31 December 2009

Plot Thickens In Fox, Time Warner Cable Feud

New York Post

What began as an impasse yesterday became a full-fledged war between Time Warner Cable and News Corp.'s Fox, as both sides sought to position the other as responsible for the increasingly likely blackout of the broadcast network at midnight.

With just hours remaining before Fox could go dark on Time Warner cable systems, both camps dispensed with the pleasantries that came to define the negotiations of what many see as a precedent-setting retransmission agreement.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt fired the first shot yesterday in a letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), offering to keep Fox on the air if the network agreed to submit to binding arbitration or another interim agreement. Britt was responding to a letter Kerry sent both companies last week in which the lawmaker suggested arbitration as a way to bridge the gap between the $1 per subscriber that Fox is asking for and what Time Warner is willing to pay for the network. (In addition to Fox, News Corp. also owns The Post.)

"We are willing to commence an arbitration proceeding immediately before the [Federal Communications Commission]," Britt wrote, adding that, "consumers should not be caught in the middle as broadcasters and video distributors work through these contentious issues."

Sources said Britt's letter was a shrewd negotiating tactic, as it put Fox in the position of having to choose between two unsavory options: Agree to binding arbitration, in which case Fox certainly wouldn't get the $1 per subscriber it's asking for, or blacking out the network, which not only would cost it money in the form of make-goods to advertisers, but may also put the network on the receiving end of viewer anger.

News Corp. Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey, in his own letter to Kerry, moved to neutralize such a public perception from forming while also dismissing the notion that arbitration was an acceptable alternative to a privately negotiated deal.

"When Congress enacted the 1992 Cable Act, it established a clear mechanism for programmers and distributors to reach market-based agreements on the basis of direct negotiations," Carey wrote. "We respectfully believe these discussions do not belong in the hands of a third party."

In a memo yesterday to Fox employees, Carey made clear that the company is prepared to wage this fight in order to get "fairly compensated" for its programming. "At this time, it looks like we will not reach an agreement and our channels may very well go off the air in Time Warner Cable systems," Carey wrote.

In both his letter to Kerry and to employees, Carey noted that Fox's $1 per subscriber request is equal to what Time Warner Cable pays for cable network TNT, which has lower ratings. If the network goes dark, Time Warner's 13 million subscribers will miss out on New Year's Day college football and NFL games.

29 December 2009

Amazon Selling More E-Books Than Paper Books


After years of anemic sales, e-books are starting to take off. As evidence: for the first time ever, Christmas Day shoppers on Amazon.com bought more books for their Kindles than they did regular books.

Obviously, this was an unusual situation -- Christmas Day isn't typically a big day for shopping, but virtually everyone who received a new Kindle e-book reader as a gift that day needed to download at least one book to try out their new device.

An E-book Milestone
The e-book has been around for years, but until recently there were questions about whether it would ever become a main-stream product. That changed with the success of the Amazon Kindle, which allows users to wirelessly purchase books from almost everywhere, and then read them on a device with a good screen and long battery life.

This retailer says the Kindle is "the most gifted item in Amazon's history".

With the success of Amazon's e-book reader -- which is on its second generation -- Barnes and Noble entered the market late this year with the nook.

More about the Kindle

The Amazon Kindle 2 debuted earlier this year. It has a 6-inch, 600-by-800-pixel e-Ink display that offers 16 shades of gray.

This device also sports 2 GB of memory, allowing it to hold more than 1,500 books.

The Kindle Store now includes over 390,000 books, including New York Times Bestsellers and New Releases.

28 December 2009

The Decade In Television: Cable, Internet Become Major Players

USA Today

For TV, it was a decade of Lost and found.

At the broadcast networks, which saw their overall numbers drop by around 8 million viewers, it was 10 years of ratings decline. Yet if those viewers were lost to broadcast, they were found by cable — and what those viewers found was an ever-expanding range of choice.

But don't cry for broadcast yet. They may be smaller fish, but they're still by far the biggest in the electronic pond. (Even in this decade of dispersion, 52.5 million people watched NBC's 2004 Friends finale, a number unlikely to ever be matched by a cable series.) And the upside to smaller ratings: Lower expectations allow shows to thrive that would never have survived back when every series had to be a blockbuster.

So, what did the 2000s bring to TV? Here are six trends for the 10 years:

'Lost' and the rise of the Internet

This was a great decade for drama as shows such as The Wire, Rescue Me, Boomtown, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, 24, Grey's Anatomy, True Bloodand Pushing Daisiesall made their debut after 2000 (and 1999's The West Wingand The Sopranosjust missed the cutoff). But if you want one show to represent the stretch, go with ABC's Lost for its sweep, grandeur, ambition, achievement and ability to play by, and yet ultimately alter, commercial TV's rules.

Though quality clearly matters most, Lost also owes its success to timing. Lost was designed to create and encourage passion just when advertisers became willing to reward passionate viewing. And that passion has been amplified by the decade's booming commercial arena: the Internet, which enabled fans to focus (some would say obsessively) on the show's myths and feints and allowed the writers (some would say obsessively) to plant ever more clues for those fans to find.

It has created a community unlike any other — and it's one of the reasons Lost will be one of those series people cherish and remember for decades to come.

'American Idol' and the triumph of reality

We've always had shows that featured "real people" (including the '80s show Real People); we just didn't think of "reality" as a genre. Not, that is, until 51.7 million people watched Sue and Richard on CBS' first Survivor finale in 2000, and networks suddenly realized the dramatic potential of snakes and rats.

So the floodgates opened, and as long as you avoid drowning, much of the water is fine. Look at the epitome of the genre, American Idol, and consider not just the stars it has launched and the entertainment it has provided, but also the impact it has had on TV. Without Idol, Fox is not the top-rated network — and un-Foxian, serious hits such as 24 and House never take hold.

If talent shows, dating shows and contests were all reality had to offer, we'd be fine. Unfortunately, there was also an MTV show called The Osbournesthat inspired a thousand faux biography series, starting with almost-celebrities, moving to people related to celebrities, and now landing on people who are simply desperate to be celebrities. Which is why no triumph is ever celebrated unanimously.

'CSI' and the popularity of procedurals

CSI did not invent the procedural (a self-contained show that follows the procedures used to solve some mystery, usually but not always a crime). What it did was reinvigorate the form with newly invented forensic techniques for solving crimes and newly invented TV techniques for showing them. The result? One of the most popular and influential shows of the decade.

An instant, unexpected hit, CSI helped CBS end NBC's Thursday hegemony and fueled its climb to the ratings peak. Its influence extends from the obvious clones — two more CSIs and two NCISes — to pretty much every mystery on the air, from Bones and Numb3rs to Cold Case, Castle and House. Even the show's look is influential: Every time you see a bullet plunge through skin into some internal organ, you're seeing CSI.

'Mad Men' and the dramatic growth of basic cable

In 2000, when you said "cable series," you pretty much meant HBO, which started the decade with holdovers Sex and the Cityand Sopranos and quickly added Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Underand The Wire. The network remains a factor, but the energy and the Emmys moved to basic cable. From pioneers such as The Shield, Battlestar Galactica and Monk to current standard-bearers Rescue Me, Breaking Bad, The Closer, Damages, Burn Notice and Emmy champion Mad Men, basic cable has come into its own as a source of original programming.

The basic networks found an economic sweet spot between premium and broadcast, producing fewer episodes than broadcast and doing so much more cheaply than both. Many of the shows are light "blue-sky" entertainments (such as new USA hit White Collar), but at the networks' best, they've also found an artistic midpoint, series that are smaller, often more somber and leisurely than ratings-driven networks shows can be, but more commercially viable than HBO's more esoteric offerings.

'Leno' and the fall of NBC

How disastrous was this decade for NBC? In its final season, Friends drew more viewers than all four of NBC's current Thursday sitcoms combined. The network hasn't produced a single true scripted hit all decade (with the possible short-lived exception of Heroes), and doesn't have a single scripted show in the season's Top 20. The only two achievements current management can claim are dismantling a "must-see" lineup that had lasted 20 years and "supersizing" sitcoms, a creative nadir that masked and exacerbated the network's failure to create new hits.

