Weekly output: Washington Post sale (x3), TWC vs. CBS, iPhone apps, lost and found phones

August is supposed to be a slow news month in D.C., but somebody forgot to remind the owners of the Washington Post about that.

8/6/2013: Bezos Brings Patient Capital to the Post; It Needs Bold, Persistent Experimentation Too, Disruptive Competition Project

My first take on the pending sale of my former employer to Jeff Bezos for $250 million looked at the possible upsides of the Amazon founder owning the business. (My second one ran here.) I find Bezos’s willingness to invest in costly ventures that may take decades to pay off, such as the private-spaceflight firm Blue Origin, heartening, but he doesn’t have much of a public record in standing up to government pressure on national-security issues.

WJLA spot on Post sale8/6/2013: Bezos’ influence on the Post, according to tech experts, ABC 7 News

WJLA’s Steve Chenevey–who interviewed me a few times at his old employer, Fox 5 News–asked me for some perspective about the Bezos sale on the Tuesday evening news. You can also see iStrategyLabs CEO Peter Corbett and 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield opine on the news in this report.

8/8/2013: The Hostage-Taking Foolishness of Retransmission Fights, Disruptive Competition Project

This unpacking of CBS’s squabble with Time Warner Cable over how much TWC should pay for the right to retransmit its local stations recycled much of my coverage of the 2010 retransmission fight between Cablevision and Fox–because the TV industry is recycling much of the stupidity of that “retrans” fight.

8/10/2013: How to bring iOS apps back to your home screen, USA Today

This explanation of how iPhone or iPad apps can appear to disappear almost needed a correction. But on Saturday I realized that a passing reference to how many apps you can put in a folder was incorrect (in fact, the limit varies by device), I e-mailed my editor to suggest we drop that detail, and she promptly fixed the piece. In other news, my editor is kind of awesome.

On Sulia, I complimented how everyone involved with the Post sale was able to keep a lid on the news beforehand, cast a little scorn on one story of many to suggest that Bezos’s involvement might finally allow the Post to put in place some obvious upgrades, and reported on my initial experiences with Twitter’s new login verification and Google’s Android Device Manager find-my-phone service.

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Weekly output: e-books, Facebook Graph Search, TV Guide On Screen, MHL

This was one of the least-scheduled workweeks I’ve had in months–my calendar informs me that I had no work-related appointments at all on four of those five days. I really should have gotten more work done with all that spare time.

7/9/2013: Facebook’s new graph search is rolling out. What is it and what can you do to alleviate privacy concerns?, WTOP

Washington’s news radio station asked for my input on the newly-widened availability of Facebook’s natural-language search. As you’ll hear at the above link, I emphasized that it doesn’t make anything public that isn’t already visible on the social network, but there is the risk of things being taken out of context when seen in a long list of Graph Search results.

DisCo e-books post

7/10/2013: Price Fixing Won’t Open the E-Books Market, But Dumping DRM Just Might, Disruptive Competition Project

Have you read earlier posts from me excoriating book publishers for cementing Amazon’s influence by insisting on DRM, even as they whine about Amazon’s ever-increasing influence? Yes, in 2011 and again in 2012. Look, it’s not my fault the publishers refuse to learn.

7/14/2013: With a TV Guide gone from the air, look online, USA Today

I’d meant to cover the shutdown of Rovi’s over-the-air program guide service soon after it had been announced; instead, a reader’s question gave me an excuse to recap the story and note Rovi’s remarkably poor handling of the situation. There’s also a tip about a new standard called MHL that may make it easier to play media from mobile devices on HDTVs.

Sulia highlights: observing the continued weakness of Facebook Graph Search, applauding Twitter’s overdue delivery of Direct Message sync across its site and apps, digging into an epic GPS fail at a location I know quite well, noting how many computer magazines are still around even as PC World bids goodbye to print, critiquing the interface of the Android camera app

Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies (2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran on April 17, 2012; since then, sci-fi publisher Tor Books–a subsidiary of the Macmillan publishing conglomerate–has gone DRM-free, but most of the industry has yet to take that step.)

Even if you’ve been following the e-books story for the past five years, it can be hard to define the heroes and villains of that plot.

First Amazon was the innovator, liberating us from paper with its Kindle. Then Apple was going to upend things with the iPad’s iBooks app and store. Now the Department of Justice says that the real problem is an unholy union of the publishers and Apple.

