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Will Google Take Over Your Tube?

A few weeks ago we heard some chitchat about a few Google engineers taking home a new kind of set-top box to tinker and play around with. Not a big surprise — Google guys tinker with everything. It’s like DARPA combined with Wonka Chocolate combined with Acme from the Looney Toons. But now we’re hearing a little more about it from a New York Times article. Google calls it “rumor and speculation” — nudge-nudge.

Apparently Google is teaming up with Intel, Sony and Logitech to build a consumer set-top box platform for mixing TV with the Internet. That’s Google’s Android for the OS, Intel for the chips, Sony to put together the first model, and Logitech to make the peripherals.

Right now, putting the Internet on your TV isn’t exactly difficult — just stick a VGA cable between your laptop and your flatscreen and voila. But that’s not really the comfiest arrangement. What the Google TV platform would do — reportedly — would be to streamline the experience of watching regular TV, Internet video and various Web sites through the television. They could also put a development kit out there for anyone who wanted to put their content on Google TV, maybe sort of like making your own cable channel.

If nothing else, the whole experience should be more like the familiar act of vegging out on the couch and flipping through channels, rather than lying there with a wireless keyboard and mouse on your lap.

Listen to the podcast (14:43 minutes).

Plans Within Plans Within Plans

Are you informationally frustrated? Are you being jilted by your lousy ISP? Do you have no ISP at all because you do not live near a sufficiently large human settlement? Does it give you a migraine to think about how much of the electromagnetic spectrum is being squandered?

Do not be afraid, because the government is here with a huge, complex, probably very expensive plan to make everything better.

After much deliberation, the Federal Communications Commission has formally introduced its National Broadband Plan, what it calls “the road map for the future of the Internet in America.” It has six overall goals. 1) Make 100 Mbps connections available and affordable to 100 million U.S. homes; 2) Create the fastest and most extensive wireless network in the world; 3) Provide affordable broadband for all — maybe not 100 megabit broadband, but some form of fast Internet; 4) Provide gigabit-per-second broadband speeds to places like schools and hospitals; 5) Create a nationwide public safety wireless network; and 6) Use broadband to track and manage energy consumption.

As national public works efforts go, this ranks pretty high in ambition — analyst Rob Enderle said it could be the most important government project since the national freeway system. And no, it’s not just there so you can watch Hulu without that buffer bar. Better connections to more people should grease the wheels in just about every area of business, thus benefiting the overall economy. That especially goes for rural parts of the country where people just can’t get reasonably priced broadband because the cables don’t run that far out.

One thing that seems to worry the FCC quite a bit is how the U.S stacks up to other developed countries in terms of having a unified, nationwide clue about how to pursue greater broadband access — its examples include Finland, South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Germany. It’s a nice thought that the entire U.S. could one day be on par with what they’ve got there, but there are a number of issues standing in the way, not the least of which is the fact that the U.S. is a very big place with a whole lot of empty space.

Big communication companies are already wary about what’s going on. They love build-outs driven purely by potential profits, but this plan means the government wants to have one hand on the steering wheel at all times. Even before the National Broadband Plan was formally introduced, the FCC put out a beta version of a consumer Internet speed tester it wants everyone to use. The point is basically to compare what ISPs say they deliver versus what the tool measures, which can sometimes be very different.

Finally, did I mention this was going to cost a bit? Exactly how much and whether it’s worth it is one of many sub-debates; Mark Cooper at Consumer Federation of America is among the optimists. He told us, “Most of the plan is self-financing, and the commission has gone out of its way to make this clear.”

TV broadcasters are also going to get in on the fight. Right now they hold the rights to a big chunk of airwaves the FCC wants to use for wireless broadband services, and in most markets, only a small fraction of that chunk gets any use. Broadcasters may be able to get a payout if they agree to give up the airwaves the FCC is after, but they still think they’re being strong-armed. More billable hours for the lawyers.

It all sounds like a gloriously complicated tangle of issues that we’ll be chewing on for quite a while. In that regard, it may end up being sort of like the healthcare debate, though I’m having a hard time imagining town-hall shouting matches over things like signal jitter, fiber optic build-out, and ownership of the D Block.

