Sunday, September 30, 2012

What determines whether a Kickstarter project will succeed or fail?

A paper published in July (PDF link) by Wharton professor Ethan Mollock tried to identify the elements that determine whether or not a Kickstarter project will be successfully funded. Professor Mollock and his assistant Jeanne Pi compiled information on 24,503 projects that were fully funded, 26,483 that failed, 4.073 that were still raising funds at the time that the research took place, and just over 100 cancelled projects. After removing projects with very small (under $100) and very large (over $1 million) goals, and foreign-based projects, the researchers were left with 46.902 projects representing $198 million in pledges.

Here's a summary of the team's findings (note that I use the term "average" instead of "mean"):
  • 47.9% of the projects studied were fully funded.
  • Projects tend to either fail by a large amount or succeed by a small amount:
    • 87% of the projects that failed raised less than 30% of their goal. Only 10% of projects that failed raised even 30% of their goal, and only 3% raised 50% of their goal.
    • 25% of projects that did get funded were 3% or less over their goal, and 50% were about 10% over their goal. Only about 11% reached double their goal. The remaining 4% achieved more than double their goal.
  • The average level of funding for all projects was 10.3% of the goal.
  • The average amount raised by an unsuccessful project was $900, and the average raised by successful projects was $7,825.
  • No very small projects (goals of $100 or less) or very large projects (goals of $1 million or more) were funded.
  • The maximum project duration has been shortened by Kickstarter from 90 to 60 days, but 30-day projects were a bit more likely to be fully funded than 60 days (35% vs 29%.)
  • Perceived project quality, defined by the researchers as having a video, was very important in determining whether or not a project reached its goal. Projects with a video had a 37% chance of success, while those without videos had a 15% chance of success.
  • Featured projects were far more likely to be successful than those that weren’t featured (89% success for featured projects vs. 30% for unfeatured projects.)
  • There’s a direct correlation between the number of Facebook friends that the project founder has and the chance of success: A founder with 10 Facebook friends had a 9% chance of success; 100 friends gave a 20% chance of success, and 1,000 friends gave a 40% chance of success.
  • Projects based in cities with a high percentage of workers in creative professions had a greater chance of success than those in cities with a low percentage of creative professionals.
  • Only 5% of fully funded projects failed to deliver their intended goods or services, but there were usually substantial delays in delivery. Of the projects that the researchers measured that delivered products, the average delay was 1.28 months.
  • Only 24.9% of the projects delivered on time, and 33% had yet to deliver as of the end of the study.
  • The more complex the project, the greater the delay in delivery. The more that the project exceeded its goal, the greater the delay in delivery.
  • Project category has a direct effect on project success: Based on four different models, video projects have the greatest probability of success, followed by dance and then theater. Design, film & video, music, comics and food follow in a fairly tight cluster. Publishing projects have the lowest probability of success.
Based on the researchers' findings, there are some practical suggestions for people considering Kickstarter campaigns:
  • Don't go for a very small goal, hoping that it will make it easier to get funded. The average amount that funded projects raised was almost $8.000.
  • Go for a 30- to 45-day project duration rather than 60 days.
  • The more Facebook friends (and, by extension, other social media contacts) that you can promote your project to, the better.
  • Projects that were featured by Kickstarter had by far the best chance of success--89% of featured projects were funded, vs. 30% that weren't featured. The Wharton team didn't look at which attributes make it more likely that a project will be featured.
  • If your project doesn't get featured, the more publicity that you can get from sources outside Kickstarter, the better.
  • Having a video to promote your project will more than double its chances of getting funded. However, the study didn't look at whether the quality of the video has an impact on funding success.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Amazon & Apple: Is their proxy war getting hotter?

Earlier today, according to ReutersWalmart notified its store managers that the company would no longer carry Amazon's Kindle eReaders and tablets once its existing inventory and committed purchases run out. Walmart confirmed its decision with Reuters, but didn't specify the reason(s). In May, Target announced that it would no longer carry Kindles, and like Walmart, it never made an official public statement about the reason. However, CNN noted that Target had just been authorized by Apple to begin selling iPads, and that it planned to add Apple "mini-stores" within 25 of its locations.

There are two reasons being cited by observers as to why Walmart might have decided to drop Kindles:
  1. Amazon may not have offered Walmart a sufficient discount, or
  2. Walmart may see Amazon as an increasingly large competitor for general merchandise sales, and doesn't want to support a competitor any longer.
Both of these reasons make sense, and either one of them may be true, but let's sideline that discussion for a bit.