That's until this year, when NBC turned five hours of prime time over to The Jay Leno Show, horrendously damaging the rest of its schedule, its affiliates' local news, its own late shows and NBC's and Leno's reputations. It's not just that the show is awful and a failure, though it's a failure of historic proportions. It's that it's lazy, cynical and ill-conceived, which was pretty much NBC's trademark for the past 10 years.

DVRs and the influence of time-shifting

From a business standpoint, this decade may end up mattering less for what we watched than for when and where we watched. Most of us still watch shows as the network gods intended: on our TVs, when they air. Even those increasing numbers of us who have recording devices use them to watch semi-live, adding in a 15- to 20-minute delay to bypass commercials.

But changes are coming. In the next decade, our ability and propensity to watch anytime and anywhere is likely to grow as TVs and computers combine and delivery to handheld devices becomes more sophisticated.

One thing, however, will remain the same: There's no such thing as a free program. People who think otherwise, who think they'll be able to see any show they want without watching ads or forking over some fee, are kidding themselves. You'll pay for shows in the coming decade, or you'll no longer have them.

It's as simple as that.

Fox, Time Warner Face Off Over Fees

USA Today

Millions of TV viewers eager to watch American Idol and 24 or football games featuring the New York Giants could be in for a shock beginning New Year's Day.

They might be unavailable on Time Warner Cable systems in cities including New York and Los Angeles if the No. 2 cable operator can't reach an agreement to carry stations owned by the Fox broadcast network.

The current contract expires Thursday. It also covers some of parent company News Corp.'s regional sports networks, FX, Speed and Fox Reality Channel. The companies are locked in a bitter and potentially precedent-setting dispute over renewal terms from Fox that Time Warner Cable warns also could result in higher monthly rates for consumers.

"What consumers are saying is, 'Why can't I buy less?' " says Melinda Witmer, chief programming officer at Time Warner Cable.

There's "a high likelihood that programming will get dropped (or) pulled," says Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield.

If that happens, Fox would lose revenue from advertisers, because ads would reach fewer viewers. And Time Warner Cable might see some customers switch to another service.

To avoid all that, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., urged the companies last week to get an arbitrator to help.

At issue is Fox's effort to get cable operators to pay its local stations a monthly fee, widely believed to be about $1 a month for each cable subscriber. Fox declined to comment.

With minor exceptions, operators don't pay cash to carry local stations. Instead, they've compensated broadcasters by paying for cable channels they've created: For example, Disney, which owns ABC, launched ESPN2. Fox created FX.

Now Fox says it wants payments for its local stations. "We need to have a business model that enables us to compete" with basic cable, News Corp. COO Chase Carey said this month. Time Warner Cable, with 13 million subscribers, says that it has to draw the line on price increases.

(No. 1 cable operator Comcast is not in a good position to lead this fight. It has a deal to buy a controlling stake in NBC Universal. That company sides with Fox on this issue.)

Time Warner Cable also is challenging the value of network TV. It says that Fox and others have hurt themselves by offering shows for free at websites such as Hulu.

The company's threatening to escalate the fight by giving consumers more flexibility to buy the networks they want. That could doom expensive or low-rated channels.

"What consumers are saying is, 'Why can't I buy less?' " says Melinda Witmer, chief programming officer at Time Warner Cable.

26 December 2009

Google Races To Speed Up The Web

Business Week

Google is in a really big hurry to make the Web experience faster.

That became abundantly clear in 2009, when the company unveiled a steady stream of projects, products and enhancements focused on increasing Internet speed.

The initiatives varied widely in scope and focus. They included organic Google search engine optimization tools for webmasters to improve Web site performance. Others were speed-focused products like the Go programming language and Chrome OS. Google also pushed proposals to revamp aging Internet protocols and lobbied governments for broadband improvements.

The common denominator across the various heterogeneous efforts is an urgent desire to speed up the Web. This is rooted in Google's deeply held belief that a faster Internet is good for everyone, drives up online usage all around and boosts the company's business.

"The benefit of speed improvements is very substantial for the overall Internet. In the end, as the Internet gets faster, we benefit because people will use it more, which hopefully means they'll do more searches, which gets us more revenue," said Urs Hölzle, a Google fellow and senior vice president of operations.

At first pass, it's hard to argue with this reasoning, particularly when many of the Google efforts are free and available as open-source software, which anyone can adopt, modify and use.

Plus, Web latency remains a chronic, thorny problem with many improvement opportunities, and Google has the financial and talent resources needed to lead the way and tackle the bottlenecks.

"Google can afford to develop these projects in a way that's going to be strategic," said Sheri McLeish, a Forrester Research analyst. "Google has a luxury most companies don't. They're running a very successful business and what we're seeing is what that success affords them."

Still, as Google advances aggressively with its speed initiatives, it also indirectly increases its already considerable power and influence over people's and organization's Web activities, raising so-called "Goog-zilla" concerns.

For example, in early December, as part of this overall speed initiative, Google launched a new system to resolve DNS (domain name system) queries. It said its product improves on existing DNS resolver technology with faster, more efficient caching and additional security safeguards.

The thing is, those who switch to Google Public DNS will let the company know which Web sites they're visiting. This adds to the already massive amount of user data Google has access to via its search engine, online services and applications.

"Google definitely sees itself as being in a position to influence the future direction of the Web. From a business strategy perspective, it's smart of them, because clearly they're a major beneficiary of Web traffic," said Hadley Reynolds, an IDC analyst.

"However, many people are very concerned that when you add up this whole picture there can be some deep nefarious purpose behind all of these moves. That's a legitimate concern," Reynolds added.

Reynolds notes similarities between Google's rise to power on the Web using its leadership in search and the way in which Microsoft used its dominance of the PC OS to expand into many other areas of consumer and enterprise computing.

"When you add up all the elements, it amounts to essentially being a Windows kind of dominant player in the Web environment, creating the same kind of presence Microsoft has had on the PC and then the enterprise. Google clearly has a level of ambition to do the same kind of thing on the Web," Reynolds said.

"At this stage, no one in the Web environment has a similar platform from which to compete against Google," he added.

Hölzle said Google understands privacy concerns around its various products and initiatives, which is why the company strives to be clear and transparent in its policies related to user data collection, analysis and retention. After all, the company reasons, if people distrust Google, they will stop using its products and services.

For example, Google pledged that Google Public DNS will retain end-users' IP addresses for no longer than 48 hours, and that it will store for no longer than two weeks general data about the users' ISP and city. Google also promised not to use Google Public DNS traffic data to complement data it collects from users in its other services.

Nonetheless, as skeptics often point out, one must take Google at its word on faith, hoping it sticks to its promise not only now but also in the future, and that accidental data leaks or compromises don't occur.

Another concern is what some view as Google's sometimes short attention span, which causes the company to release early prototypes of often promising services that it later loses interest in and abandons. By Hölzle's estimation, Google has about 25 speed-focused projects in various degrees of completion.

"One of the bigger challenges for Google is delivering on its promises. It tends to make announcements very early in the development cycle to get people excited and interested, but then it seems to take a long time to move those products to production ready," McLeish said.

Hölzle said Google views its speed efforts as key to its business, and that its commitment to them is solid and long term, supported by the company's top executives. Google even has a virtual team focused on speed matters with members in a wide variety of product groups.

Hölzle also pointed out that Google's speed obsession isn't a fad that caught on this year. The company has been stressing the importance of speed for several years, and many efforts unveiled in 2009 had been in the works since 2008 and before.

One ambitious speed initiative is SPDY, pronounced "speedy," which aims to revamp the venerable HTTP protocol for Web content transport. SPDY, still in experimental phase, could be much faster and better able to take advantage of broadband, a sort of "HTTP 3.0," Hölzle said.

In this area of legacy Internet protocols, Google backs HTML 5.0, because the company believes its improvements greatly help to narrow the performance gap between Web applications and PC applications.

Changes at the Internet protocol and standards level require industry-wide goodwill, consensus and collaboration, which are sometimes tricky to generate due to competitive tensions among vendors. Hölzle trusts Google will succeed with its proposals, especially SPDY, for which it has high expectations.

