Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Wine widget experiment

I'm working on an experiment to create a widget that will let you browse the wine list at Va De Vi, a wonderful restaurant and wine bar in Walnut Creek. They have a very creative wine director, Brendan Eliason, who has developed some very interesting wine tasting flights and writes colorful descriptions for each of the wines he selects. Take a look and see what you think.

DD Part3 - Don't reinvent the wheel

Note: This is a continuation of my prior post, DD Part2.

Now that we had decided to sell direct to consumers, we had to make sure we delivered the right feature set.

Prior to this time (summer '05), DigitalDeck had been designing the entire system as a stand-alone product. Photo management, music management, play listing, etc. were all built into the DD user interface. Getting media in and out of the system was an import/export task via network mount points. We needed to have a more open approach if we were going to deliver the software to consumers for self-installation. And, there were so many good music and photo management applications out there already, it didn't make sense for us to spend a lot of valuable engineering resources re-inventing the wheel.

I recommended that we modify our recording engine to record to flat files rather than the chunks of video we were recording into our proprietary file system. Recording to regular mpeg-2 files meant that a customer would be able to use our TV recordings in a variety of popular software applications to edit them, burn them to dvd, transcode them for viewing on a portable media player (or iPod), etc. This required some major code mojo from Ed J., one of our key engineering architects. But, it was an engineering effort that was well worth it. I still use Digital Deck as a "network tuner" for my media PC today.

Knowing that we needed to appear larger than we were, I also developed a product strategy that would allow us to interoperate with other popular consumer products. This would allow us to piggyback off their brand popularity and provide enhanced functionality their customers could not get in any other way. If nothing else, it showed that we cared about improving the customer experience in the area of home media networking. At best, this sybmiotic relationship could help forge new, strategic partnerships for the company.

I then ended development on our proprietary music features and focused our efforts on iTunes interoperability. iTunes was already the most popular music management software for the PC, and it's free to consumers. By using their developer API's, we could provide real-time synchronization with iTunes, including library management, play listing, etc. And, for iTunes users, we would give them an easy way to interact with their playlists from the TV. An alternative, the Apple Airport Express, was a "push" model that required you to control the music from your PC or Mac. Our model would allow you to control your iTunes from the TV ("pull") and you could listen to a different playlist at every location - something you couldn't do with Express. We also implemented a DirectShow transcoder which allowed us to support virtually every flavor of audio codec on the fly - AAC, MP3, FLAC, etc.

I implemented a similar strategy for photo management using Flickrs' API's and with TiVo, using their developer API's and some back-door functionality in the TiVo Desktop software. Now, customers who used Flickr could enter their username and password into the Digital Deck interface and access all of their photos and their friends photos from the TV. We also created a dynamic folder for their interestingness photos so there would always be some fresh, entertaining photos to browse.

On the TiVo side, we created a virtual folder in the Digital Deck interface which showed all of the recordings that were stored on any of your networked TiVo DVR's. If you had more than one TiVo, we combined your recordings into one unified list. Then, if you wanted to view a TiVo recording via Digital Deck, you would select a recording from this list and we would begin transferring it to your PC (in the background) and start streaming it to the Digital Deck adapter for playback. To this day, I think we were the only digital media adapter capable of streaming .tivo files. We also implemented things in the reverse direction so that Digital Deck recordings (onto the PC) were available for viewing on your TiVo DVR via TiVo Desktop. It was a nice addition for someone who had a TiVo DVR but was looking to do more with a media PC and wanted some form of interoperability.

more to come in part 4.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Offline posting software

I've started playing with Windows Live Writer (beta) software for my blog authoring. They promised wysiwyg editing and the ability to post to multiple blog sites. It's not automatic cross posting, but it's pretty close. What you can do is author a post and choose which blog you are targeting with the post. Live Writer shows you what the post will look like, and even let's you prview it on your blog site before posting. Once you've posted, you can change the blog target for your post from one site to another. The post gets re-formatted into the style of the new site (assuming it's different) and you can then publish to the second site. So far, I've used Live Writer to post to Blogger and a version of WordPress 2.1 that I'm hosting at my own website.

I've run into a couple of problems so far when trying to post to Blogger. In Blogger, I like to use a small image to represent each blog post. It's kind of a signature thing for me. While you can do this when posting from the Blogger interface, Live Writer says that my blogsite does not support this and wants me to point the software at an ftp site for automatic image publishing. Nice feature, but I don't have an ftp site right now. The work-around for this is that I have to publish the post and then go to Blogger to add the icon image.

Live Writer also doesn't seem to support Blogger labels (tags) yet. So, it's not perfect, but it doesn't suck either. I do like the ability to author a post offline, so I'll keep using it for a while to see whether it can be a good, long-term solution.

Friday, February 23, 2007

$200 taxi ride?

Last month I was in Las Vegas for the 2007 International CES. A friend of mine invited me to a Canon party at the Bellagio to benefit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It included a large silent auction with goods donated by various consumer electronics companies, a raffle and a live performance from Glenn Frey (formerly of The Eagles). I didn't win anything in the auction, but I did end up buying a losing number in the raffle.