At Publishers Lunch Deluxe, Michael Cader reported on Apple's efforts to get evidence from Amazon for its defense in the government's eBook price-fixing case. According to Cader, Apple has been trying to compel the Justice Department to turn over the transcripts of interviews with 14 Amazon managers and executives. Those interviews weren't taken under oath. The Justice Department argued that the interviews are protected work product, and aren't subject to release. However, Justice has given Apple the names of everyone at Amazon who was interviewed, and said that Apple could take depositions directly from those people. In addition, the Justice Department has released all of its email communications with Amazon and all of the documents and data it received from Amazon during its investigation.

Apparently, Apple took up the Justice Department on its idea, and filed subpoenas to force the 14 Amazon employees to give depositions. Then, last Friday, September 14th, Amazon filed a motion in Seattle Federal court to quash the subpoenas, on the grounds that Amazon isn't a party to the litigation. This week, Apple filed a motion with Judge Denise Cote, who's in charge of all of the U.S. cases related to eBook price-fixing, to move Amazon's motion from Seattle to her court. Judge Cote is now considering Apple's motion.

I don't know that much about the law regarding who can and can't be compelled to provide depositions and discovery documents. What I do know is that if Apple does eventually get the right to enforce its subpoenas, Amazon is going to want to put strict limits in place to prevent any confidential information that's not directly related to the price-fixing case from being revealed to Apple.

That brings me back to the title of this post, and to my first point. Clearly, Apple and Amazon are competing in more areas, and in the U.S., Amazon is currently the only serious competitor to Apple in tablets, based on sales. Apple is widely rumored to be planning to announce a smaller iPad next month. Target dropped Amazon shortly after signing a deal to carry Apple's iPads, and now, a month before the smaller iPad's expected release, Walmart has also dropped Amazon's Kindles. Does that mean that Apple might have made Walmart's getting the small iPad conditional on dropping Amazon? It's certainly possible, but rather than getting into legally murky waters, Apple could have required Walmart to give its products a certain amount and type of display space--a very common condition in retail distribution deals. Walmart would have to get that space from somewhere, and "independently decided" (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) to take it from Amazon. Another perfectly legal option would be if Apple offered Walmart co-op funds if it did certain things (for example, PC manufacturers get reimbursed for part of their advertising costs by Intel if they include that four-note musical theme at the end of their commercials.) These payments amount to a discount--and if Target is already getting them, Walmart would be at a competitive disadvantage if it didn't get them as well.

All of this adds up to "shadows on the wall" suggesting a proxy war between Apple and Amazon:
  • Amazon is using the Justice Department as a proxy against Apple to get agency terms and Most Favored Nation clauses terminated, and
  • Apple is using Target and Walmart as proxies to hinder Amazon's ability to sell Kindles in stores.
If this "proxy war" model is correct, I'd expect Best Buy to be the next retailer to drop Kindles. Apple has dedicated sales space in most Best Buy stores, and a lot of leverage over the retailer. In addition, Amazon is a strong competitor to Best Buy, so there's plenty of reasons for Best Buy to stop selling Kindles.

You may say that this is all paranoia, and you may be right, but I've spent enough time in high tech to know that everything that's happened so far is right out of the Silicon Valley playbook. 

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Monday, September 17, 2012

After more leaks than a sieve, the Panasonic GH3 is revealed

Perhaps it was the multiple leaks of specifications to photo websites, or Panasonic itself posting a promotional video on YouTube and then taking it down, or yesterday, Samy's Photo posting specifications and pictures, but today's announcement of Panasonic's new GH3 seems like an anti-climax. It shouldn't, since Digital Photography Review writes that only the Canon 5D Mark III has a higher 2K video bitrate than the the GH3, and the Canon DSLR is priced more than $2,000 (U.S.) higher. The GH2 was a firmware hacker's dream, with the video bitrate taken all the way to 176Mbps in AVCHD with All I-frames, while the maximum video ISO was increased from 3200 to 12,800. The problem was that the some GH2s became unstable when run at this insane bitrate (most users chose to use a more reasonable 44Mbps, which is still much faster than the maximum 28Mbps of AVCHD 2.0 at 1080p60.)

Panasonic has taken the hackers' improvements to heart, and has implemented a maximum bitrate of 50Mbps in 1080p60, or 72 to 80Mbps in All-I Frame at 1080/24p or 30p, both using H.264 compression. (All the frame and bit rates of AVCHD 2.0 are also supported.) Its maximum ISO, in both still and video mode, is now 12,800. This gives the GH3 virtually the same performance as the GH2 with hacked firmware, without requiring hacking or voiding the camera's warranty. In order to provide better performance while maintaining the camera's reliability and stability, the GH3 has a new three-core Venus 7 CPU.

The GH3 also supports timecode in H.264 and AVCHD modes, and it has a headphone jack for audio monitoring, in addition to a microphone jack and manual control over audio levels. The HDMI out can be configured with overlays on or off, so it can be used for monitoring and with an external recorder. (It's not clear whether the GH2's HDMI quirks, which made it unusable in many cases with external recorders, have been fixed in the GH3.)

