Archives for October 2010


Sherlock Redux

PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! has a brand new adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries but brought forward in to the 21st century. What would a die-hard Holmes fan think about a Wifi, mobile phone, GPS and DNA using Sherlock?

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been fascinated by the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Watching the original Basil Rathbone movie adaptations as a kid were interesting, but Dr. Watson was portrayed as a buffoon which always bothered me. Then my sister/brother-in-law turned on our family to the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes and, for classic fans, Brett is arguably the absolute best embodiment of the character yet. The Granada TV adaptation also was so rich in visuals—and made the viewer feel late 1800’s/early 1900’s London—that I’ve hoped for a BluRay version of this series.

My son playing Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes Museum

Our family loved Holmes mysteries so much we went out of our way during a trip to London to stop at the The Sherlock Holmes pub and head over to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at the (used with permission of the City of Westminster in London) faux address of 221b Baker Street, Holmes fictional home/office location.

Being such classic fans, when PBS launched this new series my wife, daughter, son and I were highly skeptical of any sort of re-do, especially one set in the 21st century. To say we are incredibly delighted with the series is an understatement. Within 10 minutes of watching the first episode we were hooked and thinking this ‘new’ Holmes and Watson are nearly perfect.

Having Holmes leverage all of today’s new technology and techniques could’ve been intrusive and a crutch, but its use surprised us that it didn’t take away from the core mystery. In some ways new tech and techniques take a back seat to the drive Sherlock has in solving the mystery and doesn’t seem to be invasive.

In another way, having Holmes and Watson be in the 21st century solving mysteries does something odd to a longtime Holmes lover: it takes away one troubling feeling that a consulting detective, living in a time when fingerprinting, DNA and other forensic techniques hadn’t yet been invented, was at a distinct disadvantage. This adaptation makes it contemporary and the focus now is on the purity of the characters and the mystery itself.

Haven’t been this enthused about a Masterpiece Mystery! program ever. There are only three episodes in Series I and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that there will be many, many more.

Check it out and, if you miss it, you can watch last week’s episode online or with the iPad PBS application.

NOTE: Ironically, the world’s best collection of Sherlock Holmes items resides here in my home State of Minnesota (see more here):


Comcast’s Xfinity Fail

When Comcast announced their nationwide Xfinity initiative, I greeted it with skepticism and that has only grown over time. Their “Fancast” website, now dubbed xfinity tv, has surprisingly crappy quality and I’m on a 16mbps down/2mbps up internet connection through Comcast. It’s so bad that I would opt for my AppleTV, Mac mini running Boxee, or the Roku box downstairs in a nanosecond before I’d watch this poor excuse for HD.

As an old mentor of mine always said, “Whenever there is great flux, there is great opportunity” and mine is to explore cutting the cable like so many other people are doing. This Wall Street Journal article positions cable cutting as consumers cutting costs in an economic downturn, but I believe it’s because cable isn’t delivering, they’re jamming too many costs down our throat for programming we don’t watch anyway, and there are so many preferable on-demand alternatives that people are cutting cable regardless of whether they have budget woes or not.

In my view, it’s crappy service and experience making most of us want to cut the cable. In my neighborhood we probably have more HDTVs per capita than anywhere in the Twin Cities. Lots of 30-n-40 somethings, bunches of technoweenies, and a demographic right in the sweet spot of a vendor like Comcast, but their nationwide Xfinity rollout is causing us nothing but problems:

  • Digital channels that break up, becoming pixelated with audio dropouts making shows unwatchable (see “Comcast’s Oscar Fail“)
  • A digital video recorder with the worst user interface I’ve ever used, making the first TiVo 10 years ago feel cutting edge like today’s iPad
  • An OnDemand system that is painful to use due to the lag time and constantly running (and loud) “commercial” for movies that plays while you browse with no ability to turn it off
  • The changeover from analog to all digital occurring now (so Comcast can pack many more new Xfinity services over their cable) that takes away HD viewing on TVs without a digital box connected to them AND a whole house distribution system that simply “isn’t available in your neighborhood” forcing us all to hang a bunch of crappy little analog-to-digital boxes on every TV in the house.

