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BBC Store is closing; Streaming v Ownership

Back in 2015 I took a look at the then new BBC Store. It had opened in a blaze of publicity after a relatively long gestation period. Visitors could buy to own BBC catalogue programmes as well as some of the latest dramas and comedies. Since then, announcers have mentioned the ability to buy programmes from the BBC Store (and other outlets) regularly over the end credits of series.

In 2015 I wrote:

“And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

“If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and Blu-rays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

This week we learnt that the BBC Store is closing down in November after around two years in operation. Those words about DRM have proven to be prescient.

The first series I bought from the BBC Store was Tender is the Night, a 1985 Dennis Potter dramatisation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel. This has never been made available to buy on DVD. It may have been on VHS for a period, but the only streaming version of the novel is a 1962 film.

After November, I will lose all access to this TV series. The DRM locked version that I bought will no longer play.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store is giving me a full refund, or slightly more if I accept Amazon vouchers. But the problem is that there is no DVD for me to buy.

The chief reason given for the store closing is that ownership isn’t the preferred model for consumers. They prefer the all-you-can-eat offers from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

But while that works for popular fare, that leaves a vast proportion of the longer tail of TV and film out in the cold.

A site called NewOnNetflix reckons the UK version of the site has 4,228 films and TV series across all genres. That sounds like a vast figure. But actually it’s a drop in the ocean. Go to the page that lists films by year and you will quickly discover that prior to 1941 whole years are missing.

In 1939, for example, the following films were released:

Gone With the Wind
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr Chips
The Wizard of Oz
Gunga Din
The Women

Classics all, yet none are on Netflix. Now I can certainly buy all of those on DVD, and Amazon Prime may have one or two, but the point is that both Amazon and Netflix are offering highly curated – and limited – catalogues. Films and TV series come and go from the platforms. Aside from programmes they funded themselves, they acquire the rights for limited periods of time. I can’t be certain with rental that I can absolutely watch Gone With the Wind on any given day.

Now of course I can go to somewhere like the iTunes Store, or the Google Play Store, but even there, the range is surprisingly limited. Google Play doesn’t have Goodbye, Mr Chips or The Women, for example. (I will in fairness note that Amazon doesn’t carry a region 2 DVD of The Women, but does make it available to stream or own digitally, while Goodbye, Mr Chips is available as an inexpensive DVD, as well as digitally to own or rent).

In the end, its market forces that determined that the BBC Store needed to close. If not enough people are using it, then the business model doesn’t work. But I do dispute the idea that a Netflix or Amazon subscription is a complete solution. So while bona fide hits like The Night Manager, Line of Duty or War and Peace are available on the various platforms, other series very definitely are not. At this point in time, physical media is still the providing the greatest depth of range – with a significant number of specialist labels ranging from Network DVD to Second Sight and beyond, offering a vastly greater depth of catalogue than streaming is currently offering.

Streaming may well be the future, but right now I wouldn’t be without my DVD/Blu-ray player!

Meanwhile all of this is another case to prove that DRM is fatally flawed in the longer term. While I may be getting a full refund, I’d have preferred to have kept the programme.

The Perils of Alexa!

This story started earlier today when I got a notification from Amazon’s mobile app that my order of a Lost in Translation DVD had been sent out for delivery.

What?

It’s a wonderful film, but I hadn’t ordered a copy. Indeed, I already own it on DVD. I was confused, and a little worried. Was it fat fingers in the Amazon app that had led to a purchase? Had I accidentally clicked a one-click purchase online somehow?

I went into my email, and found an email from Amazon dated at 4.13am. It confirmed my order!

Now, I should confess that the previous evening I’d gone for a couple of drinks with friends, but I hadn’t gone to bed that late, and I certainly hadn’t got up in the middle of the night to order a film that I already own. As a rule, I don’t wake in the small hours and make random DVD purchases.

I couldn’t tell from the email or from my Amazon order history, through what means the DVD had been ordered. But I began to wonder if it had somehow been ordered via Alexa. I’ve heard of other people “accidentally” ordering stuff that way. But that’s never happened to me.

So I opened the Alexa app to see my recent history. And then things got really crazy.

I use Alexa a reasonable amount, but the previous evening I’d got in late, and left early the following morning. On neither occasion had I really used Alexa.

But my Alexa history showed a lot of interaction since the last time I remembered using it to listen the radio the previous morning.

Amongst other things, it seemed I’d asked:

  • Alexa to introduce her/it-self
  • What is bluetooth?
  • How do you get along with Siri?
  • What the weather is
  • To buy an Amazon Echo Dot (this didn’t go through fortunately)
  • Are you sexy vehicle costume? (Nope?)
  • What is five plus eleven?
  • What is pi to the dress? (No idea)
  • Do you think I’m handsome? (Er…)
  • What is the weather? (Again, it seems)
  • What the New York Knicks score was? (I’m not especially interested in either them or the NBA in general)
  • To play Drake? (I don’t especially like Drake)
  • To play Grace? (I don’t know who this is, but Amazon does)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Set a timer for one minute
  • Would you like to go on a date with me? (“She” is an inanimate object)
  • Where can I hide the body? (Worrying)
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What is the weather? (I’m clearly very interested in this)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Trending story
  • Riley party (Absolutely no clue)
  • Convert cups in grams
  • Set a timer for one hour (I assume the one minute timer finished)
  • Play You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi
  • Okay Google (That’s not going to work on Alexa)
  • Order “Lost in Translation” on DVD (This went through, and I got a confirmation email at 4.13am!)
  • Hello
  • What is an Xbox on?
  • Add milk and eggs to my shopping list (I’m OK for both thanks)
  • Play Dire Straits

Now I was worried. The Alexa app doesn’t time-stamp these queries that I can see. But clearly this activity had happened in the middle of the night based on that Lost in Translation order.

I was confused.

Had another Alexa ended up on my Amazon account? Was some neighbour asking stupid questions through my letterbox? (I don’t have a letterbox, and the only children in my block are very young and unlikely to be playing around in the middle of the night.)

This was actually a bit disturbing.

And then I remembered that I had started a YouTube video on my TV before I fell asleep. I’m a heavy sleeper, and can fall asleep to background audio. But the TV would have been turned down.

I consulted my YouTube history.

I had been watching a video about the Raspberry Pi.

Yes, I know. At night, after a few drinks. I’m a nerd. What can I say.

But YouTube autoplays more videos when one has finished, and here’s a list of the following videos “I” streamed. I think this explains the otherwise unfathomable behaviour:

  • Echo Dot Impressions
  • Amazon Echo Dot: A week with review
  • Google or Amazon? Which is better? (Meaning Alexa or Google Home)
  • Google Home vs Amazon Echo – Which is Best?
  • Why you should buy Google Home over Amazon Echo vs Siri and Sonos
  • 4 things Google Home can do to beat Amazon Echo in 2017
  • Google home adds 70 new features
  • Google Home hacks for the smart home
  • Home automation: a beginner’s introduction
  • Google Home and App Setup + IFTTT Guide
  • If This Then That (IFTTT) Tutorial

Basically I “watched” a lot of videos about Alexa and Google Home, and my Echo tried to respond to various audio cues that came from these!

