Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Rant Time: SmugMug and Flickr

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on November 12, 2018

Flickr2While you may or may not be aware, if you’re a Flickr user, you should be aware. SmugMug bought Flickr and they’re increasing the yearly price by more than double. They’re also changing the free tier. Let’s explore.

Flickr Out

When Flickr came about under Yahoo, it was really the only photo sharing site out there. It had a vibrant community that cared about its users and it offered very good tools. It also offered a Pro service that was reasonably priced.

After Marissa Mayer took over Yahoo, she had the Flickr team redesign the interface, and not for the better. It took on a look and feel that was not only counter-intuitive, it displayed the photos in a jumbled mass that made not only the photos look bad, it made their interface look even worse.

The last time I paid for Pro service, it was for 2 years at $44.95, that’s $22.48 a year. Not a horrible price for what was being offered… a lackluster interface and a crappy display of my photos.

After SmugMug took over, it has done little to improve the interface. In fact, it is still very much the same as it was when it was redesigned and offers little in the way of improvements. We’re talking about a design of a product that started in 2004. In many ways, Flickr still feels like 2004 even with its current offerings.

Status Quo

While Flickr kept their pricing reasonable at about $23 a year, I was okay with that.. particularly with the 2 year billing cycle. I had no incentive to do anything different with the photos I already had in Flickr. I’d let them sit and do whatever they want. In recent months, I hadn’t been adding photos to that site simply because the viewership has gone way, way down. At one point, Flickr was THE goto photo service on the Internet. Today, it’s just a shell of what it once was. With Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest, there’s no real need to use Flickr any longer.

A true Pro photographer can take their work and make money off of it at sites like iStockPhoto, Getty, Alamy and similar stock photo sites. You simply can’t sell your work on Flickr. They just never offered that feature for Pro users. Shit, for the money, Flickr was heavily remiss in not giving way more tools to the Pro users to help them at least make some money off of their work.

Price Increase

SmugMug now owns the Flickr property and has decided to more than double the yearly price. Instead of the once $44.95 every 2 years, now they want us to pay $50 a year for Pro service.

SmugMugFlickr

[RANT ON] So, what the hell SmugMug? What is it that you think you’re offering now that is worth more than double what Yahoo was charging Pro members before you took over Flickr? You’ve bought a 14 year old property. That’s no spring chicken. And you now expect us to shell out an extra $28 a year for an antiquated site? For what? Seriously, FOR WHAT?

We’re just graciously going to give you an extra $28 a year to pay for a 14 year old product? How stupid do you think we are? If you’re going to charge us $28 extra a year, you damned well better give us much better Pro tools and reasons to pay that premium. For example, offer tools that let us charge for and sell our photos as stock photos right through the Flickr interface. You need to provide Pro users with a hell of a lot more service for that extra $28 per year than what you currently offer.

Unlimited GB? Seriously? It already was unlimited. Photos are, in general, small enough not to even worry about size.

Advanced stats? They were already there. It’s not like the stats are useful or anything.

Ad-free browsing? What the hell? How is this even a selling point? It’s definitely not worth an extra $28 per year.

10 minutes worth of video? Who the hell uses Flickr for video? We can’t sell them as stock video! You can’t monetize the videos, so you can’t even make money that way! What other reason is there to use Flickr for video? YouTube still offers nearly unlimited length video sizes AND monetization (if applicable). Where is Flickr in this process? Nowhere.

Flickr is still firmly stuck in 2004 with 2004 ideals and 2004 mentality. There is no way Flickr is worth $50 a year. It’s barely worth $20 a year. [RANT MOSTLY OFF]

New Subscribers and Pro Features

Granted, this is pricing grandfathered from Yahoo. If you have recently joined Flickr as a Pro user, you’re likely paying $50 a year. 50 US dollars per year, I might add that’s entirely not worth it.

Let’s understand what you (don’t) get from Flickr. As a Pro user, you’re likely purchasing into this tier level to get more space and storage. But, what does that do for you other than allowing you to add more photos? Nothing. In fact, you’re paying Flickr or the privilege of letting them advertise on the back of your photo content.

Yes, you read that right. Most people searching Flickr are free tier users. Free tier gets ads placed onto their screens, including on your pages of content. You can’t control the ads they see or that your page might appear to endorse a specific product, particularly if the ad is placed near one of your photos. Ads that you might actually be offended by. Ads that make Flickr money, but that Flickr doesn’t trickle back into its paying Pro users. Yes, they’re USING your content to make them money. Money that they wouldn’t have had without your content being there. Think about that for a moment.

Advertising on your Content

Yes, that’s right, you’re actually paying Flickr $50 for the privilege of them placing ads onto your page of content. What do they give you in return? A larger storage limit that’s effectively useless? Even the biggest photos don’t take much space… not nearly as much space as a YouTube video. Flickr knows that. They hope us users don’t see the wool being pulled over our eyes. Yet, do you see YouTube charging its channels for the privilege of uploading or storing content? No. In fact, if your channel is big enough, YouTube’ll even share ad revenue with you. Yahoo, now SmugMug, has never shared any of its ad revenue with its users, let alone Pro users. Bilking… that’s what it is.