The biggest problems? There are two…. [Read more…]


“They’re Here…”

In the 1982 film Poltergeist, the little girl in the family becomes aware of the “TV people”, spirits manifesting themselves within the television. The first sign something was up is when the Dad falls asleep, the TV turns to white noise, and the youngest daughter hears the spirits talking and comes downstairs, places her hands on the TV saying, “They’re here!

No one in the family knows what’s coming and that the little girl has invited in the spirits and things turn ugly fast (by the way, if you haven’t seen it, rent it this Halloween and watch it with all the lights off).

We all know “they’re here” (services that analyze and aggregate what we’re doing online) but it’s happening so slowly, so stealthily and so seamlessly that most of us aren’t really aware of what’s coming.

I can talk until I’m blue in the face with clients about the power of “The Big Three“: Predictive analytics; location awareness; and presence awareness. These three are enabling all the major companies to perform precision targeting of ads by understanding our likely behavior and response to an ad, determining where we are located at that moment, and whether we’re online. The last one, by the way, will matter more as smartphones and mobile devices allow always-on apps to run in the background so marketers can deliver ads in real-time wherever we are at the moment.

You probably already know this but if you don’t, The Big Three are already here and living among us. And every smart app developer and online company are using them in some fashion! Is this a good thing or is it evil? [Read more…]


TV Disruption and the Politics Wildcard

I love the idea of a free market, one “ which there is no economic intervention and regulation by the state, except to enforce private contracts and the ownership of property.” Unfortunately only the childlike, uneducated or the naive (um, like the Simpsons) would believe that the current and coming war for the digital living room is one which won’t see enormous political machinations. Especially since corporations are now people and can spend whatever they please to get whomever they want elected and thus get the votes for legislation in their best interests.

Unfortunately those best interests are rarely in line with startups, entrepreneurs or innovators threatening incumbents.

A friend of mine just sent me a link to the VC Fred Wilson’s article, “TV and the Digital Living Room,” and I was going to respond by email but realized that this was a post that had to be written. Fred pointed to an article by Mark Suster wherein Suster discusses “The Future of Television and the Digital Living Room.” In it Suster starts off with this and then details his Top Ten list of issues that form his perspective:

Nobody can predict 100% what the future of television will be so I won’t pretend that I know the answers. But I do know that it will form a huge basis of the future of the Internet, how we consume media, how we communicate with friends, how we play games and how we shop. Video will be inextricably linked to the future of the Internet and consumption between PCs, mobile devices and TVs will merge. Note that I didn’t say there will be total “convergence” — but I believe the services will inter-operate.

The digital living room battle will take place over the next 5-10 years, not just the next 1-2. But with the introduction of Apple TV, Google TV, the Boxee Box & other initiatives it’s clear that this battle will heat up in 2011. The following is not meant to be a deep dive but rather a framework for understanding the issues. This is where the digital media puck is going.

Suster and Wilson both miss one, huge wildcard that might just be the biggest obstacle or the saving grace of TV as it is and as it could be. [Read more…]


The Changemaster got Changed

Today’s revelation that Ray Ozzie is leaving Microsoft comes as no surprise. I briefly met Ray in April of 2007 and wrote about that encounter here. I then saw him a year and a half later at the Web 2.0 Summit and wrote about the radically different Ray here. The second time it was as though he was somehow channeling a Microsoft entity and had shifted into “corporate speak mode” in a major (and not good) way. I was instantly turned off. The question I had then was: Will Ozzie change Microsoft…or will Microsoft change him?

Ray got changed.