While at the party, I met the CEO of a company that a friend of mine works for. She was a smart, young, intense entrepreneur who clearly has a single-minded passion for her company to succeed. Maybe it's because she's an engineer, but she also seemed a bit absent minded. Around 11-o'clock, she looked at her watch and commented that maybe she should be leaving. It turned out that she had a midnight flight back to the bay area. We all agreed that she should get moving, and she said goodbye.

It was four days into the trade show, and I was kind of tired of the late-night dinners, etc. I decided to head back to my hotel for the night. I said goodbye to the other people I had met and headed out to the taxi line at the front of the Bellagio. There were at least 250 people in the taxi line. As I walked down the line, I was scanning the faces hoping to see someone I knew. I wasn't relishing the thought of a 30-minute wait in the taxi line. About a third of the way down the line, guess who I saw? Yup, the very same CEO I had been chatting with earlier. It was about 11:30 by now, and making it to her flight seemed about as likely as a dollar yo at this point. She was playing with her cell phone and looked up when I asked her what was she still doing in line? "Do you think I'll make my flight?" she said. Hardly.

Since the midnight flight back to the bay area was certainly the last flight of the day, I decided to lend a hand. I hurried to the front of the line and slipped $20 to a very busy valet. He swung into action and pushed us to the front of the limo line. It wasn't a short line either. The valet then turned to me and asked if would I like the stretch limo or the Maybach? Duh.

I've never had a chance to ride in a Maybach, and this was a long wheelbase 62 model - $350,000 of pure, chauffeur driven luxury. We settled into the back, surrounded by technology. The car had premium audio, video screens, a panoramic moonroof and seats that resemble first class airplane seats from a G-V. I relayed her situation to the driver, and he had us to the airport in 6 minutes (no joke). I later learned that she just made her flight home.

After she bailed out at the airport, the driver continued on to The Hotel to drop me off. I then learned that the Maybach usually goes for $300/hour with a 3-hour minimum. Oops. Rather than throwing myself from the vehicle on the freeway, we negotiated a more reasonable rate and I enjoyed the sound system for the rest of the ride. If you find yourself in Vegas and want the taxi ride of your life, give Abraham a call at 702.334.8186. It wasn't cheap, but it sure was memorable.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Collaboration gone wrong

Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.

Not long ago, I worked for a company that made widgets. (I'm using widget in the traditional sense - to represent made-up things. How did widgets suddenly become real things?) Anyway, this widget making company was a young, nimble startup that was almost entirely staffed with ENTP over-achievers. Being smart, creative people, they were always careful to solicit input from their peers and to be very inclusive in their decision making. Logically, this meant that better decisions were made, and people could count on the support of the entire organization because decisions were reached in a very transparent way. As a small organization, they were able to do this and still be nimble and quick.

One of the drawbacks of this approach is that it doesn't scale very well. As the organization gets larger, it becomes very difficult (logistically speaking) to include everyone in the decision process who wants to be included. And, not everyone has the confidence and trust in their peers to let go of certain decisions in support of the greater good. What happens then is that the organization starts to get bogged down by it's inclusive nature.

At this point, the saying "innovate or die" comes to mind. You can continue to coddle your organization in the hopes of keeping people happy, or you can manage your way through these growing pains and encourage people to embrace their success and teach them how to help grow the organization. It is important that everyone "play their position", even if they have historically had a broader involvement in the management of the company.

Sadly, the widget making company took a while to work through these problems. Fortunately, they were able to partly address the issues through attrition and replacement in the organization. Other problems had started to occur in the organization too. Their inclusive nature meant that most of their days were spent in meetings just to make sure that everyone was on the same page and included in all decisions. This is a harder problem to solve, and can require executive mandate.

While the widget company was able to work through most of these issues, one additional artifact remained. Smart people, low levels of attrition and an overly collaborative environment was a toxic combination. The company culture became one in which everyone could say "no", and nobody could say "yes". The moral of this story? If you recognize these signs, act fast, or it's the beginning of the end.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Video over the Internet

It seems like everyone is getting involved in video over the Internet. I've already blogged about the TiVo/Amazon Unbox deal (Unbox can't really succeed), Steve Jobs' pokes at the industry in preparation for Apple TV (Jobs on DRM), and my testing of Kyte (Go fly a Kyte). I also just spoke with my friend Susan who is over at MyWaves and received a beta invitation to Joost. It seems like everyone is getting in on this "zero billion dollar" industry.

However, a research firm, Adams Media Research just released a new report regarding Video On The Internet and, if it's to be believed, it looks promising. They forecast sales of video downloads will total $472 million in 2007, $1.2 billion in 2008, $2 billion in 2009, $3.1 billion in 2010, then hit $4.1 billion in 2011.

