A Fresh Look at the Cable TV Business

LeVarBack in the 1970s, most Americans thought television would be free forever. There weren’t many channels—just CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and a few independents—but that seemed sufficient—so the audience looked forward to the addition of even one additional channel to watch reruns, baseball games, or old black-and-white movies. At that time, cable television was a sluggish industry for four reasons: (1) there was no wired infrastructure, no way to connect most households  to a local cable television system; (2) the principal value of cable was improved broadcast reception, which was an issue for a relatively small number of viewers; (3) cable systems mostly served small cities and towns, so the economics of scale were absent; (4) apart from the few low-budget, hyper-local cable channels (“local origination”), there were almost no cable-only television channels, and no economic model to support the idea; and (5) almost nobody was willing to pay to watch television.

It took about twenty years, but by 1998, there were 171 cable networks, and today, there are nearly 1,000. In 1998, there were nearly 70 million households paying a monthly fee to a cable television system operator. How much? Nowadays, that’s not a figure to calculate because internet services and cable subscriptions are bundled, but if that number is $500 per year x even 50 million households (assume severe cord-cutting), that’s $25,000,000,000 per year—$25 billion, plus advertising and other services that brings the industry closer to the $40-50 billion mark. That’s several times larger than our U.S. automobile industry, several times the size of our retail industry, and about the size of our energy industry.

This will not last forever. In fact, it’s changing very quickly because cable can no longer protect the near-monopoly that it constructed for itself in the 20th century. The problem is Google, the problem is Apple, the problem is the cable industry itself that has grown fat and happy by collecting those monthly fees. The cable industry did not, could not, or didn’t bother to protect its essential territory: the TV screen. Sure, it controls the DVR, but that’s not enough. With every HBO Now, every YouTube video watched on an iPhone, the traditional cable industry is cut out of the equation.

At the recent INTX conference (no longer called “The Cable Show” or the “NCTA” for National Cable Television Association) earlier this month, the emphasis was not on program services (though there were small booths from large cable network operations like NBC Universal and Disney), but on hardware that combines the cable and internet viewing experience into a single set-top box. If you want to watch HBO, or ESPN, or YouTube, it’s all in one place. And often, that box is made by TiVO (which still sells DVRs, but was aced out of that sector by the cable operators).

If you’ve been waiting for a decent YouTube search interface on your TV set, it’s coming, thanks to cable. And if you’re liking the idea of TV Anywhere—watch the program on your TV, then switch to your tablet—that’s the new iteration of cable, too.

Mostly, cable has successfully pivoted. On the surface, we think of the cable industry as the provider of television channels, and now, some VOD services, and we pay a monthly fee for those services. But that’s not the way cable operators see the future. In order to survive, they must control your screen, and that means, they must control your internet service because internet services are becoming wireless, and that will, in time, eliminate the need for the physical cables that defined the industry a half-century ago.

When all of this got started, the cable operators walked a path laden with gold. They would enter a small city, perhaps Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make all sorts of ridiculous promises to local government officials (building schools, swimming pools, new government buildings, senior centers, and so on), and sometimes ease the way with skanky business practices and celebrity appearances (famous Warner Bros. movie stars visit the city, kiss the Mayor, and dazzle the locals so that its cable division could sweep up the local rights—the franchise—to build the local cable television system). Now, things are different. It’s not the people of River City who must be won over. It’s the blaze of battle against some of the world’s wealthiest companies, and they possess a technology advantage far beyond the reach of most cable operators. So: if they cannot compete against Google or Apple, they do the next best things: they buy their competitors (Time-Warner Cable was just sold), and they attempt to control the content (Comcast owns not only NBC Universal but now Dreamworks Animation, too).

We’ve seen this play before. Gigantic companies buy the entertainment companies, and then, those companies fall into the hands of the finance people who make decisions that drive the creative community to smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

So where does that leave you and me? Paying $1,ooo-2,ooo per year for combined cable and internet services, with a voice-controlled remote control and some artificial intelligence to recommend programs we might enjoy. We’ll watch John Oliver tell us everything that’s wrong, and we’ll do our best to forget that he’s employed by a $30 billion company, one of the few that controls what we watch, what we see and what we know.

And so, we complete the circle. There are far better toys in our house than there were in the 1970s, but our viewing choices are still controlled by a small number of big companies. The only real difference: those big companies are much, much richer than they were fifty years ago. Meanwhile, we’re still kicking back for 30 or 40 hours a week devoting our free time to the less-than-satisfying hobby of watching television programs and commercials.

