Monthly Archives: April 2008

The art and science of selling free

“Freeconomics” is the term coined by Chris Anderson (Wired editor, also coiner (or at least popularizer) of the related term “the long tail“) as a descriptor for the idea attached to all this; that there can be economic value in giving away a product or a service for free. It’s a philosophy that, while earning some rather valid criticisms, is most compelling and rapidly gaining credence in the industries that are already desperately competing with “free” in the form of piracy (or copyright infringement, choose whatever euphemism or loaded term you feel predisposed to), and just the general price competition that comes with the ongoing creation of ever new ways for consumers to split their entertainment dollar.

I paid NZ$6.57 for a new 2-CD album yesterday. Well, 2 CDs in length. Nothing more than bits in reality. It’s Ghosts, the latest album from Nine Inch Nails, whose core Trent Reznor has for a long time been bemoaning the attitude and business models of the music labels. He often said he’d prefer to just put out a high quality, DRM-free download of a new release and charge $5 for it. And as soon as he was free of his last recording contract obligation, he did just that with Ghosts. And it was a great customer experience. First, he made the first quarter (the album’s simply divided into four parts, Ghosts I,II,III and IV) available for free. It’s been kicking around my playlists for about a month now. And yesterday, reminded of it by NIN releasing a new single for free, I decided finally to hear how the rest of it goes. The only slight hesitation I had about it during the process was that it’s a large download (especially if you download the CD-quality .FLAC version), and it was a one-time download link. If the download was to fall over and die before it was actually done, where would I be left? And then I remembered the Pirate Bay, and was assuaged.

I also finished reading a free novel yesterday. As part of a lead-up to a new site launch, Tor.com has been emailing out free sci-fi and fantasy novels once a week. I’ve been hoarding the PDFs carefully, even though I opened a couple and from a quick cursory scan knew I would never actually read them. Until yesterday, when I gave one called Spin by Robert Wilson a proper look, despite its rather generic and pulpy-looking cover (What is it with American sci-fi/fantasy publishers and annoying covers? Their British counterparts have a far better batting average in this area).

There’s a certain theory going on in publishing at the moment; that people will be willing to read part of a book in e-book/PDF form, and then pay to read it as real paper. Said Shawn Nicolls of Random House to Chris Anderson in explaining a free book offer they ran, “A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.”

Unfortunately my experience was a counter-example. I’m not being facetious, I honestly hope publishers can figure out good business models in this space.

I enjoyed Spin. I couldn’t figuratively put it down after the premise kicked in (one night, without warning, the stars and moon all disappear, and all the satellites around the world come crashing down). I found flicking through the PDF on a nice LCD in a darkened room to be a neat way to kill a few hours. The problem was what happened when I realised the the book had actually gripped me. I just sped up reading in an effort to get it done. I had no desire to stop, make a note to visit the bookstore in a few days, buy it, and then resume reading the dead tree version.

So I’m not going to buy it. The value proposition isn’t worth it anymore, and the sampler of the book’s sequel didn’t grab me.1 The average paperback novel in my collection gets read by me two or three times in its life. An average new SF paperback novel here costs about $252. The average album will get listened to hundreds of times probably over its life. If it takes me 15 hours to read through a $25 novel, and I read it twice (which won’t be happening with Spin), and I get 2 hours (double CD in Ghosts‘ case, remember) of value out of a $7 album that I listen to 30 times, then the novel works out at $0.83 an hour while the album is $0.11. Of course, you don’t actually do this sort of calculation when deciding how to spend your discretionary dollars. But if the psychological barrier between “free” and $5 is formidable (and it is), then it’s stupendous between $5 and $25. I’d love to be able to buy an ebook unencumbered by DRM for a couple of dollars knowing that it’s going direct to just the author and editor.

Because it wasn’t just the free sampler that NIN offered that got my purchase. It was the drastically affordable price point, and it was the knowledge that much more of the meagre price was going to the actual artist than would normally happen. Similarly, I had no hesitation buying Radiohead’s In Rainbows for $8 when they released it with their “pay what you want” option, also after breaking free of contractual obligations. If In Rainbows had released locally with the usual $30 sticker price I would’ve been a lot more hesitant and taken longer to buy, even though I’m a long time Radiohead fan. Being a postgrad student sparks that sort of thrift in you.

[1] Fantasy and Science Fiction being genres heavily dominated by sagas, trilogies, and stories that really should have finished long ago, the temptation is probably quite strong for publishers here to use introductory books as bait to hook readers into buying the successors. I can see the value. I don’t like the way that then risks turning into sequelitis, the pressure to convert standalone novels into ongoing storylines.