They also predict advertiser spending on Internet video streams to PCs and TVs will approach $1.7 billion by 2011. So, maybe all of these companies are onto something?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lago di Garda - Sirmione, Italy

From Bolzano, we followed this route south to the second largest lake in Italy, Lago di Garda. The next scheduled stop on our quest was a small town called Sirmione. Sirmione is a little town on the end of a peninsula that juts out into the lake. It's guarded by an ancient castle that serves as the gateway into town and a major tourist attraction.

Michele and I first discovered Sirmione a few years back when traveling to Venice for Carnivàle with (then) 9-month old Megan. It is also close to the Valpolicella wine region and a good days drive from Munich. It was the perfect place to stop.

We exited the autostrada near Peschiera del Garda and found a car wash. We didn't want to roll into town with a dirty car, especially in a town where you have to drive along the same tiny streets/sidewalks where people are walking and shopping. It seemed like the polite thing to do.

Fortunately, we had arrived in the evening hours during one of the windows of time when they let you drive on the streets of the town of Sirmione. If you're staying at a hotel inside the town, the hotel will put your name on a list and the guard shack outside the castle gate will allow you to pass. Because we were literally driving down sidewalks filled with people, we had to drive at a crawl. Our destination, Hotel Flaminia, was a short way inside the town in a small square on the west side of the peninsula. It's a great little hotel, but I might consider the Hotel Sirmione when I'm there the next time. It looked really nice.

We ate at several restaurants in town, but the hightlight was La Speranzina. I've been there several times, and the food has always been great, the service exemplary, and the owners are a fun, interesting, attractive couple.

Up next, wine tasting in the Valpolicella.

To see just the posts from this trip, click here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

DD Part2 - Stay focused, Create value

Note: This is a continuation of my prior post, DD Part1.

So, at this point (shortly after joining DigitalDeck), I convinced the rest of the board that we had a feature/market issue. We needed to modify our product offering or we needed to change our market strategy.

In addition, we were trying to do a lot as a small company. And, much of it was not unique or differentiated enough to create significant value for the company. We had a dedicated server which was really just a pre-configured Windows PC. We had a media adapter which ran an embedded, Linux OS. And, we had a central software application which ran the whole system in the home, providing all of the network DVR functions, network stream management, file I/O, etc. This control software communicated with our backend service software which was located in a co-location facility.

As part of the market strategy, we needed to take a hard look at everything we were doing and identify which things were critical to building long-term value and which things were more of a distraction. This kind of focus is critical to a small company trying to build sustained, differentiated value. It's easy to be distracted by cool ideas, or be tempted to build something that others have already done. Don't let this happen to you!

We were able to quickly come to a few important conclusions - First, the really hard part of what we were doing (the secret sauce) was the network DVR software that ran on the dedicated PC server. And, since PC hardware has been mostly comodotized, it didn't really make sense for us to be building PC hardware. In order to focus on what really mattered, I recommended we discontinue the MX1000 server and build a software installer so that our server software could be installed on any Windows XP computer. It could be self-installed by a technically capable consumer or setup by a professional installer.

The second part of the decision was in the area of our target market. If we wanted to sell the hardware we had already designed, we needed to target the appropriate channels of distribution. The high-end market was very focused on HDTV deployments and our products were mainly SD. So, we decided to scale back on our efforts to sell through the custom installer channels and focus instead on direct-to-consumer sales (online & retail).

On the HDTV (hardware & software) front, we knew that the general consumer market would eventually demand HD support. However, the rights management issues for streaming HDTV around the home were still being worked out, and it was looking like many of the things you could do on a home network with SD programing were going to be restricted in HD. This could end up delaying market adoption and make it difficult for competitors as well. At best, we felt that a completely secure DRM solution would be required (i.e. Windows DRM) and possibly the Vista operating system as well. So, we decided to pursue HD as a longer term part of our strategy rather than make it a condition of our short-term success.

Now that we had decided to simplify our product offering and sell them direct to consumers, we had to make sure we delivered the right feature set for today's market requirements.

more to come in part 3.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why I use Netscape - but almost stopped

I use Netscape for two reasons, the first historical, and the second technical. First, the history. In 1993, I was working at FTI. This was back in the day when small companies couldn't really afford a broadband T-1 connection, so we downloaded our email messages via a modem on our server and surfed the newsgroups at 9,600 baud. Late that year (November-ish) I read a story about a product called Mosaic. It was a college project, led primarily by Marc Andreessen that allowed you to browse fromatted information (html) over the Internet. I thought it was so cool, I arraged to get access to a Sun workstation at a friends company over the weekend to try it out. We downloaded Mosaic 1.0 and had a blast surfing the handful of sites on the Internet. I honestly believe that we could have surfed the entire Internet in a few hours.

I went on to work for SGI a few months later, just as Jim Clark was leaving to form Netscape with the afore-mentioned Andreessen. Their new browser, Netscape Navigator was the primary browser on SGI (a Unix platform) for the 4 years I worked there. So, I stuck with Netscape for many years. Since the acquistion of Netscape by AOL, Netscape has been completely re-architected from the ground up.