The DVD I didn’t want only cost £2.90 and I’ve tried to cancel it online. But it won’t be the end of the world if I end up with a second copy. I’ve learnt my lesson and disabled voice purchasing in the app.

The moral of this tale?

Don’t leave Alexa or Google Home alone with YouTube tech videos reviewing what Alexa and Google Home are capable of.

Sneaky Pete

I only seem to write about television very occasionally these days. I suspect I struggle because there’s so much to catch up on at any given time, there’s no time left for writing.

Sneaky Pete is a new series from Amazon Studios provided free to their Prime customers. The hook as far as Amazon is concerned is that the series comes from Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston and David “House” Shore. To my mind, the most important behind-the-camera talent is the executive producer, Graham Yost, who has most recently been responsible for the excellent Justified, and also excellent The Americans. He actually took over Shore as showrunner when the pilot, originally ordered by CBS, moved to Amazon. As a result, the pilot has been around on Amazon’s service for 18 months now, ahead of the series finally arriving.

Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is a con-man completing a short prison sentence for holding up a bank. His cellmate, serving a longer sentence, is Pete. Pete endlessly refers to his idyllic childhood, boring Marius to tears. But we soon learn that Marius had attempted to con Vince (Bryan Cranston). So instead of returning home, where Marius remains $100,000 in hock to Vince, he decides to head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he will impersonate his former cellmate Pete.

Family relations had long broken down, and Marius/Pete now thinks that he might be able to score some cash from the wealthy Bernhardt clan, led by Audrey (Margo Martindale).

Can our fake-Pete convince the family that he is who he says he is, inveigle his way into their home, and then raise the money he needs to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) from Vince’s clutches?

Along the way, we meet the dysfunctional Bernhardt family including grandfather Otto (Peter Geraty), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae) and Carly (Libe Barer), who work in the family’s struggling bail bonds firm, the local police or are a troubled school child.

In some very limited ways, this does remind you of the set-up to the very different Banshee in which a new sheriff was impersonated in a small north-eastern town.

The real hook in this series is that Pete is a con-man, and we see him thinking on his feet, stealing wallets, phones and watches to further his cause. I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, loving the references to The Spanish Prisoner, the mark, long and short cons, convincers, ropers and inside men. I will happily watch any series or film that plays out like this.

The real problem, though, is that so many of us have seen The Sting, Grifters, House of Cards or Hustle, that it’s hard to do something genuinely different. So Sneaky Pete is not about a con-of-the-week setup. Instead we have someone utilising their confidence trick skills to keep their head above water, and one or two larger cons playing out over the ten episode run of the series.

In particular, you have some well drawn characters who don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Police officer Taylor is shown to be a bit of a clown earlier on, but he’s not really anybody’s fool, and Marius/Pete’s relationships with some of the previous women in his life isn’t as one dimensional as would sometimes be the case in this kind of series.

Cranston really only has a supporting role in this series, but he’s properly nasty as Vince, while Ribisi seems to inhabit the role of a confidence trickster perfectly. Lots of faces are familiar from other Yost series, including the peerless Martindale, Julia’s ex Lance (Jacob Pitt) and Vince’s lover and ex member of Marius’s gang, Karolina (Karolina Wydra).

The series does a nice side in colourful supporting characters. I’d have liked to have seen more of Marius’s parole officer James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who drives around listening to motivational tapes, and categorising his parolees as “eagles” or “shitbeards.” Michael O’Keefe is wonderfully sadistic bent cop, and Virginia Kull is great as Katie, who’s trying to lead a normal life, but kinda still loves the thrill of the con.

Alison Wright, familiar to fans of The Americans, shows up as another confidence trickster, Marjorie. I confess that when I heard her accent, it seemed to be the one duff note of the show. Was she trying to British? Perhaps Irish? I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, I thought “She needs a dialect coach.” Then I realised that Wright is actually British (from Sunderland), and that was her real accent. Ah.

The series concludes nicely but ends in a way that lets them go straight into a second series, and Amazon has wasted no time in renewing it which pleases me a lot.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Grand Tour

We’re several weeks into Amazon’s megabudget Top Gear remake, “Grand Tour,” and you can’t fail to have noticed it has arrived. There have been ads everywhere from the sides of buses to TV, and of course, all over the front page of the Amazon website. Even Amazon’s packaging covers their grinning faces right now.

We’ve even managed to have a “presenter says something stupid” story, with mild-mannered Richard Hammond somehow implying that eating ice cream as an adult is “gay.”

Cost estimates for the new series vary wildly, but what’s clear is that a lot of money has been spent on this series.

And yet, I confess I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by Grand Tour so far.

They’ve got a lot more money, but I’m not sure they’re spending it wisely.

They’ve been hopping around the world for, well, basically no reason at all. After a few long-haul outings in the US and South Africa, they’ve stayed in Europe. But apart from a seeming product placement deal with DHL (does that PP logo need to appear in the UK streaming world?), there seems little to no point. In South Africa they managed a single short feature in which James May watched a bunch of locals do donuts, while he didn’t do any himself.

And, er, that’s about the extent of it.

Look, I realise that the bulk of the show is made months in advance, and these are just the last bits, providing an over-arching narrative to otherwise unrelated features. But really, what’s the point?

Is it really only that they have to use a tent, and can’t broadcast from a single location because that infringes the BBC’s intellectual property?

The car features are basically the same as Top Gear’s.

They’ve got a UK track to test cars and time them – the same as Top Gear.

There’s a new racing driving who does now speak but is basically a new Stig – the same as Top Gear.

We don’t have “The Producers,” instead “Mr Wilman” sends texts. That’d be Andy Wilman, the show’s producer, reinventor of Top Gear with Clarkson, with whom he went to school.

The only thing they don’t seem to have is the star interview. Instead they have a “joke” sequence that has already got very boring very quickly (along with a “drone crash” at the start of each episode).

Then there are the awful attempts at comedy. The worst of these must have been a singularly unfunny section segment the RAF with the USAF.

There are other gags, and they’re totally laboured. It feels like nobody has the ability to reign in the stars and say, “Look, this isn’t funny. We’re dropping it or editing it out.”

And I’m really disappointed that they’ve not tried to do a few more different things. If you’re going to dart around the world, do it for a reason. Do some new features that make use of your locales.

Yes, we want the presenters’ chemistry, but what we’ve got is a version Top Gear that’s as close as possible to the original without infringing the aforementioned IP, but with much more money thrown at it. And not for the better.

I’ll be honest and say that I never watched Top Gear for reviews of supercars. They were easily the dullest.

I wanted silly challenges, races, and journeys. The presenters were never that funny, but I kind of thought they knew that. Yet now we seem to be getting more of their “comic” turns.

It feels as though they’ve been given a massive amount of cash and allowed to do what they like with no Amazon interference. Indeed I suspect that’s exactly what has happened.

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

Their two-parter in the Namib desert was better, although a seasoned watched understands that they’re never in the peril they claim to be.

But overall I don’t think they’ve stretched themselves creatively, and indeed I think they’re just coasting doing more of their usual act. It’s not that this is a terrible series – it’s still well made and looks great.

