January, 2008

When is Free Really Free?

In some respects, this is a continuation of my last entry about Qtrax. While the final position of Qtrax has yet to be established, it’s interesting to look at another high profile example that got plenty of coverage last year – Nokia’s Comes With Music package.
As you may or may not recall, Nokia announced that a new range of Nokia phones would come with the ability to listen to free music from the Universal catalogue. Well, according to a piece from Bloomberg reported by Engadget, all is not quite what it might have first seemed.
Telecoms operators have something called ARPU which they’re continually driving to maximise. It stands for Average Revenue Per User, and it refers to all those bolt-on services that you buy aside from airtime and texts. These days there’s obviously data, any number of subscription text and video “content” and so on. Music downloads have been a recent addition, although issues based around getting your music from one device to another begin to rear their head and have probably stymied sales somewhat. But music remains popular, and advance access to concert tickets is another key area with all the major operators doing things in the area.
But when manufacturers like Nokia (or Apple) introduce their own services, they can sometimes undercut the telecoms operators, and an impasse can be reached.
So this report is interesting for two reasons. First, it explains that the “free” music is not really free, and that Universal is getting a cut of the handset cost and potentially part of the monthly contract in a similar way to Apple taking a proportion of its users’ contracts. That cost might have to be built into the “music contract” that a user will have to sign. Secondly, they realise that without the assistance of the operators like Orange and Vodafone, they can’t really get the scheme off the ground.
It still seems to me that it’s unnecessarily confusing for an Orange subscriber with a Nokia “Comes With Music” phone has two different mechanisms for getting music – almost certainly incompatible with one another. But then PC users have a multiplicity of mechanisms for buying digital music from heavily DRMd iTunes music to mp3s from Emusic.
The market will have its say in the long term, but I would be very wary of anybody claiming that they’re offering free music. We’re at an experimental stage where new payment mechanisms need to be tried on for size. Jumping straight to free probably isn’t sustainable in the long term.


So what’s the deal with Qtrax?
On Saturday, Channel 4 News carried a report highlighting the launch of a new music service. Qtrax, they reported, had signed deals with the big four record companies and would be launching their free music service on Sunday.
Details were a little sketchy, but it was clear that the service would be ad-funded and users would have to register so that ads were targeted on a demographic basis. The service would be peer-to-peer, minimising the load on Qtrax’s servers.
The music would work on a number of portable devices, which would also serve the ads (quite how was not clear), and in a couple of months’ time there would be a version which worked on iPods.
Consumer listening trends would also be reported back to record companies.
The end of the Channel 4 News piece highlighted the fact Apple’s iTunes would have the most to fear (and although it didn’t mention it, Amazon announced at the weekend that it’s mp3 download service would be rolled out internationally in 2008).
I eagerly went to the site on Sunday, only to read that the “Beta Download” would be available at “midnight EST.”
Well I wasn’t going to wait until 5am Monday morning, but another look today sees the same announcement still up.
Of course last minute technical hiccups are common enough. But this doesn’t smell right.
A story from Australia reports denials from Warners about a deal being in place with Qtrax, and more denials from EMI and Universal. So what’s going on?
Qtrax president Allan Klepfisz told AP that Warner was expected to agree to terms “shortly”. He claimed that all other parties had agreed to the terms but some deals were yet to be formally signed.
Huh? So they don’t have deals currently in place? How were they going to launch at midnight today or any other day?
I’m not the only suspicious person either.
Maybe Qtrax will launch in a couple of days as advertised. But selling DRM-free downloads, or perhaps introducing subscription models might be the first moves to make for a beleaguered industry.