"The Internet community is good about having technical arguments and making them based on technology merits. If we show why [our proposals are] good and we can give people an open-source implementation to demonstrate how it works and also measurements to see what the benefit is, I'm confident we can change standards because everyone will realize it's for everyone's benefit," he said.

Another major area of focus for Google is Web site design, where best practices are often ignored, even by major Web publishers, resulting on clunky and slow Web pages. Google has promoted good design principles and released webmaster tools like Page Speed. This open-source Firefox add-on analyzes a site's server and front-end design and, based on a set of best practices, generates recommendations.

Then there are the products created primarily because Google saw an opportunity to build a better mousetrap, like the Chrome browser, launched last year, and Chrome OS and Go programming language, both introduced this year. Likewise, many improvements across its product line are driven by speed considerations. "We see again and again that if you make something faster, the usage goes up almost immediately," he said.

It remains to be seen if, in fact, what makes Google SEO better and faster does indeed have similarly beneficial effects on the Internet community at large. With the velocity at which Google is pushing ahead its speed efforts, we'll likely find out soon enough.

25 December 2009

Twitter Buys Location Tracker Mixer Labs

BBC News

The micro-blogging website Twitter is buying the location tracking start-up Mixer Labs for an undisclosed sum.

Mixer Labs, founded by two former Google employees, makes an application for Twitter called GeoAPI.

Twitter chief executive Evan Williams said the deal would allow Twitter users to show people where they are when they post updates to the site.

The application will also allow users to search where an event is happening, the firm said.

On the company's blog, a statement said: "We want to know what's happening, and more precisely, where is it happening.

"As a dramatic example, twittering 'Earthquake!' alone is not as informative as 'Earthquake!' coupled with your current location".

Twitter is a social networking site in which users write messages of no more than 140 characters.

An estimated 58 million people use Twitter around the world.

24 December 2009

Citadel Broadcasting Files For Bankruptcy

CNN Money

Citadel Broadcasting Co., the third-largest radio group in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Sunday.

The company, which has stations in 25 states, listed liabilities of $2.5 billion on assets of $1.4 billion, according to court papers filed with the Southern District of New York.

Citadel has been saddled with debt for some time and it had been widely reported in recent months that the company could be headed toward bankruptcy.

More than 60% of the company's secured lenders backed Citadel's pre-negotiated bankruptcy, which will allow it to extinguish $1.4 billion of debt and convert its $2.1 billion secured credit facility into a new term loan.

Chief Executive Farid Suleman said in a statement that "business will continue as usual" and Citadel would work hard to emerge from banktruptcy "as quickly as possible."

The company said Sunday that it had reached a deal with its lenders to gain acess to over $36 million of cash plus cash flow from operations to help it through the restructuring process.

According to Sunday's filing, the three largest unsecured creditors were JPMorgan Chase (with an unspecified amount owed), Wilmington Trust Corp. (with a $49.2 million claim) and The Walt Disney Co. (with a claim of $11.2 million).

Citadel had reported a third-quarter loss of $21 million and a 14% drop in revenue for the three months ended Sept. 30. The company's stock was delisted earlier in the year and last month Citadel warned, in a regulatory filing, that it expected sales would continue to decline through the end of the year.

The company comprises 165 FM stations and 58 AM stations. Programming includes syndicated radio properties like ABC News Radio, The Mark Levin Show and The Huckabee Report.

Citadel's attorney was unavailable for immediate comment.

Google, Bing Kick Yahoo To The Curb

CNN Money

Once the world's online search leader, Yahoo's share has sharply declined, putting it in danger of losing its relevance in a market increasingly dominated by Google.

Yahoo's search market share in November fell to 17.5% from 18% in October, according to a monthly comScore report released late Wednesday. It's the lowest share ever recorded for Yahoo.

Cannibalizing Yahoo's market share is Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), whose new Bing search site gained 0.4 points of the search market to 10.3% in November. That was the first time Microsoft owned more than 10% of the market since September 2007.

Despite that good news, it's really a mixed blessing of sorts for Microsoft, which entered into a search deal with Yahoo that is expected to start in the next several months. When the deal was announced in July, analysts largely praised the marriage, since the companies held a combined 28% of the market -- close to the 30% that experts say is needed to convince advertisers that a company is a relevant competitor in a marketplace.

Since the July announcement, "Microhoo" has gone in the wrong direction. The companies' combined share has taken a 0.4-point hit, as Yahoo's share has fallen by 1.8 points, outpacing Bing's 1.4-point gain.

"They're still going to be a viable No. 2 behind Google, but less so than they expected," said Daniel Ruby, research director at search-advertising firm Chitika, Inc. "Everyone is surprised by the fact that Yahoo has lost such a significant amount of traffic. Thirty percent seems like a very long shot."

Google grew its share by 0.9 points since July to take 65.6% of the search market in November. That's the largest share Google has ever garnered.

Meanwhile, Yahoo has lost share for 10-straight months. As the closing date nears for the search rivals' deal, some say Yahoo is reaching a tipping point that could make or break the value of its partnership.

The devil is in the details

Under the 10-year agreement, Microsoft will power the searches that users make on Yahoo.com. In return, Microsoft will pay Yahoo 88% of the revenue it gains from searches on Yahoo's sites. Yahoo.com and Bing.com will maintain their own branding but search results on Yahoo.com will say "powered by Bing."

"There is no getting around the fact that the market share trend for Yahoo is absolutely awful," said Benjamin Schachter, analyst for Broadpoint AmTech. "The Microsoft deal does not guarantee any search revenue, only revenue-per-search levels; therefore, search share and volume are as critical as ever."

Still, another school of thought says not all is lost for Yahoo.

Both Yahoo and Microsoft have poured millions of dollars into advertising campaigns to get users to come to their Web sites. Yahoo's new "It's Y!ou" campaign has been plastered all over billboards and television spots. Microsoft just launched its new highly publicized Bing iPhone App on Tuesday.

As a result, some advertisers believe users who search on those sites are more likely to indulge a sales pitch and therefore are more likely to click on their ads than Google's users.

"Microsoft and Yahoo offer quality versus quantity," said Ruby. "The traffic they drive is more valuable than Google's in some advertisers' eyes, because their users are going to be delivering higher margins."

So even as Google SEO continues to gain share at "Microhoo's" expense, Yahoo and Microsoft live on to fight for high-quality searchers as a way to stay relevant.

23 December 2009

Study: How Consumers Adjust To Tighter Belts

The Dallas News

This was the year Americans mastered doing without. For some students at Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University, the concept of making substitutions wasn't just an edict from home. It was a firsthand lesson in how consumers adjusted to the new economic realities.

For the second straight year, professors at the three colleges collaborated on an advertising class assignment in which students solicited volunteers to do without something they normally consume for two weeks. They tracked people who gave up denim, jewelry, flip-flops, bottled water, credit and debit cards, condiments, YouTube, Facebook and political blogs before the November 2008 election.

What they discovered was a product or brand meant more to subjects who couldn't wait for the two weeks to end, spewing reasons to their researcher about why they were suffering. Or the deprived people settled nicely into substitutions. Either result was valuable advertising research.

SMU senior Arleen Averill discovered when young women couldn't wear jewelry, they felt "naked, awkward and less girly."

"They missed how jewelry made them feel more mature and ladylike," Averill said.

When denim was removed from wardrobes, students "overdress for class," said Fernando Valdes, an SMU graduate who talked about his project during an interview that landed him a job at Atomic Design in Plano.

When volunteers couldn't drink bottled water, they thought they were going to substitute other drinks, said Caitlin Christopher, an SMU senior advertising major. "But they weren't satisfied with other drinks and drank tap water."

Alice Kendrick, advertising professor at SMU's Temerlin Advertising Institute, said the research has resulted in some big "aha" moments.

 "Even the most ardent brand fans, dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Nike shorts or religious users of denim, discover they can do without," she said.

Nike Tempo shorts are a wardrobe staple for coeds on many college campuses including SMU, said Kristina Kress, a junior advertising major. They come in a couple of dozen colors and can be had for $25 to $30.

Eight participants turned over a total of 40 pairs to Kress.

