WEEKLY RECAP

iPad 2 Is Everywhere and Nowhere

The new iPad 2 has arrived, sort of. It made a brief appearance last Friday in Apple stores and a few other retailers. But by Saturday the only place you could find one was either chained to an Apple store table as a demo model or clutched in the hands of a neighbor who decided that getting up in the wee hours to stand in line on Day One was a sensible thing to do.

Ordering online didn’t necessarily mean instant gratification either. Some extremely early orders have come in, but by the second day, delivery times had stretched to three weeks. Now it’s more like five.

So yeah, it’s once again a hard life for desperate Apple fanboys and fangirls. But they’ve been here before. Every time Apple puts out a new iObject there are lines, shortages, riots. The company never seems to have enough on opening day, and that might be strategy, it might be accident, or it might be one big mistake.

Obviously, if you leave customers waiting long enough, they’ll just go somewhere else. With the original iPad, there was really nowhere else to go for a tablet, but now several other choices with certain degrees of similarity to the iPad are out there, ready to go, and others are just around the corner. The Xoom is one big rival, and by the end of this month, Motorola says it’ll start selling a WiFi-only model that will be competitive with iPad 2 on price.

Or are shortages all part of Apple’s master plan? Make it harder to get, make people line up for it, make ’em beg for it, and suddenly it’s more desirable than if you could just pick one up at a Fry’s any time you please.

Perhaps a shortage tends to have that effect on some people’s perception of the product, but I don’t know that Apple’s intentionally choking its own supply pipeline. The things are built in a factory by incredibly hard workers, but Apple has to play the calendar just as hard as everyone else. It needed to get it out there fast in order to claim new buyers and get them hooked on a brand in a market where most loyalties haven’t been established yet. Some analysts estimate that more than two-thirds of iPad 2 buyers do not own an original iPad.

Also, there’s a gaping maw of demand that just isn’t evident for a lot of other products. Did you see lines for the Xoom or the Galaxy Tab? On the other hand, maybe lines just form because people think there will be a shortage. Kind of a chicken-and-egg thing, I guess.


Listen to the podcast (12:22 minutes).


Only on Netflix?

Netflix’s instant library is very big, but it contains a whole lot of movies that might be charitably described as “niche content.” Which is to say, there’s an awful lot of dreck amongst those thousands and thousands of titles. Some really great B movies, foreign films and under-appreciated fare as well, no doubt, but if you’re looking for last summer’s or fall’s blockbuster releases, look elsewhere.

But despite that, Netflix Instant is extremely popular. Netflix’s share of digital movie units — downloaded or streamed — reached 61 percent last February, according to NPD. So it’s kind of its own TV channel already, and now it looks like Netflix is about ready to pull an HBO. No, it’s not putting HBO shows on Instant (like that’d ever happen). It actually might be moving from just distributing content made by studios to making content of its very own, or at least holding exclusive rights.

Netflix is rumored to be in advanced talks to acquire its own TV miniseries. The show’s called “House of Cards,” and it has some big names attached: director David Fincher, who was nominated for an Oscar for “The Social Network,” and actor Kevin Spacey, who will executive produce and star.

This could mirror what HBO started doing a long time ago — sprinkling its schedule with some high-quality original programming to keep from becoming just another movie channel. Now other premium channels have followed suit, and the original shows are usually the main reason anyone ever subscribes to them in the first place.

But Netflix could put a totally new spin on it by virtue of being a Web channel, not a cable TV channel. If it builds up its lineup with lots of good shows, it would probably want to charge more than $8 per month to access it, but that might still be a bargain for some viewers. With most cable companies, even if all you want is a couple of premium channels, you still have to buy the basic cable package as well. You’re paying nearly $100 per month even if all you’re really here for is some “Boardwalk Empire” and “Breaking Bad.”

Also, Netflix Instant is truly on-demand — watch whatever show, whatever episode, whatever time. Premium cable channels have tried to do these kinda-sorta on-demand offerings, but they limit their availability, and sometimes the whole setup relies on those famously unreliable leased cable boxes.

Finally, since Netflix isn’t part of a TV package, it doesn’t have to wheel and deal with cable providers at every turn the way HBO and the like have to. That doesn’t mean it’s free and clear of any conflict, though. Most of those cable providers also happen to provide broadband Internet, and they’re growing more and more concerned about how much of a burden new services are beginning to place on their networks.

Mind the Meter

You might consider broadband access to be just another household utility, like water and power, but it isn’t always distributed the same way. For most utilities, you’re billed by kilowatt hours or cubic feet — in other words, you pay for what you use. But with broadband, it’s just a constant stream of data, limited only by how many hours of your life you’re willing to devote to sitting in front of a screen. At least, that’s the way it used to be.

Lately, some Internet providers have instituted data caps — limits on how much data your home connection can download and upload per month. The most recent ISP to put a policy like that in place is AT&T. Starting in May, subscribers to AT&T’s U-Verse package, as well as its DSL services, will be capped.