The GH3 is no slouch as a still camera, either:
  • 16 Megapixel sensor
  • 1.7 million dot OLED viewfinder
  • 614K dot 3" OLED touchscreen display
  • Autofocus speed of .07 seconds
  • 6 fps maximum continuous frame rate
  • Memory card slot for SD, SDHC and SDXC cards
  • A fully sealed magnesium alloy frame
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
The U.S. price of the GH3, $1,300 for body only, is comparable to the price of the GH2 when it was first launched, but the GH3 is much more camera. The GH2 became the budget "go-to" DSLR-style camera for many cinematographers, even though its Micro Four-Thirds sensor is smaller than APS-C or full-frame. With its faster native bitrate, and a faster CPU that hackers may well be able to tune for even more outrageous performance, the GH3 is likely to supplant the GH2 as the bargain camera of choice for cinematographers.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Surviving first contact...with your customers

I'm watching Sunday afternoon U.S. football on television, and there's no football without commercials. In the case of the game I'm watching, the commercials are primarily for beer and the television network's new shows. The purpose of the commercials is to get you to buy the products or watch the shows. Endless effort and enormous expense goes into the commercials--who they're targeted to, what their messages are, and what they look and sound like.

The problem is that no commercial, no matter how good, will help your products and services to survive first contact--the point at which the customer actually buys the product, uses the service or watches the show. Movie studios have learned that the hard way. Heavy advertising and promotion increase the odds of getting a good opening day--at which point advertising ceases to be effective, and word of mouth takes over. If viewers love the movie, they'll text message their friends and tweet about it, and ticket sales will increase over the weekend. On the other hand, if they hate it, they'll send out text messages and tweets, ticket sales will go down over the weekend, and then collapse the following week.

The same thing happens every day in every product category. Advertising can stimulate the first purchase or the first viewing, but it can't get people who didn't like it after they tried it to buy more, nor can it stop them from telling their friends, acquaintances and followers. That's why your focus should be on the buyer's first experience with your product or service, not the effort to get them to buy it in the first place.

That may sound dangerously like the "build a better mousetrap" argument, but it's not. I'm not saying that you don't have to do promotion, but rather, the far more important thing is your customer's first experience with your product or service. The reason is that word of mouth is becoming the driving force for future sales of just about everything, and unhappy current customers equal fewer future customers. If you've got a restaurant, your food and service had better be good. If you're selling cars, the cars that your customers buy had better be reliable, and when they need service, the service had better be good. If you're trying to get people to watch your new television show, that first episode had better be great.

Advertising and promotion won't help you to survive first contact with new customers, and it won't save you from bad word of mouth. All it will do is increase the chance that you'll make that first sale. The rest is up to you.
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Friday, September 14, 2012

What happens if Apple's announcements are no longer news?

This was the week of Apple's big iPhone 5 reveal, and it was like many of Apple's press announcements: A packed Yerba Buena Center; Apple executives describing product features using superlatives usually reserved for...well, for Apple product launches; and the usual product videos, including designer Jony Ive talking about how incredible his latest design is. There was also the endless parade of television news trucks lining the streets around Moscone Center, and the ever-increasing number of liveblogs covering the events AS! THEY! HAPPENED! What there wasn't was much actual news, and that could be a problem for future Apple product launches.

As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, virtually every detail of the iPhone 5 had been leaked before the event. The iPhone checked all the boxes on the "must have" feature list--bigger screen, faster processor, better camera and LTE--but there wasn't anything groundbreaking about its design or functionality. If you didn't know that the iPhone 5's bigger screen can accommodate an additional row of icons, it would be hard to tell the iPhone 5 apart from the 4 or 4S at a glance. (Update, September 23, 2012: The iPhone 5 is actually fairly easy to tell apart from the 4 and 4S, even when it's not turned on. Apple has done away with all the chrome trim on the phone, and the back is metal, not glass.)

In addition, the presentation was long. There was everything you'd expect in an iPhone rollout, followed by everything you'd expect in an iPod rollout. I suspect that Apple tied the two announcements together in order to get more attention for the new iPods, but if the company is actually planning to launch a smaller iPad next month, it probably wouldn't have hurt anything to announce the iPods at that event.

The CJR picked up on some of the liveblogs' sense of disappointment: They noted that Engadget's coverage reached parody levels, with 78 exclamation points in 122 minutes. The New York Times' coverage was deemed sober, although assigning four reporters to the story was overkill. The Wall Street Journal also avoided getting over-excited.