E-book reader appsIn an antitrust lawsuit announced last Wednesday, the DoJ charged Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Group and Apple with conspiring to fix prices, to the disadvantage of consumers and Amazon.

The first three publishers have already agreed to a settlement that will block “most-favored nation” clauses that prevent e-book stores from discounting titles while allowing them to place other limits on the sale of their work. Meanwhile, Macmillan, Penguin and Apple continue to fight the suit.

It’s an immensely complicated issue, colored to a large degree by who you think is more evil. Is the problem the big publishers targeted by the DoJ’s suit, who allegedly colluded over dinners in expensive Manhattan restaurants? Or is it the gigantic Seattle retailer, which both controls a huge share of e-book sales and has been getting into the publishing business itself?

(A CEA press release posits a third foe, quoting association president Gary Shapiro calling the lawsuit “another sad milestone in our government’s war on American companies.”)

But the basic issue at stake here is not complex: ensuring vigorous competition in e-books that eliminates the need for court battles and consent decrees. And in that context, you can’t ignore how publishers have not just given Amazon a tool to build a monopoly but required its use.

This is the “digital rights management” restrictions required by publishers on e-book titles sold through all of the major online outlets–not just Amazon’s Kindle Store but also Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and Apple’s iBookstore.

DRM is supposed to stop unauthorized copying and sharing by making a copyrighted work playable, readable or visible only on authorized products. It’s not always a huge annoyance: DVDs and Blu-ray discs employ standardized–if easily circumvented–DRM that doesn’t limit you to player hardware or software specifically approved by a movie studio.

But in the world of digital downloads, DRM usually locks the “buyer” of a DRMed item into using only one vendor’s hardware or software.

(The scare quotes are necessary because the license agreements for many DRMed items stipulate that you don’t actually own those downloads.)

If you want to keep your future hardware and software options open, this favors doing business with the e-book store that offers the most DRM-compliant reading options.

That store, by a hardcover-thick margin, is Amazon. Beyond its growing family of Kindle reader devices, including last year’s Kindle Fire tablet, it also ships reader apps for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (via a “Cloud Reader” Web app) iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even HP’s now-abandoned webOS.

Barnes & Noble, by contrast, only provides Nook reader apps for iOS, Android, Windows and OS X. And Apple limits iBooks to its iOS devices.

Considering that evidence, where do you think somebody ought to shop?

So long as DRM stays part of the plot, every Kindle reader sold, every Kindle app installed and every Kindle title purchased will strengthen Amazon’s hand.

DRM can’t solve this problem, any more than any form of DRM tolerable to home users can abolish copyright infringement. But ditching it would erase the equation. If you could buy an e-book in a standard format that, like an MP3 music file, would be playable on current and imaginable future hardware, it wouldn’t matter which store sold it. There would be no lock-in; each sale would would not weigh so heavily on the next.

(As I wrote last spring, not having to worry about DRM-induced obsolescence would also vastly increase the odds of me buying e-books at all.)

The music industry figured this out years ago. Giving up on the DRM dream enabled a thriving competition between Apple, Amazon and other vendors of digital downloads, with no lock-in beyond the relative difficulty of syncing music from iTunes to a non-Apple device.

Other observers of the e-book business have been making the same call on personal blogs and on tech-news sites. One publisher, Hachette, may even be paying attention, as PaidContent reporter Laura Hazard Owen wrote last month.

But in much traditional-media coverage of digital content, DRM remains the lock that dare not speak its name. You can read a thousand-word piece about the slow market for movie downloads that notes a “lack of interoperability” without ever explaining why–or even using that three-letter abbreviation. Many of last week’s stories about Amazon, Apple and book publishers miss this point just as badly. And if we can’t properly identify this issue, we certainly can’t fix it.

Weekly output: When tech reviews go wrong (x2), TV show streams, Lightning cables

In addition to the stories below, I was on the local news this week–but not for anything related to my work. A WJLA correspondent and cameraman were looking for quotes from passerby in Ballston about the possible sequestration budget cuts, and an optimistic sentence or two from me showed up on Monday’s broadcast.

2/13/2013: When The Gadget You Review Can Also Review Your Work, Disruptive Competition Project

In the first of two posts about Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk’s attack on a negative review of the Model S by New York Times reporter John Broder, I looked at how the rise of social media and the ability of connected devices and apps to log a journalist’s use change the dynamic between reviewer and review. For more thoughts along those lines, see Dan Frommer and Mathew Ingram.