What I like about the Netscape product is that it supports multiple rendering engines in the same browser. Instead of needing to have two browsers, one for sites that only support IE and one for performance and features (that would be Firefox), you get the best of both worlds in one pretty darned good browser. For instance, Netscape lets you choose to use the IE engine for browsing your banking site, and the Firefox engine for general web browsing. It remembers your preferences on a domain-by-domain basis so that you rarely have to switch over to another browser.

Things were working great until last week when Netscape 8.1.2 started freezing every couple of minutes. My CPU usage would spike to 100% and the browser would just hang. It isn't clear that anyone knows the exact cause of this problem, but it appears to be related to some sort of statistics function in the browser. Updates from Microsoft and Java are both suspected. A long discussion is going on here. If you've found this post and are looking for the answer, here was the workaround that fixed the problem for me.

1. Use Notepad to open the file: C:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts

2. Add the following line at the end of the file: ns8-stats.netscape.com # block netscape stats

I'm happy to say I am posting this from Netscape and the freeze-ups are completely gone.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Whatever makes you feel better

This article from GMSV this morning alerted me to a prior story from the NYT. The original story claims that DVR owners still watch 50% to 60% of commercials. This statistic apparently coming from the same Nielsen group which thinks that the behavior of 5,000 television viewing individuals gives them full insight into what 110 million TV homes are doing.

At TiVo, we sampled the behavior of roughly 40,000 viewers every day, and reported commercial skipping behavior closer to 80%, leaving commercial viewing closer to 20%. This research included live TV viewing behavior, and highlighted just how many people actually paused live TV for a while (even when the show was live) so that they could then fast-forward over the commercials. About the only programming which was truly watched live was sporting events and award shows.

I'm afraid the NYT may have been duped on this one.

The continuing fair-use debate

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Steve Job's open letter to the industry on DRM. It was a rather casual post, because I'm kind of following this issue from the sidelines right now. I do recognize the irony in Steve making these statements when Apple themselves have built an almost entirely closed ecosystem around iTunes (content->store->software->players). Opening up the content itself really just makes it easier for people to manage this same content using Apple's closed system.

That said, I found it equally interesting to see the Macrovision CEO fire back at Jobs today. For those of you that aren't aware of Macrovision, they are one of the largest players in the content protection business (i.e. DRM). So, they're basically as un-biased as Steve is in all of this - meaning *not*. There's some really amusing commentary on this over at Boing Boing.

In the short-term, it seems highly unlikely that any major changes are going to occur in the content business to make it easier to access your own purchased music. If anything, the major players (like Microsoft, etc.) are spending vasts amounts of resources making it harder to access your own content from multiple locations. At the end of the day, the content owners are counting on you to pay for access to the same content on multiple devices. Look at the ringtone business. It's a muti-billion dollar business that in many cases just helps consumers snip pieces out of songs they have already purchased and make them available on their phones.

There's too much money at stake for Steve to win this battle anytime soon. But, it seems kind of silly for Macrovision to be weighing in on this. Does anyone really care what they think?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

DD Part1 - Know your market

This is the first in a series of posts about my involvement with Digital Deck, being careful not to reveal anything confidential.

I joined Digital Deck in the summer of '05 with Bob DeFeo to help turn the company around. They had been in business since 1999 and had some great technology. But, they hadn't been able to deliver a successful product to the market and were kind of stalled. Bob is a high-energy, charismatic leader. He has a track record of helping small companies find their way, but he didn't have any consumer product experience. So, it was my responsibility to plot the strategic course for the product roadmap.

DD had a closed home network entertainment system comprised of a dedicated server, the MX1000 and a 2-way digital media adapter, the eDeck. It was priced at around $4000 for a 3-room system (1 MX & 3 eDecks) and DD was targeting the high-end home theater integrators (the CEDIA channel). The problem with this strategy was that by 2005, these high-end dealers were primarily installing high definition television solutions. The DD products were standard definition. And, the closed nature of the sytem meant that it was awkward for customers to integrate their own digital music and photos into the DD network DVR system.

So, we either had to change the product or change the market. It was unlikely we were going to get very far with the feature/market mis-match. As I posted recently, it's critical to make sure you understand the needs of your target market in order to be successful.

continued in Part2.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fun with SMS

Tuesday I had lunch with a friend, Zaw Thet. I was first introduced to Zaw when he was in charge of business development at Spoke and I was in charge of product marketing at TiVo. I later met him in person and blogged about him then. Zaw is now the CEO of 4INFO. 4INFO is an SMS service which let's you query (or get mobile alerts) on things like sports, weather, stocks, movie showtimes, and more.

Last fall, 4INFO announced their open platform and launched it at the DEMOfall 2006 conference. Zaw talks more about open platform here, and Scoble did a great interview (and demo) with Zaw here.

What I think is really great about open platform is that you can create your own keyword actions and send your requests through their short-code (44636). Here's a simple example: Text message "tedmalone" (without the quotes) to the phone number 44636. You will receive a menu of options to get more contact information for me. It's an interactive, SMS business card.