"I had people who found they were running late to class because they didn't know what to wear," she said. "For us, it's like wearing camouflage; if everyone is wearing it, we blend in. We like to save our cute outfits for going out."

Some wore jeans and dresses, and others bought substitute brands, Soffe or Adidas by Stella McCartney, Kress said.

Brittany Kemper, a senior advertising major at SMU, asked her volunteers to do without credit and debit cards.

"When they only used cash, they found they were spending less," she said. "They put things back on the shelf at the grocery stores. Instead of Chips Ahoy chocolate cookies, they bought the Kroger brand."

Not having plastic and carrying cash and coins also "made them feel like little kids again," Kemper said.

Students learned to use the reactions they gathered, said Peter Noble, executive-in-residence at TCU's Schieffer School of Journalism in Fort Worth. "That insight told an entire story that's useful to credit card companies. Their product is a rite of passage, and it can be molded into their message."

Sheri Broyles, advertising professor at UNT's Mayborn School of Journalism in Denton, said the deprivation project forces students to look differently at the world.

"They get how products – dolphin jewelry, for example – are such a part of a person's identity," she said.

The three professors all taught at or were students at SMU. Kendrick, who has been teaching at SMU for 25 years, was the link in connecting the three colleges in the project.

Ironically, the assignment was born out of deprivation, Kendrick said. In 2008, money was cut for research participation incentives and focus groups.

"We had to get creative without those funds."

 Unlike 2008, when Americans were shocked into abstinence, doing without was orchestrated this year.

Households delayed that new car or plumeria jewelry purchase. They also repaired that lawn mower, discovered cheaper stores, cooked more and dined out less, pulled the plug on landlines in record numbers, enrolled in community colleges to save on tuition, and found discount computer deals.

Some consumers made changes because of job losses and pay cuts. Others adopted frugality as a cautionary step.

As a result, savings as a percent of income has been mostly higher this year than in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

It was 4.4 percent in October and 4.6 percent in September, according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. November data will be released today.

Google, Yelp Deal May Be Scrapped

PC World

The rumors that Google might purchase Yelp for over half a billion dollars have been replaced by new rumors that the alleged deal is dead. If that is true, it is very unfortunate because the two complement each other in ways that no other acquisition or partnership can match.

The buzz all weekend was that Google was close to a deal to acquire Yelp--a site that allows users to review local businesses. As of today, the deal has unraveled with a sort of "he said, she said" scenario about which party broke things off, and with little explanation of why.

Regardless of whether Yelp walked away for the promise of a better deal, or Google called things off feeling that Yelp was not negotiating in good faith, or just to call Yelp's bluff, the news is unfortunate. Google is really the only suitor that can really capitalize on what Yelp has to offer, and Yelp fills a void that can really tie all of Google's advertising empire together with a pretty red bow.

Match Made in Heaven

The rival suitor that allegedly offered $750 million for Yelp has not been revealed, but it seems safe to say it would have to be Microsoft--if the offer really exists and wasn't simply a negotiating tactic to try and elicit more money from Google. What other company has that kind of money and can find any strategic use for Yelp that would be worth an investment of that size?

Microsoft has done well with Bing--developing a number of innovative search elements and creating a compelling alternative to Google. Bing is a success and it is gaining in market share, but it's no Google and Microsoft doesn't have all of the other pieces necessary to capitalize on what Yelp has to offer.

Google, on the other hand, is uniquely suited to leverage Yelp. Combined with other recent Google acquisitions like AdMob and Teracent, purchasing Yelp would extend Google's advertising capabilities and enable it to deliver targeted ads based on personal preferences and current geographic location via mobile platforms.

With all of the various components in Google's advertising arsenal and Yelp, Google could come close to emulating the sort of personalized, point-in-time ads that sprang up all around Tom Cruise in the Minority Report--minus the holographic images.

Local shops and small businesses would be able to get into the mobile ad game. Combined with GPS positioning in mobile handsets to track your location, Google could present ads from local shops that are in your immediate vicinity. I am much more likely to act on a $2 off coupon from a local coffee shop I am walking past right now, than to care about a more abstract mobile banner ad for a product or service.

Kiss, and Make Up

It's hard to say what the state of the Google-Yelp negotiations is. Whether Yelp walked away or Google retracted its offer, neither side is saying that the deal is off forever. Face it, neither of them has an alternative that is even remotely as viable as what the two can do together.

For the sake of all parties, I'll keep my fingers crossed that they play nice and reach an amicable solution.

22 December 2009

Stern Threatens To Quit -- Is It Just Idle Chatter?

Mel Karmazin and Howard Stern a match made in Hell. 
USA Today

Howard Stern is threatening to leave Sirius XM Radio now that the shock jock and the satellite radio provider are getting set to enter contract talks in 2010.

That threat probably seems less daunting to Sirius than it once would have. Sirius originally wanted Stern so badly that it gave him the most lucrative radio contract ever, a five-year deal that started in 2006 and paid him $500 million in cash and stock.

Today, he doesn't have many places left to go — at least if he wants another huge payday.

Free radio stations are struggling with steep drops in advertising and high debt loads, and probably can't pay top dollar to get Stern back to the medium where he began. He also likely would chafe at being censored again after enjoying the freedom of satellite radio, where his racy banter hasn't been subject to federal restrictions on language and content.

He can't switch to another satellite radio provider — Sirius swallowed the only other one, XM, last year.

So if Stern, 55, does re-sign with Sirius, it's likely to be for less this time around.

Sirius nearly had to file for bankruptcy protection this year and is still trying to reduce costs. The company is feeling the brunt of weak auto sales, which deliver many of its new customers. And it faces new threats from emerging commercial-free rivals such as Internet radio.

For these reasons — and because Stern has warned other times that he might quit or retire — his latest threat rings hollow to some analysts.

"It's probably positioning for contract negotiations," said Brett Harriss, an analyst at Gabelli & Co., whose parent Gamco Investors owns 1.1 million shares of Sirius. "I don't think he would give up his bullhorn."

Sirius' chief executive, Mel Karmazin, said recently that he will work hard to retain Stern, but the company would not offer more detailed comments. Stern's agent, Don Buchwald, did not respond to requests for comment.

Stern made his name on traditional or "terrestrial" radio. While Sirius mainly makes its money from selling subscriptions, the money that flowed to Stern on traditional radio came from syndication rights. In that setup, radio stations pay companies that distribute programs such as Stern's.

Many of those radio stations have struggled since Stern left the free airwaves, and the recession compounded the problems. In the first nine months of the year, radio advertising revenue fell by 21% to $11.8 billion, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau.

Citadel Broadcasting, the nation's third-largest operator of radio stations, filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday. Other big station owners also are wrestling with debts, and the syndication division of the largest station owner, Clear Channel Communications, already is believed to be paying Rush Limbaugh $400 million over an eight-year contract.

"Who else can afford Howard Stern?" Harriss said.

When Stern signed with Sirius, the company trailed XM Satellite Radio Holdings in the race for customers. It badly needed a marquee name to attract subscribers to its service, which delivers 130 radio channels anywhere in the country for $6.99 a month to $19.99 a month, depending on the package.

Now after buying XM for $3.3 billion, Sirius has 18.5 million subscribers, down slightly from a peak of 19 million at the end of last year. Sirius' radio lineup beyond Stern includes Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, NFL games and Major League Baseball. Half of its channels are music and free of commercials, while the rest air sports, talk shows, news, entertainment, traffic and weather.

The company still has never posted a net profit. Revenue was nearly flat in the last quarter, and Sirius remains pressured to cut costs. Sirius narrowly avoided bankruptcy protection 10 months ago by getting $530 million in financing from Liberty Media. Sirius had to give a 40% ownership stake to Liberty, which is controlled by satellite mogul John Malone.

As Sirius tries to get its finances in order, it must cope with threats from emerging technologies, such as Internet radio services that also deliver radio programming without commercials.

The company has been trying to cut costs. Sirius' programming expenses in the past four quarters fell 18% from the total paid by Sirius and XM in the previous year, when they were still separate companies. Sirius has eliminated duplicative radio programs since it absorbed XM and found ways to reduce "on-air talent costs."