2/15/2013: How Breakthrough Technology Can Get Beaten Up In The Press, Disruptive Competition Project

After reading enough comments accusing Broder of being a liar, a shill or worse (as opposed to placing too much trust in tech support from Tesla executives that normal drivers wouldn’t get anyway), I followed up by unpacking some real reasons why the media can misread disruptive technology so badly. One example: my first review of the iPad.

USAT Web-only TV column2/17/2013: Why are some TV show streams web-only?, USA Today

Months ago, my column briefly mentioned the uselessness of ESPN’s WatchESPN app: Unlike its site of the same name, that program doesn’t let us watch ESPN3. I exchanged a few e-mails with PR reps for the sports network about that, then had an excuse to revisit the gap between Web and app availability of online video after getting annoyed by 30 Rock’s absence from Hulu’s mobile and connected-TV apps.

The column also shares advice (hat tip, MacRumors and Lifehacker) about getting non-Apple Lightning cables for less at Amazon and Monoprice. Why so few alternatives so long after the debut of that connector? Apple engineered Lightning to enforce a sort of DRM on the accessories market, as the New York Times’ Brian X. Chen explained this week.

On Sulia, I shared my skepticism about the latest connected-watch fad (now with more Apple rumors!), discussed the unsettling but unavoidable PR trend of enticing reporters with all the Web traffic the agency or the client’s social-media channels can send to a post, and noted how Microsoft’s checkbook hasn’t been able to buy enough updates to the Windows Phone Foursquare client it hired an outside developer to write. You also would have gotten a preview of Wednesday’s post on Monday; Sulia’s more generous character count made it a better place than Twitter to sketch out that story idea.

Weekly output: Mat Honan, Mike Daisey, pausing telecom service, “Free Public WiFi”

Two of this week’s posts involved other people’s stories–either adding context to them or critiquing the storytelling itself. (I also filed one post and a podcast for CEA, but they haven’t gone up yet. I’m blaming the fact that it’s August in D.C.)

8/8/2012: Hacking Nightmare Comes True: Mat Honan’s Story, Discovery News

After reading Wired writer Mat Honan’s Tumblr post about how hackers had hijacked his iCloud and Twitter accounts, deleted his Google account and remote-wiped his iPad, iPhone and MacBook Air, I wanted to know how such a thing could be possible. After reading his explanation of the hack on Wired.com, I wanted to write about it myself–both to yell at Amazon and Apple for their (now fixed) security flaws that enabled the hack, and to remind readers of what they can to prevent the same thing from happening to them. It helped to talk to Honan over the phone on Tuesday morning and hear the stress and anger in his voice. (I enjoy Honan’s work, and he and I were on a radio show once, but I don’t think we’ve met face to face.)

8/8/2012: How Mike Daisey retooled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Ars Technica

Some 17 months after I first saw Daisey’s monologue about Apple, I returned to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in downtown D.C. to catch the 2.0 version, stripped of the material he fabricated earlier about Apple’s outsourced manufacturing in China. This was the first time in years that I’d taken notes on a paper notepad (the prior item in this one was a set of questions I jotted down for a video interview with Steve Wozniak I did for the Post in late 2009).

It was also the first time in a while that the subject of a review wrote back to me. Maybe an hour after this post went up, Daisey e-mailed to contest my interpretation. He said I made him sound too trusting in the New York Times’ reporting and didn’t give him enough credit for addressing some of the related issues I mentioned in this piece in the program handed out to attendees. I replied that those were my reactions, as jotted down in real time in the dark; they may not be a correct interpretation, but the review is supposed to reflect what I thought at the time.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the comments from Ars readers were far less sympathetic to Daisey’s case.

8/12/2012: How to pause cable, phone services, USA Today

I thought a reader’s question about whether he could suspend his Internet, TV and phone services while away from home would make for a nice, easy, “it’s August in D.C. and nobody wants to work too hard” item. Wrong. Some telecom firms have multiple policies that vary by region. The piece also reminds readers that the “Free Public WiFi” hot spot you might see is an artifact of a patched Windows XP bug. (Yes, you’ve read that from me before: I covered it in a 2009 article for the Post.)