On the back of that problem, Flickr has never offered any method of selling or licensing your photos within Flickr. If ever there was  ‘Pro’ feature that needed to exist, it would be selling / licensing photos.. like Getty, like iStockPhotos, like Alamy. Instead, what has Flickr done in this area? Nothing.. other than the highly unpopular and horrible redesign released in 2013 which was all cosmetic (and ugly at that)… and that affected all users, not just Pro. Even further, what as SmugMug done for Flickr? Absolutely nothing… zip, zero, zilch, nada. Other than spending money to acquire Flickr, SmugMug has done nothing… and it shows.

Free Tier Accounts

For free tier users, SmugMug has decided to limit the maximum number of uploaded photos to 1000. This is simply a money making ploy. They assume that free tier users will upgrade to Pro simply to keep their more than 1000 photos in the account. Well, I can’t tell you what to do with your account, but I’ve already deleted many photos to reduce my photo count below 1000. I have no intention of paying $50 a year to SmugMug for the “privilege” of allowing them to monetize my photos. No thanks.

If you are a free tier user, know that very soon they will be instituting the 1000 photo limit. This means that you’ll either have to upgrade or delete some of your photos below 1000.

Because the Flickr platform is now far too old to be considered modern, I might even say that it’s on the verge of being obsolete… and because the last upgrade that Marissa had Yahoo perform on Flickr made it look like a big turd, I’m not willing to pay Flickr / SmugMug $50 a year for that turd any longer. I’ve decided to get off my butt and remove photos, clean up my account and move on. If SmugMug decides to change their free tier further, I’ll simply move many of my photos over to DeviantArt where there are no such silly limits and then delete my Flickr account entirely.

If enough people do this, it will hurt SmugMug bad enough to turn that once vibrant Flickr community into a useless wasteland. I believe that outcome will actually become a reality anyway in about 2 years.

SmugMug

This company is aptly named, particularly after this Flickr stunt. They’re definitely smug about their ability bilk users out of their money without delivering any kind of useful new product. It would be entirely one thing if SmugMug had spent 6-12 months and delivered a full features ad revenue system, a stock photo licensing tool and a store-front to sell the photos. With all of these additions, $50 a year might be worth it, particularly if SmugMug helped Flickr users promote and sell their photos.

Without these kinds of useful changes, $50 is just cash without delivering something useful. If all you want to do is park your images, you can do that at Google, at Tumblr, at Pinterest, at Instagram and several other photo sharing sites just like Flickr. You can even park them at Alamy and other sites and make money from your photographic efforts.

Why would you want to park them at Flickr / SmugMug when they only want to use your photos to make Flickr / SmugMug money from advertising on a page with you content? It just doesn’t make sense. DeviantArt is actually a better platform and lets you sell your photos on various types of media and various sizes.

Email Sent to Support

Here’s an email I sent to Flickr’s support team. This email is in response to Margaret who claims they gave us “3 years grace period” for lower grandfathered pricing:

Hi Margaret,

Yes, and that means you’ve had more than ample time to make that $50 a year worth it for Pro subscribers. You haven’t and you’ve failed. It’s still the same Flickr it was when I was paying $22.48 a year. Why should I now pay over double the price for no added benefits? Now that SmugMug has bought it, here we are now being forced to pay the $50 a year toll when there’s nothing new that’s worth paying $50 for. Pro users have been given ZERO tools to sell our photos on the platform as stock photos. Being given these tools is what ‘Pro’ means, Margaret. We additionally can’t in any way monetize our content to recoup the cost of our Pro membership fees. Worse, you’re displaying ads over the top our photos and we’re not seeing a dime from that revenue.

Again, what have you given that makes $50 a year worth it? You’re really expecting us to PAY you $50 a year to show ads to free users over the top of our content? No! I was barely willing to do that with $22.48 a year. Of course, this will all fall on deaf ears because these words mean nothing to you. It’s your management team pushing stupid efforts that don’t make sense in a world where Flickr is practically obsolete. Well, I’m done with using a 14 year old decrepit platform that has degraded rather than improved. Sorry Margaret, I’ve removed over 2500 photos, cancelled my Pro membership and will move back to the free tier. If SmugMug ever comes to its senses and actually produces a Pro platform worth using (i.e., actually offers monetization tools or even a storefront), I might consider paying. As it is now, Flickr is an antiquated 14 year old platform firmly rooted in a 2004 world. Wake up, it’s 2018! The iStockphotos of the world are overtaking you and offering better Pro tools.

Bye.

