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Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

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.

Failing to Optimise This Site

Over the past few days, Google has been pushing users to try running its Test My Site With Google service. In particular, it’s trying to help sites see how mobile friendly they are.

I dutifully entered the details of this site, and waited for the report.

I host this site quite cheaply, so wasn’t expecting any great shakes. But it’s running an up to date implementation of WordPress, and the theme I’m running is pretty responsive.

The report gives you three scores, marked out of one hundred – for mobile friendliness, mobile speed and desktop speed.

Mobile Friendliness came in at 98/100.

I’ll take that. The theme I’m using seems to work well on mobiles, with the only small issue being “tap targets” – the ease with which people can use their fingers to navigate the site. If the buttons are too small, then people may struggle to navigate with their fingers.

Then came the bad news.

Mobile Speed was just 14/100. And Desktop Speed came in at 0/100!

This is worrying because Google does base your ranking in part on your site’s speed. You would think that 0/100 for desktop means the site’s not loading at all, yet that’s simply not the case.

What is true is that some third-party hosted elements are slow loading – namely Flickr and Vimeo. But I “outsource” those for a reason. It keeps my costs down by hosting those elsewhere, and I can ensure that viewability is maintained by those companies’ development. Self-hosted videos or pictures can be a bit of a nightmare, and of course my hosting fees would ramp up.

However, Google was giving me big red marks against “Optimise Images” and “Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content.”

For the latter, I killed some JavaScript that WordPress loads for emoji. That’s redundant on this site as far as I’m concerned. But while that seems to remove the red mark against JavaScript, “Optimise Images” is still there. And I still score zero for desktop speed.

At this point I’m a little stuck.

Let me explain how I use images on this site. Here’s an example of a photo from Flickr embedded into this site:

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

I use Flickr’s own embed code, choosing the “Large” 1600 width image. The reason for that is that on desktop, I want the photo to look nice and big. While it’s not full-width, it’s pretty wide. And if you have a retina-style display, the photo should appear nice and big.

The embed code uses some Flickr JavaScript to ensure that the image is resized appropriately in a “responsive” manner. In other words, rather than being a fixed width, it will display smaller for smaller or mobile screens.

The problem remains, however, that in the background a 1600 px width image is loading. That’s slow and is impacting on Google’s assessment of my site.

I could embed a smaller width image. The one below is 800 px wide.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But this is going to look a bit rubbish on a smaller screen.

I can also adjust the embed code so that JavaScript isn’t loaded.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But while that helps with lessening the amount of JavaScript and is perhaps something I’ll do in the future, it still doesn’t help with reducing the size of the base image (1.2MB).

And if you’re viewing this on mobile, then all three images will probably look identical. But that’s the problem. You only need to see, perhaps a 600 px image.

I’d love to be able to load only large images when the display is big, but a smaller version if the display is more modest. And while there are plugins for WordPress that allow this (e.g. WP Retina 2X), they’re based on loading from your WordPress install, and not a third-party location like Flickr.

So I’m a bit stuck. My site, but it’s nature, will have large photos embedded, but I can’t find a way to make them look nice on large displays, but in particular, shrink the page-loads for those viewing on smaller screens.

[Update] Thanks to Em in the comments below, I’m trying to use srcset to see if that helps. See my next post here.

Search Engines in Film

wile-e-coyote-acme-products-catalog

In the Road Runner cartoons, Wily E Coyote often needed to buy various bits of equipment and products to try to stop said Road Runner. Invariably those anvils et al, were supplied by the Acme Corporation, a fictional company with a curious catalogue of products. It was always fun seeing what Acme was producing next. But we all knew it was a fictional company, and that was part of the gag.

Now I know that films and television do a terrible job of representing things that nearly everyone viewing knows about on a day to day basis. People sat at computers don’t use the mouse or trackpad on film because that’s not as exciting as someone beavering away on a keyboard.

When characters get sent text messages (at least until Sherlock changed all that), we saw curious screens with MASSIVE LETTERING that didn’t look any text messages or phones any of us had ever experienced.

Newspaper headlines often, but not always, appear on fake newspapers. However, even when they appear on real ones, they are particularly expository in tone – clearly written by someone who’s never been near a newsroom and has no idea how to write a headline.

The list goes on.

But if there’s something today that annoys me more most, it’s the fake search engine.

The drama you’re watching requires a character to do some research, perhaps look up another person. They naturally hit the internet. They open up a laptop (usually a real, branded laptop), and do an online search. On a fake website.

They don’t use Google. They don’t even use Bing.

Someone has had to create a fake search engine, that’s not already a real domain, and then make it look a little like Google, but not very much.

Why do they do this?

It’s incredibly distracting for the audience, because the entire watching audience has used Google. So by not using Google, you’ve drawn our attention out of the story and into wondering why the character is using AcmeSearchEngine.com or whatever.

Put it this way. The phone the character is using is probably an Apple or a Samsung. We know that because we can see the logo. If the producers made a fake handset and put, ooh, a “Banana” logo on it, we’d think they were going mad.

Similarly, everyone drives real cars. Real, branded, cars. They’re Fords, or Audis, or Range Rovers or whatever. Nobody goes out and designs a totally different car for their character to drive, because if they did, we’d all be sitting there saying, “What on earth is that car they’re driving?”

I realise there’s a whole host of dramas that won’t even use real operating systems. I’m not talking about SF, where it’s understandable, but productions set in the present day. They’re not using Windows, and they’re not using OSX. They’re not even using Linux. Some graphic designer has mocked up a bunch of screens and they’re using that. And we’re all sitting there thinking: “That’s not like an computer I’ve ever used.”

So why do filmmakers use fake search engines?

Probably the main reason is explained on this, now slightly old BBC site:

Products, Logos & Brand Names

All products, logos, brand names and trademarks that are featured prominently in your film need to be cleared for use by the manufacturers or businesses concerned. It’s often worth getting someone you know/your art department to create fictional brands instead to avoid the hassle. If you do use real products find out who to talk to at the manufacturers via the press office. Some of the clearances can be done in pre-production, (if you have an art department they should have an idea of which products they want to use), but there will always be new products that come up on a daily basis. If the product, logo, brand name or trademark is non-distinctive in the background, you most likely (but not definitely) do not need permission to film it. For instance, if you are filming an exterior street scene and the BMW car logo happens to be in a showroom behind the action and no reference is made to BMW as a company, then you are likely not to need their permission. As a general rule though, you should avoid filming or referring to any product, logo, brand name and trademark that shows a company or its product in a detrimental way. This is essential as many companies that own the rights or trademark in brands, logos and names will have the money to pursue infringement actions against you, and may follow a strict policy of taking action against infringers to protect their brand.