Some observers say that Apple is most likely going down the same path with the iPhone that it followed with the iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air product lines: It's optimized the physical design of the iPhone, and future changes will be more incremental than revolutionary. That makes sense and may very well be true, but you rarely see the huge press turnout and coverage for Apple's Mac product announcements that you see for the iPhone and iPad.

It's true that customers don't seem to find the iPhone 5 disappointing--it sold out of its first week's allotment in 30 minutes, and that was with pre-ordering starting at 3:01 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S. However, what matters in this case is whether the press sees a lot of news value in Apple's future announcements. If all the major news leaks before the announcements, the story is going to become what Apple was still able to keep secret, not what it announces. Given that Apple has so many production partners, keeping new products under wraps will only get harder.

Apple's had an enormous advantage over its competitors because it could count on at least $100 million in free publicity for each launch from the world's biggest media outlets, processed through news organizations in order to give it an extra level of authority. If Apple's announcements lose their newsworthiness, they'll also lose their impact. Even if Apple's management figures out how to go back to the CIA-like levels of security the company's product launches had in the past, its "reality distortion field" may be gone for good.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sony's A99 full-frame DSLR is official

According to Digital Photography Review, Sony has officially announced its first full-frame DSLR in four years--the A99. Technically, the A99 isn't a DSLR, because it uses the transparent mirror technology of Sony's other Alpha cameras. Sony claims that its mirror design enables the A99 to be the lightest full-frame DSLR on the market (1.79 lb. including batteries.) Instead of an optical viewfinder, it has a 2.4 Megapixel OLED viewfinder. It's also got a 1.23 Megapixel LCD display with hinges that allow it to be tilted, swiveled and reversed (it also makes great julienne fries.) As with all Alpha cameras, it's got a Sony A lens mount. The A99 has a 24MP sensor with dual phase detection auto-focus systems. It can output 14-bit RAW images with an ISO range of 100-25,600. The A99 can shoot up to 6 frames per second in burst mode, and has a built-in GPS. Storage options are Memory Stick PRO Duo and PRO-HG Duo, and SD, SDHC and SDXC cards.

On the video side, the A99 fully implements AVCHD 2.0, with frame rates up to 1080p60 at 28Mbps and 1080i60 at 24 Mbps. It also outputs uncompressed video over its HDMI interface to an external recorder or monitor. The A99 has microphone inputs and a headphone output, and an optional stereo XLR adapter connects to the camera's intelligent hot shoe. A "silent control dial" next to the lens allows a variety of settings to be changed without bumping the camera during recording.

The A99 will be available in October at approximately $2,800 for body only; the XLR adapter will priced at $800 and will also be available in October. I can certainly understand Sony's decision not to burden the design of the A99 with XLR inputs for customers who only plan to use it for still photography, but $800 for the XLR adapter seems steep to me--that's almost a third of the price of the camera itself.

If you already own an A900 and are looking for a replacement, or you've got a collection of A-mount lenses and want to upgrade to full-frame, the A99 will be your obvious choice. For other buyers, however, side-by-side testing against comparable models from Canon and Nikon over the next few weeks and months will reveal the A99's strengths and weaknesses.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wishful thinking: "Silicon Valley Will Write The Next Big Check For Original Video Content"

At TechCrunch's Disrupt Conference today, Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey's partner in Trigger Street, a motion picture and television production company, said that "...Silicon Valley will likely become a major funding source for original content soon. For a company like Google, after all, offering a few million dollars to produce the next episode of a show like Mad Men and to put it on YouTube is pocket change." Perhaps, but that in no way means that it would be money well spent.

For decades, Hollywood producers and movie studios have solicited investment from people outside the entertainment business. The "term of art" for this kind of investment is "stupid money." Producers and studios go from country to country, convincing government leaders that tax breaks and credits for investment in films would results in thousands of jobs, not to mention great publicity for their countries. That's why you see credits for production funds you've never heard of and production sites far from Los Angeles in the end titles of movies. Germany, South Korea, Canada and the U.K. are just some of the countries that have been tapped for production money and tax credits over the last two decades. Almost every U.S. state has offered some form of movie production tax credits or incentives at one time or another. These programs dry up as lawmakers learn that the jobs created and revenues generated don't compensate for lost tax revenues. Producers look for more stupid money elsewhere, and the cycle repeats.

Individuals who invest in movies very rarely get a positive return on their investments. Entertainment industry accounting makes integral calculus look like simple arithmetic. Once money becomes available, a seemingly limitless number of hands reach out for it. Last week, for example, director Christopher Nolan had to file suit against his current and former talent agencies so that a court could decide which ones he must pay commissions to, as well as how much and on what projects. No one in their right mind would build a movie or television production system, or rules for employment, as they work today.

