Shareware Beach

Friday, 1 April 2005

Sentient Life Discovered Outside U.S.

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan @ 20:01

It almost reads like the caption of a stale April fool’s joke trying to fool Joe Sixpack into believing that not all humans live in the U.S. But it’s not a joke, and it’s not funny.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable that the Smithville Florist hasn’t made his business ready for the global market, even if I did find him from the other side of the world with just a few random clicks on Google Maps. But when you’re selling on the Internet, you’re only a click away from the rest of the world. Make sure you’re prepared for people visiting your web site from all over the world. Even if you don’t export your products or services.

Since reading about the Napster To Go service, I’ve been looking around the Web for other kinds of new-fangled music services. Yesterday I looked at Rhapsody’s web site. I read all of the “about Rhapsody” pages and decided the service was worth a try. So I clicked the big orange arrow, ready to give them my credit card number and other dear secrets.

I didn’t get beyond page two. They didn’t care to know which country I live in. They also didn’t bother to tell me their service is only available in the U.S. Now I don’t expect them to plaster that all over the site in a big bold font. But is it too much to ask to be polite and at least mention it on the sign-up page. They do devote space to the system requirements on the home page, so why not mention there that it’s U.S. only for now. Why not offer me to enter my email address and country, so they can notify me when the service is expanded?

If you sell on the Internet, don’t assume that your customers know where you are, or that they know your local conventions even if they do know your location. Be careful with words like “domestic” and “foreign”, since people visiting your web site from abroad use these concepts in the opposite way. And if you only sell locally, be polite and mention it up front.

Welcome to the big world.

Friday, 11 February 2005

Music to My Ears

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan @ 21:19

The future of music distribution has arrived. Finally. I wonder what took them so long. Old habits, I guess. Of those controlling the industry, that is.

Ever since technology made is possible to record and play back music mechanically, music has been sold as if it was a tangible product. Until the MP3 format became popular in the mid-1990s, storing each recording on a dedicated disc or tape was the only way for consumers to exchange music.

But what really matters is not the disc or tape, but the music. The value of the music exceeds that of the medium. With recording devices becoming ever more affordable, and digital formats like MP3 making it possible to exchange music electronically, consumers could finally treat music the way it really exists: as intangible, instantly shareable information. But the music industry insists on maintaining the status quo, forcing consumers to haul or send for physical discs, and brandishing file sharing networks as illegal. Now I’m all in favor of protecting artists IP rights, but forcing people to stick to arcane ways that only exist because of past technological limitations isn’t the way to go.

Enter Napster To Go. Not surprisingly, one of the pioneers of the outlawed file sharing networks is, after a few false starts, the first to come up with a workable model. While it remains to be seen how successful Napter will be at this, the core of their business model is the only model that makes sense. I haven’t used their service yet, since it’s only available in some countries at the moment. What follows is an exact description of how Napster To Go works, but how I would make it work. Obviously, as this service matures, some aspects will need to be adapted, and hopefully we’ll see some competition doing things a bit differently to keep the market healthy.

For a fixed monthly fee ($14.95 in the US) you can keep your MP3 player filled to the brim with your favorite music. You can download as much music as you want. The only restriction is that it has to fit on your MP3 player. When it’s full, you have to delete some songs. That’s not a problem, since you can download them again later, replacing something else. With many player models available that can hold 10,000 songs, this isn’t much of a limitation. It’s actually better than CDs from a long-term storage point of view: if a CD breaks, it’s gone. (Yes, you can make backup copies. But affordable CD writers are as recent a development as MP3.) If your MP3 player breaks, you don’t lose any music. Just some time to download it again into a new player.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. This new business model opens a plethora of new possibilities. I don’t know how much of this Napster To Go already implements, but if they don’t I expect them to do so in the future, or be walked over by a smarter competitor.

Instead of using legal threats and technological impediments to discourage consumers to copy music, sharing music becomes a no-brainer when two people each have their own Napster To Go device. Simply zap the songs over via bluetooth or WiFi. The DRM information for calculating royalties tags along quietly in the background. People socialize, artists get paid. Fans don’t have to hike to the shop to get the latest CD, or wait for the radio to play the tune.

File sharing could be a real boon for artists. When I’m interested in buying a CD, I’ll go to to listen to track samples, and often decide against buying the disc because I don’t like half the tracks. The artist gets nothing. But if I could download the album for free (i.e. included in the fixed monthly fee), I could delete half or even more of the tracks, and play the remaining ones over and over. I don’t feel cheated paying for a whole album with only three great tracks, and the artist still gets royalties each time I play one of the tracks I do like.