And there are obviously slightly different rules that apply in different countries. So the easy thing to do is not include any brands at all.

But if you follow that through to its logical conclusion, no real brands would ever get used. Yet if a gang of villains in a drama use a black Range Rover to carry out an armed robbery, does Range Rover get to complain? Or if a character uses an iPhone to negotiate a drug deal, can Apple stop the production. Indeed if a character shoots an unarmed bystander at point blank range with a replica Glock, is that OK? There is branding to one extent or another on all of those, and in any case, the design is also trademarked.

I realise that there’s a whole history of fake and real products on the internet. In Coronation Street, Rover’s Return regulars are famously fans of the fictional Newton & Ridley beer. Eastenders similarly has a fake brand. But in both soaps, the convenience stores tend to be stocked with real products, and while the camera doesn’t linger, nobody has blacked out the Kellogg’s logo as they might on Blue Peter build.

Set against fake products, there is product placement, where brands pay for their products to be used in shot. In the UK, that’s regulated by Ofcom, and you’ll see a logo in programmes that use it. Serious dramas, as a rule, don’t tend to use it, although some soaps on commercial channesl do. In the US, the credits normally alert you to any product placement. Although if it’s done badly enough, you’ll know yourself. Music videos can be particularly egregious in this field.

But there is another sort of “placement” – prop placement or prop provision. This is acceptable in the UK and elsewhere. Essentially there are middlemen who accept payment for supplying productions with props.

If your production needs a bank of computers for a particular scene, then you phone up a prop provision company and they’ll help kit your set out for you. Need to borrow a luxury car for your lead character to drive but your budget won’t quite extend to hiring one? They may be able to supply one free.

And it turns out that there is a whole industry that will also supply productions with fake websites. Thanks to Dave Walters for pointing me to Search-Wise.net, in fact a domain owned by a company called Compuhire, a company who specialise in in-vision graphics. So as well as fake search engines, the design fake graphics for computer screens, and ensure that those screens don’t cause flicker (for example with older CRT displays, the refresh rates of on-screen monitors need to be compatible with the number of frames per second your production is filming in to ensure that you don’t get strange banding effects on the screen).

But it’s not just search engines that this fakery happens for. Consider the simple newspaper. You want your character reading a non-specific newspaper in a scene? Well Hollywood has got you covered. Indeed Slashfilm has a great piece detailing a single prop-newspaper that has been repeatedly used over the years in a vast range of productions – from Married with Children through to Modern Family. It’s clearly a copyright free and brand free paper.

Slashfilm suggests it might be a playful gag from prop-handlers in a similar way to the inclusion of the Wilhelm Scream. But the real reason is that the papers are supplied by a Hollywood props company called Earl Hays Press, who specialise in printed props, and this is just a cheap standby standard. Note that in this instance, these are papers that aren’t used for close-ups.

I know that it is possible to use brands without permission in productions. Consider, for example, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. That film was made without the permission of Facebook, and had to employ lots of trademarked material. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was reported as not being happy at its production at the time. But I suspect in any case, that lawyers were heavily involved from the script stage onwards. See also the recent Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film on Steve Jobs.

But what about the 1985 comedy The Coca-Cola Kid? The film begins with a big scrolling-text disclaimer:

Coca-Cola-Kid-Disclaimer

Yet the entirely fictional film, dealing with an American trying to sell more Coca-Cola to Australians, undoubtedly includes many many references to copyrighted and trademarked products. The filmmakers had to be explicit in their unauthorised status, but the branding is there in the film throughout, and according to IMDB, the filmmakers still had to clear the film’s title with Coca-Cola, who one would assume, insisted on the disclaimer.

And then there was the case of the indie film, Escape From Tomorrow, notable for having been shot almost entirely at Disney World without the permission the Disney company. At the time it was made, there was a belief that Disney might attempt to stop the film being distributed, but in the end they didn’t perhaps believing that the Streisand Effect might have given the film more press than leaving a small indie film alone might otherwise generate.

However a good piece by Tim Wu at The New Yorker explains that the film is probably protected by US copyright law which allows for commentary and parody.

In researching this piece, I did ask a lawyer friend of mine, why production companies were so careful at not including real brands. They told me that while many car brands, for example, won’t be cleared, it comes down to the three Rs – risk, reward and resource.

Production teams have limited resource and will decide whether or not to seek approval based on the perceived risks in using that brand. How prominent will it be in the production, and who is the audience. The brand will find out that it’s been used one way or another, so will they pursue the production company at a later date?

If the use of the brand is considered derogatory, damaging or inappropriate, then the production company can expect a cease and desist letter with intellectual property infringement claims.

There are also other considerations including the launch of new products, or even rebrands that might be happening. Notably Google recently changed its logo, and it might prefer to keep its old brands from appearing in the media.

I’ve no knowledge of whether Google is or isn’t especially litigious in this regard, but my friend did mention the recent comedy The Internship. I’ve not seen this film, but this Vince Vaughan alleged comedy scores a mighty 34% at Rotten Tomatoes.

This film was clearly made with a great deal of assistance of Google. And because of that, it’s actually possible that Google is under an obligation to chase unauthorised use of its brand elsewhere because of financial considerations made elsewhere. This can be part of agreements for product placement too, with brands contractually obliged to protect their assets.

So there you go. It seems like fake search engines, and fake social media networks for that matter, are likely to be here to stay. It seems a shame, because otherwise realistic portrayals are suddenly very fake in the viewer’s eyes, but producers usually prefer not to take a risk.

Finally, here’s a supercut of fake websites, including a number of search engines and social media sites. Obviously none of these stand out as fake at all…

The Tow Center Guide to Podcasting

Headphones in Studio 2

There’s a terrific new report that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – an institute within the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It has published called A Guide to Podcasting. It’s an unashemedly US-centric view of the podcasting market in 2015, detailing the history of the medium, and presenting a series of case studies of big US podcasting operators.