BTW: The man in the picture is LeVar Burton who starred in ABC’s original version of ROOTS in 1977, and is now co-executive producer of a new version which debts on several cable networks in this month, around the world.




Six Thousand Cheering Fans

MacBookAirI raced home tonight to watch two hours of programming that will never appear on television. You may not even recognize the name of the program: “WWDC2013” I don’t know how many other people watched, but I suspect it’s over a million.

It’s difficult to think of any company whose business partners are also its biggest fans. Throughout today’s Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference, every time an Apple executive introduced a new feature, the crowd went wild–just like they do on “The Price Is Right.” Here, we’re talking about the addition of tags to file icons in the Finder menus, so the applause (which seemed genuine, and was likely not prompted by the “Applause!” signs that hang above game show audiences).

Think about this: Apple one of the top companies in the world. Twice a year, they hold an event in a large auditorium to tell partners and customers about the latest MacBook Air, or improvements in their  operating system, and they generate more excitement than the majority major league sporting events ( more press, too).

This phenomenon goes far beyond traditional product marketing or consumer behavior. On the very popular MacRumors website, which does nothing but track possible directions that Apple may go, there was a countdown clock with the number of days, hours and seconds until the big event. I checked the site at least once a day (okay, three or four times a day) to see whether anything new was posted. This is obsessive behavior, not at all reasonable, and completely dissimilar to anything else in my life. I’m hardly the only one who is engaging in this silliness.

Today, Apple announced that they now own the number one slots in desktop and notebook computer sales. Their five year growth is more than 5x the entire PC industry. Their iPad and iPhone are industry leaders. The entire ecosystem works together as one–and they’re improving their iCloud systems so that the experience is that much more satisfying, rich, and competitive. Each successful product adds to the value of the whole, not just for the company, for every participant in Apple’s supremely well-constructed and well-managed ecosystem. It’s a brilliant bit of 21st century thinking, and it’s remarkable that there aren’t a dozen other companies with similar schemes.

I probably spent more combined time with my iPhone, iPad and iMac than I do with anything else I own. They contain my creative work, my communications with just about everybody I know, my schedule, my written work… in short, they play a very significant role in my daily life. Do I have an emotional connection to these metal and plastic parts? I want to say no, but I did spend the evening watching two hours of Apple propaganda this evening (and rushed home to do it).

Is this some sort of a man-machine addiction? I do find myself at something of a loss if I’m separated from my stuff for too long. I do spend time with Apple products just as soon as I wake up and in the minutes before I head for my bedroom and sleep. And I’m not disclosing these personal habits because I think they’re unique. I suspect there are a few million people who are behaving in ways that are far more extreme than the ways I think about these tools.

I could go on, but I do have some things I want to do tonight. (No, I’m not going to stroke an iPad while I confirm tomorrow’s schedule. I’m going to watch the Samsung TV downstairs because we recorded the TONY Awards on CBS using the Verizon FiOS DVR last night when we were too busy shopping at IKEA to make it home in time for the show.) I am pleased with all of these brands because they deliver upon their promises, but none of them have managed to become a part of my life in  the way that Apple has managed to do.

Why? Mostly because the Apple stuff works so well (and if it doesn’t there’s the Genius Bar at the Apple stores, and Apple Care by phone). Nothing else I own has achieved that level of interoperability (to use a tech term). Taken individually as products or collectively as a complete system, it’s all elegant, reliable, and cool. And although my iMac tends to crash from time to time, and the iCal sync doesn’t work too tell on one of my devices, the whole thing is very, very impressive. Better, in fact, than just about anything else I own.

Maintaining Clear Focus, Setting Priorities, Not Forgetting

Every once in a while, a tool becomes an indispensable part of everyday life. We’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon with smart phones, then tablets, email, web browsing, and for some, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking activities. During the past few months, I have retrained myself so that all notes are dated, tagged, written and stored in Evernote. And every task, every to-do, every reminder is logged in a capable, well-designed software application called OmniFocus. I no longer make random lists (well, almost never). When something needs to get done, I enter it into OmniFocus.

What I like about Evernote, I like (or will soon like) about OmniFocus. I’m busy, I jot down a note or reminder on my iPhone, and I can fetch it, adding details or changes as I wish, on my iPad, or office iMac. (The one thing that I like even more about Evernote is that I can also access everything via any web browser, but that has not been much of an issue when I use OmniFocus because I always have a OmniFocus device with me).

OmniFocus-for-iPad-sync-new-iconsSo what’s the big deal about OmniFocus? There are dozens of to-do and reminder apps, with sync, available for far less than OmniFocus. Wunderlist is free, and so is Appigo’s To Do (available in Pro edition for $19.99 per year); Things for iPad costs $19.99, and OmniFocus costs twice as much.