Reasons to Leave

With this latest stupid pricing effort and the lack of effort from SmugMug, I now firmly have a reason to leave Flickr Pro. I have deleted over 2500 photos from Flickr which is now below 1000 photos (the free tier level). After that, it will remain on free tier unless SmugMug decides to get rid of that too. If that happens, I’ll simply delete the rest of the photos and the account and move on.

I have no intention of paying a premium for a 14 year old site that feels 14 years old. It’s 2004 technology given a spit and polish shine using shoelaces and chewing gum. There’s also no community at Flickr, not anymore. There’s really no reason to even host your photos at Flickr. It’s antiquated by today’s technology standards. I also know that I can’t be alone in this. Seriously, paying a huge premium to use a site that was effectively designed in 2004? No, I don’t think so.

Oh, well, it was sort of fun while it lasted. My advice to SmugMug…

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” Buh Bye. Oh and SmugMug… STOP SENDING ME EMAILS ABOUT THIS ‘CHANGE’.


If you’re a Flickr Pro subscriber, I think I’ve made my thoughts clear. Are you willing to pay this price for a 14 year old aging photo sharing site? Please leave a comment below.

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A history of the DIVX DVD

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on April 29, 2018

In 1998 (almost 20 years ago), a new DVD rental format arrived named DIVX (aka Digital Video Express). It purported to be a DVD rental format that had no late fees and the media didn’t need to be returned… at least those were the benefits purported to the consumer. What they didn’t tell you was that you would need to buy a brand new expensive DVD player to play them. Let’s explore.

DIVX versus DivX

To get this confusion cleared up quickly, DIVX was a brand name assigned to a new DVD rental standard introduced by Circuit City and the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer in 1998. However, it’s not entirely clear what problem Circuit City was trying to solve by introducing the DIVX rental format when DVD was already useful enough for rentals.

The DIVX brand name, introduced by Circuit City, bears no relationship to the DivX or Xvid video encoding standards. Even though there is no relationship by Circuit City to the DivX encoder, there is a slight reverse relationship from the DivX encoder to the DIVX brand. In fact, the original name of the DivX encoder was actually DivX ;-)

Yes, this encoder name included the winking smiley. This smiley was actually a nod (and sarcasm) towards Circuit City’s then soon-to-be-defunct DIVX rental standard. Here’s what the DivX Wikipedia article says of the early days of the video encoder named DivX ;-).

DivX ;-) (not DivX) 3.11 Alpha and later 3.xx versions refers to a hacked version of the Microsoft MPEG-4 Version 3 video codec (not to be confused with MPEG-4 Part 3) from Windows Media Tools 4 codecs. The video codec, which was actually not MPEG-4 compliant, was extracted around 1998 by French hacker Jerome Rota (also known as Gej) at Montpellier.

So then, what does DivX ;-) have to do with the DIVX DVD format? Not much other than DivX ;-) making a tongue-in-cheek poke at Circuit City’s DIVX rental format. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion around this convoluted naming.

DIVX as a rental standard

The primary impetus to build the new DIVX rental standard by Circuit City was probably brand recognition. At the time, Circuit City was considered the second largest electronics retailer behind Best Buy. The Circuit City management was obviously willing to do anything to become the number one electronics retailer, including dreaming up technology ideas that didn’t need to be built. Meaning that by 1998, Blockbuster had the rental market sewn up. However, Circuit City sought to disrupt that by trying to create a new standard that not only simultaneously upset Blockbuster’s cart, but introduced a new format that would bring more recognition to the Circuit City brand (and, of course, generate more hardware and rental sales). As a side note, Circuit City was also the second largest appliance retailer behind Sears at that time.

Here’s the Circuit City DIVX promo video (skip to 0:17 to begin an unrealistic family scenario, press 1 to skip the intro entirely or jump to 4:19 to begin use case demonstration). Don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Now, let’s watch this training video to better understand how then CEO Richard L. Sharp saw DIVX’s future within Circuit City. Pay close attention to his statements during the opening segments of this video. Again, don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Circuit City’s management goals were way too ambitious and overconfident. They also dropped into a rabbit hole with this DIVX venture that took them away from their core retail business and caused them to spend millions to create and support a format that didn’t live up to the hype. In fact, it might even be considered that failure of the DIVX format ushered in the downward slide of Circuit City into oblivion. While Circuit City was a reasonable electronics retailer, they didn’t have any presence in the video rental market. When they introduced DIVX, the assumed strategy was to add $4-5 rentals and boost DVD player sales in the Circuit City and Good Guys stores. The management team thought that this rental business would somehow take them to the next level. If only they had adopted standard DVD rentals instead.

As shown in the demo, DIVX boasted a 48 hour rental period with no need to return the disc when the rental period ended. However, to use DIVX, you had to invest in a brand new type of DVD player that also supported the DIVX format. Tada! Here’s the catch. This is also where Circuit City comes into the picture. You’d have to run on over to your local Circuit City (or one of several other retailers owned by CC, like Good Guys) to buy one of these newfangled DIVX DVD player doodads. A doodad that might cost you $100-150 more than a DVD player without DIVX. At least, this is what the management at Circuit City hoped you would do.

