Ebook subscription site Oyster expands to Android, Kindle Fire and Nook tablets

Oyster android The $9.95 per month ebook subscription service Oyster, which was previously only available on iOS, expanded to Android, Kindle Fire and Nook HD tablets Tuesday — thus removing one of the differentiating factors between it and rival service Scribd. New features include “read time” for books (there is a similar feature on Kindle e-readers) and the ability to turn a book’s pages using the volume buttons on an Android device. Oyster, which is based in NYC and launched in fall 2013, now has over 500,000 titles, with two of the big-five publishers — Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins — participating.

The future of music subscription services is binge listening, not exclusives

Beats Music got a lot of press Monday for nabbing the exclusive rights to a track that features Jay Z. The deal was seen by some as a sign that Beats may take a cue from Netflix and battle competitors like Spotify with exclusive content deals. But the future of music subscription services isn’t about exclusive deals — it’s about binging.

What that Jay Z track is all about

First, it’s worth putting that Jay Z exclusive into perspective: Beats Electronics, which got recently acquired by Apple, started to air a new World Cup-themed ad dubbed The Game before the Game earlier this month. The ad, which features raps by Jay Z, quickly became a hit online, and has already amassed more than 10 million views on YouTube. This week, Beats Music started to stream a remix of the track used in the ad. Beats got access to that remix a week before it appears on competing music services, which led Billboard to muse that exclusives could become key to Beats Music’s strategy going forward. The Verge assumed that it would be “impossible for any other service of its size” to get these kinds of exclusives. Except it’s not impossible. Exclusive access to tracks or even entire albums a few days before the competition gets its hands on them is something that music services have been doing for a long time to differentiate themselves in a world where every service offers access to the same 30 or so million songs, for the same price, on the same devices. Rdio recently got an exclusive Snoop Dogg track. Spotify at one point had an exclusive remix of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. Jay Z distributed his latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail exclusively through Samsung for 72 hours before it hit the stores last summer. Deezer, Google Play and everyone else is also experimenting with exclusives all the time, but thus far, none of those one-off deals have moved the needle for any of these services.

Netflix didn’t start with exclusive content, but with a large back catalog

There’s still something that music services can learn from Netflix — and Amazon may have been the first to take notice. Netflix owes a lot of its success to binge viewing, allowing its users to burn through entire seasons of TV shows at their own pace. Binge viewing has defined how Netflix releases its own exclusives, with all episodes of new seasons becoming available at once. But before Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, there were Lost, the West Wing and Battlestar Galactica — older shows that allowed people to discover things they missed on TV, re-watch their favorites and expand their pop culture horizon. What fueled Netflix’s initial growth wasn’t the latest shows that were on TV last night, but convenient access to the classics without breaking the pocket book. That’s exactly what Amazon is now offering its Prime subscribers. Amazon’s newly launched Prime Music service also doesn’t have the latest and greatest. It only has about one million titles, compared to the 30 million that Spotify is offering its customers. Of course, one million is just about as much as Pandora has, and its more than 70 million monthly active users don’t seem to mind.

There are a lot more casual listeners than hardcore music fans

I believe Amazon’s Prime subscribers will be equally forgiving. That’s because Prime Music doesn’t target the hardcore music fan with a Spotify subscription and a big iTunes library, but the millions and millions of casual listeners — people who tune into Pandora but would love to listen to entire albums every now and then as well. People in their thirties and older who haven’t significantly changed their taste in music since college. People who haven’t been buying a whole lot of music in recent years. There are a lot of those folks out there — a lot more of them, arguably, than heavy music buyers — and those casual listeners couldn’t care less whether a single new track is exclusively on one service or another. What they are interested in is rediscovering the classics, and listening to them on their own terms. In other words: binging. Of course, that’s what every subscription music service offers, but unlike others, Amazon isn’t charging $10 a month for it, or subjecting users to ads, while still offering full on-demand access. Which is why its focus on inexpensive access to archives may be a lot more successful than spending a lot of money on a handful of exclusives here and there.

