Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mac OS X (Leopard) - Just How Buggy Is it?

I was one of the 2 million people that bought and installed Apple's latest upgrade to OS X (commonly referred to as "Leopard") this week. While I don't really see it as consisting of any *major* enhancements, it comes with a couple hundred smaller improvements that make life a bit easier - my personal favorite being "Spaces".

But, that being said, I am running into a number of bugs and frequent crashes of what used to be a very stable machine. Judging by status messages and tweets from my friends, I'm not the only one.

FrontRow has been especially problematic, as has my AT&T 3G card - the 3rd party software that came with it no longer launches, and the OS-level connection software seems to not like my card.

But, the biggest issue for me (both as consumer and professional) are the incompatibilities with iTunes plug-ins. Leopard has broken most 3rd party iTunes plug-ins, including iLike, Qloud, MyStrands (at least temporarily - a fix posted quickly), and something is just not quite right with Last.fm either (UPDATE: a fix has just been posted).

Anyone else having issues?

Monday, October 29, 2007

NBC - Almost a Good Online TV Experience

I applaud NBC for providing a huge amount of TV content on the web for free (streaming at least). I'm pretty good about recording my shows, but this week my cable went out and therefore I missed a bunch of my favorites. In the past, I have watched episodes online at NBC.com without much trouble and was pleased with experience - high quality video resolution, low buffering times, clean flash player experience, light on commercial interruptions.

Where the flaws get exposed though is when you try to move that experience to your living room. I have a graveyard in my basement with headstones for a myriad of devices designed to move PC-bound content to your home theater (with the honor of my earliest/first such device being the "Audiotron" from Turtle Beach). I've now simplified my set up a bit by simply taking my MacBook down to the basement, plopping it down next to the TV and running a DVI-to-HDMI cable to my TV and mini-jack to RCA to my stereo. Decidedly low-tech but works great for this purpose.

So, back to my story.... I did this to watch a bunch of missed NBC shows this week. Easy enough.... click play, select "fullscreen" and then go sit on the couch. Now the problems... there was 1 pre-roll ad and 5 commercial breaks during the show. I don't fault them for that at all. The problem is that every time it hit a commercial it would kick out of full-screen mode back into normal size (oh yeah, and I had to stand there waiting for the 30 second pre-roll to end before I could select "fullscreen" to begin with). So, 5 times during the show I had to get up, walk across the room and reselect "fullscreen". NBC, if you are listening, please fix this - I can't imagine it's a hard problem to solve.

Problem #2... I was watching Friday Night Lights (apparently the target demo for that show is middle-aged women) and I got the *same* ad every single commercial break (Dove Body Wash). C'mon, I had just watched The Office and 30 Rock... is that all they could come up with to advertise to me?

TV online has come a *long* way... but still has a little bit further to go. I've signed up to get on the beta for Hulu, let's hope they can get us a bit closer.

The Greatest Coldplay Video Ever?

What on earth is going on here?! Coldplay playing live on a morning show as a musical backdrop to octogenarian Dancing with the Stars?!

See the video at The Frames Channel on MyStrandsTV

Blackberry & Omnifone Team Up in Europe

Earlier this summer, before the iPhone hype, a little company called Omnifone announced there were working on a mobile-centric music subscription product called "MusicStation".

muSick in the Head: Mobile Music - All You Can Eat from MusicStation

If the service works as advertised, it seems pretty compelling. Basically, there is an incremental fee of 2 to 3 euros/week (8 - 12 euros/month) added to your mobile bill for the right to download and stream as much content from their 1.2 million track catalog as your heart desires (or your phone can handle). This includes the ability to stream one song while downloading another in the background. The weekly fees are inclusive of the data fees - where the higher subscription fees allow you to transfer the tracks that you downloaded to your phone back over to a PC. These tracks can *not* be burned to a CD, and it is unclear whether they can be synced to another mobile device.

The service works on "most" phones (symbian, java, 2.5g, 3g, etc), although Windows Mobile is conspicuosly missing from the list. The service has many "music 2.0" features including user playlist creation/sharing, charts, recommendations, member profiles, and the like. It also will send news, new release alerts and other related information on your favorite artists to your phone. Presumably, this is based on your listening history and doesn't require you to do anything special to receive this info besides just listening to your music.

Well, that list of phones now has extended to include RIM's Blackberry line (at least those running on Vodafone's network). It should be interesting to see what the uptake looks like for this feature - considering it is not cheap.

Want to add social "music 2.0" features and discovery tools to your current mobile music experience without the need to subscribe to content? Check out the MyStrands Social Player (for Windows Mobile & Symbian).