It’s well worth a read if you’re curious to see where podcasting stands today.

The report is long, and I’m not going to go into it in full. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few key findings, and add some of my own thoughts to them. Some of them are things I’ve talked about before, but in each instance, I think they’re especially worthy of note.

The massive skew in mobile podcast consumption towards iPhones. The Tow document quotes a LibSync report that shows that there is currently a 5.4 to 1 ratio in favour of iOS devices over Android ones in the mobile market. Whereas the report notes that there something like one billion Android devices set against 470m iPhones.

I’ve stolen this wonderful (US focused) chart which illustrates this perfectly.

PODCAST15_clammrfuture_android

Note that this report seems to have been written before Google announced its entry into the podcasting market. But the report does note that there’d be likely to be developments between the report being completed and it being published. The Gimlet case study also misses out on their recent second round of funding.

67% of US podcaster are aged 18-34. They know how to use the technology. It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to other audiences as my septuagenarian father can attest, once he knew how to use the BBC iPlayer Radio app on his tablet. So it’ll be interesting to see how ages broaden out as podcasting increases. In the meantime, the 18-34 audience is one radio broadcasters are very worried about losing.

Podcasting really needs to broaden its user base. The previous two points are key parts of that – growing users beyond one type of phone, and getting those aged over 35 to listen. And the current audience can only listen to so many podcasts – something my inordinately sized PocketCasts library can attest to. Indeed the report suggests that it’s just six podcasts on average per week.

Slow and steady growth. As the report makes clear, podcasting has been around for a long time, and it’s had its moment in the sun before Serial came along (Season 2 out now!). The report includes a chart that shows podcasting as having had slow and steady growth since its inception.

The report goes on to note that the Serial phenomenom actually happened at time when the iPhone podcast app had just been separated out in iOS as its own app, and as the wider media was covering podcasts more. Both of these will have given it a healthy push.

I’d compare podcasting growth to UK DAB growth which has also been slow and steady rather than explosive as some consumer technologies have been. I wonder if this is a factor of audio? It’s not quite as sexy as video, but we still like it.

Searching for podcasts is an overall bad experience. iTunes is not great at surfacing podcasts beyond ones that are either popular according to its secret algorithm, or the handful that iTunes’ editors choose to feature on their site. Other podcast providers have similar issues.

The popular example of a company who manages this well is Netflix and its ability to aid viewer discovery. I’m not sure that’s the best answer – my experience is that all sorts of rubbish gets thrown at me. But I do hear very positive things about Spotify’s Discover playlist with regard to music listening.

Instead podcasters have to rely on social sharing and working within their own networks. Thus both Serial and Gimlet’s Startup launched by being included in the This American Life podcast feed.

That’s an opportunity only avaialble to a very limited number of podcasts and not at all available to those outside, say, US public radio circles. On the other hand it greatly aids those burgeoning podcast networks like Panoply and Gimlet. They can properly support and promote their own shows. An independent producer is going to struggle unless they have the budget to buy promotional airtime on those same shows – a route to market that others have taken.

One of the most exciting elements of Google enterting the podcasting space is what it can do with search. As well as utilising metadata, it’d be interesting to see if voice-to-text technology as utilised by Google Now, Siri and Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices, could be set to work on podcasts to provide more context for audio files, and enable discovery.

In car listening has its place. Cars are important, but it’s worth noting that while 44% of US radio listening is in car (according to a 2014 Macquarie Capital report), in other markets that aren’t as car-centric, it’s much less. For example it’s only 20% of radio listening that happens in-car in the UK. And in any case, new technology added in the car today doesn’t fully flow through the Car Parq (the industry term for all the cars on the road) for a number of years to come – 11 years on average in the US. In other words, just because a new off the assembly line car today comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s going to take a while before everyone has the ability to seamlessly stream audio in their cars without a combination of 3.5mm jack leads, Bluetooth connectivity or even FM re-transmitters.

Data issues. Not only are mobile podcasts disproportionately listened to by iPhones/iOS devices, but the bulk of traffic is delivered via iTunes – 70% is claimed in the report. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Apple was a very early supporter of podcasting, and therefore everyone should be thankful for them. On the other hand, they have the whip hand when it comes to data. Advertisers would like more data, as would podcast producers. I’m certain Apple could provide additional data were they to choose to, but that would involve changes in user agreements and generally it’d be doing work for little to no reward. (Plus nobody needs and even longer iTunes User Agreement!)

The report notes that Apple’s most recent iOS update actually favours streaming over download, with the latter taking an additional click to play back. Streaming, of course, provides more data than consumption of a “dumb” mp3 file.

Meanwhile, as well as adding dynamic advertising into podcasts at time of delivery, another area that is being developed according to the report, is the use of tracking pixels. Now I must admit that I’m unclear how this will work. Ordinarily such pixels are used to track digital advertising in web environments where there is live data. So a hidden pixel is delivered and the fact that it was shown means that you have some data about where and when it was delivered. But pure podcasts are simply mp3 files. While they might have “album artwork” embedded within them, I’m not aware that this would allow for any tracking. Indeed, when you’re listening to an mp3 offline, there simply isn’t a feedback mechanism.

Within bespoke apps this might be possible, and certainly platforms like Spotify employ it, although the free version of Spotify which displays advertising requires internet access.

Yet both Panoply, who have purchased the Audiometric software platform, and Acast are both talking about this technology. I’m curious to learn more.

Direct and foundation support is more normal in the US. Most US public television and radio is partly funded by viewers and listeners. The audience is regularly asked to dig deep and contribute. If you enjoy these programmes, then you need to pay is the message. That’s why this has been a key way a number of podcasts have supported themselves using a direct funding model.

But this is not something that’s “normal” in Britain and elsewhere. If there’s a pledge drive happening on TV or radio, it’s for charity. For some, it’s actually a bit “embarrassing” and runs against the traditional stiff-upper-lip attitude we have as a nation.

Now it’s certainly true that the landscape is changing, and more people are getting more comfortable asking for monetary support.

There is not really a history of foundations supporting radio and television services. These foundations just don’t exist in the same way in the UK, where spending of that type might instead be focused on visual or performing arts. Instead, across Europe, much public radio is supported by various forms of licence fee. Notably the UK television licence pays for all BBC Radio as well as BBC TV and other services. This is undoubtedly changing as podcast listening is not limited by borders (Hence I hear all sorts of advertising for products that are unavailable to me). And Radiotopia’s fundraising success internationally was such that it saw fit to hold supporters parties in various parts of Europe.

