Friday, December 26, 2014

The real impact of The Interview

I’ve known that one could rent movies from YouTube, Google and Xbox for a while now, but I’ve never had cause to try them, until Wednesday.

Normally, a big name movie will run its course in theaters and then make its way to on-demand cable, Netflix, Red Box and the like. I had always thought of Google and Youtube’s video services as places to go for old stuff if you can’t find it anywhere else, or funny home made clips. But when the big movie theater companies refused to run The Interview as planned on Christmas Day, they may have put a spotlight on their more convenient, less expensive competition.

SONY announced that due to threats from hackers and the government of North Korea, they would allow theaters to opt out of their obligation to show the movie as scheduled on December 25th. It had been scheduled to open on about 3,000 screens nationwide. They all took SONY up on the offer and cancelled the showings. It looked like the movie may never be released. Then some independent movie houses stepped up. The first to announce they’d be showing the movie was the Alamo Draft House in Colorado. A few hours later, SONY announced it would make the movie available to Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video for streaming. Other independent movie houses came on board and ultimately the movie actually found it’s way to the public a day earlier than planned, and although it only played on a few hundred theater screens nationwide, the independent movie houses were sold out and likely will be, at least through the weekend.

This was a double gift for both online streaming services and the independent theaters. The movie got an enormous amount of free press by igniting an international debate over hacking and freedom of expression. Many people are motivated to watch it simply because someone has tried to stop them from doing so. And by taking themselves out of the game, the major movie houses made the independents and online streaming the exclusive venues for people who wanted to see it.

So on Christmas Eve, I went to Google Play on my Samsung Note II, rented the movie and streamed it to my TV using the Chromecast. I was not alone. It was the biggest seller for both YouTube and Google Play that day. Now that I’ve used the service once, I’m far more likely to do so in the future. I don’t know how many movies will be released directly to such a service, but even as a standard rental, it’s not a bad deal. For $5.99 you can watch it as many times as you want in a 48 hour period (we watched it again when my son came over the next day). If you’d like to buy a movie from one of these services, it’s stored in the Cloud, so you don’t have to keep track of a DVD or Blu Ray disc and you can pull it up anywhere you have access to the Internet.

Streaming movies was well on its way, with or without The Interview and the controversy surrounding it. But the episode surely accelerated the roll out. I don’t expect brick and mortar theaters to go away, but I’d bet they’re going to have to step up their game again. The big theater companies don’t have as much clout as they may have thought. Studios and consumers have real alternatives. Even within the streaming movie space, Google, YouTube and Xbox have raised their profile against Netflix and iTunes (who did not run the movie). It will be interesting to see who adapts to the changing market place the best. Who will be the next Netflix and who will be the next Blockbuster? Viva la competition!

Friday, December 19, 2014

All “rewards” programs are not created equal

I was in a store the other day, making what I thought was an $8.99 purchase, according to my quick look at the sign on the shelf. When I got to the register I was surprised to see it ring up at over $15. I thought the clerk had made a mistake. “Oh, that’s the rewards program price.” he said “Do you want to sign up. It only takes a minute.” I was agitate, in a hurry, and really didn’t like the idea although I wasn’t exactly sure why at the time. I paid the $15+ and vowed to shop elsewhere in the future. 

So what’s the big deal? Lots of companies have “rewards” programs. It helps them offer you products you like and you get great deals right? No, not really. I don’t believe that an almost $6 difference in a $15 product is the difference between a normal mark up and a sale. Obviously you are paying a steep penalty for not participating in their data collection program. That’s what bothered me about it. It’s not really a reward. It’s extortion. 

Not every “rewards” program works this way. For example, I can swipe my Lowes card or not. It doesn’t change the price of anything. It just records my purchase to the benefit of both Lowes and myself. They get information on customer habits. I don’t have to worry about finding a receipt if I should have to return something. Better still, if I decide not to use the card one time, or I forgot it, or it just slips my mind, I don’t get reamed. Auto Zone has a similar program, although after several purchases over $20 you do get a coupon or discount. Office Max’s card also does not make you pay a jacked up price for not having one, but you will get lots of email offers if you do have one.

I’m not really swayed by the discounts and rewards because ultimately, they’ll get what they need to get. You lower the price on this, raise the price on that. You can’t sell dimes for five cents each and make it up in volume. It’s a head game. I know it’s an effective head game, but I prefer the honest approach. Give me you best deal. If you need more information, we can work something out that doesn’t piss me off. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In the end, there can be only one.

Collectivism, regardless of the flavor (communism, socialism, progressivism, wealth redistribution, social justice) ultimately can not work without total government control of resources, how they're produced, when they're produced and who gets how much. They only differ in how they get from our current situation to the one they're all driving at. So if someone tells you they support your individual rights and freedoms, but also support one of the above, they either don't understand what they are saying, or they're lying. That's not a political statement. That's a fact. I'm not presuming to tell you which you should prefer, but you can't have both liberty and collectivism. Eventually, you're going to have to make a choice, or the choice will be made for you.

What is "Community"

Community is a word you hear a lot. It's invoked by politicians and speakers frequently, every day. What does it actually mean though?