Particularly upcoming artists stand to benefit. If a teenager’s monthly allowance is enough to buy one CD, it’s unlikely to be a disc from an obscure artist that nobody wants to trade with her. But if she has an unlimited monthly subscription, she can explore without limits or risk.

Legal music sharing also brings new possibilities. Ever wanted to run your own radio station? It could be just as easy as uploading a playlist on a website. Listeners would download the playlist to their MP3 device, which fetches the actual music from Napster. Podcasters could intersperse their ramblings with music–or the other way around.

Personal radio stations could the killer app for this sort of service. Real radio stations never play my favorite style of music (usually labeled “new age”). Music mavens could set up individual radio stations just for the fun of it, much like bloggers write for the heck of it. :-) Such radio stations wouldn’t care about ratings, though a loyal audience will obviously boost the DJ’s ego.

Traditional radio is geographically bound. It needs sufficient listeners in a particular area. Internet radio can reach listeners all over the world. Artist that get almost no airtime and no royalties from traditional radio stand to benefit greatly. It’s much easier for a specialty Internet radio station to reach critical mass and expand its audience to include listeners who previously listened to Top 40 radio because that’s all they could get in their area.

Yes, Internet radio already exist today. But it doesn’t work, because it costs the radio station money to stream the songs and pay the royalties. With Internet radio based on a system like Napster To Go, the music is served by the company collecting the money. All the radio station does is build the playlist, which takes more passion and good taste than effort. Shareware Beach Radio. I like the sound of that.

Are we going to see some competition in this area? I think so. Notably absent form Napster To Go’s list of supported devices is the Apple iPod. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple countered with iTunes To Go in the near future. I had been thinking about buying an iPod, but now I certainly won’t until it is compatible with a flat fee music service. I’m not going to spend $9,900 to fill up a 60GB iPod with 10,000 songs if I can fill a competing player for $14.95 per month. I do think I’ll listen to more than 10,000 songs over the next 55 years.

Is Napster To Go going to take over the world? I have no idea. Right now, their service seems to be available in only a handful of countries. But I’m sure flat fee music will eliminate per-track music, just like flat fee Internet access has all but eliminated per-minute Internet access. The genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in. If Napster fails, a competitor will succeed.

Certainly, there’s kinks to work out. Most of the detractors point at the disadvantage that with Napster To Go, you don’t own the music. Well, if you buy a CD, you don’t own the music either. You own the disc. The artist or record label own the music. Stop paying Napster, and you can’t play your old songs any more. As far as I’m concerned that’s no worse than to stop paying the CD store, and you can’t play new songs any more. And the music doesn’t just vanish. If you restart your subscription, you can just download the same songs again. I’m sure once Napster starts suffering attrition, they’ll add the ability to instantly “revive” the songs on your player when you return to their service. And I’m equally sure there will eventually be a way to migrate between competing services.

Unlimited high quality highly diverse internet radio for a low monthly fee. That will be the killer app.

Friday, 21 January 2005

Comment Spammers Won’t Follow “No Follow”

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan @ 20:34

Since starting this blog, email isn’t the only way I get spammed. Every day, comments are posted to my blog articles that aren’t genuine feedback, but ads for various kinds of dubious web sites. This is known as “comment spam”.

Now the major search engines Google, MSN and Yahoo are teaming up with blogging system developers such as Six Apart (TypePad, Movable Type and LiveJournal) and WordPress (which I use for Shareware Beach) to come up with a solution to eliminate comment spam. The idea is that blogging software will add a “nofollow” attribute to each link in comments or trackbacks. Search engines will then ignore such links.

They reason that comment spam exists because many search engines count inbound links to a web page to determine the relevancy of that page. The more relevant a page, the higher it appears in search results. The spammers are trying to cheat the search engines into giving their web pages higher rankings by getting more inbound links. Google’s inbound link algorithm is called “PageRank” after Google co-founder Larry Page. Many people are obsessed with PageRank, even though it’s only one of many variables Google uses.

Many bloggers have hailed this new initiative. I doubt they have given it much thought though, or if they even understand the reasons and implicatinos. I’m sure it will fail utterly, for several reasons.

1. Spamming takes little effort. The spammers have developed their comment spam bots already. The hard work has been done. Keeping the bots running costs next to nothing. If it doesn’t help them, it won’t hurt them.

2. Even if search engines ignore comment spam, there are still scores of humans reading all those comments. If humans didn’t read comments, bloggers wouldn’t publish them. And humans reading comments will click on their links, if the spammer words the comment cleverly enough. (Some comment spam is hard to distinguish from a real comment, even for a human. The only clue is that the comment is generic (“great post”, etc.), rather than elaborating the topic at hand. So comment spam will continue to bring traffic for the spammers, just like email spam does.

