Tag Archives: commentary

Does DRM-free music on iTunes really matter?

At MacWorld ’09, one of Apple’s “big” announcements was that the iTunes music store would be completely DRM free by the end of 2009.

As long as there are no competing hardware innovations from other companies, DRM-free music doesn’t matter one bit.

The majority of people use iTunes because they love their iPod (or iPhone) and not the other way around.   The announcement for DRM-free music doesn’t do anything for the normal user, that has a one or two computers and an iPod/iPhone.   Amazon has had DRM-free music for quite some time, but Apple hasn’t been any closer to losing their death grip on the digital music industry.

As it currently stands, the player and music store business is a parallel to the wireless phone  industry.

Traditionally, wireless carriers  would lock you into their service in 4 ways — service contracts, wireless coverage, handset selection and most important, the inability to move your cell phone number to another service provider.  Switching carriers meant that you’d lose your phone number, so for years and years, we put up with each carrier’s BS because we didn’t want Mom inadvertantly calling some stranger because you switched to AT&T.

However, after wireless phone number portability came about, wireless carriers lost their biggest leverage over us.  With this, came lower prices, shorter contracts and an increasing equality in coverage as they all fought to keep our business.  Carriers quickly realized that handset selection could be a big differentiator and became the new reason why customers would stay begrudgingly loyal.  This is why AT&T’s exclusive deal with Apple for the iPhone was key to give AT&T Cingular AT&T a significant advantage over Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile.  Customeres from other services ran to AT&T not because of their customer service, superior prices, or even their coverage area.  It was because they had the iPhone.

Apple’s dominance with the  iTunes store is not due to lock in from DRM.  It’s because they made kickass elegant devices.  Even though it is an expectation today that buying and sync’ing music is easy, back when the iTunes store launched, it was considered icing on the perfect hardware cake.  This caused more and more people to flock to the holy temple of Steve Jobs for their music purchasing needs.

Until someone comes around and makes a phone or portable music player that is both better than the Apple products and has a music service that is at least on par in terms of selection and ease of use, DRM-free music is just a marketing bullet that Apple can use to show they’re “open“.

The perils of no pre-production testing

FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!

This is war cry we all know too well these days with the advent of “Web 2.0”. How quickly a service can be brought to market can either make or break a startup. The benefits of first-mover advantage can’t be discounted especially when buzz and eyeballs are so important these days to build a brand and grow a userbase.

However, with the desire to move to shorter development cycles and get to the “production” environment more quickly, companies are finding ways to take shortcuts as compared to traditional methodologies. Most services at Microsoft have at least 2 staging environments prior to deploying to the “live site”.

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As our development team reaches code complete, we deploy our bits to the test cluster where our QA team goes through a test pass. After meeting our test pass exit criteria, we roll the bits into an intermediary staging environment, “Pre-production”. This staging environment matches our production hardware as close as possible and we use it to do final acceptance testing. This model, while seemingly heavy-weight, helps ensure the highest quality release when we finally deploy to our live site (aka “Production”). In particular, it’s important when your product integrates with several services that you don’t own — in our case, an example would be Windows Marketplace’s integration with Windows Live ID.

I myself have often been frustrated at times when I want to go to production faster with a feature that is seemingly “small”, but I have to remind myself that the rigor in staging our releases is worth it if we’re ensuring a higher quality product at the expense of slower time to market.

However, I do think there many teams (my current one included) can work on a model that is better at identifying the lower risk features and perhaps roll that directly to live site in a throttled manner. For example, roll out a feature so 5% of our users see if, and if it breaks, roll it back. Otherwise, increase the rollout slowly over a period of time until 100% of the users are using the new feature. The entire time make sure we monitor the snot out of things.

Facebook has been given accolades for how quick they get to market with their new features. When I first started using it last year, I was impressed with how much functionality they rolled out in a given week. From Facebook’s job site:

Our development cycle is extremely fast, and we’ve built tools to keep it that way. It’s common to write code and have it running on the live site a few days later. This comes as a pleasant surprise to engineers who have worked at other companies where code takes months or years to see the light of day. If you work for us, you will be able to make an immediate impact.

In speaking with several people that know engineers at Facebook, they apparently don’t have the same QA process as Microsoft and instead often go straight production and use throttling to control a feature’s exposure. Sounds great!

However, based on my experiences over the past 6 weeks with Facebook, the pitfalls of going “Faster! Faster! Faster!” are showing in a string of very visible problems. Some juicy examples:

No profile anyone?

I’m signed in, but am invisible and profile-less.

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No news feed items?

My biggest beef is there are too many news items that I can’t even begin to sift through them. But this is ridiculous 🙂

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Site maintenance in the middle of the day anyone?

Seems like an odd time to have a planned outage, given Facebook is in the same timezone as I am (PST) and it’s smack dab in the middle of the day (11:35am).

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30 mins later, same maintenance message, but surprise! Looks like they’ve authenticated me and can tell me how many messages I have in my inbox. Something is astray.

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Awkward error messages

I got this juicy one earlier today when I tried to confirm a new friend request. Some debugging message that it getting piped through to the FE users?

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I’m definitely not saying that Facebook’s process is bad and Microsoft’s is better. Just that there has to be a happy medium in doing the appropriately amount of testing and monitoring to ensure we’re striking the right balance between quality and time-to-market. In our quest to ship more features faster, we shouldn’t lose sight that we can’t screw our end users, otherwise there is no reason to ship our products at all.

Twitter. Why the hype?