UPDATE: Nokia has launched a new marketing campaign for their N-Series that features - you guessed it - MyStrands. Check it out (some screenshots below).

Friday, October 26, 2007

Product RockStars (and Freaks) Wanted

Freaks wanted
Originally uploaded by MyStrands
MyStrands is looking for talent of all sorts - development, product, marketing - and I have decided it is time shake some of trees out there to see what falls out.

Specifically, I'm looking to build out a team of great product managers and UX talent - focused on building first-class consumer web destinations and habitual online experiences built around digital media/entertainment content.

Ideally in DC area, but will consider other locations. Sound interesting? If you read my blog, I'm guessing it sounds at least somewhat interesting. Not for you, but you've got a friend that would be perfect? Tell them to drop us a line.

Not a product person but a superstar of another flavor? Tell us what you've got!

As you may be able to tell, we have *big* plans over at MyStrands and what you see today is only a small taste of what you are going to get tomorrow (ok, maybe not tomorrow but soon).

By the way, to my LinkedIn contacts that I inadvertently spammed yesterday... my apologies. I was under the impression that it only would show up on your LinkedIn dashboard and not send an email directly to your inbox. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Facebook: Over 15 Billion Served

It's supposedly official...

Microsoft acquires equity stake in Facebook; Facebook's valuation at 15 billion | The Social - CNET News.com: "It's official: Microsoft will take a $240 million equity stake in Facebook during its next round of financing, valuing the company at a whopping $15 billion."

Not a comment on whether they are worth it or not, but just to add some perspective... the entirety of AOL (portals, dial-up access business, Advertising.com, AIM & ICQ, Winamp, Mapquest, Netscape, Moviefone, etc.) was valued at $20 Billion a couple of years ago (when Google invested $1B for a 5% stake).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

RecSys 2007

I spent a few days in Minneapolis last week attending the Recommender Systems Conference. The conference is in its 2nd year and brings together academics and industry to discuss the future, challenges and opportunities for recommender systems. This year there are about 110 participants from 16 countries, including industry representation from Google, Netflix, Amazon, AMG, Digg, AOL, eBay, Unilever, Aggregate Knowledge and MyStrands.

Day 1 featured a very interesting keynote speech from Khrishna Bharat, Principal Scientist from Google, about the history and future of news journalism and the social responsibility we all share in ensuring the continued freedom of speech. He also touched on the process by which Google crawls, clusters, ranks, classifies the most relevant stories in Google News. Followed by some insight into the increased user engagement they were able to realize with the introduction of their personalized news stories. The clickthrough of personalized news stories is indeed higher than on just a blind list of "top stories".

The keynote was followed by a number of academic papers presentations - focused on the hot topics of privacy and trust in collaborative filtering engines. Indeed some very interesting research going on in these fields, and I look forward to seeing what the continued research here bears out in the coming months and years.

After lunch, I was honored to take part in a panel with the focus of "Where should we be investing most in research and practice to increase the value of recommenders?". This was the opportunity for the industry folks like ourselves to provide some insight to the academics about the "real world" issues that we are trying to solve or improve. It was a lively discussion that extended the dialog on recommenders beyond the science and into user experience, consumer value and business models built around them. The panel included:

  • Joaquin Delgado, CTO, Lending Club Corp.

  • Jason Herskowitz, VP of Consumer Products, MyStrands

  • Kartik Hosanagar, Assistant Professor, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania

  • David Jennings, DJ Alchemi LLC

  • Zac Johnson, Product Manager, All Media Guide, Inc.

The day closed out with Poster Sessions by the academic community and some very interesting demos, with the lively discussion moving on to dinner and drinks.

The second day presented us with more research papers and another industry session titled "Appraising Recommender Systems" featuring:

  • Jennifer Consalvo, Director of Personalization, AOL
  • Greg Linden, Founder, Findory, Inc.
  • Shail Patel, Platform Leader, Unilever Corporate Research
  • Neel Sundaresan, Director, eBay Research Labs
  • Tim Vogel, Chief Scientist, Aggregate Knowledge, Inc
All-in-all, the industry folks (myself included) challenged the academics with problems and questions.... not answers. Some of the ones I found more interesting were:

  • How conservative should a "good" recommendation be? The pro is the con, in that a conservative recommendation is rarely wrong, but also just as rarely leads to a serendipitous discovery.
  • When is a recommendation "good enough"? Where is the point of diminishing returns in further research into the algorithms?
  • How do you differentiate based on algorithm? Is it possible, or do companies need to focus on differentiating the experience they present *around* the algorithm?
  • Do consumers even want the "best" recommendation, or just the most useful? Greg Linden suggested that if Amazon just recommended Harry Potter to every customer, that would probably be the *best*, but not nearly as useful the consumer as recommending something less obvious.
  • How do you present a "story" around a recommendation that makes it interesting enough for a user to invest in?
  • Can the industry get behind a standard "taste data" format that enables users to own their preferences and consumption history and seamless share that information with any site they desire without having to train yet another system?