But philanthropy tends to reveal itself in different ways in different countries – so the US model does not necessarily work internationally.

Podcasters need to own their direct relationships with the audience. This is an important one. The case study on the Reveal podcast makes this point well. Obviously podcasts do have a relationship between themselves and their listeners, but they don’t own it. Without direct intervention, a podcast producer does not know who you are. And that places them at something of a disadvantage.

When you hear a podcast urge you to sign up for an email newsletter, like them on Facebook or even follow them on Twitter, that’s because these are they only ways they can form a relationship with you. As it stands, that relationship is actually “owned” by the podcasting platform – so Apple in all likelihood.

The reason that magazine and newspaper publishers have always been so keen on you taking out a subscription is not just that they have a guaranteed form of income, but that they get to add a name to their database. And they can develop a direct relationship from there. That could be selling additional products and services, or learning more about the audience.

Indeed a podcast producer needs to think, “What would happen if for some reason Apple shut down podcasts tomorrow?”

No, they’re not going to do it. But they could. It would be a painful, and very probably expensive business rebuilding that audience.

The only podcast I can think of that I subscribe to that knows who I am is The Cycling Podcast, because I’ve paid to become a premium member. They have my email address.

It’s the same argument some news providers have had with Apple – sometimes falling out with them. Apple owns the relationship (and takes a healthy cut of subscription revenues). The middleman has the keys to the castle.

In subscription television, the same is often true. It’s why BT Sport went around quite a convuluted route to get Sky viewers to register directly with them to enable the BT Sports channel rather than the less painful route of adding the channel via a few clicks of the remote control. Now BT knows who those Sky subscribers are. If they hadn’t taken that route, they’d have just known how many subscribers they had.

And finally, if you know who your customers are, you can also more easily shift platforms should you ever wish or need to in the future.

The ethics of podcast advertising is not straightforward. There was a very good recent episode of Gimlet’s Startup podcast looking at money and in particular what the company would and wouldn’t do. It’s really worth listening to if you’re interested in this area, as it explores many of the issues. Indeed Gimlet has always been very upfront about how they work advertising into their podcasts.

In the US, the most effective type of podcast advertising has proved to be presenter-read adverts. They tend to be delivered in the same tone as the overall podcast rather than from a specific script. The way the advertising is weaved into different podcasts can vary a good deal – the listener sometimes only belatedly realising that they’re actually hearing an ad. Sometimes specific music is used, or words along the lines of, “And now we must thank another sponsor…” But neither of these are always the case.

The presenter-read model can also lead to a lot of implied endorsement of products. Perhaps the presenter has indeed used the product and strongly recommends it. But are we certain? Indeed an earlier season one Startup episode also examined this area.

And what happens if a product maybe isn’t best-in-class? Their money is still good though…

Another “ethical” question is the use of native podcasts, or ad-funded podcasts. This kind of advertising is considered both very effective and profitable. There are clearly lots of companies now interested in having podcasts made for them.

But how do they get promoted? What’s the mechanism for launching them? Do you drop them into your regular programme feed? Or should potential subscribers be pushed in another direction?

If you ask different people these questions, the recent Startup episode suggests you’ll get different answers.

The current case to look at is The Message, which is paid for by GE and produced by Panoply. It’s an SF drama delivered in the guise of a presenter-led podcast. I’m not aware that the full podcast was placed in any other Panoply streams. Instead there were a number of promotional trails (in radio parlance) and ads promoting the series.

But it seems clear that there are no firm rules across the full podcasting environment and what some people will do, others will be uncomfortable doing.

Networks – them and us. The way things are working at the moment, the big networks are best suited to prospering. But what about smaller or independent podcasts? Is there a way through?

The beauty of podcasting originally was that it’s very cheap and easy to do. You can make a professional sounding podcast with an inexpensive microphone, a laptop and free editing software.

But in many ways podcast networks are raising the game. They have more resources, they have sales teams to sell advertising, and they can cross-promote their own new podcasts.

If you’re not part of a big network or broadcaster, you probably are at a disadvantage. You’re not out of the game – but like indie films versus studio blockbusters, or independently published books versus those from major publishers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, there are ways through.

More disruption in types of podcast is needed. It does feel like too many podcasts are just public radio programmes that might have previously existed given a fair wind and a friendly commissioner. There surely needs to be a wider range of podcasts dealing with a broader set of interests? Currently many of the more popular podcasts can feel very middle class. And that’s not surprising because it does seem like every half-decent producer in the US who was working for public radio has been poached by a podcast producer or network!

This isn’t necessarily true of all podcast types, but I tend to think it is true of the bigger shows in terms of listeners and awareness.

Finally the Tow Center report is also accompanied by a very smart interactive timeline telling the podcast story from a US perspective.

Google and Podcasts – More Thoughts

Google Play Terms of Service

This is a follow up to the post I wrote a few days ago when it was first announced that Google was getting into podcasts.

Go away and read that if you’ve not already done so!

A few things are worth noting that I hadn’t quite understood initially.

Google Serving Podcasts and Metrics

It’s very much worth noting that Google will host your podcast for you. They will take a single copy from the server you use to host your audio, and they’ll re-encode it to meet their needs (which may in itself be an issue for some podcasters), before serving files to Google Play Music users.

I imagine that there will actually be a range of differently encoded versions available, perhaps based on bandwidth of the user. But this will really only become clear when the service is live.

As mentioned previously, this does mean that Google will be the only source for downloads of podcasts from Google Play Music. I know that operators like LibSyn will be able to pull these metrics back into their own system to provide a better overview, but it’s worth noting that there will be differences. Will Google have a different view on what is and isn’t a “play” for example? We’ll have to wait and see.

Advertising

I foolishly suggested previously that Google might be somehow sharing revenues with podcasters either in terms of advertising or perhaps a share of subscriptions as a music artist would get for a curated listening experience via Google Play Music.

That really doesn’t seem to be the case.