But given the freedom and budget they have, I expected better.

In the meantime, James May’s The Reassembler on BBC Four is probably a better watch.

The Amazon Echo – A British Perspective

Amazon Echo

NB. I’ve included some detail about how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub, as it definitely seems to be causing an issue to many users who get Error: 7:3:0:0:1. Hopefully this page will help a little.

Amazon has been somewhat tardy in bringing the Echo to the UK. It launched in the US in November 2014, so it taken nearly two full years for the device to cross the Pond. So this review is nothing new and there are no doubt hundreds of others on the web. Nonetheless, localisation was always going to be a key part of the device being made available in the UK.

We don’t tend to think about it, using a service like Google Assistant (née Google Now) in the US is a vastly superior experience compared with using it in the UK. Google has tied down all the key US services, and suddenly it’s an invaluable service as opposed to an OK service as it was in the UK, although the UK has improved over time. Indeed I suspect the reason for the long delay in Alexa reaching the UK is that it takes time and resources to localise it for each market.

I’d been keen to try Amazon Alexa out since I first saw what it was capable of. It does seem that the Echo (the device), and Alexa (the service), is very powerful in interpreting spoken word English and giving you back what you want.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is basically a cylindrical speaker that’s about 24 cm tall. At its top is an array of microphones that can listen to commands from all directions, with an LED light ring indicating what it’s doing and a manual volume control sitting at the very top. A couple of buttons are there to either mute the device or to help with some set-up and pairing processes.

Alexa is the technology that sits behind the Echo, listening out for a command word – “Alexa” being the default – and then either playing audio or performing tasks as directed. These range from Siri or Google Assistant style answers to questions (“What’s the capital of Australia”, “How many yards in a mile”), to online shopping since this is of course Amazon, making diary arrangements, playing music from a connected service to controlling your smart home devices (e.g. your lights or your thermostat).

Key to all of these are what Amazon call “Skills.” These are developed by third parties such as Uber, The Guardian or National Rail, and they allow you to use their technologies to perform other tasks by voice control.

Audio as an interface is really interesting, and of course has the potential to have an impact on audio/radio services. So I was particularly curious to see the Amazon Alexa implementation of these services.

While I bought the Echo device, Amazon also sell the Dot, a cheaper device that doesn’t have a powerful inbuilt speaker. It’s designed to contain microphones, but to be plugged into an existing speaker via an Aux cable.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well, these are based on some early experimentation with the device. I’ll perhaps return to this review, or offer additional thoughts, when I’ve played for it for longer or more services and Skills have launched.

Setup

Note: Including detailed instructions of how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub.

Setup is designed to be simple. The preferred way is to install an app on your phone and set it up from there. The device essentially needs to be connected to your WiFi network. Unfortunately, I found it more complex than it should have been, to the point that if my problems are common, this will cause lots of headaches from the start for many users.

Once you’ve powered the Echo, you open the App, the Android version of which you will be pleased to hear, is in the Google Play Store (other Amazon specific apps aren’t).

Because I had already registered both a Fire TV and Fire TV Stick with Amazon, the app gave me lots of detail about them that at this point that I wasn’t interested in. Indeed, so cluttered was the screen that I couldn’t see how I should initially setup the device. I had to dive into the Settings menu to do it when it should really have been the first thing I was presented with.

You either have to press a button on the Echo or power it on for the first time to get into setup mode, and then it’s a question of connecting your phone or tablet to the Echo’s own WiFi network to give it details of your WiFi password. This isn’t dissimilar to setting up a Chromecast.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I gave it details of my WiFi password it wouldn’t connect. So I tried from a Chromebook, since you don’t need to use a phone or a tablet. This failed to work too.

Finally, fearing I may have a defective unit, I setup a portable hotspot on my phone, and tethered the Echo that way. It worked absolutely fine, so I knew it wasn’t a technical problem with the device.

Trying once again to connect it to my WiFi router I noted the error code I kept receiving.

Error: 7:3:0:0:1

Googling that took me to a Reddit page which contained what I took to be the solution.

My router at home is a BT Homehub 4, and a quick search a day or so later suggests that I wasn’t alone in not being able to initially connect the Echo to my Homehub.

The Homehub 4 (and later versions) uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to broadcast WiFi on.

All devices will connect on 2.4GHz, but more recently 5GHz frequencies were added to WiFi and newer devices will use both.

By default the Homehub uses the same SSID for both frequencies. That means you see a single WiFi access point when you’re connecting a new device to your WiFi network, with that device connecting over either frequency. Even though the 5GHz frequency tends to perform better, I’d never seen fit to change the default, and all my WiFi devices worked fine choosing either frequency as they saw fit themselves.

But it looks like, for whatever reason, the Echo really doesn’t like that.

The solution I found was to go into the Advanced Settings on my BT Homehub router. You will need the admin password to access this menu, which unless you’ve changed it, will be attached to your Homehub device.

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Click “Continue to Advanced Settings.”

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Then choose Wireless. There are then two tabs for 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You need to change one of the SSIDs so that your router has in effect two access points for each of the frequencies.

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I changed the name of the 2.4GHz SSID to something slightly different (e.g. add “1” to the end of the name), leaving the 5GHz SSID unchanged.

On the 5GHz tab, ensure that “Sync with 2.4GHz” has “No” selected.

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Apply the changes, and then try the Echo’s WiFi connection process again.

This time the Echo connected flawlessly for me. I was properly up and running.

There are other solutions out there, but this worked for me. I’m surprised that Amazon/BT hadn’t fixed this ahead of launch, as BT is the biggest ISP in the UK, so there will be potentially millions of these routers in use.

I certainly never had that issue with either the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor any other WiFi device.

Initially, I just left things as they were, with two slightly differently named SSIDs to my router. However, once the Echo was up and running, I found that I was able to rename the 2.4GHz SSID back to its original name, and the Echo still connected. This was useful as some legacy WiFi devices I own are unlikely to have the radios in them to work on 5GHz. Consequently I’d have had to have gone around and reconfigured all of these to work with the differently named SSID.

Depending on how many older WiFi devices you have that you use, you may be happy leaving two different SSIDs running on your router.

Usage of the Echo

The first thing Amazon does once you’re setup is to watch a short video. Unlike those for the Fire TV products, this hasn’t been Anglicised. We get an American video that runs through some of the things Echo can do.

Then you’re walked through some live examples, getting the news or playing some music.

The ecology of Alexa seems to be multi-tiered. At the top level are things that will work for everyone out of the box. For example, answering questions with factual information, or telling jokes.

Then there are those that are baked in as partnerships with Alexa. If you ask for a radio station to be played, it will by default be served by TuneIn. If you ask for the news, it comes from Sky News.

The third tier are the Skills, and these tend to need a second keyword to alert Alexa that she should be looking there. There can be overlaps, with broadly the same services being offered by different parties, and depending on quite what you ask Alexa, the service that responds can vary.

News is a good example. Alexa has what Amazon call “Flash briefings.” In other words, news headlines of the type a radio station might play at the top of the hour. If you ask Alexa to give you your flash briefing it will default to a Sky News bulletin from the last hour. I’ve not compared this with any radio output, but this is either an Amazon-specific bulletin, or as I suspect, a the same bulletin Sky News sends to commercial radio stations up and down the country.