This idea for introducing this new format was a huge misfire for Circuit City. In addition to the picture quality problems described just below, the DIVX player contained a modem that required the player to dial-up and register itself before you could play any DIVX discs. It also apparently dialed-up twice a day to register any new purchases and download advertisements. This modem required a physical telephone line plugged into the unit to dial home. This then authorized not only your player, but supplied the player with the necessary information to authorize playback of a rental disc you recently picked up. This concept all worked reasonably well, except for the fact that several privacy groups felt that this dial home feature meant that Circuit City (or whomever) could keep tabs on your viewing habits. Little did we know then exactly how much spying would become commonplace with sites like Google and Facebook. Anyway, that privacy concern didn’t help boost efforts to sell DIVX into main stream. Of course, it wasn’t the only problem.

Poor Movie Quality

The actual DIVX DVDs themselves failed to contain the more advanced features found on a standard DVD, such as 16:9 anamorphic widescreen needed to fill a large flat panel. DIVX movie discs also failed to contain alternate audio commentary and extra features commonly found on standard DVDs. Instead, these DIVX DVDs simply contained 4:3 cropped pan and scan versions of the film… a subpar version. This was a huge misfire for the format. When you can get a better looking film on standard DVD, why would you rent the crappier DIVX format for $5? Yet more consumer dilemma.

Consumer Misunderstanding

Because a DIVX DVD appears to be a standard DVD (it looks the same), some consumers didn’t understand that they needed to buy a new player to play the DIVX media. Instead, they bought the DIVX disc, took it home and inserted it into their regular DVD players only to find that it failed to work. They would then find that they couldn’t return the disc because it was open. The misunderstanding of this new format caused grief among would-be consumers and left a sour taste for this format. This problem only served to fracture the DVD market. Worse, who’s willing to buy a brand new and expensive DIVX player just to recover a $5 loss? Not many. This problem didn’t serve Circuit City well.

It seems that Circuit City’s commercials likely didn’t much help clear this misunderstanding. Let’s watch a Circuit City commercial from this era with that same guy from the Demo reel:

There were also a number of commercials released during 1998 and 1999 that failed to mention DIVX at all… like the following commercial from 1998. You’d think a company like Circuit City spending millions to try and force adoption of their new brainchild would advertise the DIVX format on every commercial, if even only a mention at the very end. Nope. You can’t sell something if you don’t market it.

Landfill Problems

One of the touted benefits to consumers would be throw-away discs. You’d spend $4-5 for each disc, but you didn’t need to return any discs after the 48 hour watching period was over. This also meant no late fees. You simply tossed the disc into the garbage can. This idea was to hit Blockbuster where it hurt. Blockbuster was the king of late fees at the time. A few months after introduction of this idea, Circuit City stores set up recycle containers to entice users to recycle used DIVX discs at Circuit City stores instead of throwing them into the trash. Not sure how well that worked. I don’t think this wasteful idea went over well with consumers, particularly after AOL’s constant barrage of wasted CDs ended up everywhere at the time.

Licensing Issues and Retailers

As a result of Circuit City’s involvement with DIVX (along with a legal team), for other retailers to sell DIVX compatible players required paying a licensing fee to Circuit City. As a result of the licensing fees, Best Buy and other retailers shunned the players choosing to avoid paying those fees. It’s no wonder, either. Why would you ever agree to pay another retailer money for the privilege of selling that retailer’s product in your store? You wouldn’t. This was a completely foreseeable miscalculation by the Circuit City management team.

This meant that Circuit City and other stores owned by Circuit City ended up the sole sellers of these players (and the DIVX format). Without wider support via other retailers, this format really had no hope of surviving. Circuit City should have dropped the idea for licensing fees quickly just to get better entrenchment for the format. It’s not like it wasn’t already costing Circuit City a mint to keep this format alive. Stupid is as stupid does.

Movie Studio Support

On the plus side for the format, because of what studios considered weak protection technologies associated with standard DVD (CSS), many studios jumped on board with the DIVX’s CSS + Triple DES protection standard. This boosted the initial ~20 titles when it arrived in summer of 1998 to well over 400 titles by early 1999. Some early studio adopters were 20th Century Fox, Disney and Dreamworks. Wikipedia says:

The initial trial of the DIVX format was run in the San Francisco and Richmond, California, areas starting on June 8, 1998. Initially only a single Zenith player was available, along with 19 titles. A nationwide rollout began three months later, on September 25, with players and 150 titles available in 190 stores. In total 87,000 players were sold during 1998, with 535,000 discs across 300 titles being sold.

The studios felt that the DIVX format offered a more solid encryption technique to protect their movie content. I’m sure they did. Due to the arcane structure needed to authorize the movie rental, it meant jumping through hoops just to get your movie to play. The movie studios love making consumers jump through hoops to play their content.