Here’s the key passage from Google’s Terms of Service for the Google Play Music Podcast Portal:

7. Google Advertising/No Revenue Share. For the avoidance of doubt, Google has the right to present audio, video and/or display advertisements in connection with Google’s distribution of the Podcast Content on Google Play. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Google acknowledges and agrees that Google will not display any pre-roll or mid-roll advertisements in connection with the Podcast Content and will not sell or target advertisements directly against specific Podcast Content or any particular Podcast Creator. For the avoidance of doubt, Podcast Creator shall not be entitled to any royalties, revenue or any other any monetary compensation in connection with Google’s distribution of the Podcast Content in accordance with these Podcast Terms, including, without limitation, any monies Google may receive (including, without limitation, advertising and subscription revenues) in connection with Google’s display of advertising pursuant to these Podcast Terms. [Taken from the October 7, 2015 version.]

In other words, Google will run ads at the end of a podcast, and the podcast creator won’t see a penny of that. While it’s true that this doesn’t massively disrupt the models of those who are running their own advertising currently – mostly the bigger podcasting networks – this really doesn’t help the smaller guys who probably see no commercial revenue from their work.

Now I appreciate that not everyone in podcasting is there to make money, and are perhaps doing it for the fun of it. But it’s disappointing that Google isn’t offering a way to help make a business out of podcasting for those who’d like to be able to. (It’ll be interesting to see how this works with, say, the BBC who will not want advertising adjacent to its podcasts.)

While a direct comparison with YouTube doesn’t quite work because regardless of platform, unlike podcasts you have to use the YouTube website or app to watch videos, it’s notable that video creators do get options to monetise their videos with Google and share in the revenues earned.

Google is undoubtedly offering a massive distribution opportunity, with a chance for podcasters to grow their audiences enormously. And for many that will be enough. But as Google builds an audio advertising model, there’s no option here to share in that revenue which feels frankly quite mean.

There are other ways to earn revenue from advertising of course. Stitcher, for example, has a content provider programme that pays revenues based on listens via the Stitcher app according to a specific formula. Spotify is also carrying a selection of podcasts, but these seem to be invited onto the platform from the major providers. Although I can’t see it explicitly anywhere, you would expect that there’s some kind of revenue sharing model underlying these deals too.

Perhaps in time, as podcasting grows, Google will begin to offer pre-roll advertising that it can share with partners who choose to work with Google. I suspect that at the moment, Google is making cautionary steps into the marketplace and is trying not to rock the boat – the bigger guys all having worked out their commercialisation options. So maybe it’s a question of wait and see.

Google and Podcasts

podcasts01

This week we heard the first news that Google is starting to get into the podcast game. Recode had the first decent report on the move.

Currently, Apple dominates podcasts. Indeed, the word “podcast” might seem to imply to casual listener, that listening to a podcast means having an actual “iPod” to listen to them on. It doesn’t, although Apple’s inclusion of podcasts into iTunes fairly early on gave the medium a massive boost. At a time when you had to sync your mp3 player with some software on a PC, podcasting was technically complicated business. Tying it into the same system that got your music on your portable audio device was a smart move by Apple.

But in a mobile world with WiFi networks and 4G, podcasting should have become simpler. Apple spun out its Podcasts app, and a myriad of apps appeared on Android devices.

So why then are podcasts listened to on mobile devices still so heavily skewed towards Apple? It’s reported that Libsyn-hosted podcasts see more than five times as many iOS downloads as Android ones! That’s astonishing. And awful.

It’s so skewed because Apple fully supports podcasts, and when you turn on a new iPhone, you have the Podcasts app waiting to go. You can browse easily within the app for something to listen to, and when podcasts you might have caught because someone shared a link on social media, suggest you subscribe, they invariably mention that this podcast can be found in iTunes – where you can leave a review!

And so it becomes self-fulfilling. Indeed, too many people continue to believe that if they’ve got their podcasts in iTunes, then a simple link to that page is all they need to share. (See also my Top Tips for Podcasters.)

Yet while all of this is going on, there are more Android handset owners than iPhone owners in pretty much every market. Way more.

Podcasters are missing out. More to the point, they’re missing the opportunity to more than double their audience. But it’s not their fault. There’s just an in-built bias towards Apple in the podcasting ecosystem.

If we assume that an Android user is no more or less interested in audio than an iPhone user, then that leaves a lot of low hanging fruit ready to be picked. I’ve written about this in the past as The Android Problem. Yes, I know that iOS users buy more games and spend more money per device – maybe their more engaged with smartphones overall. But that doesn’t account for those massive discrepancies.

Earlier this year when I last wrote that piece, I was hoping that Google would get into this game, because podcasts are the obvious part of the iTunes store that the Google Play store is missing.

But what Google is talking about, as far as I can see, is something a bit different to Apple. Apple essentially allows anyone to place their podcast on iTunes. You complete a form, upload some graphics and meta data, find a host to serve your podcast and you’re away. If you have a podcast, you have to place it on iTunes.

podcasts03

But Google looks like it’s suggesting something a little beyond this. Yes, they want podcasters to upload their wares. And yes, they say that you’ll be able to search for and browse for podcasts by category – the same ones as Apple. But from what they’re talking about in their blog piece, they also want to automatically recommend appropriate podcasts – which sounds a little more like services such as Stitcher.

Since Google bought Songza, they’ve been implementing smart technologies to deliver music appropriate to the time of day and what you’re doing. Initially this was solely available in the paid-for Google Play Music subscription offering, but in the US, there’s now also a free version of this, with advertising support and limitations on how much music you can skip. (Regular readers may recall that as a UK listener, I was tortured with getting access to this, and then losing it for several weeks!)

Incorporating podcasts into this sort of thing is interesting, and listening to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman on The Feed, it’s clear that this is a major part of what they want to offer. Indeed, it’s worth noting that as well as Android, there will be iOS and web apps to enable wide adoption of what they’re planning.

But at the moment, there’s nothing to actually listen to, and in any case, only US podcasters seem able to upload their podcasts to the site. I understand that a service that’s potentially supported by advertising may want to launch on a regional basis, but whisper it: Americans do listen to podcasts from outside America too!

podcasts02

Google also seems to pushing very hard the fact that their app – presumably Google Music – will be the default pre-installed way to listen to Podcasts.

Anyway, this all leaves lots of unanswered questions:

1. When will anyone be able to upload a podcast to Google, regardless of geography? At the moment the site geo-blocks non-US uploaders. Even if the service isn’t available outside the US, it’d be nice to be able to get international podcasts hosted there!