For me, the key to OmniFocus and its value is a view of tasks by date. Sounds like every other task management software, like every GTD (“getting things done”) app, but that assessment is not quite right. Allow me to run through a task, an illustration of how OmniFocus is used to run much of my life.

OmniFocus entry screenAlthough it is possible to make a quick task entry, the more complete entry panel is more useful. After naming the task, I select a context from my own list that includes: Awaiting Response, Call, Create, First Contact, Followup, Just Do It, On Hold, Purchase, Research, Schedule, Visit Web Site, and Write. Then, I select a project, again from my own list that includes: Art, Books, Digital Insider, Home, Music, Software, Travel, Web Site, and various, specific work-related projects. I can stop there, deciding to add a flag to any high-priority tasks, but I prefer to add a due date to every task (start dates are also an option, but I don’t work that way). There’s a nice big note field, and I use hat to capture URLs, reminders of the most recent attempted contact (left phone message on 3.13.2013; sent reminder email on 10.12.2012). I can add a photograph, .jog, .gif, .png, or record an audio message.

That’s how I compose each task. Note that there are no priority levels (three stars for most important, two for moderate importance), and no color coding for each category (Music is red, Books are purple). I used these often when Appigo’s To Do was my management system. It looked pretty, but I seemed to spend more time futzing than actually, you know, getting things done.

So, that’s half of the story. The other half us a very reasonable view called Forecast. On the iPad, along the top, there are a series of boxes, each with a date and a number of due tasks. I click on Saturday, May 4 and I see the four tasks that are due on that day. I click on Monday, May 6 and I see the list of 13 tasks I have assigned to that date. Each task is clearly identified by its context (Digital Insider, Home, Music, etc.) In addition, down at the bottom of the screen, I see a quick view of my day’s calendar (among my few criticisms: I would be happier with even a hint of what meeting was represented by each of the schedule bars). Still, in a single screen view, I can assess my entire day and make way through all that I intend to get done. I’m surprised that so few task programs also offer this calendar feature; in fact, this was the single feature that initially drew me to OmniFocus.

This is a slightly truncated version of the iPad view. I have eliminated part of the (empty) middle section to draw your attention to the task list on the top and the calendar blocks on the bottom. In real life, few of my days go by with just two tasks. (Yours too, I suspect.)

This is a slightly truncated version of the iPad view. I have eliminated part of the (empty) middle section to draw your attention to the task list on the top and the calendar blocks on the bottom. In real life, few of my days go by with just two tasks. (Yours too, I suspect.)

Apple includes a geo-location feature in its Reminders app, and OmniFocus does the same. Of course, I can survey every task by looking at a context-based organization of the tasks on one screen, or a projects-based list on another. This is sometimes useful, but I much prefer the date view (I guess I think in terms of what I want to do today, not what I want to write for Digital Insider over the next few weeks). I find myself sending tasks from Safari, but some bookmark manipulation is required to do so (common among Apple and iOS products, a silly misstep on Apple’s part; I don’t know about the Android equivalent, but someone might comment on that question).

Apple (and other users) are accustomed to seeing tasks organized not only by time but by place. In OmniFocus, this feature is especially well integrated.

Apple (and other users) are accustomed to seeing tasks organized not only by time but by place. In OmniFocus, this feature is especially well integrated.

Another useful feature, which I ought to use more often, is called Review. It allows management of categories by group (for example, I can de-activate Art for a while), or place a group of items on hold. I prefer to work at the individual task level, but I probably could save some time and operate even more efficiently by using Review.

On the iPhone, I get just about everything that’s available on the iPad version. In fact, the day’s schedule does list specific events, a feature not available on iPad (yet?). How about the desktop version? Well, it’s available, but the current iOS versions are so good, OmniGroup is redesigning the desktop version to match the feature set. Apparently, the Beta testing is going quite well; from time to time, the publisher offers an update on the company’s blog. The new release will be tied to a fresh syncing approach called OmniPresence, also described in the blog.

With all of this positivity, I supposed that you should know that OmniGroup is a leading developer of Mac and iOS products, but these products are not available for Windows or Android. That’s too bad, and, I suppose the company’s executives keep wondering whether to continue to excel in the Apple world, or whether to expand so that their good work can be appreciated by users of other systems. In fact, this is the second Omni product I have written about in this blog (OmniGraffle was the first; it’s a diagramming program that I use all of the time), and I’m anxious to write about another one, OmniOutliner, another product being redesigned for desktop because the mobile version has been so warmly received.