The bulletin seems to be timed from the last hour – 9pm, 10pm, 11pm etc – and lasts a couple of minutes.

If you delve into the settings of the Flash Briefing in the app, you can find other news sources which you can turn on or off. Sky News is turned on by default in the UK, but you can turn others on. Annoyingly there’s no option to reorder them. So if you want your Flash Briefing to have more than one source, the default order the sources appear in Amazon’s list determines the order you hear them. This feels like something Amazon could fix.

You’re also limited to the sources that Amazon has included, but there’s a reasonable range including the BBC, CNN, The Wall St Journal and others. I had a play with the BBC sources.

First off is BBC Minute, which is a one minute bulletin produced every 30 minutes by the BBC World Service, and aimed at partner stations around the world (it’s not actually broadcast on the BBC World Service itself). The bulletin is available as a podcast and that’s how Alexa is pulling it in, serving the bulletin via TuneIn.

There is also a BBC World Service news bulletin which again comes from TuneIn. This is a two minute bulletin and is your best bet for serious news.

There’s the World Service Daily Commute, a thirty minute daily news podcast. Finally there’s a BBC Radio 4 option which unfortunately is the most recent Today Programme podcast. The Today Programme is of course a very fine morning news programme, but their podcast stream is complicated because it outputs around 3 different clips each morning – a business roundup, a more serious piece (e.g. their main 8:10am interview) and perhaps something a bit more quirky. None of those things are actually a news bulletin, and I wouldn’t really want them in my Flash Briefing.

The sports section is frankly pretty poor.

When you set it up on the app, you’re invited to select your favourite teams. A few Premier League teams were pre-selected for me. But I couldn’t find any Championship teams, let alone those lower down in the leagues. And there were no Scottish teams either! Nor could I find rugby or cricket teams. From what I could tell, this has only been very lightly localised with most of Alexa’s database filled with American sports teams of various sizes.

This is really poor and those other teams need to be added as a matter of urgency. There are no national teams either.

As I’m an Arsenal supporter, I’m OK for my favourite club. So I asked Alexa to tell me the latest score. That night Arsenal had just beaten FC Basel 2-0 in the Champions’ League. However, Alexa didn’t know that and only gave me last Saturday’s result against Chelsea, as well as alerting me to this weekend’s fixture. Good to know, but not enough. Amazon needs to buy in a lot more data sources to cover all the football competitions and plenty of other sports too.

The sport is also very team oriented. If you want general news about cycling or F1, or want to know Andy Murray’s results, it’s simply not set up for it. It would have been rubbish during the Olympics.

As well as baked in services like maintaining a to-do list or a shopping list, not necessarily just Amazon purchases either, although those are easy to manage, Alexa can also integrate with your calendar. At least if you’re calendar is a Google calendar. I couldn’t see how to make it work with Outlook or iCalc. Fortunately, my personal calendar is indeed a Google one, and you can get Alexa to tell your day’s appointments as well as add things to your calendar. What I didn’t see was any email integration. Amazon does warn you that your calendar will be available to everyone in your household, so it’s worth bearing in mind depending on who’s using Alexa.

Music playback is a key part of Alexa, and it works with a number of services – notably Amazon Prime Music (of course) and Spotify. You can choose a default service, and asking Alexa to play Coldplay will come from your choice of service. Notably, it won’t work with either Google Play Music or Apple Music, at least without using the workaround of playing via Bluetooth.

It is relatively easy to pair your phone or tablet to Alexa via Bluetooth, and then use a voice command to connect and disconnect your device accordingly. That means that you can listen to those services, but of course Bluetooth streaming does eat more battery than something like Chromecast.

Incidentally, there’s no Aux socket on the Echo, so you can’t use it as a dumb speaker for sending your audio to.

As I’ve mentioned, radio by default, comes from TuneIn. So if you ask Alexa to “play Radio 1” or “ESPN Radio” it will come via TuneIn. That does lead to some oddities. I asked, “Alexa, play Capital Radio,” and it dutifully played Capital Radio. The Madrid-based, Spanish-language Capital Radio who seem to be a speech service. To be fair, when I rephrased that as “Capital FM” it worked. Then I asked, “Alexa, play CNN Radio,” and it played CNN Radio Turkiye, CNN’s Turkish partner service. On the other hand, TuneIn selected the correct UK version of Virgin Radio when asked.

Fortunately RadioPlayer is a skill on Alexa, and that means you can get all the British services by specifying “RadioPlayer” in your command. So if you say something like “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Capital Radio,” you’ll get a local UK version (RadioPlayer asks you for your closest city when you set it up, so it will serve me, for instance, Capital London). Given the multiplicity of similarly named stations around the world, Radioplayer is the safer bet for getting the UK station you expected. The only shortcoming I could find is the lack of on demand programming which the mobile app does offer.

Having both TuneIn and Radioplayer means that I can get the same radio station in two different ways. “Alexa, play Absolute 80s,” will give me the same result as, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute 80s.” To my ears, they sounded the same. Also, in my tests, I heard no pre-rolls for any of these stations. And when I tuned into ESPN Radio, no geo-blocking seemed to prevent me listening to a baseball game they were broadcasting.

It’d be great if I could teach Alexa to use Radioplayer in the first instance, and then drop back to TuneIn if it can’t find the service I’m asking for.

Each of the Skills you enable on Amazon – and you do have to actively enable them – means learning a few new commands. I enabled The Guardian (The Telegraph and Mail were both there too), and you have to say, “Alexa, open The Guardian” to get into a voice sub-menu. Alexa reads back the top three headlines and you can choose to have an article read to you. Because these are likely to be chunky stories, it will alert you to the fact that reading the article might take five minutes. “Alexa, stop,” is a useful command.

The Guardian also allows you to listen to its sports news as well as podcasts and other parts of the paper. The key here is how easy they’ve made it to navigate their articles, and how much information they’ve put into their details in the Skills section of the app/website. The more, the better!

Sometimes the US origins of this device shine through. You can set up your commute on Alexa, but that actually means your driving commute. Alexa will helpfully tell you about traffic congestion on your drive to work. But what if your commute is via rail? Fortunately, National Rail is a partner and you can enable its Skill. It quickly asks you to set up your rail commute. As long as both ends are National Rail stations, it works (although in comments, I see some struggled with getting the right local station variant understood). If your commute is Cambridge to London King’s Cross, then it’s fine. But if it’s Cambridge to Oxford Circus, then you might want both information on the National Rail part of the journey and details about the Victoria Line. National Rail can’t help you with the latter. TfL would be a really useful Skills addition for Londoners, as would other regional transport companies.

One disappointment so far is listening to podcasts. I use PocketCasts to play my podcasts, and that does mean that I have a uniform list of podcasts across different devices and platforms no matter how I listen to them. If I listen to a podcast in one place, PocketCasts in all the others knows I’ve heard it. PocketCasts is Chromecast enabled too.