Given the climate, if Stern returns to Sirius, "he's not going to get $500 million again," said Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce. Robert Eatman, the agent for Sirius talents Opie & Anthony and rapper Nick Cannon, agreed that Stern is "probably not worth" $500 million to Sirius now.

But the question will be just how much less Sirius can pay and still keep Stern.

Stern accounts for about $80 million of Sirius' annual programming costs, which have totaled $365 million over the past four quarters. The $80 million covers Stern's salary, wages for his staff and production and operating expenses, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The remainder of the contract was paid in stock.

There are no independent ratings available to track the popularity of Stern's show, which airs Mondays through Thursdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. But he has been so important to Sirius that he was the sole radio talent mentioned in SEC filings from 2006 through 2009 as a party whose failure could hurt Sirius' business. (Automakers were also among the listed entities.) In his first year at Sirius, Stern received a stock bonus worth $82.9 million because Sirius' subscriber count exceeded an agreed-upon target by more than 2 million.

Stern could leave to start a new venture, perhaps a subscription service that sends his show to PCs and mobile devices. Sirius already streams Stern's shows online and through the iPhone. Or he could explore more options in cable TV, where his first pay-per-view special, "Howard Stern's Negligee and Underpants Party," was offered in 1988.

Stern also could retire.

"Howard has the creative and business freedom to do what he wants to. He can just about write his own ticket in a number of areas," said Tom Taylor, executive news editor of Radio-Info.com, which tracks the radio industry. "He doesn't need to do anything. He's going to pay the rent fine."

15 December 2009

Google Labs Creates 'Living Stories'

LA Times

Google today said it has developed an experimental news site that it calls "Living Stories."

The idea, jointly developed with the New York Times and the Washington Post, is to pool together the many disparate stories a newspaper writes on a single topic, such as healthcare reform, into a single Web page.

Readers can customize pages based on the topics they wish to read. Each page automatically updates to include new stories on the topic, and remembers what the reader has already viewed to serve up newer or related stories and photos.

Living Stories was launched today in Google Labs, an area reserved for products that are not yet ready for prime time. The page currently has stories only from the Post and the Times, which worked with Google to develop the prototype.

"This project is a pilot," said Josh Cohen, senior business product manager for Google News, in an interview. "The idea is to make improvements based on the feedback we receive, then make those tools more widely available."

The concept of grouping articles by topic isn't new. Yahoo came up with its version, called Yahoo News Topics, two years ago. Here's Yahoo's page on "Google," for example. What's different is that Google sees publishers using Living Stories on their own websites, not just on Google. Here's an example from the Times of what a page about the war in Afghanistan looks like.

Publishers have no lack of options when it comes to digital distribution models as they cast about for a way to make up for the losses in print circulation and advertising. Just today, a group of five major publishers announced they would jointly build an online storefront for readers to buy magazines and newspapers. You can read more about that announcement here. Many see the effort as a response to Amazon.com's Kindle model, which pays publishers 30% of the revenue generated from the sale of periodicals.

So what's the benefit to publishers of going with Google?

Cohen said it's a happy union of developing a reader-friendly experience while maximizing a website's rank with search engines that can drive traffic to a publisher's website.

A page containing links to many stories on the same topic tends to rank higher with search engines than a page with a single story. This explains why Wikipedia is often at the top of a search results page on any given query.

"On the search side, there’s a single page to point to," Cohen said. "Instead of thousands of links, there is a single point of reference. And that’s helpful for users as well."

Comcast Launches Web TV Service

LA Times

Fancast Xfinity will allow millions of its subscribers who pay for high-speed Internet access and television to watch cable shows online.

Cable operator Comcast Corp. said it would make its experimental Web TV service available to millions of its subscribers who pay for high-speed Internet access and television, paving the way for people to watch cable shows online.

The newly christened Fancast Xfinity TV service allows subscribers to watch full-length television shows from 27 networks -- including pay cable offerings HBO, Cinemax and Starz -- on their computers. The cable giant is aggressively rolling out the online service, which it tested with 5,000 customers over the summer. It will be available immediately to the majority of Comcast's 15.7 million Internet service subscribers who also receive cable TV service.

"The launch today represents almost a year's worth of work by teams across Comcast," said Comcast Interactive Media President Amy Banse. "We think it's a good experience that's only going to get better over time."

Fancast Xfinity TV is part of a cable industry initiative called TV Everywhere that seeks to capitalize on the burgeoning Internet video phenomenon while at the same time protecting its lucrative subscription TV business.

Xfinity TV provides online access to such popular current cable shows as HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and TNT's "The Closer." But in order to watch them, subscribers must furnish their Comcast e-mail address and password -- information that's used to verify that they are paying cable TV customers. If a subscriber doesn't receive HBO in the home, they won't be able to watch it online either.

Analysts hailed the Xfinity TV offering as the first viable business model for offering cable TV shows online because it preserves the dual revenue streams of fees and advertising that underwrite the cost of programming. The service is also a hedge against subscribers cutting the chord to take advantage of the proliferation of free, online content.

"It's a defensive move," said Bobby Tulsiani, a media analyst with Forrester Research. "The threat was not Comcast subscribers switching to Time Warner or to satellite, the threat was subscribers giving up pay TV subscriptions altogether and moving exclusively to the Internet."

In addition to the cable programming, Comcast's Web TV offering incorporates broadcast television shows from ABC, NBC and Fox, which are provided through a distribution agreement with the online video service Hulu. Comcast's bid to acquire a controlling stake of NBC Universal would also give it a 30% ownership of Hulu, a venture in which Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox are also partners. Xfinity also has CBS shows.

Notably absent from Xfinity is the pay cable network Showtime.

"We are having discussions with programmers about making their content available," said Matt Strauss, Comcast's senior vice president of new media. "Without getting into the specifics of those discussions, we'll add more and more content" over time.

The Fancast service already has 12,000 hours worth of TV shows. With the addition of the authentication technology, Xfinity added 2,000 hours of cable television shows and about 900 movies carried on pay cable, such as "Juno," "The Dark Knight," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Wall-E."

Is AT and T Losing It?

PC World

On the heels of AT&T's disastrous attempts to fight back against Verizon's clever "there's a map for that" ad campaign (Luke Wilson? Is that all you got?) comes more bad news for those who've hitched their smartphones to Ma Bell's wagon.

In a speech to a tech conference this week, AT&T suit Ralph de la Vega hinted that his employer is considering plans to bring home more bacon by  -- making its wireless subscribers (i.e., iPhone owners) pay by the megabyte or live with bandwidth caps.

"The first thing we need to do is educate customers about what represents a megabyte of data and...we're improving systems to give them real-time information about their data usage. Longer term, there's got to be some sort of pricing scheme that addresses the [heavy] users.... We are going to make sure incentives are in place to reduce or modify [data] uses so they don't crowd out others in the same cell sites."

So, to recap: The only reason to pick AT&T as your wireless provider is the iPhone. In virtually every consumer survey, it lands at the bottom of the heap. It already charges an arm, a leg, and other vital bodily parts for a mandatory "unlimited" data plan. Now it wants to charge by the megabyte and/or put in bandwidth caps.

Why is the world's largest telecom being such a total asshat? Apparently it's doing everything it can to win the Worst Company Ever award.

Meanwhile, things over in Ma Bell's landline division don't appear to be much better. AT&T is running a "Help Yourself and Win" sweepstakes that's not doing it any good in the PR department. Participants vie for Four Grand Prizes -- a gift card worth $2,500 for buying a computer from Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, or Best Buy -- plus another $8,000 worth of Amazon and Starbucks gift cards for 180 runners-up. Sounds good, right?

To win, you must visit AT&T's sweepstakes site, hand over your e-mail address and phone number, and take a brief "trivia" quiz consisting of three questions:

What can you do if you are hearing noise or static on your regular phone line?

You have dial tone, but you aren't getting any telephone calls. What can you do?

Your phone does not ring when you have incoming calls. What can you do to resolve this issue online?

Here's a hint: The correct answer in each instance is "Visit AT&T's customer support repair page to report your problem and troubleshoot online." (Not that answering the questions correctly means you win. Your name must still be pulled out of a hat.)