[2] I think that’s what I paid for Matter (I swear I’m going to review that one day), but that was a novel I’ve been waiting two years for from an author who I already owned eight books by. And it was an introductory special, but Borders aren’t really where you go for bargains.

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A more intelligent use of nofollow

Back in February I posted a rather rambling diatribe on the use of rel=’nofollow’ by various websites. I complained that the social news sites like Slashdot were misusing it or being inconsistent, and really it was a wasted resource. Jeff Wang’s noticed that Paul Graham’s Hacker News (it’s a submit-and-vote based news site like Reddit but more specialised towards the tech startup audience) is making a smarter use of it. Simply, stories get nofollowed until they’ve got more than 5 votes, and then they’re let free. It’s a simple heuristic that hopefully gives the best of both worlds: rewarding good links, but still discouraging high volume/low quality/smells like canned ham links.

Tim Keller talks at Google

One of Google’s lesser-known “products” that’s worth trawling through some time is their series of videoed talks held at the Google Campus. There’s a lot of slightly-hidden gems there along with the presidential candidate interviews and tech-talks. Take this one for example.

This is an interesting talk given by Tim Keller of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York on his new book The Reason for God, as part of Google’s rather neat Authors@Google series. In it he gives a summary of the book, an explanation aimed  at a secular audience for why people believe (in the generic, pan-religion sense, although he comes at it from a Christian bent). Justin Buzzard wrote up a rough outline of the talk.

It’s worth watching if only for the good Q&A session at the end, where some Googlers throw him sharp questions and he doesn’t do too shabby a job answering them. One of them notes that he had never seen the room so packed for an author talk.

If you’re bandwidth constrained like I am and like to choose when and where to download and watch long videos (it’s 125MB or so), you can use TechCrunch’s Youtube download tool (or similar, that’s just the first decent one I found on Google) to download the .flv file, which will play with VLC or any other decent video player.

Tact and keywords

The rise of the laser-beam-narrow targeting allowed by Google AdWords and AdSense has led to some interesting uses. It’s also led to accusations of insensitivity on Google’s part, who explicitly point out they don’t exercise human editorial control over ad placement. But Cameron showed me one last night that leaves me feeling slightly odd, and this one isn’t Google’s “fault” as much as the advertiser.

Campbell Live ad on Google search results page

For the non-NZers, the biggest news item this week here has been a quite tragic accident where six students and a teacher from a high school, Elim Christian College, were swept to their deaths after a flash flood during an outdoor exercise in a gorge. What you see above is an ad using the school’s name as a keyword for a Campbell Live, an evening TV news/interview show, or rather their specific portal page for the subject.

I can see why they did it. They may have done it automatically even, with some system to buy up keywords on common phrases in hot stories, and part of me thinks it’s a good idea. But I still can’t help feeling that this a somewhat tasteless use.

Slowing down PAL DVDs with mplayer

I bought Casino Royale on DVD yesterday. Got up to the intro song and had to stop. I know Chris Cornell’s voice, and that wasn’t his. Well it was, but it was pitched about a semitone too high. The culprit fact was that it was a PAL DVD. The movie had been filmed at 24fps (or 23.976 to be precise, if it was first transferred to the North American NTSC format), but the PAL standard is 25 fps, or about 4% faster. The result usually for these DVDs is that the movie ends up slightly shorter and the sounds slightly higher, with no attempt on the part of the DVD creators to fix it. I’ve noticed it before, but it’s never irritated me enough to actually stop the film and do anything about it.

There are solutions apparently based on remastering the disc, but I just wanted an on-the-fly playback fix. According to what I found, WinDVD apparently has a feature to do this. I don’t have WinDVD, or at least I don’t remember where I put the disc that came with my drive. So the search for a Windows-capable media player that could slow the movie down on the fly began. VLC and GOM Player both failed.

So I looked to MPlayer. Well actually two Windows-based front-ends for it. I’m getting too old to remember commandline arguments for a media player. The first of them, SMPlayer, I had discovered when trying to find a player that could play an HD .mkv (Matroska) file smoothly. SMPlayer was the only one that could in the end. The second was MPUI.

Checking the MPlayer documentation revealed it had a handy-looking -speed argument that you pass a ratio to. Both SMPlayer and MPUI allow such arguments to be passed straight to MPlayer.

23.976 / 25 = 0.95904

Unfortunately SMPlayer sort of froze up when trying to play the DVD with -speed 0.96. Fortunately MPUI didn’t, and Chris Cornell’s voice was back to the right pitch.