2. Will podcasts in Google Play be essentially open to all as with Apple, or is Google looking for premium suppliers only? It would seem to be the former.

3. Advertising – how will it work, if at all, and what might I earn? The US-only free Google Play Music service is ad-supported. There’s obviously a revenue-sharing operation currently working with music rights holders. I assume that’s why this whole thing is limited to the US at the moment as it’s the advertising market Google is most comfortable with. But what kind of deals will be on the table for podcasters, if any? Who can earn what? And in the longer term, what if anything will that mean for podcasts and podcast networks that already have very profitable ad operations? I note that the likes of Panoply and Gimlet are already on board with Google, and they are already ad-supported. The episode of The Feed I mentioned above is well worth a listen because a lot of basic questions are answered, but advertising was not – aside from the fact that Google will not be dicing or slicing your podcast or removing adverts already embedded into your podcasts. [See my follow-up post for more on this]

4. What does this all mean for other podcast app providers on Android? Is Google effectively killing them off? Do the likes of PocketCasts or Doggcatcher have enough points of difference to keep going? iOS has other podcast providers – PocketCasts is one of them. Will I be able to directly subscribe to a podcast in PocketCasts from Google Play – in the same way that I get to choose my choice for apps like browsers and music players. It doesn’t sound like it’ll work that way.

5. Are we going to end up in a messy world of platform exclusives? Let’s hope not.

6. Might this pave the way for better metrics? I think this is critically important from an advertising and accountability perspective. Google says that it will be taking a copy of your podcast from your feed, re-encoding it themselves, and then hosting it for listeners. That means that your metrics will come from Google, and at this point that sounds like a basic play count a la YouTube. What Google is talking about doing is different to iTunes. Apple does not host your podcast – you sort out your hosting requirements yourself – perhaps with a specialist like Libsyn. That provider may well offer a measurement service so you can see detailed statistics on your podcasts’ performance. Now Stitcher also caches a local copy of podcasts, but I understand that it pings your feed so that your host’s stats are broadly correct tallying Sticher plays with wider downloads (Stitcher also has a bespoke stats platform you can view). Will Google do this? I must admit, that I don’t know what happens with TuneIn, and whether it caches a copy or just redirects to your host. And there are a myriad of other places of varying scales. Some hosts provide some of this, taking account of duplicated and failed attempts to download. But if podcasts are held in multiple systems with multiple sets of metrics, coming to a cumulative picture of your podcast’s performance becomes hard. Every podcast provider would love to be able to determine whether just because a podcast was downloaded, was it actually listened to, and was it listened all the way through? That really helps support advertising. Google could potentially supply that information back to podcasters as it does to YouTube creators via their analytics platform.

7. How will Apple react? In some respects, they’ve never really developed podcasting beyond separating the app out of their overall music player. Will they be incorporating podcasts into their Apple Music offering?

There are just some of my initial questions.

Further down the line, it’ll be really important to see how Google promotes the very existence of podcasts in its software. This is how consumers can be motivated to at least try podcasts and see if they’re something they find interesting. I still have a feeling that Google needs to work hard to promote Google Play much more – particularly its Music offering which is where podcasts will sit. That will be key to how successful this is.

But overall it can only be fantastic news that Google is properly supporting podcasts now.

Oh, and Google is sticking with the name “Podcast.” So no need for anyone to reinvent the terminology now.

[I wrote a follow-up post covering advertising in particular]

Podcasts: The Android Problem

Podcasting

A piece on Digiday examines the undeniable fact that listening to podcasts is heavily skewed towards Apple’s products, despite there being significantly more Android devices in the market.

Now we know that not all things are equal: iPhone owners spend more on average – probably not surprising because they tend to be more expensive devices, meaning that their owners are generally richer.

But by and large, podcasts are free, so what is there to explain the difference?

Well many podcasts are aimed at a more middle-class listener – someone, again, who’s likely to own an iPhone. But I’m not going to tar every podcast on the planet with the “middle class” brush. In any case “middle class” means different things to different people. So that’s not the answer.

No, it’s clearly the case that a 360 degree ecosystem like Apple’s, means that it’s easier for their users to enjoy podcasts. The iTunes Store kickstarted podcasts, and their very name implies that you need an iPod (or iPhone) to listen.

Consider this: listen to the average US podcast, and in the bit at the end where they urge you to subscribe, or review the podcast (sensible – you might be listening to a stream that someone has shared), they only ever talk about iTunes:

“Find on us in the iTunes Store”; “Rate us in iTunes”; “Give us a review.”

The best you might get is something like, “or listen to us via your favourite podcasting app.” Stitcher might be the only non-Apple brand that gets regularly mentioned.

While there are non-Apple podcasting apps available in iOS, their usage probably pales into insignificance compared to the default app. A bit like default email apps or browsers, users mightn’t even be aware that there are choices. Perhaps only hardcore podcast listeners seeking some significant extra functionality are seeking out the third party wares.

So with Apple it’s a one stop shop. They have the store and the app installed by default. Any self-respecting podcast must appear in iTunes.

But where does that leave Android?

There’s a suggestion in the Digiday piece that Google could launch its own podcast app, making it a default part of Android. There are some benefits:

– There’d be significant discovery in the Play store. The growth in audiences of podcasts could be significant.
– Google could sell audio advertising around podcasts. They do know how to do advertising.

But there’d be disadvantages too:

– As the Digiday piece says, some podcasts that are earning as much as $50 CPMs – personalised live-read ads go a long way. Google would probably bring those prices down. Is that helpful for a burgeoning industry that has to work to arrive at its own monetisation models?
– Would inserting skippable/unskippable ads a la YouTube, mean that you had to use the Google Podcast app to listen?
– How would that work for podcasts which already have a bigger iPhone audience? Monetising only one part of the audience doesn’t work. YouTube works the same on every platform, but podcasts in their current form are simple files.
– What about the third-party app industry? Would Google’s entry dismantle it (as it largely killed the third-party RSS feed readers when Google Reader came along, only to nearly leave everyone high and dry when they later killed it)?
– Most manufacturers install their own apps/skins, so there’s not guarantee that Google’s app would be visible.