The approach that YouTube has taken with its channels makes sense. YouTube originally funded each of 100 channels with up to $1 million (some channels were rumored to have received as much as $2 million.) That's enough to "move the needle," but not enough for anyone to get rich on. The funding was an advance on advertising revenues, not an unrestricted grant. As YouTube gets actual performance numbers on each channel, it's offering additional advances to some, cutting others off and identifying new candidates for funding.

I have very real doubts about Netflix's original content strategy, which has funded House of Cards, a television series produced for Netflix by Trigger Street. The network television production model calls for hundreds of scripts, which are culled down into dozens of pilots, which are further cut to become the new shows for the next television season. Even at the most successful network, the success rate is pretty low. Netflix is cutting out most of the process and is going directly to production on the basis of scripts and the people involved. Choosing on the basis of name talent is far from a sure bet--for example, look at HBO's Luck, which had Dustin Hoffman in the lead and the directing/writing team of Michael Mann and David Milch. It was a disaster, and not just because three horses died during production.

If you want to invest in a movie so that you can rub shoulders with stars or see your name in the credits, and you have some "mad money" lying around that you can afford to lose, then by all means enjoy yourself. On the other hand, if you're investing in content in order to generate revenue, you've got to be a lot more systematic and much more hard-nosed.
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Friday, September 07, 2012

Blackmagic Design adds Micro Four-Thirds mount option to its Blackmagic Cinema Camera

At the IBC conference in Amsterdam, Blackmagic Design announced the Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT with a Micro Four-Thirds lens mount. Unlike the EF mount in the original model that supports lenses with auto-focus and auto-iris, the MFT's lens mount is "passive," meaning that Micro Four-Thirds lenses must be used in manual mode. That's the drawback, but the advantage is that the new model can use PL mount (and other) adapters, opening the camera to a much wider range of lenses. The new MFT model will be priced the same as the original BCC: $2,995 (U.S.). Blackmagic Design will work with customers and dealers who've ordered the original model but would prefer to substitute the MFT model.

The lack of automatic controls may not be all that big a deal: Canon's C300 doesn't support auto-focus or auto-iris, but that doesn't seem to have hurt its sales. In addition, as I've written before, the BCC isn't a "run & gun" camera. The trade-off of automatic controls for support of PL mount adapters will probably be fine for the BCC's target audience.

According to Blackmagic Design, it's slowing down production while it "sorts out" manufacturing and firmware issues related to the new model, which it expects to start delivering in December. If you have an order in for the original BCC and you'd prefer the new MFT model, I'd suggest that you contact your dealer today and let them know.
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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Amazon focuses on Apple with its new Kindle Fires

Earlier today, Amazon announced a refresh of its entire line of Kindle eReaders and tablets. The company announced a new eReader, a lower price for its entry-level eReader, an improved version of the Kindle Fire, and a new Kindle Fire HD line with three models. Perhaps even more interesting than the devices themselves is that Amazon said that it's services, not "gadgets", that are important, and it's explicitly positioning its devices as the delivery mechanism for its services. Amazon's metric for success is how many goods and services it sells through its devices, not how many devices it sells.