You can try a new use of 4INFO's open platform that you're reading here first. I've been working on a side project in the wine technology space. I'm not ready to launch the product yet, but you can get a sneak peek with part of it this way. Text message "vino year wine" (without the quotes) to 44636 and see what you get. An example query would be: "vino 2001 silver oak cabernet". Enjoy!

Recruiters & The signing bonus

I recently had a nice sushi lunch with a recruiter friend of mine, Amy Vernetti who works with Taylor Winfield. She recently wrote an interesting article for Matt's gig (great read btw) about how more-and-more companies are back to offering signing bonuses to attract good candidates. Good news for executives, but not so good news for early-stage companies.

What's really great about Amy is that she's a person first, and a recruiter second. She establishes relationships, and maintains them even when she's not working on a relevant search. She knows you don't build your rolodex by just going out and asking everyone for referrals. She gets business because people want to work with her. I like working with her, because I enjoy her as a person, not just because I want her to get me a job.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Venturing into Northern Italy

After lunch in Innsbruck, we headed south to Italy. Rather than motor straight on through to Lake Garda, I planned a short stopover in Bolzano.

Bolzano is an interesting town, because it used to be part of Austria and was called Bozen. When trying to map the town (on Google and in the car's navigation system), you have to know the Italian names since it is technically part of Italy now. However, many of the people in the area still use the Austrian names for the town and the streets. It makes it a bit difficult to find things.

I did some research and found an up-and-coming family winery, Glögglhof in Bolzano, part of the Trentino Alto Adige area. The wine maker, Franz Gojer, has received worldwide recognition for his skills (in a very cult way).

We tasted several of their wines, including the Lagrein and a very nice Merlot. While this region is very well known for their crisp, flavorful white wines, the Glögglhof red wines were solid and enjoyable. A private tasting with the family Gojer made it all the more memorable. As you can see from the photos, it was a very hot day and we worked up quite a sweat hiking through the hilly vineyard on our tour of their property. The air-conditioned tasting room was a welcome break.

Also in Bolzano, believe it or not, is a Harley Davidson dealer (english link: HD Bolzano). Although I ride an Arlen Ness Kingpin, my traveling companion is a Harley owner. After our visit to the Glögglhof winery, we stopped at the Harley dealer to pick up some local swag. Ken bought me a great t-shirt that I frequently wear when I'm riding. Thanks dude!

To see just the posts from this trip, click here.

Cut the cord

There was an interesting story in the USA Today yesterday on consumer VoIP. It's about how voice-over-IP communication is entering the mainstream now, and how more and more consumers are cutting the cord from their traditional landline phones. I stopped using a landline phone back in December of 2005. Instead, I use Skype for many of my outgoing phone calls when I'm at home.

For me, the article was quite timely. This morning, I was talking to a friend on my cell phone during my drive into the office. The call was a Jangl call, and I was using the bluetooth handsfree speakerphone in my car. Jangl is a really interesting consumer application which is built on top of a VoIP backbone. Jangl then provides software features via their website that let you control your incoming and outgoing calls. The bluetooth connection is also a short-range IP connection, mainly for connecting smaller devices over short distances. On the other end, the person I was speaking to was using a Vonage line in their home

So, I had an IP phone call (from Vonage) going through an IP backbone (Jangl) to a local IP connection in my car (bluetooth). I had one of those technology moments where you really start to realize how technology has changed our lives.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The secret to good marketing

Over the last 12 years, I've had the chance to meet and work with dozens (maybe hundreds) of smart entrepreneurs. One thing I've noticed is that the same climate and formula that helps get companies funded can create an environment where these same companies are so focused on their idea that they forget to find out if there is a real market for it.

It is not the job of marketing to go and find a market for a product that people think sounds cool (even if it did get funded). Successful marketing focuses on customer-centric design. Marketing should identify the target market, target customer, potential competitors and relevant market trends. Customer-centric marketing requires clear identification of market need and a plan to deliver a competitive product which addresses these customer needs. This should be done in conjunction with engineering and the rest of the executive team to ensure the approach is rational. Marketing should be able to communicate this plan internally in a way that is actionable by engineering.

Marketing should be able to communicate the value proposition for the product to their prospective customers and help establish a user base which validates the product approach. They should also develop and communicate the company positioning in the market-place to ensure long-term viability and differentiation.

The leaders of these companies need to be diligent in their focus on building products which are succesful in the marketplace. Value is created by sticky user adoption and the kind of enthusiasm for your product that your customers want to tell people they know about how it changed their life, made their life better, etc. This also helps establish a brand which has lasting value. Frequently, the products which have proven to be successful in the marketplace were not the ones that had the most features or the most sophisticated technology. Good marketing people help keep the company focused on the bottom line.

TiVo / Amazon - Unbox can't really succeed

I posted last week about the new Unbox service from Amazon & TiVo. Others have even speculated on what this may mean for potential competitors. While this will certainly be a great new feature for existing customers, and an interesting service for Amazon & TiVo, one major question remains for me on the business front. Who is paying for it, and how can it possibly scale?