As a massive advocate of podcasts, I think Google would do well to step carefully into this arena. I’d certainly love to see podcasts incorporated into the Google Play Store. At one stroke there’d be massive discoverability, and when directing potential listeners/subscribers, podcast-makers could just say: “Go to the iTunes or Play store to subscribe/review/download.” It’s a much neater message. (Yes, I realise that this ignores Windows Phone, Blackberry, etc.)

From the store, it would simply have to prompt you to download a podcast app if you don’t already have one, or use your favourite app. The hooks are built into Android so this should be relatively painless. I’ll leave it for others to determine the most equitable way to do this with regard to the multiplicity of podcasting apps.

As for advertising? Well that’s interesting.

On the one hand, it’d certainly help grow the online ad audio advertising market if Google was to enter the fray. I’d envisage something similar to the YouTube model of Google selling ads, and sharing revenues with the podcast producers. And having a way to monetise podcasts has long been issue that many have had with Apple.

Then there’s the age old issue of “proof” that someone has actually heard a podcast advertisement. Advertising methodologies these days have to go out of the way to prove that a consumer really experienced the ad; they didn’t fast-forward at 30x speed or whatever. Plus there could be visual elements to those ads on device screens as Absolute Radio does with its InStream proposition. Google could provide a solution to this, demonstrating that the ads were listened to, and weren’t just backed up on a phone’s micro SD card, unlistened to.

But by no means would all want to take part. If you’ve developed a valuable way to monetise your podcasts – Slate springs to mind – then it’d up to you to choose to adopt it. Furthermore, it’d be odd if I didn’t get ads listening on iOS because Apple doesn’t support them, but I do on Android (I realise that these kinds of inequalities do happen in the two ecosystems). And we’re seeing elsewhere, some apps offering “exclusive” podcasts. The financial models are manyfold. So it’s not clear to me how it could work technically across multiple platforms without creating some new kind of “Podcast v2” technology.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that many podcasts are actually streamed directly from websites. Does everyone switch to Google’s player to incorporate their advertising? Podcasts are versatile and that’s one of their strengths.

Then you have podcasts that either work on a paid subscription basis, or offer extra backer-only recordings for those who contribute. How do you work with these? (To be fair, no two set of people seem to do this the same anyway, and it’s always a bit of a technical hurdle).

In general, I think making podcasts “easier” is essential for their future. But I’ve never seen a clear way to do it. I’m not certain that fragmenting the market is the way to go.

Adding a podcast section to the Google Play Store would seem to be the first thing to do.

However I can’t see Google “just” doing that. Shipping a generic app and creating a new ad market? Well that’s a bit more complicated.

Why I’m Abandoning Google Inbox

There was much excitement last autumn when Google launched Inbox, it’s revolutionary new email program. It came with accompanying mobile apps, and the company implored you to fully immerse yourself with it. Like any new product, it required invites to get in and try it. It’s the cool new thing.

But having given it a few months, I’m going to have to abandon it – at least for the time being. I’ll probably check it out every so often to see if they’ve fixed some of my issues. Some of them are still unaddressed from my initial thoughts previously.

But it’s not all bad.

[Note: I’ll use a capitalised “Inbox” to talk about the Google product, and a lowercase “inbox” to talk about where my mail goes generically.]

Good Points

It’s a Google Now experience for your email. And that’s good. The program is pretty smart at identifying certain kinds of emails and dealing with them swiftly.

Signing up for a mailing list that uses MailChimp? It saves you even opening your email to confirm your subscription.

Bought something from Amazon? It embeds a little picture of your order from the confirmation email and delivers you an easy route to tracking your purchase.

There are loads of these little things where somebody has smartly identified a specific kind of email notification and provided you with a shortcut to dealing with it.

Bad Points

Sadly there are many more of these.

As I mentioned previously, it uses too much white space.

You can change the layout of Gmail to suit your purposes. For example, my work laptop’s screen is only 15″ and so I prefer “cozy” for the density of information. Not too busy, but not too much white space. Inbox uses acres of space, which is fine on a 22″ monitor, but terrible on smaller laptops (or Chromebooks!).

Labels, labels, labels.

I use labels. It’s one of the most powerful things in Gmail for organising your email. I use an extensive set of rules to categorise mail as it comes in. It takes a certain amount of work to do this, but it keeps your inbox in check to a much greater extent.

Certainly Gmail does a good job on its own identifying emails generated by your social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc. But I can use labels to gather together less important emails into one place. Then I can check them out at my leisure. Inbox really doesn’t like that. It prefers that you undo all that “skip inbox” stuff and read your emails that way. Certainly it gathers them together well, but suddenly a relatively clean inbox gets busier again.

Mark as Read.

You just can’t do this. You have to open and close each individual email. Much marketing email falls into the category of “worth having, but rarely reading,” in the sense that occasionally there’s a useful sounding email from a business that you want to read. I’m perfectly capable of unsubscribing from those I don’t want at all.

And if you use labels, then marking emails unread becomes more important, because if you click on a label and find unread emails in there, you spend time looking at them again to see if you missed something important.

No notification for emails that skip your inbox.

This is another problem related to using labels. I tend to have interesting but essentially unimportant emails skip my inbox and put themselves neatly into what are effectively sub-folders. I do this because I know that the emails are essentially unimportant, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll go and read them from time to time. Some email lists and social media notifications fall into this category. But of course if you use this functionality, then you have no knowledge of the emails ever arriving. I don’t want a full notification on my mobile, but I would like a hint that a label contains unread email. Google has set Inbox up to cater for these emails, but it prefers to bunch them altogether as “Social” or whatever. I’ve got finer control and can better group similar emails.

Invitations just don’t seem to work properly.

This is a really bad one, and I just don’t understand what they’re doing. Inbox tries to be very smart. If you order some train tickets online for example, when the confirmation comes through, before you know it, Inbox has added the trip to my calendar. I’ve no problem with this. But one of my breaking points came earlier in the week when a friend sent me an email invitation via his corporate Outlook account. Here it is as it appeared to me in Outlook.

Inbox

The email appeared to me in Inbox as a completely blank email. I genuinely thought he must have done something wrong to be sending me these empty emails. But when I looked at my calendar, I discovered that the details had been dropped straight in. I hadn’t been given a choice – did I want to attend or not – it had just gone in.

Here’s that same email in regular Gmail.