This quick studio adoption rate was a bone of contention because some studios began exclusively releasing their films onto the DIVX format instead of DVD. This issue caused further problems for the format and more consumer backlash erupted and threatened to fracture the industry into a new format war.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Home Video, which at the time apparently comprised up to 40% of the movie rental market, refused to release their movies on DIVX. The primary reason for this refusal was that both of these companies had a stake in the success of standard DVD format. Supporting the DIVX standard would be a conflict of interest.

By spring of 1999, the number of titles had increased to over 410. Little did Circuit City or the consumers realize the end was near for DIVX. Due to mounting pressures and costs, Circuit City didn’t realize how much of an albatross that DIVX would become. There was just no way Circuit City could go this new format alone without wider industry investment and consumer acceptance.

Overconfidence

Circuit City’s biggest mistake was its heavily miscalculated financial ability to support this newly created format. After all, Circuit City is a retailer, not a tech innovator. Driving a new tech format through a retail company already has many hurdles and reputational issues to overcome. Circuit City was also too confident in its ability to entice other retailers to make this format succeed. Those retailers didn’t bite. Even in 1998 when this format came about, Internet RFCs were still a thing. Circuit City entirely avoided the RFC and Whitepaper approach that had become commonplace to announce new technologies. Instead, they launched this format without much fanfare hoping that the party train would show up. It didn’t.

Because of all of the above and including backlash from consumers and lack of retailer support, Circuit City way overestimated its ability to get this format adopted… and why would anyone want to adopt this format? With licensing fees, there was no incentive for non-affiliated retailers to adopt some other retailer’s idea as practical or realistic… especially when the standard DVD already provided a better rental and sales format.

Without the necessary support by consumers and other retailers alike, the format was doomed from the go. By the summer of 1999 (just 1 year after it launched), the format officially died on June 16th, 1999 (almost exactly year since it had launched). However, due to format commitments to existing consumers, it would limp this format along until 2001. Wikipedia writes of the DIVX demise:

The format was discontinued on June 16, 1999, because of the costs of introducing the format, as well as its very limited acceptance by the general public. It was shot down by Blockbuster Video stores not wanting to carry it. Also Circuit City announced a $114 million after-tax loss, and Variety estimated the total loss on the scheme was around $337 million. Over the next two years the DIVX system was phased out. Customers could still view all their DIVX discs and were given a $100 refund for every player that was purchased before June 16, 1999. All discs that were unsold at the end of the summer of 1999 were destroyed. The program officially cut off access to accounts on July 7, 2001.

Retail, DRM and Tech Innovation Don’t Mix

Due to the conflict of interest between the Circuit City chain, other retailers, licensing and this new format, there was ultimately no way this idea could survive. Circuit City made so many missteps along the way to adoption, the format was doomed from the outset. Even the management should have been able to foresee this event. If Circuit City had spun off the DIVX idea into a separate holding company that Circuit City had founded and enticed other retailers in (to avoid licensing requirements), the standard might have had a chance of surviving. While DRM was a relatively new thing in 1999, consumers could already begin to see how it could become a problem in the way they viewed content with DIVX (and other formats).

The Future of the Movies at Home

Even if DIVX had managed to make the slightest dent in the rental market (hint: it didn’t), the future of Internet streaming movies would have still seen to its demise. Even in 1997, a year before DIVX came to exist, Reed Hastings was in the process of setting up Netflix. By 2002, Redbox led the downfall of Blockbuster through it’s DVD rental kiosks. Some people blame Netflix on the death of Blockbuster, but it is firmly the self-service and low cost nature of the Redbox kiosk that ushered Blockbuster out the door. Yes, Netflix started Blockbuster’s problems, Redbox nailed Blockbuster’s doors shut. Blockbuster simply couldn’t compete with $1 DVD rentals at a time when Blockbuster was still charging sometimes $5 per disc. Netflix chose a per month plan fee with limits and was (and still is) charging well more than $1 per disc that Redbox adopted. In fact, Redbox is still the best deal going for both DVD and Blu-ray rentals, even though their prices have somewhat increased.

Getting back to DIVX, Netflix’s movie streaming, along side Redbox, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Crackle, YouTube, YouTube Red and others would have killed the DIVX DVD format anyway. Ultimately, DIVX didn’t have a place in the market or a problem to solve. It was already behind the times when it was introduced by a company that didn’t have the capital to invest in the longevity of such a format.

In short, Circuit City bit off well more than they could chew with DIVX. Today, these DIVX players are essentially worthless for playing DIVX format discs. Because the players could play standard DVD format discs also, this is their only redeeming point. There’s no way to authorize the players or discs as the service has been dismantled. If you have any DIVX discs in your collection, they can no longer be played as there’s no way to authorize the players or discs.

Even today, DVD is so way behind the times when compared with UltraHD 4K, even that would have killed DIVX in short order. Ultimately, even if DIVX had managed to survive longer than 1 year on the market, it would have eventually died because of movie streaming services. There was just no way for DIVX to compete with that. However, it died long before that happened simply because of Circuit City.

