Monday, April 13, 2009

Some Technology News You Can't Afford to Ignore

Before there were iPods, mp3 downloads, cars that spoke and responded to spoken words and when people actually bought compact discs in things called "music stores," the word "geek" had a surreptitiously condescending overtone, unless it was used as self-deprecation in advance of -- or the aim of the user to achieve -- pity sex.

These days, however, with no more Tower Records, when movie theater attendance is dwindling against ever-increasing purchase of home theater systems and Blu-Ray discs, and when Apple and are among the biggest music retailers left in this country, the term "geek" has a decidedly different tone: it's one of veiled respect.

Why this is all important to the reader, more or less, lies in the knowledge that these days, with computers, television and life itself intertwined with few, if any, boundaries, it's hard to avoid the use of a computer in one form or another in our daily lives. While this may be debatable for some, for most it's hard to dispute how the 'Net has affected us and has become ubiquitous, in even transparent ways, to our daily lives.

Having said all that, there are two pieces of technology-related news which hit my virtual desk this weekend and which I think should be shared with the masses -- and while they still stubbornly flock to large sites like and Gawker, I'm doing what I can to share the wealth, so to speak.

The first piece of quasi-relevant news is that CompUSA will soon be back as a brick-and-mortar retailer. You may recall they shuttered all of their stores last year in what seemed to be a fairly significant declaration of defeat. Perhaps their disappearance from America's retail landscape was less signficant than that of the aforementioned Tower Records or even Circuit City, or even perhaps the closing of the Virgin store in Times Square. However, before the American economy hit the toilet, it was clear that the major retailer of all things music-, home theater- and computer-related was without a doubt Minnestoa-based Best Buy, Inc. Best Buy, guarded by their legions of blue-polo-and-khaki-wearing minions, have ingratiated themselves into our technological routine moreso than any of the other above-listed entities, and while their staff is less-than-remarkable, I think that their smattering of offerings -- in terms of computer, music and video hardware and software -- and the prices thereof -- are fairly hard to beat.

If I need something technology-related I typically opt to purchase it from Since the local CompUSA closed, I almost always get stuff from Newegg unless I need it immediately, in which case I either get it downtown at J&R Music World or at one of the myriad Best Buy stores in the City. Newegg's main competition in online technology -- both in terms of offering and pricing -- is a company called Tiger Direct. Tiger Direct is the company that purchased and opted to re-open a bunch of CompUSA stores.

Given that CompUSA had a pretty shitty reputation while it was still a brick-and-mortar entity for its lousy service, lousy staff and -- for the most part -- lousy prices, I'm not sure whether this move makes any sense for Tiger or for the CompUSA entity (they have retained their web presence and online store despite the closure of their retail locations).

But given that Best Buy has struggled over the past 12 or so months -- again, more a tribute to the economy than, likely, anything else -- I'm not sure if more competition in the unnecessary electronics department is what this situation needs, or if this is just going to be a case of fiscal deja vu.

Why it's important to you: because anyone who wants to buy a compact disc, a digital camera, an iPod, a television or a computer without having to do so online doesn't have much choice these days other than Best Buy. And of all the people I know, none of them do without music, a camera, an iPod or other music player, a TV and a computer. Not everyone has all of these goodies, mind you: but everyone has at least three or four thereof. So next time you need to consider replacing one of these aforementioned items, you may have a legitimate choice in where you go to obtain this stuff, and you might even pay less -- either because of the economy, competition, or both -- as a result.

There's more news, which is equally significant but in a much more, or less, meaningful way.

Time Warner, one of the nation's largest cable companies, has, like the other members of that short list, announced it will begin testing out download limits for its internet users. That means that anyone who subscribes to Time Warner's Road Runner internet service will, at some point in the next 12 to 18 months, be forced to decide on what "technology" package they'd like. It's sort of like choosing how many cable channels you get, except the premium pricing is only for serious power-users. For people whose internet use is casual at best, most likely the rates will stay the same and there will be no need for panic or change. For people who spend a lot of time online at night and on the weekends -- and who do voice- and/or video-interactive stuff -- this may affect you. And for those people who download music (through iTunes, etc.), movies (through iTunes, Netflix or anywhere else) and other high-bandwidth-requiring stuff, figure on being on the outside looking in.

That means, for that last group, your rates -- at least for Time Warner's "unlimited" package -- will soar from $50 a month to $150 a month for unlimited downloading.

Now, in the spirit of Passover, we'll ask four questions.

The first question is "I don't subscribe to Time Warner, I have X, so why do I care about what Time Warner is charging their customers?"