RAJAR Podcasting

“RAJAR”:http://www.rajar.co.uk/ has just released its findings from a piece of research into podcasting in the UK. The report also considers usage of “Listen Again” features, as well as Personlised Online Radio (e.g. Last.fm or Pandora (RIP)).
There is, of course, some debate about what a “podcast” actually is. But we needn’t worry too much about that as the
So what are the main findings? Well there’s a good 20 pages of report to wade through, but I think that the following are worth noting:
4.27m adults in the UK have ever downloaded a podcast. And currently 1.87m people listen to podcasts at least once a week. That’s not a bad figure I’d have thought. Indeed 242,000 are downloading daily. Although that may concern a few of the stakeholders who’re producing daily podcasts including many radio stations, as when you slice up that 242,000 between those who listen to the Today programme podcast, The Geoff Show podcast, Guardian Unlimited’s News podcast and the many other UK and international daily podcasts, there are possibly some slim pickings.
That said, it’s early days yet.
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A big issue when trying to find commercial sponsors for podcasts is the inability to tell whether people actually listen to the podcasts they download.
When asked about what proportion of individual podcasts, respondents listened to, 47.4% said that they listened to all of it, and a further 32.1% listened to most of it. So very nearly 80% of people who download a podcast are actually listening to it.
What’s really fascinating is that 80.4% of people say that they listen to podcasts on their PC, while only 60.4% listen on a portable device.
Finally there are a couple of very interesting stats for those who might be considering subscription models for their podcasts.
Compare the ad-supported model:

With the subscription model:

Anyway, this is just a very initial look at the figures. I suggest you look at the RAJAR report yourself for more!

Summarising Digital Music

More on the music industry will be forthcoming. But today the IFPI which represents the recording industry worldwide has published it’s digital music report. The report runs to 28 pages including front and back covers, a contents page, three full pages of pictures and drawings, and a list of members. But we’re all busy people, so there’s a summary which runs to 9 pages.
That’s less a summary, and more a slight abridgment…

A Plea To Web Designers

If you’re going to produce a print CSS file for your blog entries (nicely formatting a print version, and removing unnecessary page furniture), please include the comments!
The two guiltiest candidates that I’ve come across – i.e. blogs that I read but don’t conform – are the BBC’s, and those of Guardian Unlimited. If you try to print the entry out, you’ll only get the initial authored piece, and none of the comments below. Yet as often as not, the blog is positively inviting comments, and part of the raison d’etre of having a blog is to allow commenting. Comments very often drive the conversation forward, and are often as important as the original entry.
But I’m not able to print those comments out! Try as I might, short of using a really old browser that ignores CSS code, I’m left to copy and paste comments into a word processor and print from there. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is. if someone knows how to disable CSS in Firefox that’d at least be a workaround, but personally I consider it poor design that I can’t print comments.
Obviously I know that I shouldn’t be killing more trees than need be by unnecessarily printing things out, but the average blog entry and associated comments makes for a far better read than the dreadful free “newspapers” handed out by London tube stations for the commute home.

BBC Shops

A couple of weeks ago I noted that the BBC Shop in Norwich had shut down, and it was pointed out to me that all the shops had been closed last year, apart from the one in TV Centre itself – but that’s only really open to BBC staff, and those who are visiting (studio audiences perhaps).
Well I’m pleased to say that at least one shop still survives. I was in Brighton yesterday, and the shop inside the entrance to BBC Southern Counties is still there. I actually felt a bit bad when I left not having bought anything.
I was hoping that you might be able to buy a CD celebrating the history of Radio 4 which turned 40 last September. But I couldn’t see anything, and a trawl of the web doesn’t show anything on-sale except a forthcoming Radio 4: The Constant Companion. But that’s not released until April for some unearthly reason. Would a release of this CD been perhaps more timely last September when the network was celebrating its birthday?

I’m A Lumberjack And I’m OK

You may well have seen the pictures of all the wood that’s piled up in places like Worthing beach from the wreck of the Ice Prince which sank a week ago off the Dorset coast.
But the timber’s not limited to Worthing. Walking along the Brighton beach front earlier today, I was amazed at the quantity to be found there!
The wood is piled up right along the shoreline.
The local paper has pointed out that the wood is useless since it’s been in the sea for a week and therefore won’t be too useful if you’re planning on decking your garden. And in any event, you can’t just go and grab stuff off the beach without filling out a form.
I’ve got a copy of Bella Bathurst’s book on Wreckers in my “to read” pile – and she also fronted a recent Timewatch on the same subject. It’ll be interesting to compare and contrast.
I also spotted this sign which might refer to the wood.
But there are some uses for the wood.