I don't know what you walk away with from this, but here's what I get: AT&T landlines are noisy and trouble prone, and they have problems accepting incoming calls. Also, AT&T would much rather shunt you off to a Web page than deal with you directly, and it thinks you are a complete and utter boob.


It gets worse. Cringester A. H. swears he saw the words "You're a Loser" flash across his screen seconds before the official "Sorry; you're not an instant winner today" graphic displays. Sure enough, perusing that image's properties shows the alternate text that will appear if your browser can't display it: "You're a Loser."

I am not at all surprised. When you treat your customers with this much contempt, you can't think of them as anything but losers. I don't see how Apple can continue its exclusive relationship with AT&T for much longer. It's becoming an embarrassment.

Google Debuts URL-Shortening Device

Channel Web

Google debuted a new URL shortening service, dubbed Goo.gl, which prompts the question: Why?

The program takes long, unwieldy URLs and miniaturizes them. Making a 20-character URL into an eight-character URL is handy for posting on microblogging sites and social networks, where space for text is at a premium. It's such a great idea that two other services, Tiny.url and bit.ly already perform the task quite well. Why then would Google offer the same service? Here are three reasons.

1. Security. Google said in a blog post by software engineers Muthu Muthusrinivasan, Ben D'Angelo and Devin Mullins that the service will automatically check each URL to detect sites that may be malicious and warn users when the short URL resolves to such sites.

2. Reputation.
Google thinks that its household name will appeal to users who will find it reassuring that Google shortened these URLs.

3. Brand expansion. The service is aimed at people who use the Google Toolbar and FeedBurner. Goo.gl is baked into various Google services like the Feedburner RSS service and Google Toolbar for Web browsers, on which users can now find the Goo.gl function as they would any other Google tool. It's important to note that for now, Google's URL shortener will not be available as a stand-alone service -- as are competitors bit.ly and tiny.url -- though that could change depending on how Goo.gl fares in the market.

14 December 2009

AOL May Sell ICQ To Russia's DST

Wall Street Journal

AOL Inc. is in talks to sell its ICQ instant-messaging service to Russian Internet-investment group Digital Sky Technologies, according to people familiar with the matter.

Discussions between AOL and the prominent Facebook investor are still in the early stages, and AOL has reached out to other parties as well, according to a person familiar with the talks. The deal could fetch between $200 million and $300 million, this person said.

Digital Sky Technologies owns pieces of a number of Russian Internet properties, including Russia's largest Web site, Mail.ru, and a Polish social-networking site. But DST, run by Russian businessman and Internet investor Yuri Milner, is best known for buying a $200 million stake in Facebook.

ICQ has been eclipsed by other instant-messaging services in the U.S., but it remains popular overseas. In October, ICQ's largest markets were Germany, with 12.6 million unique visitors, and Russia, with 8.4 million unique visitors, according to research firm comScore.

The talks come just after AOL has completed its spinoff from media giant Time Warner Inc. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said last week at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference that AOL is evaluating shedding some of its assets "that don't make sense" with the company's new focus.

Also on the block could be second-tier social-networking site Bebo, which AOL acquired for $850 million last year, according to a person familiar with the situation.

AOL is trying to move from its roots as a subscription-based service for logging on to the Internet to an advertising-supported digital media company. Last year it generated much of its revenue and most of its profit from the Internet-access portion of its business. AOL doesn't break out revenue from its instant-messaging services.

Mr. Armstrong is trying to shore up AOL's double-digit-percentage declines in subscription and advertising revenues as well as drop-offs in traffic to its sites and services, which include the AOL.com home page, e-mail, instant messaging and mapping site MapQuest. He intends to refocus AOL on becoming a top producer of digital news, information, entertainment and other content, while maintaining AOL's traditional presence in e-mail and instant messaging.

AOL wasn't in a hurry to make any deals until after its separation from Time Warner, according to a person familiar with the situation. A spokeswoman for AOL declined to comment on Sunday on news of any deal talks.

AOL acquired ICQ's parent company, Tel Aviv-based Mirabilis, in June 1998 for $287 million in cash and additional performance-related payments of up to $120 million. Soon after buying ICQ, however, AOL's own instant-messaging service—now known as AOL Instant Messenger—became more popular in the U.S.

11 December 2009

3 Facebook Privacy Mistakes

Channel Web

No organization is exempt from screwing up, but lately that holds especially true for Facebook. While perhaps well intentioned, Facebook has committed a series of blunders with recent changes to its privacy settings in an effort to simultaneously protect users' information and make it accessible to open Web searches. Needless to say, the social networking giant seems to be having trouble doing both well.

1: Everyone Means Everyone

When in doubt, go the transparent route. Following its privacy overhaul Wednesday, Facebook forced users to review their privacy settings with a series of prompts that ostensibly enabled them to have more control over what information they share and with whom. If they so chose, Facebook users could change their privacy settings from the default "everyone" to "friends" or "friends of friends" settings, which only allowed contacts on the user's network to view status updates and other information posted on a user's profile. However Facebook failed to make clear that the "everyone" setting didn't only mean the entirety of the user's Facebook network, it meant the entirety of the Web. The "everyone" setting puts users' Facebook status updates and profile information up for grabs by online search engines such as Google or Microsoft's Bing, as well as some third-party Facebook enhanced apps. Had that been made clearer, it's doubtful that more than 80 percent of users would retain the default "everyone" setting.

2: Another Manual Prompt

In response to a firestorm of complaints regarding privacy setting issues, Facebook improved the Friend List visibility option, making it slightly more challenging for members to view friends' personal and professional contacts, whether or not they're a member of the network. Facebook eliminated the link to a Friend List on user's profiles, while also including an option for members who wish to block everyone from viewing their contact lists, whether they're a member of the network or not. But once again, it's not clear who exactly will have access to Facebook users' Friend List. The information is still publicly available, and can also be accessed by third-party applications -- just not within Facebook itself. Meanwhile, Facebook users will be required to manually and deliberately uncheck the box marked 'show my friends on my profile" if they want to implement these restrictions.

3: What Facebook Isn't Telling You

First and foremost, Facebook has its own best interest at heart -- not yours or your privacy. Facebook's privacy redesign was intended to make the social networking site more competitive with micro-blogging site Twitter, which touts simplicity and ease of use, along with openness and availability to all. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Microsoft publicly announced that it would be forming deals with both Twitter and Facebook to funnel tweets and other user content onto its search pages. Since then, both Microsoft and Facebook have been rather tight lipped about how exactly Facebook posts and updates were to be incorporated into Bing. In light of Twitter's explosive growth, it's likely that all of Facebook's content, including personal status updates, could be subjected to search engine searches.

Meanwhile, Facebook also said it responded to a firestorm of criticism regarding privacy settings by limiting visibility to users' Friend Lists. However Friend List restrictions, coupled with revamped privacy settings, also give Facebook a foot in the door in the professional networking arena, priming the site to compete toe to toe with LinkedIn, which is geared toward professional networking. By limiting access to Friend Lists, Facebook acknowledges that some users might be hesitant to post something online that might jeopardize their current or future job.

09 December 2009

Facebook Shuts Down Beacon, Settles Lawsuit

PC World

Facebook has agreed to shut down a program that sparked a lawsuit alleging privacy violations, and set up a $9.5 million fund for a nonprofit foundation that will support online privacy, safety and security.

The lawsuit centers around Facebook's Beacon program, which let third-party Web sites distribute "stories" about users to Facebook. Beacon was launched in November 2007 and less than a year later plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit "alleging that Facebook and its affiliates did not give users adequate notice and choice about Beacon and the collection and use of users’ personal information."

In addition to Facebook, the lawsuit's defendants include Blockbuster, Fandango, Hotwire, STA Travel, Overstock.Com, Zappos.com, and Gamefly.

Facebook never admitted wrongdoing but as part of a proposed settlement the company began sending notices to Facebook users this week. The settlement provides no compensation directly to users who receive the notice. Facebook users can opt out of the settlement, and should do so if they wish to pursue further legal action against Facebook related to the Beacon program.