The side-benefit of this trip is that I got to meet a number of "Facebook Friends" in person for the first time - David Jennings, Paul Lamere, Zac Johnson, Oscar Celma and others from the "music 2.0" community. Sorry about the tequila shots guys... not my idea. :-)

Monday, October 22, 2007

MyStrands.com: Now with Quick Launch Video Channels

We just made it supremely easy for MyStrands users to launch music video channels from every Artist and User page. You will notice a new link on each that says “Watch the Channel on MyStrands.TV”.

Just click the link to open a new tab/window and enjoy the show. For artists, we will launch you into a virtually endless stream of their music videos, interviews and coverage from their live shows. For users, we create the channel based on content they listen to, like, and have not yet discovered yet but we think they will be into. Listen to your's, or listen to someone else's! Want to know what I’m into, just check it out:


Now so simple even my mother could do it!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Moby Equation - How to Calculate Musical Sellouts

I was reading the Washington Post this morning and came across this article and calculation. I thought it was amusing, albeit a bit harsh to Moby. Take a look...

Sellout Songs | washingtonpost.com: "The Moby Quotient, generated by the formula below, determines the degree to which artists besmirch their reputations when they lend their music to hawk products or companies. (The name salutes the techno artist Moby, who took the practice to new extremes with his 1999 album 'Play.' The Moby Quotient is designated by the Greek letter mu.) Each factor is ranked on a scale of 1 to 10; the number assignments can be subjective, but the formula is useful in gauging the relative outrage fans should feel with each instance of this continuing cultural blight. The higher the result, the greater the degree of selling out. Read more about the Moby Equation."

Check out some of the recent reader submissions too.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Universal Music to Take the Reins - But Can they Reign?

BusinessWeek breaks more details on Universal's plans to try and wretch the power back from Apple. Basically, they want to build a consortium (comprised of the major labels) to launch a new tweaked model of music subscription service.

Universal Music Takes on iTunes: "While the details are in flux, insiders say Morris & Co. have an intriguing business model: get hardware makers or cell carriers to absorb the cost of a roughly $5-per-month subscription fee so consumers get a device with all-you-can-eat music that's essentially free. Music companies would collect the subscription fee, while hardware makers theoretically would move many more players."

This feels a bit like Microsoft telling all their device and subscription/DRM partners, "we're tired of waiting for you guys to make a market, get out of the way and we will do it ourselves". Now that frustration has moved further up the chain and the world's largest record label is saying, "I'm watching my business go down the drain and a guy in black mock turtleneck has got me over a barrel - get out of the way, we will do it ourselves".

Questions? Sure, I've got a few...

Q. What about the indies? How bad are they screwed in this scenario?

Q. DRM? I sure as hell hope not. If it doesn't play on iPods and iPhones, it doesn't play.

Q. How quickly does Napster and Rhapsody America bleed customers if this happens?

Q. Pressplay and MusicNet... anyone remember the fate of those major label subscription consortiums?

Q. Will they expose APIs so that they can syndicate this content everywhere, or are they going to drag everyone to a central "store"?

I'm sure I will have more thoughts on this over the coming days. What do you guys think?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Radiohead's "In Rainbows" - What's it Worth To Ya?

UPDATE: There is a far bigger poll going on over at http://www.whatpricedidyouchoose.com/. Between that and some other polls I've seen (at Read/Write Web), it looks like the average is around $7 (after converted from pounds). That feels about right to me.... if the name your own price was in dollars (instead of pounds) I bet you'd see spikes at the $5 multiples (particularly $5 and $10 with the average falling somewhere in between).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Winamp 5.5 Now Gold

Check it out. Congrats to the fellas...

Winamp Media Player - MP3, Multimedia, and Music Player: "Winamp 5.5: 10th Anniversary Edition Launches

Packed with new features, the latest edition of Winamp is available now. The 10th Anniversary Edition and take the all new leading multimedia player for a ride. Here's a sampling of some of the great Winamp features:
* A completely redesigned interface, including Album Art
* Multiple device support, including Apple iPods
* Access and Share your Music and Videos with Winamp Remote
* Play and Playlist the Best Music on the Web with Media Monitor
* Enjoy Dynamic Song Recommendations
* Experience MP3 Surround Sound Support
* Access to Thousands of Online Radio Stations, Videos and More!
* 50 Free MP3 Music downloads compliments of eMusic's 2-week Trial
* Auto-Tagger provides automatic updates to file information
* Control Winamp from your browser with a the Winamp Toolbar

Download Winamp 5.5 and enjoy the ride.