The first answer is that for anyone who subscribes to Comcast or Cablevision's Optimum Online, this pricing structure and these graded limits will affect you as well. Because once Time Warner has gotten away with screwing their customers in this way, the other two will jump on the bandwagon quicker than a bunch of LA Dodger fans (which is to say, pretty much toot sweet).

The second question is "Whether or not I'm a Time Warner subscriber, I don't do much downloading, so why should I worry about this?"

The second answer is you may not do a bunch of downloading now, but within the next five or so years, the industry which supplies music via CD and movies via DVD and Blu-Ray will, as a result of piracy, increasingly move to deliver content electronically. Some bands have tried selling their albums via USB flash drives, which has failed miserably. Yet there has to be a correlation why iTunes and Amazon have become our biggest national retailers for music. If we have learned anything about the pernicious bite piracy has taken out of the RIAA and the music industry in general -- and the music retail landscape of this country -- we can expect the same to happen to easily-duplicated DVD's (and Blu-Rays, once PC manufacturers find a way to sell BD-Rom drives cheaply and the blanks to go with them at a reasonable cost).

Point being, now that it's clear that everything is moving to internet-based delivery, by the time this change has completely superceded the retail environment, you will be downloading everything: music, movies, and games. And then, once these Internet limits are in full effect and no longer able to be challenged, you'll be forced to spend $100 or more for unfettered access to your favorite crap, whether it's the Foo Fighters, Ocean's 19 or the newest Call of Duty release. And given that everything is occupying increasing amounts of storage, we'll be talking about terabytes, not gigabytes, and the network that supports the Internet will either have to be upgraded -- with you increased subscription dollars -- or it will experience brown-outs. Either way, there will be a bite. It's just a question if you're willing to accept a meter on your Internet usage like you accept to measure your consumption of electricity or cell-phone minutes. 'Nother words, it's all relative.

The third question is "Suppose they DO charge extra rates...prices of everything will go up, so what's the big deal?" The big deal is that just like our physical highways, the Internet will need to be maintained. As machines become faster and cheaper, more and more people will be taxing the world wide web of interconnected machines as have cars increasingly clogged the nation's roads, especially in large metropolitan cities. Add to that the cheap -- and hugely popular -- embedded use of cellphones through the internet (we're talking web-enabled phones, skype phones, and regular plain-old cellphones here), and we're talking an exponential increase in usage over the next five years. From regular cellphones (text messages and picture messages as well), blackberry handhelds, Skype-enabled portable handsets (in Europe and elsewhere, they're the coming wave of coolness) and good-old fashioned netbooks (uber-portable, cell-net-equipped PC's) and you've got a huge network that's going to need more power.

Briefly, let's assume that cable companies don't take every dollar they charge you and put it back into the quality or the upgrade of their hardware.

That means they'll be charging you and I shitloads of money and making money hand over fist without -- in theory -- reinvesting in their networks. Given the history and the attitudes of cable companies over the past thirty years, these are pretty safe assumptions. Companies don't typically strive for quality unless they're high-end, respectable companies. Most delay improvements and spending money to improve their performance until they are either a) pushed to do so by the government; or b) their service is so sub-par (coughcoughSprintMobilecoughcough) that they have no real choice.

That means we will be forced to pay more for less.

Ah, I love the smell of a burned consumer in the smells like...the Bush Administration.

The fourth and final question is, simply put, what can we do in response to these practices by cable companies to try to measure our internet usage?

The answer is not very much. Personally, I anticipate this choice and have already begun exploring other options. If Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon FIOS and Cablevision collude to force users to swallow these increases and this monitoring, my guess is there will be a severe backlash, but in reality only 20 to 25% of these companies' users will jump ship. However, I'll be one of them. The reality is the power-user will likely defect whereas the light internet user will most likely ignore this issue because the increases will theoretically have -- on the surface -- little or no affect on him or her, despite the discussion above. The real problem will happen when these companies lose their biggest users and -- while their networks will be less taxed as the power-users go elsewhere, they will -- in the long run -- lose customers. And the high-bandwidth users will go to a more power-user-friendly environment, which we can guarantee will spring up in the cyber-wasteland. By the time this all is completed, I expect one of the aforementioned big three -- Time Warner, Comcast, Cablevision -- will be split into separate units focusing on Internet, Television and Phone service (as they should have been and should be in the first place).

In either case, if all this seems like the lunatic ravings of a ridiculous, insane mind, and if my observations seem to you to be better-rooted in the fourth installment of a Matrix or Terminator movie, don't sweat the details.

And enjoy your 8-track tape deck. I'm sure Britney's new album will be released in a format that you'll recognize, even if you won't be able to play it back or find a place to buy it, or afford the fee to download it ;-)

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