, all this rating helps people pick their pods. I'm still wondering who is going to do this. Maybe somebody already is. If not, this looks like a promising ecological niche. Who wants to be a JayPod?

Monday, November 08, 2004


Wherable Computing

This began in stealth mode. Normal people never noticed. Even the Geek squad didn’t see what was happening. The people who write about wearable computers probably noticed. But they didn’t say a lot about it.

The first hint came with the cell phones. The ones that clip on your belt or fit in your purse. Wearable cell phones. But not computers.

Then came the PDA. Maybe a little big to be called wearable. But certainly carry-aroundable. This should have been the tip-off. The PDA is a computer. And you can wear it if you really want to.

Then the iPod. Looks like just a replacement for the Sony Walkman. A wearable music player. Things like this have been around for years, along with wearable radios. Nobody would notice anything new here. But is this the beginning of the slippery slope that leads us into the depths of wearable computers?

Now we reach the Smart Phone maneuver. Put the capabilities of the PDA into a portable phone. The Smart Phone becomes the PDA-killer. But you can wear it. Doesn’t that make it a wearable computer. Nah. It’s just a smart phone.

Meanwhile, the wearable music player mutates. It develops a 20 gigabyte disk, the kind that goes in computers. It also grows a USB port, suspiciously like those things on computers. It becomes able to gather, store, and deliver files just like a computer. And it is wearable. But nobody would call it a computer.

Now there are two digital wearable devices, a smart phone and an audio player. They both handle audio. They both manage files. They both have batteries to charge. They both clip on the belt or fit in the purse. Plenty of opportunity for crossbreeding.

They also have differences. The audio player has an ear bud, depriving people of the opportunity to hold the device to the ear. The smart phone has a speaker to remind people that the purpose of the hand is to hold a phone to your ear. A hybrid device could offer both methods and the convenient service of pausing the audio play when you get a phone call. It would also help the phone service to sell audio downloads. Local weather and targeted traffic reports would be of particular interest to commuters. But it could carry podcasts or music. It could draw on the web. Much like a computer.

Of course the hybrid would just be a smarter phone. Nobody would call it a wearable computer. Not even if it Dell fixed it to make recordings. Not even if Apple made it show pictures and videos. Not even if everybody made it connect to Wi-Fi nets, just like a notebook computer. Not even if it has a cute little keyboard designed for elfin fingers.

Will there ever be wearable computer? Of course not. Just a Personal Communicator (PC). Handles all your audio traffic (direct, voice mail, voice IM, news casts, podcasts, music). Handles all your text traffic (email, IM, SMS, web pages, web interaction). Can voice your text traffic to you if you want. Handles your contact list and your calendar. May uses your glasses as a virtual monitor. Can send orders to your home computer/entertaiment center. So it may replace that remote that is somewhere in the living room furniture. A wearable remote.

But it will remain in the stealth mode. You won’t really know (or care) where the computing is done. You will just communicate your orders from where you are. Wherable computing. You get on with what you want to do. And the people who write news items about wearable computers can keep on writing. Or maybe write off into the sunset, off to that Great Where in the sky.


10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004   11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004   12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005   01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005  

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