Twitter launched over a year ago and has over 50,000 subscribers. I’ve signed up, tried it and discarded it along with dozens of other “web 2.0” ideas that have sprung up in the last few years. To me, it didn’t provide any value that I didn’t already derive from IM, email, SMS and Dodgeball. I don’t have many connections on Dodgeball, but continue to check in on a semi-frquent basis because it has proved useful to know where hot spots for the night are.

Twitter on the other hand, is not only used for communicating your location, but all aspects of your life. People are broadcasting messages about their lunch, their mood and maybe even what they’re wearing today. If you’re like me, you’d find this annoying pretty fast. With Dodgeball, sometimes the flood of messages are too much those times I decide to stay in. I can’t even imagine adding an influx of updates from people telling me they’re eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

For some reason, Twitter just won’t go away. It’s being covered by tons of blogs, made a splash at SXSW this year and is gaining more public attention from the likes of Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. It’s even getting continual coverage by well-known bloggers like Scoble and Leo Laporte. I consider myself in touch with the pulse of tech trends and have a good track record predicting the ultimate success of new startups, but in this case, I must be out to lunch. I’m left here empty handed and asking myself “Why the hype?”.

Any of you tried Twitter? Still using it? Find it annoying? Useful? Do tell, cuz I’d sure like to know what I’m missing.

Myspace.com irony

I never thought I’d be writing one of those “I remember way back when…” blog posts, but here I am, about to do that 🙂 

Myspace.com is probably the most popular blogging site, in fact, probably one of the most popular sites on the web.  It has 41 million registered users, and myspace.com ranks 19th on the list of “most-visited internet sites” (according to MediaMetrix).  Last July, it sold for $580 million.  Yes, $580 million.

The ironic part of all of this, is that during the internet boom of the late nineties, Myspace.com was one of the services that was considered one of the “spectactular dot com flameouts” (a term coined by Philip Kaplan, owner of fuckedcompany.com).  Back then, Myspace.com was this crazy service where it gave free disk space to over 9 million people.  The business plan involved making money by (a) the then (un)lucrative banner ads, and (b) a free-grace period, followed by a subscription service.  To top it off, there was even competition in this space (driveway.com, xdrive.com, freeway.com and freedrive.com to name a few) despite any proof that their business model was sound.

Their problems were two-fold: (1) online advertising wasn’t thriving during that time (targeted ads based on profile info.. huh?) and (2)  when the free grace period ended, people just signed up for new accounts. 

Myspace.com was then funded by an insane $14.6 million dollars and employed about 30 people.  In May 2001, myspace.com folded and customers were given a “generous” 3 day notice to download all their files before they were permanently deleted.

Fast forward to 2005, and myspace.com is the darling of the internet.  A thriving blogging community and an online advertiser’s wet dream — myspace.com houses the dream 14 to 30 year old demographic.  A cool $580 million dollars and Myspace.com went from bust to boom in just 4 years later. Talk about a big turnaround! The only things that are similar between now and then?  The domain name.

How to improve in-car electronics

Being a total gadget addict, I’m pretty opinionated on how in-car electronics/gadgetry needs to be improved. It’s no secret that car makers are VERY far behind when it comes to the latest connectivity and electronic options that are available in the market. I don’t blame them, because they can’t immediately adopt the cutting edge due to several reasons:

1. the fad dies out

2. bugs

3. cost of initial implementation

4. support costs

However, there are several pieces of technology that should definitely be embraced by the industry as a whole, in order to create standards are scaling in-car entertainment more easily and cheaply for customers. Admittedly, I would only expect to see these intiatives in the $25k+ price category of cars, but as technology prevails and standards are established, costs will fall making it more realistic for sub-$25k car category to adopt.

My ideas:

1. Add a USB bus to the car to connect various electronics. USB has been around for awhile, prevalent on all modern PCs and well understood by consumers. Required for my other ideas that follow. You can even see that Volkswagen is doing this. I picture USB ports all over the car (in armrest, near cigarette lighter, in trunk, etc) to power and connect devices.

2. Navigation systems: Get rid of DVD and CDROM data drivers — this should all be driven by removable flash media. Given there are like 10 different card formats (CF, Smartmedia, Transflash, etc), have a multi-format card reader somewhere in the car. Not only are multi-format card readers cheap, but they are also easily replaceable if a new format arises.

3. Power system: While cigarette lighters are in every single car, it’s pretty annoying to have a different car charger for cell phone, camera, ipod, etc. By powering from a common set of USB ports (see #1), you have a standard set of plugs in the car that use 2 cables (either Type A or Type B USB cables). Next time you buy a cell phone, you don’t need to buy a new power cord. This obviously assumes that phone manufacturers all start to use mini-USB connectors (note: will be signfiicant resistence against this since companies make HUGE dollars from accessories).

4. Music: By having a memory card reader and USB bus (see #1 and #2), you can get rid of the need for expensive music solutions for in-car entertainment. You just plug in a 1GB CF card or USB Key and the car will be able to read the music and begin playing. This requires that the stereo know how to read the fileformat on the media as well as integration into the USB bus. By standardizing around MP3 and shunning DRM (at least for now), they avoid a whole host of support issues from customers. Customers are getting more and more savvy about media cards due to the proliferation of digital cameras and portable music players, so copying music files to a removable media card and plugging it into the car shouldn’t be rocket science. However, again, this requires the music system to be agnostic to file organization on the media.

A monetization point for manufacturers might be to enable the aftermarket sale of software extensions that allow users to play DRM protected files. You can imagine Apple partnering with a car maker to include the ability to play their Fairplay protected files along with gift certificates for song purchases.

Okay, enough random thoughts.