Would I change anything about this program? Well, just a few things. First, I think I would offer flags in at least three colors, just to add a bit of additional “hey this is pretty important” highlighting (priority levels would only confuse an elegantly simple approach, so I would leave that alone). And, I wish I could see the names of my appointments on the iPad as I can on the iPhone. A means of web access would be nice, but it’s hardly essential.

Overall, based upon daily use for months, I wholeheartedly recommend OmniFocus to people who (a) tend to be very busy, and tend to manage many of their own tasks; (b) believe that good organization and clear task lists make it possible to get things done more efficiently and effectively (if you’re not a believer, there’s no point in any of this), and (c) require a more professionally-oriented system than most products in App Store provide. If you’re just working out shopping lists, OmniFocus can do the job, but so can a lot of other software. If you’re attempting to manage a business life, or a busy personal life, OmniFocus is probably a wise choice.

iPad4: Slightly Smaller, Lighter Package

macrumors-ipad5cMacRumors published an interesting article about the new full-sized iPad, the one that will become available by September or October of this year.

The new model will be about 1 inch less wide, and about 2mm thinner than the current iPad Retina Display. It will resemble the current iPad Mini, which employs a far thinner border on the left and right sides of the screen.

And, in case you missed it, Apple introduced a new 128 GB version of the current iPad this week. It’s now available, and, I suspect, autumn will bring a 32 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB model, with no more 16 GB iPads after this year.

I really like MacRumors. They hold their sources to very high standards, and if they’re not always 100% on the money, their revelations are consistently sane, reasonable, and forward-thinking.

Is the iPad Mini Coming This Fall, Not Summer? (Updated)

Key facts, or, at least, key rumors courtesy of MacRumors:

  • $250-300 retail price
  • “A 7.85-inch “iPad mini” display with a resolution of 1024×768 would carry a pixel density of 163 pixels per inch, exactly the same density as the non-Retina iPhone and iPod touch models.”
  • Competes with upcoming Windows 8 devices

No, this is not a definite product. But it is an intriguing rumor.

But today’s visit to Barnes & Noble, and yesterday’s visit to B&H Photo in Manhattan confirm one counterintuitive idea: in comparison with competitive products, the iPad is kinda big. I like it that way, but I use my iPad for business purposes. For casual use, something smaller might be just the thing.

UPDATE as of July 3, 2012:

“The new model will have a screen that’s 7 inches to 8 inches diagonally, less than the current 9.7-inch version, said the people, who asked not to be identified because Apple hasn’t made its plans public. The product, which Apple may announce by October, won’t have the high-definition screen featured on the iPad that was released in March, one of the people said.”–reported by Bloomberg, posted in MacRumors.

iPad for Me! (1 of 18 available!)

I was hoping I would get lucky at one of my two local, independently-owned Apple dealers–until I learned of their situation. There are now EIGHTEEN iPad SKUS available in the U.S., and only four of them met my needs (AT&T, 32 or 64GB, in white or black). Most small retailers receive relatively small quantities–so my local stores told me, quite honestly, that I could be waiting a very long time for any of the models I wanted to show up at their particular store. (I can’t imagine why they chose this particular product launch to double the SKU count by adding white–adding even more confusion for smaller retailers and for consumers.)

Without driving myself crazy, I stopped by every Apple Store, Target and Best Buy within reasonable walking or driving distance– usually on the way home from appointments.

And, sure enough, I found TEN iPads today, locked in a cage at my nearby Best Buy store. At first, the salesperson told me that they were all Verizon models, but he actually found me in the store to tell me that he had made a mistake, that they were, in fact, all AT&T models, all 64GB models, all black. If I had wanted any of the 17 other available options, I would have left the store unhappy.

Very strange. Perhaps we’ll all learn more about the strategy soon. Right now, it seems just plain goofy.

No iPad for You! – Day 6

Day 6 of the stupidest product launch in American consumer products history.

So far, here’s what I’ve done to not buy an iPad:

1. Supported my local Apple dealer (not an Apple store, just a local store specializing in Apple products). I visited, tried out a display unit, and offered to buy one. During the cash register transaction, I realized it wasn’t a 3G model. End of transaction. Beginning of wait.

2. Tried to go to an Apple Store in a New Jersey mall. The mall was closed due to flooding.

3. Visited an Apple Store in Manhattan. No iPads for sale. Just a sign saying, more or less, come back tomorrow (when we may or may not sell you one).

4. Checked in at the local AT&T store. The staff laughed at me.

I’ll keep you posted.

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