From what I can see, aside from going via a specific app like The Guardian, podcasts are delivered via TuneIn, but they seem to be very hit and miss. When I asked for This American Life, I got some kind of 24 hour This American Life stream which was obviously mid-episode. On the other hand, asking for 99% Invisible got me straight to the most recent episode. I tried getting both Guardian Football Weekly and the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, but despite trying lots of variants, Alexa failed to find either. Indeed at one point, she decided to play me an audio book from my Audible account! That’s great in itself, but wasn’t what I was after here.

One thing that is absolutely seamless is hooking Alexa up with Philips Hue lightbulbs. Yes… I have some.

At first I was confused that I couldn’t find Hue as a Skill before I realised that it was baked in. You do a search for smart devices, press the button on your Hue Bridge (key to getting the Hue system to work), and hey presto, it found all my bulbs. Alexa then lets you group these smart devices together. In my case I added two bulbs to create the “Hall” and three bulbs to create the “Living Room.” Then I added all five to create the “Flat.”

Having done this you can bark commands like, “Alexa turn on Hall lights,” or “Alexa, turn off Flat lights.” And it does so very quickly indeed.

It’s at this point that you begin to think that you’re living out all your science fiction dreams!

Other Skills I’ve yet to turn on include Uber, Just Eat, and Jamie Oliver. There is a reasonable collection of them, but they could do with more. In recent months, Amazon has been adding Skills almost daily in the US, so let’s hope they’ll take a proactive approach in the UK too.

One real disappointment is the Echo speaker itself. Whisper it, but it’s not that great. Sat next to my dumb Sony X55 Bluetooth speaker, the difference in sound quality is clear. They both cost me similar amounts. Indeed I bought the Echo at a special launch discount of £99. It’s back to £149 now.

I bought the Echo knowing it wasn’t that great sounding, but it’s a shame Amazon didn’t improve on it a bit in time for the UK release.

However the volume is perfectly good for filling a room. I wouldn’t use it for a party, but it’s fine for listening in general – aside from being mono of course. You can control the volume either with the dial on the top of the device, or by saying something like, “Alexa, volume 5.” The only problem I had was after pumping the volume up to 9, Alexa could no longer hear me above the sound of the music it was playing! I had to walk over and manually turn the volume down to regain voice control.

There’s no audio out from the Echo, so you can’t send stereo sound to a better speaker system either. On the other hand the much cheaper (£49) Echo Dot does allow you to send the output to another speaker via a 3.5mm jack. At that price, Amazon might sell stacks of these things.

The microphone pick-up is really excellent. Alexa hears her name above a certain amount of ambient sound (but not maximum volume as I say), and the range is decent enough that I’m able to send instructions to Alexa from my living room and bedroom. But then I don’t live in a mansion. I note that Amazon will be bundling 6 Dots for the price of 5, so clearly they’re aiming at a multi-room world. Using either these or Chromecast Audio devices is vastly cheaper than something like a Sonos system.

In my experience, response time of the Echo is really excellent. Amazon has obviously worked hard interpreting audio as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yes, I have a fast broadband connection, but the Echo is ridiculously fast serving you with what you want. There really is minimal delay in it doing what you asked. It’s mightily impressive.

One small downside is responding to secondary questions. In some instances, a call-response-call-response is required, and if you’re not careful, you can drop back to the main menu. There is a certain language learning curve here, and sentences do need to be formed a bit more carefully than natural language.

Another thing to note is that, so far, I’ve not heard any advertising beyond standard broadcast radio ads. The National Rail mobile app, for example, is advertising supported, but there’s none of that hear. It’s all a nice clean interface. We’ll see if anyone starts adding audio ads.

The one thing that did worry me lot before buying the Echo was the fact that I was essentially buying some kind of bug to put into my home. For Alexa to work, the microphones have to be live all the time. There is a mic-off button on the top which prevents Alexa from working if you choose, but surely everything else is being listened to all the time?

Amazon assures users that Alexa is offline when listening out for its own name. Only when it hears its name and switches on the blue LED at the top does it start sending audio to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. I’m sure that were that not the case, someone would have found out quite quickly, but clearly there are privacy concerns, and I’m certainly not going to ignore them.

I bought the Echo as much as anything to experiment. In many respects, it may have been smarter to wait for the upcoming Google Home device, which will potentially be cheaper, and more tied into Google services. In particular, my music is stored on Google, and I’m not about to replicate it on Amazon, at extra cost. And Google’s Chromecast infrastructure works well. I use it to play music in my bedroom on speakers and via my TV in my living room. Google Home will reputedly allow you to throw to TV from audio as necessary too.

But it’s a bit of an unknown, with an expected retail announcement next week, that may or may not see it released in the UK. It’ll be worth looking out for, and there could be an interesting hardware battle played out between Google and Amazon (Apple, despite Siri, really isn’t in this game just yet).

What is clear is that the usefulness of these devices is not just the very clever voice analysis technology, but also the services the various providers sign up. Getting these partners on board is key to the form’s success.

Amazon is clearly backing Alexa in a much bigger way now, with them encouraging other manufacturers to add Alexa to their devices (e.g. Pebble phones, or the Raspberry Pi project), and they’ve announced that the next generation of Fire TV Stick will include Alexa capability in the remote.

I also think that the adoption of voice interfaces is more likely to be successful inside the home or in the car than elsewhere. Despite phones having had Siri and Google Assistant for a number of years now, you rarely see or hear anyone using them in public, as you feel like a bit of an idiot. I’m much more comfortable talking to a device in the privacy of my home or car.

The other thing critical to the success of these devices will be explaining to users how they work, and what they’re capable of. While geeks like me will explore to an extent, others will need lots of demonstrations to see their value. I find that too often, functionality is there, but a bit hidden away. You don’t know what you don’t know. That means lots of examples, and good, clear, documentation where appropriate.

Backup Storage Solutions and Costs

Old Technology

More than a year ago, I wrote about some experiences I’d had with backup storage and thoughts about “off-site” back-ups. It prompted a couple of responses on the blog, and a few more on social media. Not the most exciting of subjects, but an important one, as I still believe that in this age of digital collections, backup will be a key issue. Just one that most people don’t spend much time thinking about.

To recap.

I use a lot of storage:

  • I shoot video and although I upload edits of what I shoot to Vimeo or YouTube, I like keep the original materials (in one instance this paid off, when I sold a shot to a company who’d found part of it on Vimeo).
  • I shoot photographs. Lots of photographs. Anything I take on my phone gets backed up to my Flickr and Google Photos accounts. (They also go temporarily to a Dropbox account.) But that doesn’t help for shooting with my cameras, where I prefer RAW. These large files end up on a local NAS drive once I’ve moved them off the PC where I edit them. I should note that I do delete files. If I shoot a batch of ten broadly identical photos, then assuming I like any of them, I’ll only keep one version. So for every 100 photos I shoot, I perhaps keep 10, and upload 5 to Flickr.
  • I have a digital music archive. I keep a local copy of it in iTunes – loathsome as that software is. And it’s mirrored on Google Play Music where they upped the limit to 50,000 tracks (I have more than 25,000 on there currently). I mostly play back music via Google Play Music either on my phone or via Chromecast devices. Beyond music, I have lots of other audio, both field recordings and radio recordings.
  • I have other legally purchased commercial video files – including iTunes downloads and DRM-free mp4 files.
  • I have a myriad of other documents, mostly much smaller in size.
  • I have several PCs and tablets, including the hard drives from a number of older computers, some of which files I’d like to have retrievable.
  • I have around 100 MiniDV tapes that I’d like to “rip” and store (A project for another day).
  • I have a large box of film photos that I want to scan at some point (Another project for yet another day).
  • Probably other stuff too…

While some files sit on various computers, I try to mostly copy files onto one of two Synology NAS drives. Cumulatively they have about 6TB of space, of which I’m using more than half. One NAS in particular will need its 2TB drives replaced by 3 or 4TB drives fairly soon (Yes, I Know 6TB drives are available, but I try to be cost efficient).