Check out one of the early reviews.

In Over Their Radioheads - Technically Speaking

I love what Radiohead is doing with their name-your-own-price, flip-off-the-record-industry, new DRMless digital album. It (sort of) went live this morning at www.inrainbows.com. I firmly endorse their DIY stance on the sales, distribution and marketing of this album - and when it's all said and done I think it is going to make them a fortune. Even if you only pay a couple of bucks for it, virtually *all* of that couple bucks goes in their pocket. That's roughly equivalent to all they would see on the sale of a $15 CD released and distributed by a major label. So, worst case they basically get what they would have gotten... best case they get about 10x what they would have gotten in their old deal. Granted, these numbers are very rough (someone from the label side of the business can better model this for sure), but you get the picture.

The problem? It appears their DIY stance is crippling them technically speaking. I've been on the site for the last 20 minutes trying to buy the album. You can practically see smoke coming off of the site as it tries to handle the load. I don't know who built/is running the "store" part of the site but I can only imagine a couple of guys running around with their hair on fire with scotch tape and bubble gum trying to piece Humpty Dumpty back together again.

* Pages are taking minutes to load
* Ugh... prices are only in british pounds. Time to do some conversion... off to another site.
* I just had to enter my price 3 times before it would "stick" (for what it's worth I'm paying 2 Pounds plus the 45 pence service fee, or roughly $5)
* Ugh, now I have to register... more pages to load
* OK, got it... it's a zip file
* Extracted and imported into iTunes
* Listening!
* 160kpbs MP3? Really, that's it?! Amazon is giving us 256kbps. Incomplete metadata (track 1 of ___), no album art.

It is sounding pretty good. But all in all I would have preferred to a storefront in Amazon.

UPDATE: Apparently most people aren't having as many issues as I had. In fact, check out today's playcounts by the MyStrands community.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Music Recommenders - Which Do You Recommend?

Paul Lamere (Sun Labs) and Oscar Celma (Music Technology Group) have just posted their recent presentation on music recommenders at the International Conference on Music Information Retrieval conference. It is a good read (albeit probably too math-heavy in parts for most) and I recommend (no pun intended) that you guys check out the slides if this is a space that interests you.

:: MUSIC RECOMMENDATION TUTORIAL -- ISMIR 2007 ::: "As the world of online music grows, music recommendation systems become an increasingly important way for music listeners to discover new music. Commercial recommenders such as Last.fm and Pandora have enjoyed commercial and critical success. But how well do these systems really work? How good are the recommendations? How far into the 'long tail' do these recommenders reach? In this tutorial we look at the current state-of-the-art in music recommendation. We examine current commercial and research systems, focusing on the advantages and the disadvantages of the various recommendation strategies. We look at some of the challenges in building music recommenders and we explore some of the ways that Music Information Retrieval (MIR) techniques can be used to improve future recommenders."

It would have been great to see the informal survey extended to track-level recommendations (beyond just the artist level), but it is still very interesting even at this higher level.

On a related note, I will be on an panel next week at the Recommender Systems Conference in Minneapolis. Specifically the panel is:

Friday Afternoon Panel: Where should we be investing most in research and practice to increase value of recommenders?

* Moderator: Todd Beaupre, Yahoo, Inc.
* Joaquin Delgado, CTO, Lending Club Corp.
* Jason Herskowitz, VP of Consumer Products, MyStrands
* Kartik Hosanagar, Assistant Professor, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania
* David Jennings, DJ Alchemi LLC
* Zac Johnson, Product Manager, All Media Guide, Inc.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Drowning Victims - Sink or Swim?

A couple of months ago a wrote a post (The King is Dead (and has no clothes). Long Live the King) about my coming to terms with the failures inherent in the current music subscription models. Or, more specifically, the failures caused by the convoluted DRM requirements inflicted by the major labels onto their partners and thereby passed along to the consumers. Well, the list of people that have been frustrated beyond repair by this short-sightedness is Ian Rogers - GM of Yahoo Music.

Ian just presented at Digital Music Forum West and had a wake-up call for the industry. Some good stuff in here... you should read the whole post.