Here are the details:
  • The Kindle Paperwhite is the new eReader. It's got a sharper, front-lit display with 25% more contrast and 212 ppi resolution (62% more pixels than before,) with a capacitive touch screen. Amazon claims that the display and lighting systems are both proprietary. The lighting system took four years of R&D and uses a flattened-out optical fiber for even illumination, instead of the discreet LEDs that B&N uses. Amazon claims 8 weeks of battery life. The eReader is 9.1mm thick. The Wi-Fi version is priced at $119, pre-orders begin today and it ships October 1st. The 3G version is priced at $179, same availability.
  • The "$69 Kindle"--that's what they're calling it--appears to be the current $79 ad-supported model, just marked down $10. Pre-orders begin today, ships September 14th.
  • The updated Kindle Fire has a faster processor, 1GB of RAM (vs. 512KB in the original model,) 40% better performance, a front-facing camera and longer battery life. Price is $159 (down from $199), and it ships September 14th.
  • The Kindle Fire HD line is entirely new, and it comes in three models that will ship on November 20th:
    • A 7" model for $199
    • An 8.9" model for $299
    • The same 8.9" model with 4G LTE and twice as much memory for $499, compared to $729 for the roughly comparable new iPad
  • All three models use the same basic hardware: The touch screen is laminated directly to the display for 25% less glare and better contrast. They use TI OMAP 4400 series processors--4460 in the 7" tablet, 4470 in the 8.9" model (Jeff Bezos claims that they're better than the Tegra 3, but they only have dual cores vs. the Nexus 7's Tegra 3 with quad cores.) They have built-in stereo speakers with Dolby Digital Plus, and also have Bluetooth and HDMI out, along with front-facing HD cameras and Skype. The tablets have both 2.4 GHz and 5GHz 802.11n, with dual antennas for better reception and speed--Amazon claims that the tablet's Wi-Fi speed is 41% faster than that of the new iPad. 
  • The new 7" Kindle Fire HD has 1280x800 resolution, while the 8.9" models have 1920x1200 resolution, 254 ppi IPS displays. By comparison, the new iPad's Retina display is 9.7", 2048x1536, 264 ppi resolution. Given the slightly smaller screen on the Kindle Fire HD, most users won't be able to tell the difference in resolution. The screen of the 8.9" model is big enough for two-page magazine (and, presumably, eBook) displays.
  • The 7" and base 8.9" models ship with 16GB of memory; the Kindle Fire HD with 4G LTE ships with 32GB of memory.
  • Buyers of the 4G LTE model can sign up 250MB/month of data usage, 20GB of cloud storage and a $10 Appstore credit, for $49.99/year. (Given that Amazon is encouraging customers to keep all their eBooks and media in the cloud, that 250MB is likely to run out pretty quickly.)
  • The updated Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD models run a customized version of Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich.) The original Kindle Fire apparently will not be able to upgrade to the new version of the operating system.
  • According to Engadget, the physical design and build quality of all the new Kindle Fire models is far better than that of the original Kindle Fire.
  • The user interface has been updated, and some elements, like the "wood bookcase", are gone. The Kindle's "X-Ray" feature for books has been extended to movies (via IMDB, which Amazon owns), audiobooks and eTextbooks..There's now built-in Facebook and Twitter support, and many improvements to email. A new FreeTime feature offers much more extensive parental controls--parents can specify when and how long their kids can read books, play games, watch video, etc. And, parents can set different limits for each child. The screen's background turns blue when the tablet's in FreeTime mode.
  • Audible's 100K audiobooks have been added to Amazon eBookstore. Whispersync for Voice allows audiobooks on multiple devices to be synchronized--stop listening on one device, open the audiobook on another device and start listening right where you left off. The Audible audiobooks will display their text at the same time on Kindle tablets, with the text synchronized with the narration, and with real-time highlighting (called Immersion Reading.) Amazon is also launching Whispersync for games--synchronizes game levels between multiple devices.
  • Amazon is launching a collection of serialized eBooks as Kindle Serials. Customers can buy a Serial once and get all the installments. Each new installment is automatically appended to the existing portion, and there's support for reader discussion. The product line is launching with eight titles. $1.99 each, and Amazon is making Dickens' Pickwick Club and Oliver Twist available for free.
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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Livestream jumps into the production switcher business with the HD500

Earlier today, Livestream announced its first entry into the portable production switcher market. The HD500 is targeted directly against NewTek's Tricaster 455, at about half the price--$8,500 (U.S.) vs. $15,995 for the 455 without a control surface. Shipments will begin on October 15th. The HD500's features include:
  • Live video mixing for multi-camera productions (1 M/E bus)
  • Live audio mixing
  • Graphics overlay and titling (2 graphics & titling channels)
  • Digital video recorder (DVR) and player (two sources, 10 hour capacity at 1080i 100Mbps MJPEG AVI)
  • One-click live streaming in HD multi-bitrate to Livestream's service
  • Integrated multiviewer and 17" 1920 x 1200 display
  • 4 HD/SD SDI inputs with live video out; 5 inputs when configured for streaming or recording
  • 5 video outputs (HD/SD SDI, HDMI, Component, Composite and S-Video)

The HD500 is based on a portable workstation running Windows 7 that's small enough to be brought on-board airplanes as carry-on luggage. It's got an Intel Core i7 3.2 GHz six-core CPU, integrated 17" display and multiple PCI slots--all of which are taken up by the display controller and off-the-shelf Blackmagic Design DeckLink cards for video I/O. The software was written by Livestream's own development team.

According to Max Haot, Livestream's CEO and co-founder, the HD500's design was based on input from Livestream's own in-house video production team, which produces hundreds of live streamed events each year for clients. The team has used a variety of production switchers over the years, including Tricasters and Blackmagic Design's ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E. They wanted a highly portable, all-in-one production switcher that would be simple to use.

The HD500 leaves out some of the features in the Tricaster 455, such as virtual sets, because Livestream's production team found that it never used them. In addition, there's no dedicated control surface available for the HD500, although Livestream may offer one as an option in the future.

Livestream's goal with the HD500 is to make it easier and less expensive to produce live video events, which will draw in more clients and revenues. To that end, the company plans to unbundle its switcher software in Q1 2013 and make it available to its customers for free. A paid version will support streaming services from competitors. Haot also believes that the HD500's price and features will appeal to companies using other streaming services--its internal encoder is dedicated to Livestream, but even with an external encoder, the package cost will still be below that of the Tricaster 455. Haot also made clear that the HD500 is only the first in a family of hardware switchers planned by Livestream.