3. One of the reasons PageRank and similar algorithms work well is that webmasters have little influence over inbound links. Certainly not quality inbound links. (There’s more to PageRank than just the amount of links–which pages the links come from matters more.) A “nofollow” attribute destroys that, since it allows each webmaster to determine which links will “earn” PageRank, and which won’t. A webmaster could easily add the attribute to all outbound links that don’t point to his own sites or his friends’ sites.

4. When somebody post a comment to my blog that is insightful enough for me to allow it (comments are moderated), I want them to link to their own blog, and I want search engines to follow that link. It’s only fair if somebody makes a contribution, they are credited for it, however small the credit may be. Presumably, WordPress and other blog systems will enable bloggers to turn off the “nofollow” feature. That is exactly what I will do. Spammers will continue spamming, knowing that at least some of their links will be followed by the search engines.

Or, as The Register puts it: “Google’s No-Google tag blesses the Balkanized web

AskJeeves and Teoma don’t plan to be follow nofollow just yet. It’s good to have some diversity among search engines.

Tuesday, 11 January 2005

WEP Security or Not?

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan @ 20:45

Almost all wireless networking products ship with WEP encryption turned off. Most people use them that way. Many industry pundits claim people should be more careful and take a few minutes to turn on the encryption. Users counter that they expect products to work properly out of the box, so if encryption matters, it should be on by default.

What is WEP anyway? WEP is an acronym for Wired Equivalent Privacy. In other words: it aims to equip wireless networks with the same kind of security that is (supposedly) inherent to wired networks. There is indeed a key difference between wired and wireless networks: to eavesdrop on a wired network, an attacker needs physical access to the wires. Traditional building security protects the wired network from outside attackers. Wireless network traffic can be picked up in the air, even outside buildings. WEP encrypts the signal as it is transmitted through the air, preventing attackers from eavesdropping or connecting to the network.

WEP would be all you need, if your network was restricted to a single building. But most people use wireless networks to connect to the Internet. No matter how secure your local network is, eventually whatever information you’re transmitting leaves your home or business to travels across the wide expanse of the Internet. Where you have no control over security. In other words: insecurity guaranteed. Whether you use a wired or wireless network to connect is irrelevant.

Protecting wires or air signals is futile. You have to protect the actual data. Many means are already at your disposal. When uploading or downloading sensitive information with a web browser, use the HTTPS protocol instead of HTTP. Most browsers will then display a padlock icon that you can click to verify the security. Use SFTP instead of FTP. Use SSH instead of Telnet. Etc.

When you use HTTPS, SFPT, SSH and other protocols designed with security in mind, your data will be secure when it travels between your own computer and the server at the other end. If the computer and the server are also sufficiently protected, at a minimum requiring a password to log on, then the whole system is secure. Even if somebody is tapping the network in your home or office.

Since you’re protecting your data by using secure protocols anyway, you might just as well leave the WEP stuff turned off. I leave it turned off myself, for the simple fact that my Netgear wireless router is a stupid thing that forgets its WEP settings if I turn if off at night (which I do–there are enough nuclear power plants already powering idle devices).

With WEP turned off, anybody in range of your wireless network (typically 100 meters) can indeed connect to the network. As long as your computers require a password to log on, as they should, it makes no difference–except for one thing: the Internet. If you have a broadband Internet connection, like most owners of wireless networks do, the Internet is “always on”, and doesn’t require any kind of password or special configuration (unless you went through the trouble of turning off the automatic stuff like DHCP).

How about that? With WEP turned off, anybody in the vicinity of your home or office can wirelessly connect the Internet. Is that good or bad? If I was passing by your house, and asked to use your bathroom, would you refuse? If I asked for a sandwich, would you give me something to eat? You pay for each sheet of toilet paper and each slice of bread. Sharing them with me takes up some of your valuable time. But I can share your internet connection without your intervention, and it does not add to your bill. If it does, you need to switch access providers. Even here in North-Eastern Thailand, not exactly a center of everything high-tech, flat fee ADSL connections are commonplace, at least in the cities.

Now if everybody kept WEP turned off, Internet access would become ubiquitous as more and more people and businesses buy wireless network gear. Ubiquitous electricity revolutionized our society in the 20th century. Ubiquitous information networks will revolutionize our society in the 21st century.

So I say: the pundits should stop annoying people about WEP, and instead educate them about other security measures like password-protecting a Windows PC and using Internet software that uses secure protocols for web, email, etc.

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