Final Death of DIVX

The DIVX format supported limited viewings as well as unlimited viewings (DIVX Silver). Limited viewings of a disc were based on your rental period. Unlimited viewings cost more and was known as DIVX Silver. Why this is important is that the players still needed to dial home to verify the viewing of each play of the movie. After June 30, 2001, the DIVX service was shuttered including the dial home feature. For those who had purchased into DIVX Silver for some of their films, they could request a refund before the service was shuttered. This meant that any further viewings of DIVX movies after June 30, 2001 were impossible, rendering the DIVX format and the DIVX portion of the players useless.

The LA Times wrote of DVIX’s failure on June 17, 1999:

But the venture never connected with consumers and represented a major miscalculation of both the market and the video industry by the nation’s second-largest consumer electronics retailer.

The failure of Divx is an embarrassment for Richard Sharp, chief executive of Circuit City Stores. Sharp fought an uphill battle to promote the venture, which became a significant drag on Circuit City’s bottom line.

Sharp declined to comment Wednesday, but the market cheered the decision to junk Divx. Circuit City’s stock closed at $90.38, up $8.38 on the New York Stock Exchange.

 

A Cautionary Tale

This whole DIVX situation serves as a cautionary tale for early adopters of technology when produced by a company that’s never been in that business. This is particularly a problem considering the DIVX players required so much constant hand-holding with home base. If that home base connection was unavailable (i.e., Circuit City closed the service), the movies would stop working, which is exactly what happened in the end. Why would you, as a consumer, want to buy into a media format that’s so heavily dependent on a third party’s continued success? The other problem is that the players chose to use a phone line instead of phoning home over the Internet. Of course, had the format lived, it would have been relatively trivial to introduce new players that supported Internet always-on capabilities.

The real cautionary tale here is that consumers should never early adopt into entertainment content that relies on phoning home to authorize each viewing. One could argue that Netflix is a form of this, but I’d argue it isn’t. When you use Netflix, the movie is either there or it isn’t. There’s no pulling-the-rug-out-from-under tactics. Meaning, you leave your media sitting for a few months only to find that it will no longer play. Standard DVD movies have never required authorization per play. However, Blu-ray technology has instituted a somewhat similar phone home approach, but so far this hasn’t been an issue. However, should Sony die or the servers cease to exist that enables a specific Blu-ray to function, we could find that Blu-rays become coasters at some point in the future like the DIVX media.

If you happen to own a DIVX player and any DIVX media, know that it’s dead and it’s not coming back. There is really no way to revive it. The decryption keys and the authorization service that allowed each movie to work have long been dismantled. As far as I know, there has never been anyone willing to reverse engineer this phone home service to allow old DIVX media to play. Though, why bother? The movies were mostly of inferior quality. Other than as a novelty of showing a functional DIVX movie off on a YouTube electronics history channel or possibly for nostalgia, there’s no other legitimate reasons to want to watch DIVX movies today.

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Apple’s newest MacBook: Simply Unsatisfying

Posted in Apple, botch, business, california by commorancy on March 12, 2015

macbook_largeIt’s not a MacBook Air. It’s not a MacBook Pro. It’s simply being called the MacBook. Clever name for a computer, eh? It’s not like we haven’t seen this brand before. What’s the real trouble with this system? A single USB-C connector. Let’s explore.

Simplifying Things

There’s an art to simplification, but it seems Apple has lost its ability to rationally understand this fundamental concept. Jobs got it. Oh man, did Jobs get the concept of simplification in spades. Granted, not all of Jobs’s meddling in simplification worked. Like, a computer with only a mouse and no keyboard. Great concept, but you really don’t want to enter text through an on-screen keyboard. This is the reason the iPad is so problematic for anything other than one-liners. At least, not unless there’s some kind of audio dictation system. At the time, the Macintosh didn’t have such a system. With Siri, however, we do. Though, I’m not necessarily endorsing that Apple bring back the concept of a keyboard-less computer. Though, in fact, with a slight modification to Siri’s dictation capabilities, it would be possible.

Instead, the new MacBook has taken things away from the case design. More specifically, it has replaced all of those, you know, clunky, annoying and confusing USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt port connectors that mar the case experience. Apple’s engineers have now taken this old and clunky experience and ‘simplified’ it down to exactly one USB-C port (excluding the headphone jack.. and why do we even need this jack again).

The big question, “Is this really simplification?”