One concern I have is Livestream's plan for product repairs. The company offers phone support seven days a week, 12 hours a day, but if a problem with a customer's HD500 can't be resolved by over-the-phone troubleshooting, the entire device has to be shipped back to Livestream's manufacturing partner for repair. There's no field repair option and no local dealers to contact for an emergency hardware loan. Livestream doesn't want users to open up the switcher to attempt their own repairs, and only two months of phone support are included in the purchase price. If a HD500 breaks down at a live production site, shipping the switcher back for repair won't be an acceptable option.

Another concern is the quality and reliability of Livestream's switching software. NewTek has been making Tricasters since 2005; that gives them a lot of time to have worked out the bugs. By comparison, this is Livestream's first go at a broadcast-quality production switcher. It's inevitable that features will be missing or poorly implemented, and that there will be bugs in the software. Those issues will get worked out over time...but do you want to be the one who first runs into them during a live production? If I were in the market for a switcher, I'd probably let Livestream's software mature for 6 to 12 months before I'd buy.

The HD500 is a compelling all-in-one switcher--but there are an ever-increasing number of options for buyers. More than ever, it's important to clearly understand how you're going to use your switcher, how you're going to connect it to cameras, the rest of your video chain, and (for streaming) the Internet, and which streaming service (or services) you plan to use, before you buy.

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Monday, September 03, 2012

Bogus reviews and how to spot them

About a week ago, The New York Times wrote an article about someone who sold bogus positive book reviews that he posted under a variety of identities on Amazon, and presumably, other websites. His company lasted only a few months until it was "outed" by a disgruntled author who didn't like the review of her book that the company posted. The Times used this one company, and one piece of research, to insinuate that there's a torrent of fake book reviews on Amazon, and that all four and five star reviews should be considered to be fake unless proven otherwise.

The Times not only drew a sweeping conclusion from relatively scant evidence, but it also "buried the lede": The problem of fake reviews on the Internet pervades every product category, not just books. It also discounted the fact that fake reviews can be both positive and negative. I chalk up the Times' article to lazy reporting and sloppy editing, but there's a very real problem with fake reviews.

(Update, September 8, 2012: It does appear that Amazon is full of fake book reviews, but according to The Guardian, the practice isn't limited to self-published authors. Author Jeremy Duns figured out that best-selling crime author R.J. Ellory was posting breathtakingly positive reviews of his own books under the pseudonyms "Jelly Bean" and "Nicodemus Jones," and was trashing competing authors with 1-star reviews, including Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham. Ellory has since apologized, but I suspect that the only thing he's really sorry for was getting caught. The Guardian's article also notes other examples of best-selling authors getting caught giving themselves positive reviews, and in some cases, trashing their competitors. Amazon is going to lose a huge amount of credibility unless it comes up with a way to confirm the identities of reviewers. Publishers could also add clauses to their contracts that prohibit writers from posting reviews under any name other than their own or paying third parties to post reviews.)

It's important to keep in mind that reviews are inherently going to be more heavily distributed toward very positive and very negative ratings, because people are more motivated to review things that they're very happy or unhappy about. Think about going out for dinner to a modestly-priced restaurant and getting an "okay" meal at the price you expected. You're unlikely to write a review about that "meh" experience. On the other hand, what if you get one of the best meals you've ever eaten, or what if the food is bad, the service is worse and the night ends with the waiter spilling a hot cup of coffee in your lap? Either way, you're much more likely to write a review, and the review is likely to be very positive in the former case and very negative in the latter one. So don't automatically assume that great or terrible reviews are fakes.

There's been some research published on how to spot fake reviews. For example, MIT's Technology Review reported that researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook used the TripAdvisor site to come up with rules for identifying fake reviews. They started by assembling a group of "likely valid" reviewers--they'd written at least ten reviews, each review was more than a day or two apart, and their ratings didn't deviate too far from the average ratings for all hotels.

The researchers then compared reviews from its "likely valid" group with those of one-time reviewers to see if the one-time reviewers gave a significantly higher number of five-star ratings. They also looked at the ratio of high to low ratings given by different groups of reviewers, as well as sudden bursts of reviews (multiple reviews posted over a few days) that might indicate a deliberate marketing campaign. Then, they compared their results with a previous study they'd conducted, in which they hired people to write fake positive reviews, so that they could identify tell-tale clues such as use of too many superlatives. The researchers found that they could identify fake TripAdvisor reviews "in the wild" around 72% of the time.