Growing Up and Out of It

With its next version of the Internet Explorer browser, Microsoft is facing the music and moving on to new things, and it’s forcing some of its customers to do the same thing if they want to use it.

Internet Explorer 9 made an appearance at MIX10 in the form of a developer preview, meaning it lacks features regular users would need but includes lots of interesting bits for under-the-hood types. No word on when a full version will be out. IE9 will feature full hardware acceleration for graphics and text, CSS3 and a new Javascript engine. It used to be that Microsoft wasn’t so hot on HTML 5, but IE9 will support it, so it looks like they’ve decided to move on.

Some Windows users might also have to move on as well, if they’re still using XP but want to run IE9. The new browser simply will not work in the old OS. That might not be much of a problem — businesses that sat out of a Vista upgrade are generally way more eager to bump up to Windows 7, and no doubt Redmond can’t wait until it can finally abandon support for XP completely.

Building a Platform

While mobile platforms like iPhone and Android have been lapping up all the warm praise they’ve been getting for the last couple of years, the critics’ message to Microsoft has been ice-cold: Get your next platform right or don’t even bother showing up at the smartphone party.

Judging by what we’ve seen of that effort so far, it seems Redmond got the message. In fact, it recognized that the “Windows Mobile” brand was so tainted that it had to be renamed, and a few weeks ago it raised some eyebrows in a mostly good way with a sneak peek at Windows Phone 7 Series. Recently it shed even more light on WinPho7, and it’s actually starting to convince some people that the future will not in fact belong only to Android, iPhone and BlackBerry.

Microsoft announced a new set of developer tools, demoed some new apps made from those tools, and showed much more of WinPho’s Silverlight-based architecture, all at its MIX10 conference in Las Vegas. One thing Redmond was really trying to hammer home was an emphasis on gaming — remember that Microsoft owns the Xbox platform as well.

As positive as the vibe was at MIX, though, the thing working against Microsoft is time. These WinPho7 phones won’t be out until sometime around the holiday season; meanwhile its rivals have had years to build up momentum and fine-tune their strategies for pumping the consumer market.

What’s Missing?

And even if its rivals stand completely still until fall, which isn’t likely, it seems Windows Phones will still be a step or two behind in certain respects. Apparently WinPho7 devices will lack at least three significant features when the platform launches: removable SD card support, multitasking and cut-and-paste.

That’s three awkward steps backwards. What’s especially odd here is that these were some of main features WinMo geeks shot back at early iPhone owners when they got a little too cocky about their new phones. “That’s a pretty interface you’ve got there, fanboy, but how do I copy and paste?”

I suppose the most forgivable omission is SD Card support. Not that it’s a great thing; I just get the feeling it’ll be missed by the fewest people.

Multitasking is another matter. How big a deal this really is depends on what happens over the next few months. Some platforms now on the market — the ones WinPho will be going up against — do have multitasking, but the big gorilla here, the iPhone, has never had full multitasking. However, if Apple adds that ability soon — either in a software update or with a new hardware model — then Windows Phone will have to do some serious catching up.

But what about cut and paste? This is something smartphones have had almost since there have been smartphones, including and especially Microsoft’s own Windows Mobile platform. Microsoft says WinPho will know when it’s looking at something like a phone number or an address and have the ability to send that information to another function, but that’s certainly not the only kind of information people want to grab and set elsewhere while using a smartphone.

Al Hilwa at IDC doesn’t think this is such a big deal. He told us, “While this feature may be a public relations hot button, it’s not really a big deal. I’ve used cut and paste once in four months on my iPhone.” Well, I’ll match him on anecdotal evidence: I use it on mine all the time, and I thought it was crazy that the thing didn’t have it from the get-go. But I suppose the best thing about mobile operating systems is that they can be updated and improved any time, so hopefully this is a very temporary condition.

Battery Costs, but iPad Comes Free

One of the biggest challenges that mobile device makers have to square off with right now is the state of battery technology. It’s slowly getting better, but it’s still far from perfect. For one thing, even rechargeable batteries die eventually. By that I mean they get to the point at which you just can’t charge them up anymore. They can go no further.