Community is a feeling of commonality;  a sense of being a part of a group; a common bond. It could stem from geographic location, common interest, family, group membership, affinity for a particular kind of music, hobby, sport. It can stem from almost anything multiple individuals have in common.

The term "community" can also refer to everyone who shares the feeling of community based on the same thing, i.e. "the skateboarding community". Often it's a combination of many things and each individual can feel a part of numerous communities.

The important thing to keep in mind is that it originates as a feeling. It can be a good feeling. It can be an efficiency as well. One can direct messages at a particular community (target marketing). One can get questions answered more quickly and reliably if one knows which community to access for help.

It's important to note that neither feeling nor the group is a person. Community has no property ownership, no vote, no rights. How could it? You can't speak directly to "community". It's not legally liable for anything, anywhere, ever. The individuals within it may be, but "community" is not.

Community can be enjoyed, employed, reinforced, amplified, but it should never be served. The degree to which you indulge in any community is entirely your business, but you owe "community" nothing. Don't worry. It's not a person. It has no feelings. It wont be upset with you if/when you choose not to engage, and it will still be there if/when you decide to go back.

Fun experiment. Try to be aware whenever you hear someone use the word "community". See how many times it's used in the context of asking or suggesting that you give up some of your time and/or money.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Internet of Wheels

With all the new technologies that have come to market in the last couple of decades, at least one thing has remained a tough nut to crack; transporting physical objects from point a to point b.

Whether it’s people, cargo, mail or dry cleaning, moving it from place to place is often the most expensive part of any project or endeavor.

Now despite the best efforts of some municipalities, lobbying groups and even countries, ride sharing operations like Uber, Lyft and others may be on the verge of breaking down that wall.

One of the reasons logistics is so expensive is the barriers to entry in many markets. In many places you’re supposed to have a special license, permit or very expensive medallion to operate a “taxi” service. Competing with the US Postal service in mail delivery is technically illegal. There are myriad rules and regulations that come along with operating a courier service as well. Some of these barriers are well intentioned, some not so much. None took into account the model presented by these relatively new companies.

The new model would not be possible without the Internet and mobile apps. The company recruits drivers, who provide their own vehicles, determine their own hours (so long as they’re within window the company specifies) and agree to abide by company standards as far as the vehicle, service and rates. The company (Lyft, Uber or other) handles payment processing, dispatch and marketing. It’s a great way for individuals to make some extra cash, or even work full time. Now they’re getting into courier and errand running service as well. Other models simply use apps to connect drivers to riders and let them work out the terms on their own. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) even has its own program called Vanpool. From the website:

“Vanpooling provides an alternative to carpooling and public transportation by offering options on traveling by van. Vanpools are most successful when 6-15 passengers that live and work within a small radius of each other commute together.

Vanpools can be owned by the driver, they can be sponsored by an employer or a third-party program sponsored by a Public agency such as Mountain Metro Rides, VanGo or Way to Go are available.”

This could be a breakthrough in logistics similar to what the Internet was to information. Imagine having several million independent drivers, always at the ready. You could call and have something picked up within a few minutes to be taken wherever you need it to go. If the control freaks can let it evolve, it could lead to much higher efficiencies in the delivery of everything from letters, to pizza to merchandise, lumber, trash/debris hauling; essentially we could see the same type of organic network configuration development that we’ve seen with the Internet and to a lesser extent, the power grid.

Naturally, the folks who have a vested interest in the status quo will continue to block such efforts in the name of public safety and consumer protection. Hopefully, entrepreneurs and public demand will push back hard enough to bowl them over.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The forest and the trees

We are definitely living in interesting times. It can be hard to see that from here though. We’re too close to it. We can’t see the forest. We’re too close to the trees.

Consider the whole Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, et al, explosion is only a few years old. Three D printers are cranking out body parts. There actually is a flying car on the market. The stock markets continue to hit new highs as some companies continue to reach record profit levels.

In average Joe land, things aren’t quite so fantastic. Unemployment (real unemployment) is still quite high, median income is dropping, grocery prices continue to rise as the official government position is that inflation doesn’t exist. Labor participation rates (percentage of people who can work that actually do work) are at historic lows.

What’s going on? Are these the best of times or the worst of times? These are transitional times. The people, by way of their elected government, have made hiring people more expensive, paper work heavy, lawsuit prone and generally less attractive than ever before. At the same time, technology has enabled companies like Google to earn more than most country’s GDP with just a handful of employees. Meanwhile, the people (again through their representative in government) have expanded the safety net, which makes the unemployed less likely to take very low paying jobs.

Where do we go from here? Eventually, there will be enough “gotta have it” new stuff coming to market that people are going to want to do whatever it takes to earn the money to buy it. They’ll also vote in more business friendly representatives to make getting the goodies easier. The economy will soar to new heights and whoever is in charge at the time will be hailed as an economic genius.

Stossel is right, things have been getting better over time if you take the long, or even mid-range view. It’s just more fun and better for ratings to focus on what’s wrong I guess. In fairness, you can’t let what’s wrong hang around too long, so it does deserve some attention. But, I think the only thing that could really do us long term harm is if we were no longer free. We’re still free enough to make mistakes, make adjustments and make new mistakes that in the long run, we get a lot of things right, even if we don’t realize it for a while. When we lose that ability to central control and force, game over.