Five Years Too Late

September 25, 2008

Thinking about Google’s New Platforms

Filed under: Digital Media — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 1:10 pm

In the last month we’ve seen the release of both Google’s new browser, Chrome and the first handset based on Google’s mobile operating system, Android, the G1 from T-Mobile. In both cases, the knee-jerk popular response arc seems to be the same, “Hey new product from Google this is great… hey wait a minute, it’s not that great… ah forget it”.

With Chrome, people got excited because a) it was a new browser, b) it was from Google and c) it was (is) fast. But then people realized their firefox plugins wouldn’t work, and some web applications (like … Microsoft Office Live) don’t work, and it didn’t change their browser experience THAT much. And so while some people are using it every day, the tech cultural zeitgeist essentially moved on, at least for now.

With Android and the new T-Mobile G1 phone, the large majority of the conversation I’ve seen has focused largely on feature-by-feature comparisons with iPhone. The conclusion seems to be that this phone isn’t as cool as the iPhone and kind of looks like a Sidekick. Oh, and it’s not open enough because you can’t use VOIP instead of T-Mobile’s minutes. And because you can’t buy it from T-Mobile, and then ditch T-Mobile for another carrier (“Sim-locked”). So people conclude that Android’s openness is a sham and that the project is a failure.

Let’s step back from both of these sets of immediate concerns and think about what Google is actually trying to do with both Chrome and Android. For a number of years now many people (myself included) have wondered what comes next for Google. The company has thousands and thousands of employees working on all manner of things, but essentially only two of the products (Search and Ads) contribute to the top line in any meaningful way. And so the question arises, what is going to be Google’s next great business?

Chrome and Android aren’t designed to make money for Google. They are designed to advance Google’s unifying position as a company that produces applications that run on networked devices (and sells ads on the inventory generated by those applications). To date, Google has developed primarily for PCs running Internet Explorer and to a lesser extent Firefox, Safari and (back in the day) Netscape. But moving forward, the great trend (both on the consumer side and on the business side) is toward applications that run out of the browser (web services if you like, or Software as a Service). In fact this is the vision that drove the first “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape back in the 1990s. Even then it was clear that enormous volumes of activity and time would be spent on browser-initiated interaction, rather than on client-side applications.

So with Chrome, Google is looking to build out a big piece of browser real estate that is built in ways that will optimize the operation of Google’s (and presumably others’) web applications. Some of the architectural features – each browser tab runs as a separate process, there is a task manager for the browser, etc… indicate that Chrome is an attempt to take web applications seriously. And of course if Google controls the underlying browser’s technology, it can assure optimal operation of its applications both offensively (in terms of designing the apps and the browser to work well together) and defensively (against the possibility that IE/ActiveX might unduly benefit Microsoft’s own emerging web application ecosystem).

With Android, Google looks further into the future. Developing for mobile devices is a complete disaster today. Mobile software companies who want to develop applications for various dominant platforms today (iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and a host of others) have to employ teams of engineers, manage multiple codebases and learn the ins and outs of various handset hardware and OS restrictions. The idea behind Android isn’t that as a developer you will be able to be free from all carrier restriction (Google doesn’t have that power, neither does Apple). The carriers are still a very powerful and very challenging force here in the US. I think that Google’s notion is that developers should have a superior environment in which to build applications that can access capabilities of the handsets on which they reside. I think that looking forward, Google sees the mobile web as pervasive on handsets as the consumer web is on desktops today. The current universe of mobile devices renders this vision nearly impossible to realize.

Ultimately, the handset released by T-Mobile yesterday has almost nothing to do with the long-term possibilities Android represents. Sure, it’s a first-generation device that’s less sexy than the iPhone. But the real battle isn’t going to be between these two physical devices. In some sense it hearkens back to the original Apple vs. Microsoft battles of the 1980s. Apple built a beautiful, closed system while Microsoft let any PC manufacturer install DOS. Again, Apple curates the App Store while Google gives Android away to handset manufacturers and application developers as an open-source product.

We’re still in the early days of this, but both of these products indicate significant forward thought by Google. It will be fascinating to watch both of them advance (or not) the company’s agenda.

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September 10, 2008

Can RealNetworks be the “iTunes for Movies”?

Filed under: Digital Media — Tags: , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 5:36 pm

RealNetworks has been in the business of playing and streaming media on your PC since the way old days (1995!), and today they announced a foray into DVD ripping. The idea here is that RealDVD will be a fully-legal way to rip your own DVDs to a computer, easily and without angering the MPAA or other movie industry litigants.

Lots of people rip their media today. The most mainstream usage, of course, is ripping CDs into iTunes, and for some that’s probably all “ripping” means. But the idea of pulling music off physical media to store in the more flexible and easily-navigable environment of the computer is quite a bit older than iTunes.

Ripping became feasible mostly as a result of storage growing ever more expansive and cheaper over time. When the first CD-R drives came out (back then we called them WORM drives for Write Once Read Many), a good-sized hard drive was 2Gb and a CD of uncompressed music was 650MB. MP3 was still essentially a science project and there were no MP3 players. This was 1996. The drive cost thousand dollars. So at that point there was no real way to store your music collection on your PC.

Flash forward a few years and we’re all happily ripping away, putting our CDs onto our machines and onto players like the iPod. Originally you could use WinAmp, stand-alone rippers or Windows Media Player, but in a well-known story, Apple managed to get the majority of users to put their music into iTunes, where it comingles with DRM-laden music people buy on the iTunes Music Store to essentially lock people into Apple’s platform (and I say this as someone who has owned several iPods and isn’t really unhappy about using iTunes as my music hub).

So Real wants to be that hub for DVDs. Right now you can rip DVDs to your computer (storage, once again, has cheapened sufficiently for people to store collections of movies even on laptops), but it’s a messy process used primarily by tech-saavy users, and it’s of … questionable legality. By including a DRM’ed setup (including an copy of Apple’s 5-user file use maximum) Real pacifies the movie industry while allowing you to put your movies on your computer, enabling easier management, portability and freedom from the physical failings of DVD media.

Great, right? Sort of. On the one hand, some will complain bitterly about the DRM-ness of Real’s solution. There’s only so much legitimacy to this point of view. At the end of the day, when you buy a DVD, you’re buying the right to play a piece of media with content on it. You didn’t buy the right to give copies to everyone you know, and if technology can allow the creators of that content to have some measure of distribution limitation on the individual instance they sold you, that’s fine. As long as it doesn’t interfere too much with your genuine use (i.e. you should be able to have the file on each of your family machines), that’s fine.

Where Real gets it wrong (and where they are meaningfully distinguished from iTunes) is that they are charging you for the privilege. RealDVD is going to cost $50 and will carry a $20 per machine cost for the additional 5 machines you can deploy into the system. Clearly there are distinctions with iTunes on the economics (namely that Real isn’t trying to sell you movies or movie players today), but the free distribution of iTunes is partially what made it so widespread and pervasive. If Real is trying to place itself at the center of my movie-watching (and presumably eventually BUYING) life, charging me $150 to enable my household on their software is certainly not the way to do it.

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