"If you choose to do nothing, and remain in the settlement class you will be legally bound by the settlement," an FAQ on the settlement Web site says. "By doing nothing, you will be giving up the right to sue Facebook and the other Defendants over claims related to or arising out of the Beacon program."

Facebook has terminated the Beacon program and agreed to pay $9.5 million into an interest-bearing account to create a nonprofit foundation that will "fund projects and initiatives that promote the cause of online privacy, safety, and security." Although users in general will not receive compensation, the settlement includes $41,500 for the 19 individuals who filed the lawsuit. Court approval of the settlement is expected as soon as Feb. 26, 2010.

Facebook has taken several actions to improve privacy in recent days, including the formation of a safety advisory board designed to improve user safety on the site. A new security section on Facebook will be more comprehensive and include content tailored for parents, teachers and teens, the IDG News Service reported. Facebook has also decided to eliminate regional networks, which let users share information with potentially millions of other members.

Facebook's privacy section already allows users to control which of their friends can see content such as status updates and tagged photos, but the site remains a lightning rod in online privacy debates because it is so widely used and offers such an easy way to share personal information.

People who want to learn more about the Beacon issue should check out the Beacon class settlement Web site, which provides access to court documents, important dates and deadlines and other information. For those of you wondering how the now-defunct Beacon program worked, the Web site offers a detailed explanation, which reads as follows:

"If you were logged in to Facebook and visited a Beacon Affiliate, an action you took (like writing a review or purchasing an item), may have triggered that website to want to publish a story to Facebook. Before that happened, the website would send some information to Facebook in order for Facebook to generate a notification that would display in the lower right corner of your screen. If you clicked 'No, Thanks', no stories or information would be published anywhere on Facebook. Any information that was sent to Facebook's servers would be deleted. If you clicked 'Close' or ignored the story, the story would be sent to Facebook, but not yet published.

"The next time you visited your home page, you'd see a message reminding you that this story was being sent. There are three things you could have done with this story: approve the story by clicking 'Okay,' remove the story by clicking 'Remove', or ignore the entire message by doing nothing. If you approved the story and clicked 'Okay,', the story would be published on your Wall and may have appeared in your friends' News Feeds. If you removed the story using the 'Remove' link next to it, the story would never appear in your Wall or a friend's News Feed. If you ignored the whole message, it would go away after a few days and nothing would have been published to Wall or News Feed. However, when you ignored a story, it remained queued, so that the next time you generated a Beacon story, this home page message would have two stories, instead of one."

For more information about enterprise networking, go to NetworkWorld. Story copyright 2008 Network World Inc. All rights reserved.

Facebook Adding More Privacy Settings For Individual Data


Facebook is changing its privacy settings to give users control over who sees the information they post on their personal pages.

Beginning Wednesday, the networking Web site is taking the rare step of requiring its more than 350 million users to review and update their privacy settings.

The new controls are designed to simplify the cumbersome privacy controls that have confounded many users. Facebook said the changes are based on user feedback — though it remains to be seen whether the shift will mean fewer surprises for people who have unintentionally shared party photos with their bosses.

As part of the changes, Facebook users will be able to select a privacy setting for each piece of content, such as photos or updates, that they share on the site — as they share it. The choices are "friends" only, "friends of friends" or "everyone." There is also an option to customize groups of friends for certain kinds of updates — such as "college buddies."

Jules Polonetsky, co-chairman and director at the Future of Privacy Forum think tank in Washington, praised how the process resembles the way people decide what to share in their day-to-day lives. He said putting the controls "when you need it, right there, is far better than putting it in a `privacy' or `help' location" somewhere on the site.

Facebook will be asking users to review and alter their settings through a tool that explains the changes. People will be able to either keep their old settings or take recommendations from Facebook that are largely based on how they have configured their information.

As promised, Facebook is also getting rid of its geographic networks, because many of them — take "New York" or "Australia" — have gotten too big. If users were previously part of such a geographic network, this location will now be listed in their profiles under "current city."

Other networks, for schools and workplaces, are staying.

The changes have no effect on advertising on the site, said Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public policy at Facebook.

But he added that by giving users such granular control over the content they share, Facebook is encouraging more sharing and a greater connection to the site.

"If users feel more confident with our service, they will use our service more," he said. "And the more they use our services the more benefits we derive."

Dave Eggers: Author, Screenwriter...Newspaper Publisher?

LA Times

Reporting from San Francisco - Dave Eggers doesn't look like a newspaper baron. At 39, wearing a baseball cap and hiking boots, the author -- whose most recent project is the screenplay for "Where the Wild Things Are" -- appears more an older brother to the interns who work feverishly in the Mission District offices of McSweeney's, the independent publisher Eggers founded with the proceeds from his bestselling 2000 memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

In addition to books and a monthly magazine, McSweeney's publishes a literary journal, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, the new issue of which is set to appear here today in a form that confounds every trend in publishing: a 300-plus-page Sunday-style broadsheet newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama, with which Eggers and company mean to celebrate the glory of the form. Featuring news and sports as well as stand-alone food and arts sections, a magazine and a 96-page pullout Book Review, the Panorama is both homage and conversation starter.

"We don't pretend to have the solutions," Eggers says. "We're just asking a few questions. We admit how little we know, but we're trying to luxuriate in print and maybe remind people of everything it can do."

McSweeney's' projects are marked by an intention to break boundaries, and nowhere is this more true than with the quarterly. A 2005 issue was published as a bundle of mail, and other issues have come in a variety of shapes and styles.

The Panorama will be big, its pages 15 by 22 inches, and lavishly laid out, with attention to color and graphics. A two-page spread in the food section illustrates how to make bruschetta, beginning with the butchering of a lamb. The sports section features a gallery of drawings from the World Series, laid out to resemble something from a newspaper of 80 years ago.

The writing represents contemporary literary journalism at its best. Stephen King -- a Red Sox fan who views the New York Yankees with what he describes as "fear and loathing" -- reports from Baseball City, where the World Series takes place in Bloat Stadium, at the intersection of Greed Avenue and Stupid Street. Novelist Andrew Sean Greer goes to Michigan to experience NASCAR firsthand.

"Our hope," Eggers notes, "is that readers will say, 'I forgot all these things that newsprint can do.' I think it's life-affirming when you say, 'Let's just write it at the length it needs to be and not keep shrinking everything.' "

Of course, it's easy to make such an argument when you're not dealing with the issues facing the commercial press. "In 2005," says Alan D. Mutter, who writes the blog Reflections of Newsosaur, "newspapers racked up a record $49 billion in ad sales. This year, they'll be lucky if they can get $28 billion."

Eggers understands these challenges. "All our friends at dailies," he says, "can't experiment the way we can because we don't have anyone to answer to." The Panorama will come out once, with a cover price of $16 in an edition of about 25,000. Although there is a plan to sell the paper on the streets in San Francisco today, national distribution will take place Wednesday via the Internet and bookstores (including Book Soup and Skylight Books in Los Angeles).

Of course, there's more to the project than simply a demonstration of what newspapers once could do. This too is typical McSweeney's. Indeed, the imprint has become a brand, the apotheosis of writerly hip in a world where cachet for literature is sorely lacking. In addition to its publishing efforts, the press works closely with 826 National, a nonprofit literacy organization for kids 6 to 18 that Eggers established in 2002. What connects these endeavors is a sense that writing and publishing should be ambitious.

Among the centerpieces of the Panorama is an investigative piece by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Porterfield, looking into cost overruns in the renovation of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It's an effort undertaken in conjunction with SF Public Press, a nonprofit Web-based start-up that is looking to fill gaps in local news coverage that have arisen with the contraction of the mainstream press.

Although the San Francisco Chronicle bills itself as "Northern California's largest newspaper," circulation is in decline and staff has been cut; the San Francisco Examiner, meanwhile, is now a free tabloid, distributed six days a week.

"The Panorama is a perfect partner," says Michael Stoll, a former reporter and editor at the Examiner and Philadelphia Inquirer who is now the Public Press' project director and has been a key liaison on the Bay Bridge piece. "They share the same love of the medium but haven't joined the stampede that has given up print for dead."