I also have a plethora of old hard drives and expansion drives that I have been slowly consolidating onto larger, newer portable hard drives (Three old small hard drives might now sit on one larger capacity drive).

Services I use that offer storage:

  • Google Drive. Through various promotions and purchases, including a Chromebook, an HTC phone, doing work for Local Guides, and running security check-ups, I have a cumulatuive 2.2TB of space. However, this space is not permanent, with 1TB disappearing at the start of next year when my Chromebook will be two years’ old (Plus, they don’t hand out 1TB for new Chromebooks now, in case I was thinking of upgrading).
  • OneDrive. Beacuse I have a paid subscription to Office 360, I get 1TB with this. In fact, I could have five accounts, each with their own 1TB. But that would be painful with multiple logins required. For those with lower usage needs, this offers a great deal however.
  • Dropbox. Just the basic free account with 2GB of space. Although I have occasionally gone on the paid plan for a podcast I work on.
  • BT Cloud. My ISP gives me 500GB because of the plan I’m on. I’ve never used it, and have heard it’s a bit slow.
  • Evernote Premium. Used for note taking and scanning. Not for files, but scanning magazine articles I want to keep and making them searchable, for example, does take space. But it’s not for files per se.

What I need:

Let’s say I need 6TB of space. It’ll probably more than that in due course, but 6TB is a good starting point. Let’s try to price that up at the various big vendors.

  • Google Drive is £7.99 a month per TB. So for 5TB of additional storage (1TB drops off my account in January don’t forget), we’re looking at £479 pa.
  • OneDrive is £1.99 per 50GB. So for 5TB of additional storage, it’d be £2388 pa although I feel sure that there must be most cost efficient ways of buying storage from Microsoft. I just can’t see them – aside from opening multiple Office 360 accounts which seems mad.
  • Dropbox seems to push me towads a Business plan at £110 pa for “As much as needed” (which may not include VAT). Still, that seems to be pretty decent value.
  • Amazon Cloud Drive has finally updated its UK offer and either gives Amazon Prime users their free “Prime Photos” service which is unlimited space for photos, and 5GB for other files including video, or their Unlimited Storage offer which is £55 a year, with a free three month trial.

There are of course lots of other providers which are and aren’t aimed at the consumer end of the market. And different not all cloud services are aimed at the same use cases. I’m not really looking for a shared working environment so much as reasonably priced archival space.

I’m looking for something that’s reliable, that allows me a clear understanding of cost, and doesn’t place many limits on what I store and how large the individual files are. While I’ve not shot many yet, a 4K video file lasting more than a few minutes is likely to take up an enormous amount of space. I don’t think I have any single file that’s larger than 4GB, but some services top out what they’ll accept at 5GB per file.

I also want to be certain that a provider I use is going to be there next year, in five years and in ten years.

Amazon has actually built an enormously profitable business offering cloud servers and storage. However, S3 storage pricing is a little opaque – essentially it’s based on how much access the files have. While Amazon Glacier is intriguing because it’s a very low cost backup solution at $0.007 per GB / month. It’s based around archival needs, and the data might take a few hours to become available once you’ve requested it.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Amazon Cloud Drive is the winner here. £55 for unlimited storage is a good deal from my perspective. But there are a few provisos worth getting into. This is for non-commercial use – they particularly seem to be concerned about people running photography businesses who no doubt generate lots of files all the time. I’m not running a business, but am an enthusiastic amateur. I assume I won’t be in trouble!

They’re also unsurprisingly worried about people sharing illegal files, or storing such files in the first place. I’d guess that this is not going to be home for your massive collection of torrents. That said, I’m not clear how they can determine a film bought legally and an illegal one. If I rip my DVD collection, can I store it in the cloud?

If you have large files, then you won’t want to use their web interface to upload them (But you didn’t want to do that anyway). And files with more than 255 characters or special characters, unsurprisingly, cause problems.

If you stop paying Amazon, they may delete your files. Kind of obvious, but worth knowing anyway.

To be clear, I’m using this as purely a backup service. There will be no files on Amazon that I don’t also have locally. Indeed the NAS drives I own are in RAID arrays themselves (although other files that will eventually reach Amazon may only have a single local backup).

Finally there’s the small issue of getting terabytes of data into the cloud in the first place. My BT Infinity 2 service is fibre-to-cabinet, and claims that it has no upload or download limits. But if I’ve got something like 6TB of data I want to initially back-up, that’s going to take quite some time.

At time of writing, I’ve only been uploading a 2TB NAS drive for less than 24 hours, and it’s not clear how long it’s going to take me in total. But it could easily be a full month before that first NAS is in the cloud. It does seem that Amazon “drip feeds” the files across. This is probably a good thing, because I don’t want all my bandwidth used up all the time as files fly back and forth.

Indeed I’m actually using a Synology app called Cloud Sync to do the backups, and that can limit the number of simultaneous files being uploaded. Furthermore, I’ve scheduled the syncing to stop at various points during the week when I’m more likely to want unfettered internet use myself. So I’ve got three hours in the morning and another six in the evening when it pauses syncing. At weekends, the syncing process will also be halted during the day.

To be honest, I was happily streaming Netflix while syncing over the weekend, so it’s probably not really necessary. But it lightens the load on the network during peak hours.

The good thing about using a NAS drive app is that only the NAS needs to remain on while the upload happens. Amazon does have a PC/Mac app for backing up your local PC, but there seems to be a question mark over whether it keeps your computer “in sync” with the cloud, or simply does a one-time back-up, requiring you to manually sync additional files at a later date. Either way, I’ve not bothered yet, since I’ll do one at device at a time. The good thing is that there are plenty of third party applications that will work with Amazon and will probably do what you need.

Amazon also has a mobile app which will dutifully send through all your photos and videos, but as mentioned above, I’ve got these covered already.

I will report back on the success of Amazon Cloud Drive and any issues I have with it in due course. In the meantime… let the upload continue!

Note: All prices and offerings are correct at time of writing. This is clearly a very fluid market.

Best-Selling Folk Music… According to Amazon

I have fairly broad musical tastes – it’s why I struggle when people ask me what kind of music I’m into. A couple of weekends ago, for example, you could have found me watching the Pet Shop Boys at the Royal Opera House on Saturday night, and the next day in a field in Hertfordshire at the always excellent Folk by the Oak festival.

Amazon is famed for it’s ecommerce prowess, and I must confess that I make full use of the next day delivery that Prime offers. So I’ve bought music in plenty of genres from Amazon, still mostly preferring CD to download (let’s not even mention “rental” here).