Convenience Wins, Hubris Loses and Content vs. Context, a Presentation for Some Music Industry Friends at FISTFULAYEN: "I’m here to tell you today that I for one am no longer going to fall into this trap. If the licensing labels offer their content to Yahoo! put more barriers in front of the users, I’m not interested. Do what you feel you need to do for your business, I’ll be polite, say thank you, and decline to sign. I won’t let Yahoo! invest any more money in consumer inconvenience. I will tell Yahoo! to give the money they were going to give me to build awesome media applications to Yahoo! Mail or Answers or some other deserving endeavor. I personally don’t have any more time to give and can’t bear to see any more money spent on pathetic attempts for control instead of building consumer value. Life’s too short. I want to delight consumers, not bum them out."

AOL and Yahoo *should* have been able to become the de facto destinations for play-on-demand music. Both companies are good corporate citizens - have ad supported and paid music services - and play by the letter of the law (generally speaking). But, by doing so they have both gotten surpassed by smaller start-ups that are willing and able to take some risks (see Imeem, Project Playlist, etc.) - choosing a path where they ask for forgiveness after the fact instead of permission beforehand. It's not like there aren't exceptionally smart people at these companies (AOL/Yahoo) that haven't been whiteboarding and spec'ing out these use cases for years... it's just been that these companies have been "playing nice" with the labels and are therefore getting dragged down with them as their failed business models fill with water.

I was reminiscing this week while on vacation about my lifeguarding days back when I was a teenager. The thing I learned then that had the most lasting impact was - if you go out to save a drowning victim, and they start to pull you under to the point that your life is endangered, extricate yourself as quickly as possible and leave them to drown on their own. Better to lose one life then two.

It is a sobering thought, but one whose time has come in this space. I hear you Ian... time to head back to shore until the labels are ready and willing to be rescued.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Why I'd Like to Euthanize the Major Labels

I am endlessly amazed at how the major labels continue to treat their customers as thieves. I am actually at a loss for words with respect to this latest development where Sony BMG's Chief Anti-Piracy lawyer claims that ripping a CD you own as "stealing".

Sony BMG's chief anti-piracy lawyer: "Copying" music you own is "stealing": "Gabriel asked if it was wrong for consumers to make copies of music which they have purchased, even just one copy. Pariser replied, 'When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.' Making 'a copy' of a purchased song is just 'a nice way of saying 'steals just one copy',' she said."

This view is why I have *no* sympathy for the collapse of the labels businesses. Even if you don't like Radiohead, go and purchase a copy of the new "name your own price" album when it comes out. If nothing else than to send these "fat cats and crumb bumbs" a message....

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

AIM Tunes

A few months ago I told you guy about the Buddy Tunes plugin for AIM. This basically made people's iTunes libraries appear like they are on your local network - thereby enabling users to stream music from any of their friends' machines. Since then, Simplify Media has essentially launched a productized version of this (albeit not integrated into AIM). The other approach that was being worked on at AOL before I left is now public in the AIM 6.5 release. It is called "AIM Tunes" and it is a similar concept but ditches the deep iTunes integration for a more player-agnostic approach.

Basically, everyone on your Buddy List (that has the plug-in installed) appears on your AIM Tunes dashboard (in your browser). From there, you can browse their libraries and either stream them directly from your buddy's machines via an embedded flash player - or if you want - to "pop them out" and have your default media player handle them.

You can also create a playlist of songs from all across your network - although it is currently only a single/temporary playlist.

All-in-all, it is pretty slick. It still could benefit from deeper integration into the AIM client (see who is listening to my stuff and better facilitate communication about what's being shared), Mac support, an aggregated "buddy library" view (lets me search seamlessly across my entire network), multiple playlist support, publishing, etc. But, if you use AIM I recommend giving it a whirl. I may end up just running on a separate AIM instance on my home machine (under a separate screen name) and use it to stream to myself. Then again, there are a ton of other options there... Winamp Remote (also an AOL offering), Streampad (although Dan now works for AOL too), and many others.

I'd be interested to know what you guys think of it.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Radiohead(s) in Their Own Direction

Radiohead is releasing their new album on their own... no labels. They leave it up to you, their fans, to decide what it's worth to you. This is big.

Bob Lefsetz has a great piece on this and what it means to the record industry. Read the whole thing, but here are some highlights...

Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » Radiohead

This is big news. This says the major labels are fucked. Untrustworthy with a worthless business model. Radiohead doesn’t seem to care if the music is free. Not that they believe it will be. Because believers will give you ALL THEIR MONEY!

This is the industry’s worst nightmare. Superstar band, THE superstar band, forging ahead by its own wits. Proving that others can too. And they will.

This is what happens when you sell twenty dollar CDs with one good track and sue your customers for trading P2P. This is what happens when you believe you’re ENTITLED to your business. This is what happens when music is a second-class citizen only interested in the bottom line.