That’s not such a huge problem if you can easily remove the battery, buy a new one, and keep the thing running for another few years. But if you’re into Apple gadgets, removing that battery yourself will require special tools, a steady hand, lots of confidence in your ability not to break the thing, and complete disregard for the manufacturer’s warranty. Apple likes to seal their batteries into the device — no trapdoor, no release switch, just smooth, shiny metal all the way around. That’s right — Apple gadgets are just too pristine to have any kind of orifice at all.

Getting an Apple gadget’s battery changed usually means going through this whole process of having someone do it for you, which sometimes means waiting around for the job to get done. But with the upcoming iPad, Apple says it won’t change out the battery once your power cell goes dead — it’ll just give you a whole new iPad. Mind that you have to back up the data from your original iPad yourself, but hey — fresh iPad! OK, it’ll cost $99, plus a few for shipping, plus tax, but that’s pretty close to what a new battery would probably cost anyway.

Don’t think Apple’s making a charity case out of you, though. This move might actually save the company some money while making things a little more convenient for customers. The Yankee Group’s Carl Howe told us, “By replacing your iPad, possibly with a refurbished one, they’re eliminating the need to have service people in-house, and other costs. This will also make customers happy because you walk into your Apple store, turn in the iPad, get a new one and walk out.”

But there are buts. They won’t trade up your iPad if it’s damaged. So no taking in an iPad with a cracked screen and asking for a new one because the battery only charges to 96 percent now. Also, you’ll still have to wait around for shipping if you don’t want to visit an Apple store.

And really, by the time the battery in an Apple gadget starts going sour, they usually have a generation or two of new models out on the market, so your choice is really 100 bucks to live with the same old thing another few years, or a few hundred bucks to get with the new stuff. Your call.

News Your Way

The destruction of old newsgathering models can be very interesting to watch, especially if you like seeing old, arrogant media elites sizzle in their own fat. The downside of that is that the process of moving into new ways of gathering and sharing the news of the world could be severely dumbed down as everyone embraces this sink-or-swim mentality.

It’s taken as a matter of course that newspapers will need to move online in order to survive, but it’s not exactly the Promised Land out here. For one thing, loyalty is hard to come by. Only about a third of Americans have a single favorite site, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Nearly 80 percent of online news readers surveyed said they’ve rarely if ever clicked on an online ad, and the total ad revenue publications are bringing in is shrinking: down 26 percent in 2009 for newspapers, including those online, down 22 percent for local TV, and down 17 percent for magazines.

The easy solution seems to be to stop giving away news for free. Put up some paywalls and start charging. That’s a great idea, as long as someone else goes first. The few publications that’ve successfully crossed that line are major finance publications like The Wall Street Journal. Seems that right now, the only way to get away with charging a few bucks a month is to publish the kind of information that moves literally billions in stock trades each day. Then you can have your 20 dollar bill.

As for nearly anyone else, the first sites to put up a wall will be the first sites to be taken off users’ bookmark lists as readers just go elsewhere. Said Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers, “simply putting paywalls up in front of a site people are already getting for free is a loser. No one has been able to make that work except in specialized markets like financial.”

In fact, it seems the only kind of news organizations making any real money are cable news operations, which mainly rely on shows where people scream at each other for an hour.

So what’s going to happen? Well, perhaps the economy has had something to do with readers’ willingness to pay — maybe a recovery will make paywalls a little easier to swallow. Or news sites will just have to change what they offer to better appeal to an ever-narrower niche.

Being appealing is good for business, but sometimes the real news is, by nature, just plain unappealing. It’ll be easier than ever to limit yourself only to what you like and know, yet anyone who does that will be poorly informed. Jeffrey Dvorkin at Ryerson University told us, “My worry is that the news offerings will have to be so specific to a demographic or so imbued with soft features and entertainment values as to push out the news offerings.” What we’re left with, said Dvorkin, is a news menu full of “informational comfort food” and “the Kraft Dinner-ization of information.”

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