This echoes a rule Comcast instituted a couple years ago for its own broadband subscribers. AT&T’s plan follows similar lines in terms of the amount it’s giving users — both carriers max you out at 250 GB per month for their cable broadband packages. AT&T’s DSL customers will get 150 GB.

What happens if you go over that limit? Depends on your ISP. Comcast apparently gives you dirty looks and threatening phone calls telling you that if you keep breaking the limit, they’re going to boot you as a customer.

Judging by AT&T’s approach, it’s more interested in keeping customers and making more money off them — if you break the limit, you just have to pay more, but you won’t necessarily have to worry about being denied Internet access. It’s also promised to roll out usage monitoring tools and a system for warning people if they near the limit. Comcast has monitoring tools too, though it’s been slow at rolling them out.

How likely you are to break — or even come close to — those limits depends on what kind of Internet user you are. AT&T says most DSL customers use just 18 GB per month. But some users have a taste for streaming or downloading shows and movies through Netflix and iTunes and the like, and if they have faster connections through the U-Verse service, they might more often opt for high-definition streaming content, which uses a lot more data. In fact, with all the entertainment you can get online, lots of customers have given up on cable TV completely.

It’s not just about entertainment; all sorts of personal data is taking up residence in the cloud rather than local hard drives, and the more popular these services get, the less people want to have to worry about whether or not they still have a few gigabytes left on the account this month. ISPs can’t control what new services Web entrepreneurs come up with, and today’s so-called data hog may well be tomorrow’s average user.

But bandwidth is a finite resource, and there’s concern that data caps could eventually give way to metered usage — pay by the gig. If that happens, a fondness for high-def movie downloads could be as hard on your household budget as a 30-minute hot shower habit.

Apotheker Lives

In case you were wondering whether Leo Apotheker actually exists, the answer is yes. He finally made what should qualify as a big entrance speech at the HP Summit 2011 in San Francisco, though he actually signed on as HP’s CEO nearly six months ago. From then until this week, he took to living in a bunker as his company got pulled deeper and deeper into Oracle’s war with SAP, Apotheker’s former employer.

But enough of that tangle has blown over that Apotheker felt safe enough to show up and deliver aspeech broadly outlining HP’s overall strategy in the months go come. Topping the agenda were concepts like cloud computing and Internet-connected hardware. WebOS, the mobile operating system HP picked up when it bought Palm, is also going to play a big role for HP.

In order to fly closer to the cloud, HP might need to tone up some of its software offerings, and that consideration did figure into why the company picked Apotheker. Generally speaking, though, announcing that a company like HP is pushing a big cloud strategy doesn’t exactly make Apotheker’s inaugural address very dramatic. IBM, Dell, Oracle — everyone’s going so cloudy lately it’s making people sick of the word. But at least it came off as safe, stable and sane.

The mobile side of the strategy may be a bit more interesting. HP has the resources to take webOS way further than Palm ever could. It’s staying in smartphones, it’s headed toward tablets, and just last week we heard it would start appearing in all PCs HP produces starting in 2012.

So, HP clearly intends to run with webOS, but how far it will get is uncertain. Quality-wise, webOS was on par with the competition back when it debuted in 2009, and now that it has the attention of a rich benefactor like HP, the development of the OS itself isn’t likely to be neglected. But in the realm of app selection, it’s suffering. The bigger platforms have these diverse collections of third-party development teams of all sizes, and this regular flow of new software is what keeps the platforms strong. WebOS has always had the potential to grow something like that, but now it’s up to HP to pull it off.

The Disneyfication of 4chan

If you’ve ever visited 4chan, in particular its Random message board, then no explanation is necessary. If you’ve never been there, no explanation is possible. I’ll do my best: It’s an open forum where just about everyone is anonymous and just about anything goes. Check you gag reflex at the door.

It’s the kind of environment that tends to churn out a wide variety of filth, but once in a while the demented collective creativity of the place gives birth to stuff like underground activist movements, not to mention thousands of popular Internet memes, many of which you’ve probably encountered at some point. Sort of a compost pit of Internet culture.

But as well-known as 4chan has become, it’s so far failed to be much of moneymaker. Most advertisers won’t get anywhere near it. But now its founder, Christopher Pool, is striking out with a classier, more family-friendly project called “Canvas.”

Basically, Canvas will be a photo sharing and editing site where users are encouraged to mash and mix each others’ work. Video editing will eventually be part of the package too. Sounds sort of like 4chan so far, but one big difference is money: Canvas has some major investors pulling for it already, including Andreessen Horowitz, Lerer Ventures, and Founder Collective.

With investors, of course, comes a greater responsibility to actually administer the site beyond just popping in to take down a flat-out illegal image someone posted somewhere. Canvas’ purpose will be to foster the same general creativity as 4chan, but its soul will be very different. That might not appeal to longtime 4chan fans, but to other users and certain advertisers, it could be worth checking out.

Canvas will also support a certain level of user anonymity, but that’s a relative term. Even though users will be able to post messages anonymously, in order to get into the site in the first place, they’ll have to log on using Facebook Connect.

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