Why the net neutrality debate also matters for VoIP

At my company, Zingaya, we work on VoIP solutions in click-to-call technology (which is one segment of a big industry, with Skype being the most well-known VoIP company). Given our position in this industry, my colleagues and I have watched the developments of the net neutrality court case and subsequent moves by ISPs very closely, with an eye on how these changes will impact innovation in the rapidly changing VoIP field. With the end of FCC enforcement of open internet rules, a few select companies will very quickly be making major decisions on how fast most users will be able to access content across the web. Video streaming, as we know, takes up a plurality of bandwidth usage (and will only increase in popularity). However, the danger isn’t just limited to video. The major ISPs in the United States — Comcast and AT&T among others — often also provide voice services that directly compete with many of the services provided by VoIP. As industry analyst Phil Edholm points out, it would be easy for ISPs to push VoIP providers to a lower level of service unless those providers pay extra to be bumped up to a better service level. Since VoIP requires a certain threshold of data speed to deliver an effective sound or picture quality to customers, reducing that quality negatively impacts customer willingness to adopt VoIP over the alternatives. What’s more, the innovative possibilities of VoIP and VoIP-related technologies, like WebRTC, will also be throttled by the lack of open internet standards. New VoIP technologies are often not just limited to voice; they incorporate video capabilities as well. VoIP services require simultaneous high quality upload and download streams, instead of just download streams as with a service like Netflix. As such, VoIP shares many of the same concerns as video streaming, and the dangers for VoIP services may be even greater. Having a level playing field for telecommunications in particular is vital, and there’s a reason why the FCC already regulates telephone service. In the absence of net neutrality, nascent VoIP services will have a harder time gaining traction. They, like up-and-coming video streaming services, will have to pay for the data quality they need. As a result, firms in the future will not compete on the true merits of their products, but will instead compete in an environment where the best quality is granted to the firms that can pay the most — a surefire way to stifle innovation. WebRTC is perhaps particularly interesting here, as it continues to increase in adoption and thus will be intertwined with net neutrality. According to the WebRTC standard, all media traffic is encrypted (via Datagram Transport Layer Security, or DTLS) and sent using Secure Real-time Transport Protocol (SRTP). This encryption may confound ISPs seeking to throttle bandwidth based on what kind of traffic is passing through their channels, because they will not be able to recognize the precise nature of it. In response, some ISPs have invested in expensive hardware (like DPI, deep packet inspection) for examining the packets running through their networks. Since WebRTC can and will be used in a variety of ways, there will certainly be questions regarding how providers detect what’s running inside the encrypted channels. But in any case, net neutrality isn’t dead. First, this ruling only applies to the United States. Second, though the FCC is not appealing the ruling, it is exploring other means of enforcing open internet standards. The oversight of particular actions will occur on a more case-by-case basis, but the FCC is still also considering reclassifying internet service if those other means are not effective. These efforts are heartening, and those of us interested in the future of VoIP should be invested in supporting these open internet standards. Alexey Aylarov is the CEO of Zingaya, which enables online calls from web pages. Aylarov is also the founder of VoxImplant, a communications cloud platform for mobile and web app developers. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user imagedb.com.

AT&T’s hard sell on DirecTV: A new type of broadband network

If you want to sell a telecom merger to the American public, the hip to do is promise more broadband access. Sprint chairman and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son is making such claims to justify his forthcoming bid for T-Mobile, and now AT&T is on its own broadband kick to push its proposed acquisition of DirecTV. In a regulatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission this week, AT&T promised to deliver broadband to 15 million more homes and businesses, but Ma Bell isn’t just talking about wireline technologies like DSL and U-Verse. It plans to build the bulk of this network using wireless airwaves. AT&T said it would target 13 million primarily rural locations outside of its broadband footprint with a technology called wireless local loop (WLL). Local loop is the telco term for the circuit a copper line completes going from a telephone company’s switching office to the customer’s home. But in this case of WLL, the circuit is made via wireless, not copper. ATT flagship store logo WLL has long been used around the world as a DSL replacement, including by many rural broadband carriers in the U.S., but it’s not a technology AT&T has ever made extensive use of. AT&T Mobility recently started offering a fixed wireless option on its LTE network, which connects to an external antenna rather than directly to a smartphone or mobile hotspot. But AT&T’s Wireless Home Phone and Internet Service is hardly what you would call a full-fledged broadband service. Its data caps range from 10 GB to 30 GB depending on the plan, with the cost ranging from $60 to $120 a month. If that’s all AT&T plans on offering in the U.S, then it won’t be increasing home broadband options in the U.S. It would just milk more money out of its LTE network, by asking users to pay what are basically mobile data rates for wireline access. But AT&T may have other plans than just repackaging its 4G service. Though it didn’t say specifically what technology it would use or what spectrum, its use of the term “WLL” might offer a hint. Way back before AT&T got the Bell band back together, its various companies tested wireless local loop technologies in several parts of the country (including in the brothel capital of the U.S. — Pahrump, Nevada), testing a variety of fixed wireless technologies including WiMAX. Nothing really every came out of those trials, mainly because the spectrum band AT&T was using was loaded with problems. AT&T, however, still owns those 2.3 GHz airwaves in the Wireless Communications Services (WCS) band. In fact, it recently consolidated its WCS holdings across much of the country. And through a compromise with the satellite radio industry, it managed to clear the interference issues that previously made the band useless for wireless data services. AT&T has said it will use WCS for LTE, but it’s beginning to look like it won’t build the same kind of LTE network it uses to connect phones, tablets and cars. Broadband spectrum analyst Tim Farrar believes AT&T plans to use those 2.3 GHz frequencies for its planned air-to-ground in-flight network. It may choose to use WCS for its fixed wireless network as well. Instead of transmitting to a plane in the sky, the network could link to an antenna. And that antenna could be conveniently mounted on a DirecTV satellite dish – all part of a bundled broadband and TV package.
Source: Flickr / Cantoni

Source: Flickr / Cantoni

AT&T says its WLL network could deliver speeds of 15 Mbps to 20 Mbps. That isn’t as fast as the speed we’ve come to expect from cable, but it’s certainly not bad either, especially considering the limited options in rural areas. The big question is whether it can deliver the monthly capacity to individual subscribers to make it a truly competitive offering. Average monthly broadband consumption in the U.S. is 39 GB per month, and for hard-core video streaming users that number climbs to well over 200 GB, according to Sandvine. Unless AT&T prices fixed wireless data at a tremendous discount to what it’s charging for regular mobile data, then it’s not going to create a competitive broadband option, just an expensive broadband option.