Google’s new broadside against AWS

Apparently Thomas Watson of IBM never actually said in 1943 that the world market only had room for 5 computers. Still, the misattribution’s been favourite fodder for years on lists of short-sighted predictions, along with Bill G’s equally misattributed “Nobody needs more than 640K of memory”.

The funny thing about history is how we’re now at a point where people are actually regarding that first nonquote with fresh regard. Sun’s John Gage, one of their original employees, once famously said that the network is the computer, and in this regard Watson’s nonquote starts to make some sense. To be more specific, substitute “network” with “distributed computing platform”. The idea is simple. Only a few companies have the resources and expertise to maintain an international-scale computing environment that applications can scale across to meet the gigantic range of demand the internet can provide. It’s also the source of a compelling business model to the potential owners of such “computers”.

Amazon Web Services have been the biggest and most prominent push in this direction for some time. Sun did come up with their Sun Grid product, but it was a dud by most accounts. Why? Because it wasn’t really connected to the internet. AWS (by which I primarily mean the EC2 computing services and the S3 storage service) are oriented all around supporting web applications and rich internet applications. They recognised the value in providing a service that small developers can build on with a reasonable expectation that should they hit the ball out of the park, that they’ll be able to handle any surge in traffic without going into the red ink for three years to come.

It was always strange that the world’s most famous distributed computing platform, Google, not be a fore-runner in this game. But that’s changed now. They’ve arrived with a flash and a bang. Scoble has videos of the launch, but the bare facts seem pretty cool. A Python environment with access to a storage service based on BigTable, and free accounts. The accounts are limited to 500MB of storage, 200 million megacycles/day CPU time, and 10 GB/day bandwidth, with the obvious business plan being to provide scaling resources beyond that for a fee.

Potentially it’s a huge announcement for web developers, and for Python. Google has a very strong brand in when it comes to reputed distributed computing power, and fears of platform lock-in are mostly eroded by the open tools architecture. It would require a rewrite to move an app from the GAE to your own servers (unless you thought about everything closely up front), but it wouldn’t be a huge one. It’s WSGI compliant, and it even comes with Django built-in. The only really unique part about the platform is their GSQL language, which is an acceptable change from the norm since BigTable isn’t a row-oriented database. That and some other features like Google Accounts (which they should really hurry up and turn into an OpenID service) integration, which is of secondary value to the average developer.

It’s limited availability and the first 10000 accounts have already been snapped up (and I missed out :-(), but there’s an SDK available for playing around with. Expect some nice experimental web apps in the next few months, afforded by the very low barrier of entry on this.

Eco-my-flat

Well one of the reasons (along with the more problematic issue of not having much to write about) I haven’t posted lately was that when I have had time to post, it’s been going into posts on another blog. Five or so weeks ago, our greenest (in more than one sense of the word) flatmate Claire convinced the rest of us into begrudgingly letting her enter us in the Eco-My-Flat competition run at the University of Canterbury. 30 flats would compete over a month to become the most environmentally friendly, with $500 of insulation as the top prize.

Cameron, Claire and I just got back from the awards evening at the Dux, where it turned out we had won said competition. So in the kitty goes $500 of insulation, a 2 day stay for 4 in a lodge or cabin of some sort down in the Catlins, some vouchers of the book and bike kind, and a bottle of wine. Additionally we won a spot prize for blog post of the week, ostensibly for this photo-journal post (they said they particularly liked the still life on the stove top), but I’m preferring to imagine it was really for the comparative analysis of All Along the Watchtower and our power usage, because I spent far too much time on that. It was fun though. Turns out there’s actually quite interesting references to a passage in the book of Isaiah in that song.

So how did we get there? I don’t really know, and when we were asked this on stage I was rather glad the others had (what sounded like) good explanations ready. The competition focused on four major areas; power and heat, transport, waste, and shopping. Each week of the competition there was a workshop on each of these topics that we attended, but it was the issue of power consumption that we particularly focused on. Two interesting things we learned: our long-life bulbs like to flicker when they’re off, and our computers also like to draw quite a measurable amount of power when they’re off. So they’re getting switched off at the wall now. The computers that is, the eco-bulbs continue to flicker in the darkness like a candle in the wind. You can read about the actual improvements on those blog posts. I wrote them, so you know they’re worth the effort. Actually it’s fun browsing through all the posts. I feel our efforts were quite paltry in some ways when compared to other flats, such as the 4 guys/1 girl flat that went all vegan for a month. That’s courage.