Weekly output: e-book DRM, Vudu Disc to Digital, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, data caps, OLED battery life

I’m finally done with the hell of tax prep and resuming something close to my usual level of productivity–after taking off Thursday to see the space shuttle Discovery arrive at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

4/17/2012: Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies, CEA Digital Dialogue

The Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five major book publishers–followed by a round of traditional-media coverage of the DoJ’s action that ignored how “digital rights management” restrictions distort that market–persuaded me to revisit the topic I last addressed in my penultimate Post column. If I keep rewriting this thesis enough times, will I eventually see publishing-industry executives agree with it?

4/19/2012: Get Higher Def From (Some of) Your DVDs, Discovery News

Much like last week, I enjoyed coming up with an artsy photo for a post. This one critiques a Walmart service that provides digital copies of your DVDs and Blu-rays. It’s a dubious value for same-quality duplicates, but I can see myself paying to get HD versions of movies I own on DVD. Walmart just needs to let me make the purchase without having to trek to one of its stores–and I write this after completing the transaction on the first try, unlike my fellow D.C.-area tech blogger Dave Zatz.

To reinforce every single stereotype of East Coast Liberal Media Elite Bias: This was the first time I’d set foot in a Walmart in maybe nine years. (Look, I hate driving for 30 minutes to do routine shopping. That’s the same reason I’ve yet to set foot in a Wegman’s.)

4/20/2012: A Tablet That Talks To Your TV — Or Tries To, Discovery News

I might have gone easier on this Android tablet–at $250, it’s not a bad deal and is vastly more competitive than the first Galaxy Tab I reviewed–had Samsung not made such a strong sales pitch for its universal-remote app at demo in New York a couple of weeks ago. And if that app had not failed so badly in my own testing, even relative to my own snakebite history with allegedly universal remotes. If I hadn’t already been pushing the word count on this review, I also would have dinged Samsung for using a proprietary USB cable. (I didn’t ding the new iPad for that either.)

4/22/2012: What’s eating your phone’s data allowance?, USA Today

The front end of this column, explaining which apps and services might take the biggest bite out of a data quota, benefited from one of my last acts with the Galaxy Nexus phone before returning it last week: taking a screengrab of its data-usage report. The second half, relating a battery-saving tip for phones with OLED screens that I picked up while reporting a post about smartphone screen sizes for CEA’s blog, was also informed by a final test on overdue review hardware.

In the coming-soon category, I have an interview with former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra in the May 2012 issue of Washingtonian. The print copy is now on sale but the story isn’t online yet, so look for a link to it in a future weekly-update post.

Live-tweeting, then Storifying Amazon’s Kindle event

NEW YORK–I did a day trip here yesterday to cover Amazon’s introduction of its new Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch tablets (if you were curious, getting up for the 6 a.m. Acela was as unpleasant as I expected). Since Discovery didn’t ask me to liveblog the event itself, I decided to use Twitter to post my real-time recap instead–something I haven’t had the luxury of doing at a tech event in a while.

That worked well–it’s a lot easier to share a photo with Twitter’s smartphone apps, for one thing–but live-tweeting also suffers from vanishing down Twitter’s timeline in the days afterward, not to mention requiring any later readers to read them in reverse.

So I used Storify to embed all of my tweets from Amazon’s event in conventional chronological order–minus a few replies to people asking about non-Kindle topics, plus a few photos I would have shared had I taken them with a phone instead of a regular camera. I had, perhaps, foolishly, thought I could simply embed the results after the jump here–but no, that doesn’t appear to be a supported feature, and my attempts to post the archive here through one of Storify’s publishing options didn’t work either. So you’ll have to read that archive at Storify.

(Dear Storify and WordPress.com management: Please figure out how to get your sites to play nicely with each other. It would also help if I could block-select tweets in Storify instead of tediously dragging them over into a story, one at a time. Until both those things happen, I think I’ll give Storify a rest. Readers: Am I missing some easier way to do things? I know WordPress embeds tweets quite well, but it doesn’t do the same with pictures shared through Twitter.)

Anyway. Note that there’s an error most of the way down; I wrote that the Kindle Fire has a microphone when it does not. Note also that this adds up to a lot of text—1,014 words, by my count.

Too much to read? My recap at Discovery News only runs about 500 words. Don’t want to read at all? You can watch my appearance on the local Fox station Thursday morning to discuss Amazon’s news. That clip’s too short? Amazon posted a 51-minute video of the entire event on YouTube.