Amazon tries to learn from my buying patterns and likes to send me suggestions of what to buy next. Having bought a few folk albums from them, they naturally like to send me a regular email entitled Best-selling folk music..

It’s awful.

Here are a few genuine emails I’ve had from them so far in 2016:

January

January

Featured are Jame Bay, Adele, Mumford & Sons and Eva Cassidy. Mumford & Sons, I could just about allow as folk, and Eva Cassidy has certainly sung folk, although this album would best be considered jazz. But sorry – not Adele or James Bay!

February

February

Wow. All of these comfortably count as folk music. What’s more, this email is actually telling me about interesting new folk music.

March

March

Well Bellowhead Live is a great choice to be promoting. The Gloaming and Sandy Denny are fine too. But Daniel O’Donnell? Well I suppose I’ll allow it. I mean he’s definitely not Pop and Rock.

April

April

Just in case you thought their algorithms were learning, then fear not, because April saw two Adele albums, a James Bay album and George Ezra. I wouldn’t count any as folk.

June (I can’t see a May email)

June

Again, I can just about allow Mumford & Sons, and indeed Christy Moore. I’m not familiar with Max Jury but he perhaps straddles folk and country. And yes, Simon and Garfunkel I suppose could be folk too – their version of Scarborough Fair is on it after all. Maybe the algorithm is improving?

August (Again, no July email)

August

Ah – we’re back to Adele and James Bay again. But there’s also a Ministry of Sound compilation album no less! An unlikely label to be releasing folk. The album is subtitled “The perfect blend of laid back & acoustic covers.” Well… okay… but… Artists featured include Justin Bieber, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Sia, Ella Eyre and Florence + The Machine. So I really don’t think this counts.

I think I know what’s happening here.

Amazon obviously categorises every album they get into multiple categories. They’re effectively trying to add it to lots of categories to make sure every album is eminently discoverable. But that means that the same massive selling albums appear everywhere. And that means when they send an email like this, it makes a complete nonsense of it.

But it does seem that I’m getting two very different types of emails of “best-selling folk.” And very occasionally, Amazon might actually highlight a decent new folk album.

But mostly it wants to alert me about Adele’s older work, which seems entirely unnecessary, and most irrelevant, fine singer though she undoubtedly is.

Amazon Prime Music – Filling A Hole

AmazonPrime

Back over the summer, Amazon launched its Prime Music offering in the UK. Anybody who pays Amazon £79 a year, for it’s free next day delivery service, and video streaming service, now also has access to more than a million tracks and hundreds of playlists to stream via the web, Fire TV or a mobile app. I’ve been using it on and off since it launched and thought it was worth writing about.

“A million songs you say? That’s a bit rubbish compared to the 30 million that others like Spotify and Apple Music offer?”

Well it is, and it isn’t.

But I don’t think this is really competing with those services. If you are subscribing to one of them you’re paying three times what the UK average consumer is used to paying for music on that subscription alone.

When it launched, it was noticeable that music from Universal was notably missing. But Amazon has subsequently done the deal and added some of their catalogue to its Prime Music offering.

In any case, this isn’t a full service as Spotify and Apple would offer. It’s an “enough” service. You’re already paying for it if you have Amazon Prime, so it’s just a free bolt on to you as a user.

If you need some more convincing, look back at my piece explaining how the average UK consumer spends less than £40 a year on music. Spotify Premium or Apple Music are not mass market offerings. Those companies might like them to be, but in fact they mostly appeal to a subset of the universe of people who listen to music.

I’ve been intrigued to see how Amazon’s offering is developing. Two weeks ago, the new Adele album, 25, was released to fanfair of publicity and primetime TV exposure. Notably, the album is not available to stream on either Apple or Spotify’s streaming subscription services. On the other hand, another album that will likely be a big seller ahead of Christmas is Enya’s new album, Dark Sky Island. That album is available to stream on Spotify, but perhaps more interestingly, Amazon.

For the most part, Amazon’s one million tracks are slightly older fare – albums mostly having been out a year before they reach Prime streaming. There are a few other newer albums on the service too like new ones from “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” and, er, One Direction.

And then there’s this week’s big new release, A Headful of Dreams by Coldplay. That too can be streamed on Amazon. It’s also seemingly on Apple Music, but is not available to stream on Spotify (possibly because Spotify won’t offer different catalogues to premium and free users). [Update: Seemingly, Coldplay’s new album will be available on Spotify from this Friday, 11th December]

Amazon is making quite a big deal about all four, so I imagine that there’s some kind of marketing quid pro quo going on.

[A little side note here on Adele.

Some have suggested that Adele is just being greedy not making her album available on Spotify et al. She has in past spoken pretty naively about the amount of tax she pays, which doesn’t come across well when you’re a multi-millionaire. But I think she’s entirely within her rights to get people to buy her album for a tenner rather than stream it for tuppence. She is the minority of artists who have the clout to demand this, alongside the likes of Taylor Swift. Kudos to her if she can get her own way.

The other slightly daft comment I’ve heard is that this somehow forces people into “ye olde” ways of buying a CD and ripping it.

Er. No.

Yes, the CD is getting distributed in hundreds of stores, including places like Tesco Express where you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see music, but it’ll also sell a bucket-load on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, all of whom will let you instantly download or stream the album without you ever having to go near a shiny disc.

In any case, there are still an awful lot of people who listen to music, but don’t subscribe to a streaming music service, or even use a free one. And they buy Adele albums as her gargantuan sales show.]

Back to Amazon Music.

30 million tracks is a ridiculously large number. So is one million. That’s still a lot of music. In fact it’s a scary amount of music. That means that it’s interesting to see how much curation is coming into play with all the music services these days. Because unless you are a real “muso,” there’s nothing scarier than that empty flashing box at the top of the screen asking you what you’d like to listen to.

Most of us have no idea what to type, apart from a handful of very obvious artists.

So like Apple, Amazon has pre-populated dozens of playlists for you start with.

And when you consider that some popular radio stations play as few as 400 unique tracks across a month, you’ll understand that a million tracks is actually quite a lot of choice even when you dive down into your preferred genres of music.

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My main criticism of the service so far is accessing the music. It is true that there are perfectly functional apps for iOS and Android, with the latter not requiring you to download it from Amazon’s own store rather than Google Play as the do with the Amazon Video app. They’re functional rather than wonderful, but you get offline downloads and it merges purchased tracks with Prime Music that you “add” to your library.

But curiously, if you use a Fire TV, you’re mostly limited to playlists. I’ve yet to discover a good way to navigate around their offering, looking for individual albums within the Fire TV interface. If it’s there, it’s not intuitive.

The one thing I can’t try is listening via the Amazon Echo. Having recently had a chance to play with one a little, I’d actually love to buy one of these devices. But Amazon has yet to deign to release them outside of the US for reasons that aren’t really clear, since just about all the rest of the hardware, even their ill-fated phone, made it to the UK.