This slim volume is a well aimed blast at what should be relatively small proportion of our society who believe in some facile and provably untrue beliefs. Yet, as we know, there are all too many people who follow suspect “nutritionists”, waste money on homoeopathy, pay too much attention to 9/11 mythologies, and read “history” books that are quite simply works of fiction.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I am, metaphorically, sitting in the choir stalls as the author, Damian Thompson, preaches to me. In that respect, it’s perhaps more important that a wider audience than “un-believers” like me read this book.
The book starts with a well-aimed attack on Creationists. But interestingly, the author, who as well as being a Daily Telegraph leader writer, is also Editor-in-Chief of the Catholic Herald. So while some areas are familiar to Richard Dawkins followers (homeopathy, astrology, etc), this isn’t a full scale attack on religious beliefs. Early on in the book, the author makes clear his beliefs and those of many others, that science and religion can live side by side, and evolutionary theory doesn’t really affect those beliefs. Indeed he also takes aim at what he sees as worryingly close dabblings with Intelligent Design by those high up in the Vatican.
While I might be well aware of some of the more ludicrous “history” books that litter our bookshops’ shelves like the forerunner to The Da Vinci Code, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, I really didn’t know the story of 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. This is a title I’ve seen regularly on the shelves of Waterstones and Borders, and while I’d been a little intrigued by it, I’d never picked it up. I certainly won’t now, since I’ve learnt that it’s basically all made up. Indeed, when the thesis of the book is laid out, it’s hard not to reject it even then. It’s clear that all concerned with the book knew of its shortcomings. But it’s sold in its thousands, and the since it paints their society in a great light, the Chinese have adopted it with welcome arms.
I was pleased to see that Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre gets plenty of credit in the medical and scientific areas of Counterknowledge. I look forward to Goldacre’s own forthcoming title.
And the author isn’t shy in attacking the worrying tendency of many Islamist societies to adopt many of the same arguments that Creationists and holocaust-deniers have adopted before. While there might seem to be little in common between them, you only have to look as far as the Iranian president to realise the danger of this if it’s left unfettered.
The dangers of misinformation from MMR in the UK to AIDS/HIV in South Africa are clearly explained.
The book is all very readable in tone, and written from a knowledgeable viewpoint. I suppose that I’d have perhaps liked a few more original examples, since all those highlighted have been documented previously (even though I hadn’t necessarily been aware of them all). That said, it’s the lacking we have in our society – and our willingness to accept untruths, that are our real shortcomings. Why does the NHS support homoeopathy? And why does Boots sell the drugs? Why are proper academic institutions getting into bed with the likes of Patrick Holford? Why are major publishers happy to market and distribute books which they know must be complete fiction?
Cash is the obvious answer. And that’s really not good enough.
Open your eyes a little and read this book. It also has a companion website which is pretty substantial and worth adding to your blogroll.

Valuable Advertising Space

Imagine making your first trip to London. You want to see the sights, so where do you go? I’m not talking about shopping or museums – just the sights.
Well you’ll probably want to see Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The London Eye’s an essential trip these days if the queues are anything to go by. And then there are the big parks.
But you’ll want to walk through Trafalgar Square and quite probably go to Piccadilly Circus which is famed for all its illuminated advertising signs. They’ve been there for years in one form or another with Perrier having a sign up 1908.
Current advertisers include Coca-Cola with a massive curved electronic billboard, McDonalds (ironically sitting on top of a Burger King), Samsung and Budweiser. All have pretty high-tech and very expensive illuminated signs.
None of these are especially surprising brands to see there – they’re contemporary global brands. Indeed, according to Interbrand, they all fall into the top 100 best global brands:
Coca Cola is no. 1, McDonalds is no. 8, Samsung is no. 21 and Budweiser is no. 30.
But as you can see below, there are two other advertisers who have by far the most real estate are TDK and Sanyo.
Piccadilly Circus
Now while TDK still makes blank media like CDs and DVDs, and Sanyo still makes consumer electronics devices, neither are quite the companies that they once were.
Indeed, given that Sanyo makes LCD and TFT displays, it’s odd that they haven’t updated their display beyond the fairly basic and static affair that they currently have. They probably originally signed quite long term deals (perhaps as long as 20 years), but they run out relatively soon – TDK’s runs to March 2010 and Sanyo’s until August 2013. I somehow can’t see them renewing…