New Case Design

Instead of the full complement of ports we previously had, such as the clever magsafe power port, one or two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot, now we have exactly one USB-C port. And, it’s not even a well known or widely used port style yet.usb_macbook

Smart. Adopt a port that literally no one is using and then center your entire computer’s universe around this untried technology. It’s a bold if not risky maneuver for Apple. No one has ever said Apple isn’t up for risky business ideas. It’s just odd that they centered it on an open standard rather than something custom designed by Apple. Let’s hope that Apple has massively tested plugging and unplugging this connector. If it breaks, you better hope your AppleCare service is active. And since the unplugging and plugging activity falls under wear-and-tear, it might not even be covered. Expect to spend more time at the Genius bar arguing over whether your computer is covered when this port breaks. On the other hand, we know the magsafe connector is almost impossible to break. How about this unknown USB-C connector? Does it also have the same functional lifespan? My guess is no.

I also understand that the USB-C technology automatically inherits the 10 Gbps bandwidth standard and has a no-confusion-plug-in-either-way connector style. But, it’s not as if Thunderbolt didn’t already offer the same transfer speed, though not the plug-in-either-way cable. So, I’m guessing that this means Thunderbolt is officially dead?

What about the Lightning cable? Apple recently designed and introduced the Lightning connector for charging and data transfer. Why not use the Lightning connector by adding on a faster data transfer standard? Apple spent all this time and effort on this cool new cable for charging and data transfer, but what the hell? Let’s just abandon that too and go with USB-C? Is it all about throwing out the baby with the bathwater over at Apple?

I guess the fundamental question is… Really, how important is this plug-in-either-way connector? Is Apple insinuating that general public is so dumb that it can’t figure out how to plug in a cable? Yes, trying to get the microUSB connectors inserted in the dark (because they only go in one direction) can be a hassle. The real problem isn’t that it’s a hassle, the real problem is that the connector itself was engineered all wrong. So, trying to fit in a microUSB cable into a port is only a problem because it’s metal on metal. Even when you do manage to get it lined up in the right direction, it sometimes still won’t go in. That’s just a fundamental flaw in the port connector design. It has nothing to do with directionality of it. I digress.

Fundamentally, the importance of a plug-in-either-way cable should be the lowest idea on the agenda. What should be the highest idea is simplifying to give a better user experience overall and not to hobble the computer to the point of being unnecessarily problematic.

Simply Unsatisfying

Let’s get into the meat of this whole USB-C deal. While the case now looks sleek and minimal, it doesn’t really simplify the user experience. It merely changes it. It’s basically a shell game. It moves the ball from one cup to another, but fundamentally doesn’t change the ball itself. So, instead of carrying only a power adapter and the computer, you are now being forced to carry a computer, power adapter and a dock. I fail to see exactly how this simplifies the user experience at all? I left docks behind when I walked away from using Dell Notebooks. Now, we’re being asked to use a dock again by, of all companies, Apple?

The point to making changes in any hardware (or software) design is to help improve the usability and user experience. Changing the case to offer a single USB-C port doesn’t enhance the usability or user experience. This is merely a cost cutting measure by Apple. Apple no longer needs to add pay for all of these arguably ‘extra’ (and costly) ports to the case. Removing all of those ‘extraneous’ ports now means less cost for the motherboard and die-cuts on the case, but at the expense that the user must carry around more things to support that computer. That doesn’t simplify anything for the user. It also burdens the user by forcing the user to pay more money for things that were previously included in the system itself. Not to mention, requiring the user to carry around yet more dongles. I’ve never ever known Apple to foist less of an experience on the user as a simultaneous cost cutting and accessory money making measure. This is most definitely a first for Apple, but not a first for which they want to become known. Is Apple now taking pages from Dell’s playbook?

Instead of walking out of the store with a computer ready in hand, now you have to immediately run to the accessory isle and spend another $100-200 (or more) on these ‘extras’. Extras, I might add, that were previously included in the cost of the previous gen computers. But now, they cost extra. So, that formerly $999 computer you bought that already had everything you needed will now cost you $1100-1200 or more (once you consider you now need a bag to carry all of these extras).

Apple’s Backward Thinking?

I’m sure Apple is thinking that eventually that’s all we’ll need. No more SD cards, no more Thunderbolt devices, no more USB 3 connectors. We just do everything wirelessly. After all, you have the (ahem) Apple TV for a wireless remote display (which would be great if only that technology didn’t suck so bad for latency and suffer from horrible mpeg artifacting because the bit rate is too low).

Apple likes to think they are thinking about the future. But, by the time the future arrives, what they have chosen is already outdated because they realized no one is actually using that technology other than them. So, then they have to resort to a new connector design or a new industry standard because no other computers have adopted what Apple is pushing.

For example, Thunderbolt is a tremendous idea. By today, this port should have been widely used and widely supported, yet it isn’t. There are few hard drives that use it. There are few extras that support it. Other than Apple’s use of this port to drive extra displays, that’s about the extent of how this port is used. It’s effectively a dead port on the computer. Worse, just about the time where Thunderbolt might actually be picking up steam, Apple dumps it in lieu of USB-C which offers the same transfer speeds. At best, a lateral move technologically speaking. If this port had offered 100 Gbps, I might not have even written this article.