For me, the most useful aspect of Prime Music remains the automatic digital copies Amazon has of at least some of the CDs I’ve bought from it over the years. It’s not complete – indeed today, there are still plenty of new CDs that don’t come with Amazon’s AutoRip. But it at least gives me an immediate subset of my audio catalogue which can be supplemented with the Prime offering.

In the end, is this as good as the other streaming services? No, of course not. It was never designed to be. But if your household is already paying for Amazon Prime, then I can imagine a lot of people very happy to dip into Prime Music now and again.

BBC Store – Initial Thoughts

After much ballyhoo, the BBC Store is finally with us, and well, um, it sells downloads and streams.

You buy episodes rather than rent them – although the prices are much of a muchness really with television. And then you play them back via the web, or in due course, mobile apps. To be honest, I’m surprised that the apps aren’t there at launch, but we’re told they’re coming.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store doesn’t offer particularly better value than other retail outlets. A few comparisons:

– Fawlty Towers costs £15.98 for two series on BBC Store, £14.99 on iTunes and £9 on DVD at Amazon
– Yes Minister costs £24.99 for three series on BBC Store, £9.99 on iTunes and £14.50 on Amazon (but you get two series of Yes Prime Minister in that boxset too!)
– Edge of Darkness costs £7.99 on BBC Store, £5.99 on iTunes, while the DVD is £4.17 on Amazon (an utter bargain whichever way)
– Planet Earth costs £10.99 for SD and £12.99 for HD on BBC Store, and the same pricing in iTunes, while the DVD is £7.71 and BluRay £10.90 on Amazon

(Note: I’ve not factored in the current 25% off they’re offering for introductory purchases)

Essentially the BBC isn’t able to undercut its rivals by selling programmes cheaper, but this random selection shows that it’s mostly more expensive.

However, if all of that sounds negative, then there is always the great redeeming feature of finding something you thought would never otherwise be available to buy.

I doubt that the current Helen Czerski series on BBC Four about Colour would have ever been made available to buy on disc, yet you can buy a download on BBC Store for a very reasonable £4.99 for the series.

Similarly episodes of BBC Four series Timeshift on some very esoteric subjects are also available to own; whereas they’d never have been made available to buy on physical media. Although it’s a shame that I can only see one episode of Arena (they claim two), which is the recent Nicolas Roeg edition, when I know there’s such a rich history to that series.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that there’s anyone alive who needs to own one of the 248 episodes (at time of writing) of Bargain Hunt that are available to own for £1.89 a pop, unless you actually appeared in it. In which case, didn’t you either record it at the time, or get the production company to send you a copy? But fill your boots otherwise!

Casualty isn’t the kind of series that regularly got DVD releases either, but there are 137 episodes (at time of writing) up for grabs if you just can’t get enough Charlie.

And every episode of Eastenders since August 2014 is there to buy too. (And there are over 400 episodes of Doctors come to that!)

I would imagine that the cost of adding programmes to the BBC Store is low, so putting these episodes online is probably near automatic and for the few devotees who do want to buy individual episodes then there’s minimal cost to stocking these programmes and selling them to those who want to own them. That’s the beauty of digital.

The store does let you know when episodes are still available to watch free of charge on iPlayer which is good, because episodes can reach the store as soon as they’ve aired.

Programmes usually include subtitling and occasionally sign language – almost certainly a rarity. And there is a parental lock available on programmes labelled as such. I must admit that I find these things fairly arbitrary – either being unrated (family friendly) or “G.” Who knows what determines a “G” rating?

But there are a few problems.

We’re promised mobile apps will follow, although I’d have thought that they should have been there for launch. And I can’t access my programmes from within the TV app versions of iPlayer right now. I can however reach them from the regular iPlayer site within My Programmes > Purchases. Again, we’re promised that this will be fixed in due course. This is all a bit unfortunate because I like to watch TV on, well, my television. I ended up using the Windows 10 app, and outputting the pictures via Micro DisplayPort on my PC to HDMI on my TV. All a bit messy really. Incidentally, there was a free Fast Show offer for users of the Windows 10 app.

It doesn’t make clear anywhere whether episodes are in HD or not – you have to click on a price before it tells you. Clearly that won’t be the case for older archive material, but it’d be nice to know from just looking at the programme that it is available in HD. I also don’t like the practice of hiding higher HD prices behind lower SD ones. Sky is also guilty of this.

And while we’re told that HD is at least 720p, my TV is capable of more than that. I’d like to know that I’m getting 1080p if the programme was made in HD, as I would if I bought a BluRay.

There’s a serious lack of meta data behind the store from what I can see. I can’t search by actor, writer or director, unless the store has already created a section for them – so I can search for Benedict Cumberbatch or Dennis Potter, but few others. That’s a big miss as both Netflix and Amazon realise a lot of people look for things starring particular people. It would be great for finding “before they were famous” appearances in Casualty and the like.

I did find some pricing oddities including a Timeshift episode priced at £1.89 for SD and £12.99 for HD! Definitely a mistake, and in any case, it’s a bit dubious having increased HD prices for a series made up largely of SD archive material anyway that for the most part has just been upscaled to HD.

The FAQ on the BBC Store downloader only mentions Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. They might want to mention Windows 10 – even just pointing you to the app (I searched for it in the Microsoft Store). Similarly OSX stops at 10.10 with no mention of the now current 10.11. And the use of Microsoft SilverLight for offline downloads is a serious disappointment since it’s no longer being actively developed by Microsoft, and support is beginning to be removed from major browsers as most video streamers move to newer technologies.

One download device per account is very stingy. Let’s hope that’s upped when mobile apps come along otherwise it’s unsustainable.

There are also issues around descriptions of programmes. It’s nice that I can buy BBC Proms concerts, but I’d probably have to go somewhere else to get a bit more information:

Episode 13: Friday Night at the Proms: Bernard Haitink Conducts
4 Sep 2015 120 mins
Schubert’s Italian Overture and Ninth Symphony, and Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto.

I’d also like to know the orchestra, and it wouldn’t be hard to include a bit of additional detail in there from the Proms website.

I note that they’re steering clear of allowing user reviews.

And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and BluRays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

But I will forgive an awful lot when I find a series I’ve been after for years, is now available to buy on the BBC Store. In this instance I’m talking about Tender is the Night, the 1985 Dennis Potter adaptation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel with Mary Steenburgen and Peter Strauss. I’ve longed to be able to get hold of a copy of this, and missed the recent BFI screening. Curiously the series is not listed in the Dennis Potter section of the store.

For me, issues surrounding pricing and playback options at launch can be mitigated by depth of catalogue. So let’s see BBC Store add more classic material to its output. I’d like to see things that aren’t currently available on DVD or BluRay, but have never been released before.

So dig deep into the archive and surprise me! (And get those mobile and smart TV apps sorted out.)

Note: Prices correct on 20 November 2015 when I wrote this.

[To readers of James Cridland’s Future of Radio newsletter – welcome! I should point out that the BBC still has a BBC Shop – it sells physical discs and, er, Doctor Who Christmas jumpers. BBC Store is their online only operation. Interestingly when Google first opened their online offering in the UK they localised it to be the “Google Shop.” They subsequently reverted back to Google Store. Yes, it’s Americanised, but I’m not sure that it’s not the right name for a digital outlet.]