The Porterfield investigation will encompass more than 10,000 words and half a dozen graphic elements, split between a main piece and several sidebars. It's the kind of thing, Eggers notes, that is hard to do online. This, in turn, suggests a multi-platform approach, in which Twitter or Web updates are used for breaking news and print becomes an outlet for analysis and commentary. "The only thing that doesn't work," Stoll says, "is a single-media strategy."

The McSweeney's effort taps into a larger conversation about the future of long-form journalism in a world where traditional venues are in flux. Last month, the Virginia Quarterly Review, another literary journal, used its website to post an 18,000-word piece in four installments about last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai. "That's one way of experimenting," says Robert Boynton, director of literary reporting at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

"People constantly underestimate the reading appetite of the American public," Boynton adds, "But there's as big an interest in long-form journalism today as there has ever been, and as we experiment with different delivery systems it will only grow."

That's an optimistic assessment, but it's one Eggers shares. "All of the interns pay for magazines," he says. "They'll read the New Yorker, or they'll read Mother Jones. They'll pay for that, but a lot of them weren't paying for the newspaper anymore. So we started thinking, what if you offered the same sort of depth, analysis, literary value that you get in a magazine? When people sit down, they want to have an experience, and if you surprise them on every page, curate it in such a way that it's constantly surprising and constantly delighting, I think you could keep them."

08 December 2009

Craigslist Faces Host Of Rivals

Business Week

Fabrice Grinda is bullish on Brazil and betting big on Internet classified ads in South America's largest country. This year, Grinda's New York-based company OLX opened an office in São Paulo, hired locals to translate the OLX site into Portuguese, asked top real estate brokers and auto dealers to offer low-priced listings, and recruited an executive from eBay (EBAY) in Latin America.

That approach has worked well for OLX in Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and a handful of other countries. And in September, OLX became the leading classifieds site in Brazil, surpassing local rival QueBerato in visitors, according to researcher comScore (SCOR). Craigslist, which has come to dominate the U.S. and other markets by charging no fees for most ads, is a distant No. 42 in Brazil, according to comScore. "I would like to think we have a chance to become the Craigslist of the rest of the world," Grinda says.

Craigslist is a worthy target. Founded in 1995, the popular site for free online listings has almost singlehandedly replaced the classifieds business of print newspapers and now dominates the U.S. online market. Yet critics say Craigslist has done little to innovate, ignoring opportunities to expand through search, social networking, and wireless communication. It's also been slow to penetrate some developing overseas markets. Internationally.Craigslist is "asleep at the wheel," says Grinda.

New players are raring to overhaul online classifieds. "Classifieds have gone through two chapters," says Craig Donato, co-founder and CEO of classifieds startup Oodle. First came newspapers, then Craigslist, he says. "We are focused on the third chapter." Craigslist declined to make an executive available to comment for this story.

Most of the innovation in classifieds has happened in specific areas such as job postings on Monster (MWW) and real estate listings on Trulia. "Those sites all have a lot of traffic and they co-exist with Craigslist," says Greg Sterling, founding principal of researcher Sterling Market Intelligence. Jobs are one of the few areas where Craigslist charges a fee for postings. It also charges for New York real estate listings.
No. 2 OLX tries harder with locals

Newcomers find it tough to challenge Craigslist's array of listings, which range from used Apple (AAPL) iPods, to beachfront properties in Miami, to solicitations for "casual encounters," often a euphemism for consensual sex.

Still, upstarts are making headway. In 2009, its fourth year, OLX became the world's second-most-visited online classifieds property, leapfrogging eBay's Kijiji sites and approaching Craigslist. Co-founder and CEO Grinda says the site encompasses 90 countries and 40 languages, compared with Craigslist's 70 countries and 6 languages. Unlike the more established site, OLX works hands-on with locals in all its major markets to translate its services and to relate to merchants in the community, Grinda says. Hands-off Craigslist relies mainly on local sellers to post listings. It does next-to-no marketing.

OLX makes money by promoting ads to the top of listings, charging $2 to $10 a week. The company saw its first profit in June and expects more than $10 million in sales this year.

"OLX is the leading classifieds site in a bunch of markets that are small today but have the opportunity to be the same size as Craigslist," says Jeremy Levin, partner in Bessemer Partner Ventures, which contributed to OLX's $29 million in funding. "When you add them all up you get something that's substantially larger than the U.S. market and a business that generates—if it is successful—hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue." This year, Craigslist is expected to bring in $100 million in sales, according to the AIM Group. The closely held company doesn't report financial figures.

Craigslist's dated technology also gives rivals a lever, even in the U.S. Oodle, which started in San Mateo, Calif., in 2005, is pursuing what it considers a missed opportunity in connecting classifieds to social relationships on sites such as Facebook. Classifieds are "not about inviting some anonymous person over to my house to test-drive my car," says Oodle co-founder Donato. "We're trying to create a different experience, based on trust and reputation."
Craigslist ads search poorly

Oodle's approach is best demonstrated on Facebook Marketplace, a classifieds site on the social network. There, Oodle lets users buy and sell items in an environment where people and merchants use real names; users can quickly share good deals with Facebook friends. The company earns revenue by taking bids for prominently placed ads, similar to OLX, and through a subscription service that helps real estate brokers and other professionals find customers. Besides Facebook, Oodle has partnered with Wal-Mart (WMT), AOL, and News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace. Oodle has raised more than $20 million in funding, including some from Greylock Partners.

Another complaint about Craigslist is that it lacks sophisticated search. Shoppers can't search within a limited geographic area—say, a tri-state area. Its listings typically don't get picked up by search engines such as Google (GOOG). San Francisco-based Vast is trying to help online classifieds become more searchable by working with publishers to help users quickly retrieve listings tailored to them. For example, Vast powers the search for cars on the Web site of Kelley Blue Book.

Such online niche sectors as travel, autos, and real estate are already worth at least $1 billion apiece, says Vast CEO Kevin Laws. His company collects most of its money from fees paid by advertisers each time the search engine refers a customer. Some real estate brokers end up sharing a significant percentage—sometimes more than $1,000—upon completion of a sale.

Craigslist's new competitors may not soon edge out the classifieds king, says Kelsey Group analyst Peter Krasilovsky. Craigslist has the critical mass of millions of users that many upstarts struggle to achieve, he says. In the U.S., the service had 44.1 million unique users in October 2009, up 20% from a year earlier, according to comScore. "There's no evidence that Craigslist has been cannibalized," says Krasilovsky, who nevertheless contends there's room for new players to grow. "There's more participation in classifieds than there's ever been before."

07 December 2009

Team From MIT Wins DARPA Red Balloon Challenge

Information Week

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers took less than nine hours to find 10 weather balloons that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had placed randomly in public places around the United States, claiming the $40,000 contest prize.

About 4,300 teams participated in DARPA's Network Challenge over the weekend. The Pentagon will study the results to better understand how social networking can solve large-scale problems that require fast solutions.

DARPA placed the 8-foot, red balloons, all marked with numbered pennants and most with a DARPA banner, in public parks and other locations, from Miami's South Beach and San Francisco's Union Square to a tennis court in Charlottesville, Va. [see: Pentagon Trying To Crack Social Networking]

Teams used various methods to identify balloon locations, from synthesizing public information to collaborating in large groups. Some tried to confuse challenge participants with false locations, including a large paper copy of a balloon in Providence, R.I.

The winning team was headed by scientist Riley Crane, who is studying social networking in a post-doctoral fellowship at M.I.T. and author of academic papers about YouTube. His team, the M.I.T. Red Balloon Challenge Team, was a collaborative effort that used an inverse pyramid model to encourage the help of others.

The team divvied the $40,000 by giving $2,000 to the first person who sent them correct coordinates for each balloon, then $1,000 to whoever invited that person to participate, $500 to whoever invited that person, and so on. Leftover funds will go to charity.

In addition to studying interaction that took place on the Web, DARPA plans to interview teams in order to understand the strategies they used to build networks and collect information.

DARPA is the government agency that developed many of the technologies that became integral to the Internet. The Network Challenge is one of a series of recent DARPA-sponsored challenges, which have included a $2 million prize for the builders of a robot car that drove itself over a 131-mile desert course in California.