Early Adopter Pain

What this all means is that those users who buy into this new USB-C only computer (I intentionally forget the headphone jack because it’s still pointless), will suffer early adopter pains with this computer. Not only will you be almost immediately tied to buying Apple gear, Apple has likely set up the USB-C connector to require licensed and ID’d cables and peripherals. This means that if you buy a third party unlicensed cable or device, Apple is likely to prevent it from working, just as they did with unlicensed Lightning cables on iOS.

This also means that, for at least 1-2 years, you’re at the mercy of Apple to provide you with that dongle. If you need VGA and there’s no dongle, you’re outta luck. If you need a 10/100 network adapter, outta luck. This means that until or unless a specific situational adapter becomes available, you’re stuck. Expect some level of pain when you buy into this computer.

Single Port

In addition to all of the above, let’s just fundamentally understand what a single port means. If you have your power brick plugged in, that’s it. You can’t plug anything else in. Oh, you need to run 2 monitors, read from an SD card, plug in an external hard drive and charge your computer? Good luck with that. That is, unless you buy a dock that offers all of these ports.

It’s a single port being used for everything. That means it has a single 10 Gbps path into the computer. So, if you plug in a hard drive that consumes 5 Gbps and a 4k monitor that consumes 2 Gbps, you’re already topping out that connector’s entire bandwidth into the computer. Or, what if you need a 10 Gbps Ethernet cable? Well, that pretty much consumes the entire bandwidth on this single USB-C connector. Good luck with trying to run a hard drive and monitor with that setup.

Where an older MacBook Air or Pro had two 5 Gbps USB3 ports and one or two 10 Gbps Thunderbolt ports (offering greater than 10 Gbps paths into the computer), the new MacBook only supports a max of 10 Gbps input rate over that single port. Not exactly the best trade off for performance. Of course, the reality is that the current Apple motherboards may not actually be capable of handling 30 Gbps input rate, but it was at least there to try. Though, I would expect that motherboard to handle an input rate greater than 10.

With the new MacBook, you are firmly stuck to a maximum input speed of 10 Gbps because it is a single port. Again, an inconvenience to the user. Apple once again makes the assumption that 10 Gbps is perfectly fine for all use cases. I’m guessing that Apple hopes the users simply won’t notice. Technologically, this is a step backward, not forward.

Overall

In among the early adopter problems and the relevancy problems that USB-C has to overcome, this computer now offers a more convoluted user experience. Additionally, instead of offering something that would be truly more useful and enhance the usability, such as a touch screen to use with an exclusive Spotlight mode, they opted to take this computer in a questionable direction.

Sure, the case colors are cool and the idea of a single port is intriguing, it’s only when you delve deep into the usefulness of this single port does the design quickly unravel.

Apple needs a whole lot of help in this department. I’m quite sure had Jobs been alive that while he might have introduced the simplified case design, it would have been overshadowed by the computer’s feature set (i.e., touch screen, better input device, better dictation, etc). Instead of trying to wow people with a single USB-C port (which offers more befuddlement than wow), Apple should have fundamentally improved the actual usability of this computer by enhancing the integration between the OS and the computer.

The case design doesn’t ultimately much matter, the usability of the computer itself matters. Until Apple understands that we don’t really much care what the case looks like as long as it provides what we need to compute without added hassles, weight and costs, Apple’s designers will continue running off on these tangents spending useless cycles attempting to redesign minimalist cases that really don’t benefit from it. At least, Apple needs to understand that there is a point of diminishing returns when trying to rethink minimalist designs…. and with this MacBook design, the Apple designers have gone well beyond the point of diminishing returns.

$5 billion given to GMAC Financial

Posted in bailout, banking, bankruptcy by commorancy on January 2, 2009

GMAC Financing (GM’s financing arm) has been given $5 billion in addition to the already $17.5 billion given to GM in order for GM to sell vehicles.  It was stated that GMAC had gotten tangled up in bad mortgage debt.  Um, hello, what business did GMAC have in giving out HOME loans?  I thought this company originated for the purpose of auto financing?  If auto loan companies are sticking their hands into markets where they don’t belong, they deserve to get them slapped.

Again, here is another bailout that was unnecessary.  Yes, I do understand that GM can’t sell cars without its financing arm.  Again, who’s problem is this?  GM needs to work through its issues itself.  The citizens of the US do not need to be propping up these badly run organization through these bailouts.  What business did GMAC have even issuing home loans? Yes, I realize they are a financing arm, but GM should have been keeping careful watch over them to prevent GMAC from offering loans on items other than cars or vehicles.  Again, another company with no oversight that does not deserve a bailout, yet the government is handing them $5 billion.  I understand the reasoning behind the money, but it doesn’t make the pill any less bitter to swallow.

Oh, and the worst part of all of these auto bailouts is that there is no guarantee they won’t go belly-up anyway. Giving the auto makers  this money may all be completely pointless, but we the taxpayers will have to pay the price in the end no matter the outcome.

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