Though he undoubtedly led many great initiatives at Microsoft, to the world of us outside of the company he was, for the most part, invisible. People I’ve talked to at Microsoft often discuss the factions and turf battles that are endemic to the Microsoft culture and questioned whether he could hope to fill the shoes of what many people at Microsoft have termed “the soul of the company”, Bill Gates.

I suspect he wasn’t able to do things big enough or fast enough within the confines of a culture that doesn’t seem all that innovation-friendly (for a company that spends billions a year on R&D…they seem to have little to show for it besides a few flipper-flappers and dweebezaarbs in the latest version of Office).

About 20 years ago I read a book by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, called The Change Masters which might give us some insight in to the challenges Ray faced with Microsoft culture. In it she discussed how, “Change is a threat when done to me, but an opportunity when done by me.” She says on her blog, “I coined this truth in my book which compared innovation-friendly and innovation-stifling corporate cultures, and then saw it in operation in personal relationships, too. Resistance is always greatest when change is inflicted on people without their involvement, making the change effort feel oppressive or constraining. If it is possible to tie change to things people already want, and give them a chance to act on their own goals and aspirations, then it is met with more enthusiasm and commitment. In fact, they then seek innovation on their own.

I suspect Ray was challenged to completely shift the Microsoft culture away from one where the desktop OS is at the center of the universe to one where the internet, and most specifically cloud computing, most certainly is. Though it’s easy to see that fact outside the company, that’s the sort of change Microsoft people really don’t want and so the resistance to Ray and his initiatives must’ve been enormous.

CEO Steve Ballmer wrote this email to employees about Ray’s departure which certainly seems like he’s admitting “the cloud” is tangential to, “bringing the great innovations and great innovators he’s assembled into the groups driving our business.” Looks like it’s more business as usual at Microsoft…

….and why every developer I talk to, conference I attend and hot tech news article I read NEVER mentions Microsoft anymore, unless they’re discussing how irrelevant the company is in today’s cloud-centric world.  If I were Ray, I’d be delighted to be getting the hell out of there.


Will Google Experience Control Data’s Fate?

An early Control Data system with supercomputer genius Seymour Cray at the controls

Google’s recent announcements about their focus on wind energy and these five initiatives bring up the possibility that they’re following in the footsteps of Control Data, a Minnesota corporation that took its eye off the ball and lost their lead as one of the nine most influential computer companies and are now out of business.

Control Data Corporation (CDC) was a supercomputer firm. For most of the 1960s, it built the fastest computers in the world by far, only losing that crown in the 1970s after Seymour Cray left the company to found Cray Research, Inc. (CRI). CDC was one of the nine major United States computer companies through most of the 1960s; the others were IBM, Burroughs Corporation, DEC, NCR, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, and UNIVAC. CDC was well known and highly regarded throughout the industry at one time. —from Wikipedia

William Norris, founder and CEO of CDC, was a computer visionary but also a social activist. One of his key initiatives was computer-based learning, an initiative that took an increasing amount of his time and made many people who worked there (and I know dozens and am related to many former CDC employees) continued to be befuddled over the lack of focus on core competitive moves and what seemed like an acceleration in “cause related” investments over the years. Yes, losing Seymour Cray was devastating but there was so much more to the core business than chasing the supercomputer end of it.

Sadly, those of us in Minnesota who looked up to CDC watched it slowly fade away and sell off bits and pieces of itself until it was non-existent.

The Google Self Driving Car

Google’s stated business mission? To, “…organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Beyond the mission they post items like this “Ten Things We Know to be True” manifesto which outlines core beliefs like, “Focus on the user and all else will follow” and when it comes to their primary business, search, that “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

So help me understand Google: How do windmills and self driving cars fit in to the focus of Google and everything you stand for and believe?  There’s a lot of buzz in the tech community about the “Google brain drain” as people bolt to go to Facebook and other startups and I’m not the only one that wants to see them focus, and I’d hate to see you haunted by the ghost of William Norris who’d hate to see another leading company lose its way.