Over the years, I've looked at the economics of video delivery over the Internet (cost of bandwidth, etc.) In order to make money at a tolerable consumer pricepoint, you need to get the audio/video bitrate down below about 1.0 mbps, preferably closer to 512 kbps. To do this and still maintain a reasonable quality level, you need an advanced video codec (i.e. WMV9/VC1 or MPEG4.) Note: current TiVo DVR's record video between around 1.2mbps (basic quality) and 6mbps (best quality).

The installed base of TiVo Series2 DVR's use Broadcom mpeg decoders that are only capable of decoding mpeg-1 and mpeg-2 formated video. Even the new Series3 from TiVo uses a Broadcom part that can only decode mpeg-2 (at least it's HD!). If TiVo had used a newer part (like this one), at least their new hardware would support better codecs. But, they designed the Series3 architecture before this part was readily available.

So, in order to deliver videos over broadband to the 1.5M broadband enabled TiVo boxes, the quality is either going to be sub-optimal or someone is going to be losing money. And, unless bandwidth costs drop by a significant amount, the economics for this service may always be "upside down".

So, that's why I say Unbox can't really succeed. If everyone starts using it, even Amazon is going to eventually notice the costs associated with delivering video to people at a loss. If nobody uses it, then it doesn't really matter, does it?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New Steven Kent wine release

Yesterday was a fun day, because Steven Kent released the 2004 vintage of his club wine, Vincere (Vincere is the verb "to win" in Italian). Vincere is a super tuscan blend of two varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. Cabernet is a very popular American varietal, and Sangiovese is the predominant grape used for Italian Chianti (Tuscany).

The history of super tuscan wines is kind of interesting. Like other European countries, Italy very closely controls the naming and classification of wines from the different, authorized sub-regions in Italy. Becuase Cabernet is an imported grape, Italian wineries were required to label them "table wines". It was kind of tough for them to sell $50 bottles of table wine, regardless of quality. Luckily, the IGT came along and created a new category of wines which don't have the certified region stamp on them, but instead receive a form of quality endorsement. It's not cheap (~$75), but if you want to try one of the best super-tuscans out there, try the Antinori 2003 Tignanello. A few other Italian wines I really enjoy are:

The history of Steven Kent is equally interesting. The winemaker, Steven Kent Mirassou, is descended from one of the longest-established winery families in America. The Mirassou's are descendants of French brothers Louis and Pierre Pellier, who brought the first Pinot Noir grapes (and prunes & plums) to California in the 1850s and planted them in what is now Santa Clara County. The Mirassou family sold its brand name to E. & J. Gallo Winery of Modesto in 2002. So, the Mirassou wines you see in your local grocery store are not related to the original Mirassou family.

Steven's release this year is a blend of 55% Sangiovese and 45% Cabernet from the Home Ranch vineyard in Livermore. He produces around 400 cases of Vincere each year. It was drinking nicely yesterday after having breathed for a while. But, after opening a 2003 a couple of weeks ago, I think I'll let mine lie down for a year before opening. I would recommend pairing it with something like pasta with a slightly spicy red sauce.

BTW, Steven also has a great tradition of using a work of art as the original for each of his club wine labels. Some of the labels have been created by his kids, others by artists on canvas. A few originals are displayed in the barrel room where their tasting room is located. Check them out if you're there. Click on the Vincere logo below and you can see some of his other labels.

click to view more

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Things only a kid would say

Okay, the kids have had a couple of *really* cute quotes lately that I have to share. From my 5-year-old daughter, there's:

1. "I've got a great idea. Wouldn't it be great if there was school every day of the week!?"
2. "Hey daddy, can I do the dishes instead of you?" followed by her actually doing the dishes well and having fun doing them.

I thought those were the best until my 3-year-old son (recently potty-trained) ran out of the bathroom today with only a shirt on (nothing below the waist) and yelled "Look, I'm naked!"

Friday, February 09, 2007

Go fly a Kyte

My buddy Josh introduced me to the new COO at Decentral.tv this week, Andre Sevigny. Decentral TV's mission is "to connect like-minded people by allowing real-time collaboration through rich-media." Their Kyte product let's you build your own TV channels, embedding images, slideshows, videos, polls, etc. all into your own interactive channel. You have basic editing functions to layout your channel, you can create title slates, photo captions, and the like. Then, you can broadcast your channel from their site (you get your own URL) or you can snip it from their site like a widget and paste it onto your own website, blog or profile page.

It sounds like a lot of other products, until you pick up on the other part of their mission statement, "allowing real-time collaboration". What you can do is tune into these virtual channels around the web and interact in real-time with other viewers (live chat). One person may be watching the channel from the Kyte.tv website, while another viewer may be watching it from my blog. The viewers can now chat and interact with each other via the Kyte player. Pretty cool.

I haven't spent a lot of time with it yet, but I did create a simple channel using some digital photos from when my daughter and I went to The Nutcracker back in December. I'm going to embed the channel here to see how things work. Check it out.

kyteWatch it BigCreate your own TV
p.s. - If you need a Flash update, get it here.