Gmail

A date, time, place (yes – we’re really going there), and I’ve cropped it, but a Yes/No/Maybe option for accepting the invitation. I can’t for the life of me understand why this doesn’t work.

Links from emails – reset the email to the top.

This is harder to explain, but it’s incredibly annoying and someone must have purposefully programmed Inbox to do this.

If you get an email containing a number of links – from a news organisation for example – you can of course click a link and open it in a new tab. However when you return to your original email in Inbox, no matter how far through the email you’d got to before clicking the link, the email has returned to the top. For longer emails with editorial and links, that becomes ridiculous, and you waste ages scrolling back down to where you got to.

It’s completely pointless, and I don’t know why it does it.

It hides your spam.

Spam’s not good obviously, so why would this be a problem? Well it’s because Google’s spam filters aren’t perfect – they tend to be a little over-zealous if anything. So I tend to have a quick look at my recent spam every few days, just to make sure that something I wanted to see hasn’t been spam-trapped. It regularly misidentifies marketing emails that I’ve signed up for – not essential, but irritating. And curiously, some Facebook notifications get caught up too. Very occasionally, something more important finds its way in. I always “teach” Gmail that these are not spam emails, but it does mean that my vigilance is warranted.

You can’t find your contacts.

OK – this is pretty dreadful in Gmail anyway. For some reason Google makes it incredibly hard to get a page listing your email contacts. It’s there, but it’s hidden. In Gmail you have to click on the little down arrow next to the word Gmail in the top left of the screen. Contacts and Tasks are hidden underneath. With Inbox, I can find no way of getting to them. Tasks don’t really exist there either, with instead timings being associated with emails.

Summary

Look, this is a beta product. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me. Despite all that white space, it does look lovely. But the functionality means that I can’t stick with it.

I suspect I’m not the only one. Although Google implored me to jump fully in, I found myself having to go back and forth to regular Gmail. So Google started doing things to persuade me to stick with Inbox:

– “Let me turn off Gmail notifications that duplicate Inbox. You only need Inbox ones.”
– If you open Gmail in desktop browser, a little prompt reminds you that you’e activated Inbox and wouldn’t you prefer to go there?

Many of my problems with Inbox are because I’ve carefully tuned Gmail to my needs. I’ve used its filters and labels to carefully personalise it to meet my needs. But the “average” user probably doesn’t do that. They let Gmail sift email into the three or four generic bowls, and don’t do much beyond. They don’t care about read/unread/spam email. And I need to face the fact that I prefer order to chaos.

Only when Inbox has power-user controls to let me take more command over my email will it be ready for me.

I will give it a while, and come back regularly to see what’s happening. But for the time being, it’s back to Gmail full-time for me.

My Nexus 5 Battery Woes

I couldn’t put a precise tome on it, but at some point in the late summer or early autumn, the battery performance of my Nexus 5 fell off a cliff.

I’m not an unreasonable phone user. My phone tends to get a bit of action on the commute to work, as I listen to some audio – music or podcasts depending on whether I’m reading – and clear through some email. I might check train times, and browse social media.

Once I’m at work, the phone tends to take a back seat, with texts and Twitter alerts making up most of its usage.

The commute home mirrors earlier on, and then it gets used less in the evenings aside from actual phone calls. I have laptops and tablets that are better suited by then.

I never had to use a charger during the day unless I’d been particularly heavy in battery usage – maybe using the phone a lot on a long train journey. But that was about it. The only reason I bought a portable battery charger was for those exceptional days when you know you’ll be hammering the phone a lot and won’t have anywhere to plug in.

But the battery performance of my Nexus 5 has utterly failed in recent weeks. I’d hoped that the rollout of Android 5.0 – Lollipop – would sort it out.

But it hasn’t. It came to the point that I couldn’t leave the house unless I was carrying both a plug-in charger (for work, coffee shops etc), and portable battery charger (for all those other times). Everything caused the power to fail.

Now I realise that battery life is heavily affected by things like the ability to get a signal. If you spend a lot of time in a poor signal area, the phone is expending a lot of power pinging those distant masts. But that’s not really a problem for me either at work or at home.

It all came to a head on Friday when I left work with a fully charged phone, and went to a two-hour film screening at the BFI. My phone was on silent in my pocket – unused of course. When I looked at it afterwards, it was at 47% – in TWO HOURS! Not only that, but the phone was pretty damn hot.

So on Saturday, I bit the bullet, and switched my SIM to a Moto G (4G) that I bought for convoluted Tour de France related reasons earlier in the year. It’s not on Lollipop yet – but that’s reportedly coming soon. The difference is that this phone is easily making it through the day. 40%+ charge left at the end of Saturday and Sunday. As I write this, it’s lunchtime, and it still has 85% charge.

In the meantime, I’m still carrying the Nexus 5 around because it has a work email account on it (which I can still use via WiFi) and various apps that I’m not moved across to the Moto G (which only has 16GB of memory – I’m getting a 32GB micro-SD card later today to sort out that problem).

But here’s the thing. Without a 4G network to worry about, the Nexus 5 is sailing through the day. It’s currently at 94% charged! And it finished both Saturday and Sunday with ~80% left.

I had been thinking about replacing the battery on the Nexus – there are YouTube videos to help you – but it seems to me that it’s not the battery that’s the problem, but the power management of the phone. Maybe there’s a fault with one of the radios? A factory reset might be another option too – I went through that painful procedure previously, and it sorted it out – for a while.

So do I?

a) Reset the Nexus and see if I can sort out the issues? It’s only just over a year old after all.
b) Stick with the Moto G and not worry about shortcomings like lack of NFC (which I do find useful), and a relatively poor camera?
c) Look to a new phone such as the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact which looks to be the best Android phone out there?

Or some combination of the above?

If Sony releases Lollipop as it has promised to do, early in 2015, then I might jump then – especially if prices come down a bit. Although I suspect that their next iteration in the Xperia range will come with the promised new camera sensor might make we wait.

I do like stock Android, and many manufacturers are only making relatively “light” changes to it, while Google’s shift towards putting big changes into apps which are under its control, makes this less of an issue.

Incidentally, I’m not switching to an iPhone for “Apple related reasons,” and I’m not getting a Nexus 6 because last time I bought a pair of gloves, my hands were size “Large” rather than XXXL.