Al Jazeera just soft-launched its AJ+ online video network

Qatar-based Al Jazeera soft-launched its AJ+ online video network Friday with a new YouTube channel as well as a dedicated Facebook page and Twitter account. Al Jazeera also announced AJ+ with a press release that described the network as “current affairs experience for mobiles and social streams,” and promised a formal launch later this year. The AJ+ YouTube page now lists about a dozen videos, ranging from animated explainers on gun violence to short background videos on Boko Haram, Bitcon and the social impact of the World Cup. Most of the videos are between two and three minutes long, and all feature a fast-paced aesthetic that makes them look much more like the work of YouTube producers than of a traditional news organization. And that’s not a coincidence: AJ+ is Al Jazeera’s attempt to reinvent the news for a generation that doesn’t tune into cable news networks anymore, and instead gets most of its information online. AJ+ is being developed by a team that is located in the former offices of Al Gore’s now-defunct Current TV channel in San Francisco, which I got an exclusive tour of last November. Back then, Jazeera Media Network’s Executive Director of Strategy, Development and Technology Yaser Bishr told me that the goal was not to inherit the legacy of TV. AJ+ won’t recycle news bits and pieces from Al Jazeera’s existing English-language TV networks, but instead produce original content for an online audience, he explained. That’s why AJ+ won’t use any kind of programming grid, but instead produce on-demand content that will be available on multiple platforms. With the soft launch AJ+ is debuting some of its programming on YouTube, but the network is apparently also looking to launch a dedicated mobile app, according to its YouTube page and press release. Al Jazeera executives told me last year that AJ+ represents the most significant investment into digital to date, and the online network started to hire dozens of staffers earlier this year. 

Music streaming startup Earbits is shutting down

Los Angeles-based music streaming startup Earbits will be shutting down its website and mobile apps next Monday. The company announced the shutdown on its blog Thursday, as Earbits CEO Joey Flores wrote:
“Shutting down a company after 4.5 years is going to be painful for anybody but is particularly painful for us here at Earbits.  (…) We proved to ourselves and a substantial number of artists and listeners that our concept does work, that our vision is what the industry and larger streaming providers need to be doing in order to create more value, but that we simply needed a lot more capital to pursue such an aggressive mission properly.”

Earbits offered users a personalized radio service similar to Pandora, with one important difference: The service didn’t have any ads, and also didn’t charge users for subscription fees. Instead, it tried to connect listeners with artists and labels, effectively turning music streaming into a marketing machine. This actually worked remarkably well, according to Flores:

“By showcasing features that allowed our listeners to connect with our artists, we generated for them hundreds of thousands of new mailing list signups and Facebook fans across a relatively small audience. The revenue and other value that our partners generated from these new connections was often ten or twenty times higher than what they receive from ad-supported royalties on major services, and it provides concrete evidence that there is more streaming companies can do to provide the content community with a return for their hard work.”

There have been a lot of discussions about the money artists and labels are getting from streaming services like Beats Music and Spotify. Some of these services have started to embrace marketing and merchandise sales as additional benefits for artists; Beats for example has bought the artist commerce platform Topspin and wants to integrate it into its own service.

The FCC just launched its peering investigation with a call for data

The Federal Communication Commission has finally acted on the allegations that certain ISPs are intentionally throttling traffic from providers such as Netflix as a way to charge content providers additional fees. Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement on Friday noting that the agency has asked for documentation about peering, and it currently has the terms of the agreements signed between Netflix and Verizon and Netflix and Comcast. This doesn’t mean that the agency will regulate the interconnection agreements between ISP networks and content provider networks, but it does mean that the consumer cry for action on this issue has been heard and the FCC is looking into it. Ideally, the data collected by the FCC will be shared in a somewhat timely manner via a public report or data dump, but that might be too much to hope for given how secretive these agreements are. However, I am glad Wheeler is taking the action he promised me back in January, when I brought the issue up with him. From a statement issued today:
“To be clear, what we are doing right now is collecting information, not regulating. We are looking under the hood. Consumers want transparency. They want answers. And so do I.

In all of the articles on this topic — which is complicated, but has real implications for consumers because it turns internet capacity into something that more closely resembles cable TV.I’ve called for the FCC to get data so we can understand if there is a problem. Are ISPs abusing their power as the sole provider of last mile connectivity and trying to charge companies like Netflix fees to get onto their networks? Given that in much of the world interconnection agreements are informal and free (and even in the U.S. many interconnection agreements between big name content providers and ISPs are formal, but unpaid) this is an issue worth scrutiny. And if the FCC finds that the lack of a competitive last-mile broadband market is enabling a few ISPs to behave badly it should act. But hopefully the threat of greater transparency will be enough to solve this problem.