A kick-ass bottle of Cabernet

If you like to occasionally splurge on an expensive bottle of California Cabernet, this is the bottle of wine for you. It just went on sale at Wine.com, and it's a great deal at this price (~$75). I've had the 1997 and 1999 vintages, and they knocked my socks off. 2001 was another great year in Napa, so you can bet this will continue the tradition. Constant is a relatively new winery, only producing wines for about 10 years. They've all scored low 90's out of the gate and moved towards the mid-90's as they've aged. I'd take this wine over a $100 bottle of Silver Oak any day. And, it's got the caché of a limited production, cult winery (sub 1000 cases) vs. a 25,000 case/year powerhouse.

This wine is the Constant 2001 Diamond Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. If you open it soon, be prepared to decant it and let it open up for a couple of hours. You'll be welcomed with a deep, dark, rich wine that's full of fruity (blackberry, blueberry & plum) flavors with smoky, oaky undertones and a luxurious finish. Pair it with a nice fat steak or anything that you need a bold, full glass of wine to compliment.

Note: Edited to point to V2V so you can find the wine online. It's gone from Wine.com now.

A control panel for your phone

One of the neat things about Jangl is that you get a control panel for your phone. It's like having your Outlook Contacts hard-wired into your phone. You can disable certain numbers temporarily, or you can permanently block a caller so they can never reach you again. And, you can do this for your home phone, your mobile phone, your Vonage line, whatever.

It's not hard to imagine where Jangl will go with this control panel. At this point, additional call management features are just a software update away. That's the beauty of a voice over IP (VOIP) calling platform. It gives nimble startups like Jangl the ability to deliver calling features that until now were only available from your carrier. The CEO, Michael Cerda, is speaking at Community Next tomorrow. If you have a chance to see it, you'll get a better feel for where all of this is going.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bavaria to Austria

After Neuschwanstein, we hit the road to Austria. Near the border, we had to stop and buy two bright orange safety vests. It's the law in Austria that you carry these vests inside the car with you. They can't be in the trunk. You also have to buy a vignette (toll sticker) and put it in your windshield.

With these tasks accomplished, we followed this route to Innsbruck. We stopped in Innsbruck just long enough for lunch, eating in a nice outdoor cafe in the Hofgarten. The food was good, the weather was great, but the service was a bit on the slow side. We were only there for lunch, but it looked like it would be a really fun place in the evenings.

To see just the posts from this trip, click here.

Pinewood Derby

This cam pic is my daughter's pinewood derby car in staging just after the weigh-in. Her car is the shiny pink one. This was for the recent Tri-Valley Indian Princess pinewood derby race. A local newspaper even covered the event here.

My daughter and her fellow princesses had a great time at the event. For this event, they run 4 cars at a time on 2 separate tracks. The cars that come in 3rd or 4th get a punch on their cards. After 3 punches, a car is eliminated and the race continues until only 4 cars are left. At that point, it's just a straight race.

Her car ran 7 races before getting her first punch. Unfortunately, at that time she got 3 punches in a row. She was a trooper though, with just a couple of small tears. Out of 120 entires, I think her car lasted until the final 20 or so. Great job sweetie!

Benz raffle for AIDS/HIV charities

My mom is the executive director of an AIDS organization in Marin. They provide HIV/AIDS direct care and prevention services for Marin. This news is just in from her. They're supporting the efforts of a fund-raising organization, the Academy Of Friends. They've got a raffle going on where for $50 you can purchase a chance to win a Mercedes Benz SLK-280 (MSRP $44,125). They're selling 3,000 tickets as part of this raffle. The drawing will occur on February 25th, 2007. Download the entry form and support a great cause (and my mom)!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My Interest In Wine

As many of you know, I’m kind of enamored with wine. I’m not a connoisseur, and I don’t have an unlimited budget, but I do like to experiment. I first became interested in wine when I moved to the bay area in 1988. I started exploring the area, and discovered the Napa and Sonoma valleys. There weren’t as many wineries there 20 years ago, but there were a lot.
The first wine club that I joined was Inglenook, originally founded by Gustave Niebaum. I still have a bottle of 1985 Gustave Niebaum Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from that first club. It’s probably past its drinking window, so I’m thinking I should probably open it soon.

The winery is still there, but later became Neibaum-Coppola, and just recently changed its name again to Rubicon Estate. The Inglenook name was sold and is now being used on a value-priced series of wines. I visited the Coppola winery about a year ago and was pleasantly surprised with the quality and variety of wines they are producing.

The Coppola Black Label Claret is one of my “daily drinkers”. It drinks well on its own and pairs well with a lot of basic foods. Almost 20 years later, I’m still drinking wine from the same winery. Some things change, some things stay the same. More later on my experimentations with other wines and wineries.

TiVo and Amazon video download service

My buddy Evan over at TiVo pinged me last night with some big news over at TiVo. After a couple of years of heads-down development and testing with their CDS (content delivery service), they're launching a video download program with Amazon. This is huge, because you'll be able to rent or purchase TV programs and movies from Amazon and have them directly delivered to your TiVo via broadband. Finally! Congratulations to Evan and the whole team at TiVo. This looks like it's going to be a winner.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jobs on DRM

You go Steve! I just posted about DRM yesterday, and coincidentally Steve jobs today called on the major record labels to start selling music online (Yahoo story). His argument, which actually seems quite reasonable, is that if the record labels are content to sell 90% of their full-quality music on CD-ROM without any DRM, why won't they sell their reduced quality MP3 audio online (10% of sales) without DRM as well? Seems like a perfectly reasonable question. (Note: Jobs also posted his thoughts on Apple.com)

The road to Disney

Our first day on the road started with a trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein. This castle, created by Mad King Ludwig, served as the inspiration for the Disney castle. There's another neat castle of his, Linderhof, that is nearby. If you're looking to spend a day in southern Bavaria, you can easily visit them both.

Here is a map of the route from Munich to Neuschwanstein. It's actually a pretty short drive from Munich, and could easily be done as a day trip. We didn't spend much time at the castle, but it's not really that impressive inside. Much of it was never finished, and it's really more fun as a hiking destination with great views. This time of year, it was pretty crowded with tourist buses.

To see just the posts from this trip, click here.

Monday, February 05, 2007

DRM Whitepaper

The second whitepaper I wrote last year was about Digital Deck's DRM (Digital Rights Management) and included a description of how we were able to securely stream TiVo recordings (.tivo files) throughout the home. I believe we were the first (and possibly only) company to provide this functionality.

Because Digital Deck streamed video to/from a PC in the home, it was important to understand how (and when) content was protected. Moving from SD to HD was going to further complicate this problem, because the copy protection associated with high definition recordings is much stricter than with analog, standard definition video streams. The looser treatment of SD content is lovingly referred to as "the digital hole". The MPAA and NFL are always interested in ways to try to plug this hole, but the cat is out of the bag on that one.

Here is the abstract for this whitepaper:
This document is a brief overview of digital rights management features included in the Digital Deck Home Media Entertainment System. This document primarily focuses on the DRM issues associated with video transmission and recording. Supported media formats, playback modes and cross-platform compatibility are all addressed.

The full document may be downloaded here: DRM_Whitepaper

DMA Whitepaper

Last year I wrote a couple of whitepapers for Digital Deck that were being hosted on their knowledge database. That server is no longer available, but I found the files floating around in Google's cache. I decided to go ahead an repost them for posterity's sake.

The first whitepaper compares 1-way media adapters (and media extenders/receivers) with the type of 2-way media adapter we were building. Here is the abstract:

This document is a brief architectural overview of digital media adapter architectures and their applications for home media networking. This document will also describe the architecture of the Digital Deck Media Connector, and explain its architectural differences.

The full article may be downloaded here: DMA_Whitepaper

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bavaria cruising

After picking up the car, we didn't waste any time. We had a few hours of warm daylight, and our Munich friends pointed us in the direction of Spitzingsee. We got to do some autobahn crusing on one of the few remaining stretches of freeway that has no speed limit. BMW warned me not to rev the engine over 3,500 rpm, so we maxed out around 120 mph. Ken and Thomas helped with the driving, and we hung out at the lake long enough to take some good pictures and enjoy a beer by the lake. As you can see from these pictures, it was a spectacular day.

To see just the posts from this trip, click here.

Friday, February 02, 2007

I remember when...

Do you remember when cars were mostly mechanical machines? When I was in high school, I bought and sold cars as kind of a hobby. I would clean them up, sometimes repair or paint them, drive them for a while and then sell them.

I always enjoyed working on cars. A neighbor of mine, Jeff Davis, taught me almost everything I know about cars. He was a few years older than me, and liked to customize his car. He had a 1969 Corvette, and later customized a Datsun (do you remember Datsun?). We spent many nights under the hood or just plain under our cars. I think that may have been one of the reasons I went on to get a degree in mechanical engineering.

Anyway, this week I took my car in for service. I was having a few niggling problems and finally got around to taking it in. Here was my list:
  1. Idles a bit rough when cold
  2. Bluetooth drops phone connection when a second call comes in (call waiting)
  3. My iPod interface sometimes goes back to the current list/folder after I select a new list/folder.
  4. Roadside assistance was never initialized

Thinking about this later made me realize how much things have really changed. The car, which has it's own fiber-optic backbone by the way, is packed with electronics. It doesn't even have a dipstick to check the oil. You use the computer to see how much oil is in the pan. So, they hook the car up to their Cray computer or whatever they use for diagnostics now, and you know what? All of my problems were fixed by the computer. Even the cold idle problem.

This really great technician (Alex) from east bay bmw comes out and goes over it with me. I think he's some kind of nobel prize winning scientist or something. He explains that the car needed software updates for 22 different modules. Apparently that's a lot. And, given that the car is barely 6 months old, it really makes you wonder. Software updates? Can you even buy a car that's mechanical anymore?