The SUNY Stony Brook research focused on fake positive reviews, but a couple of years ago, Consumer Reports' The Consumerist website asked its readers for suggestions on how to spot both positive and negative fake reviews, and they came up with 30 "tells". Here are a few:

  • The reviewer only has a single review on the site.
  • There's little or no information about the reviewer in their site profile.
  • You can't find any information about the reviewer on other sites, such as LinkedIn.
  • The reviewer uses a pseudonym that has more than three numbers at the end.
  • Multiple reviews, either very positive or very negative, show up about the same subject in a very short period of time (a day, or a few days.)
  • The wording of multiple reviews is very similar.
  • The review uses the "official" name of the product or service. If it keeps using the official name over and over, it may be an attempt to game search engines.
  • There are no details, just a broad statement that the subject is great or terrible.
  • They use "marketing speak"--no one would write conversationally the way that the review is written.
  • There's a "conversion story"--the reviewer thought that they would hate the product or service, but then they tried it, and now they love it.
  • If the subject has multiple locations (such as a chain store or restaurant), the exact same review can be found for multiple locations.
  • The review is very negative about the subject and strongly recommends a competitor by name.
  • There's a link to the subject's website, or a third party's website, in the review.
  • The spelling and grammar in the review is poor--it suggests that the review may have been written by an offshore review mill.
Reviews can save you a lot of money and aggravation, but you have to look for obvious signs of fakery. A fake review can be worse than having no review at all.
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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Blackmagic's Cinema Camera: Not the volkskamera you were looking for

(Updated, September 9, 2012) After several months of delays, Blackmagic Design is starting to get production versions of its Cinema Camera into reviewers' hands. Over the last two weeks, Vincent LaforetFrank Glencairn and Philip Bloom have tested the BCC "right from the box," and they all have very definite impressions. I strongly suggest that you visit all three cinematographers' blogs to read their complete evaluations and see their footage and stills. Here's a summary of what they found:

Laforet wrote that the dynamic range of the BCC's sensor was almost identical to that of Canon's EOS 1DX, at a much lower price. However, the BCC sensor's size (slightly smaller than Micro Four-Thirds) and EF mount mean that the same lens used on a Canon DSLR will have a magnification factor of around 2.3X on the BCC. That means that you need much wider lenses in order to get the same framing using the BCC, and it puts more emphasis on the quality of the lens. In addition to being small, the BCC's sensor is comparatively slow--its maximum ISO rating is only 800 1600, but its maximum usable ISO is 800. That means that in low light situations, other cameras are likely to provide images with much less noise.

Laforet also noted that the BCC's form-factor makes it useless as a handheld camera--the optional handle offered by Blackmagic is more for show than for utility. To use the BCC, you'll need rails and a tripod or some sort of mounting rig. He wrote that the BCC could have been a great handheld camera with slightly different ergonomics and a built-in ND filter.

Laforet's findings were confirmed by Glencairn's test. He did a side-by-side test of the BCC with a Sony FS100 at ISO 800, and he found that the BCC's image was more "filmic" than the Sony. He much preferred the BCC's image, but wrote that the FS100 wins hands down at faster ISO speeds. Output from the BCC in Cinema DNG RAW mode was superb--sharp, with plenty of contrast. However, Glencairn's tests show that regardless of whether the BCC is used in ProRes 422 or RAW mode, its output HAS to be graded in order to be usable. That in part explains why Blackmagic provides a free copy of DaVinci Resolve with every BCC. Going back to Laforet, he makes the same point, and notes that the BCC's grading pipeline is not for the squeamish. RED users will be very familiar with the process, but BCC users don't have the equivalent of a RED Rocket card to speed up the conversion process.

Update, September 9th, 2012: Yesterday, cinematographer Philip Bloom posted an extensive video review of the BCC. Most of his conclusions echo those of the other two reviewers, but he added some additional points, including the following:
  • After in-house and field tests, he found that the BCC's battery life is less than two hours, even when the camera is on standby. That wouldn't be a problem, except that the BCC's battery is non-removable. Therefore, you have to use an external battery--but there's no easy way to mount an external battery, unless you use a rig.
  • In addition to having phono plugs instead of XLR connectors for its audio inputs, the BCC has no way to provide phantom power, which limits the microphones that can be used with the camera.
  • The LCD screen is much too reflective to be useful as a viewfinder, especially outside.
  • He believes that the new version of the camera with a Micro Four-Thirds mount is a much better choice, even with the limitation that lenses have to be used in fully manual mode. The new version allows a far wider range of lenses to be used (with adaptors), and dramatically decreases the cropping problem caused by the small size of the BCC's sensor.
So, according to these two three cinematographers, the BCC is a great camera for the money, but it requires a couple thousand dollars' worth of add-ons in order to be usable, as well as high-quality (read: expensive) lenses in order to get the best possible images. It's got a wide exposure range but a limited ISO range. It outputs great images in RAW mode, but the output has to be color-corrected in order to be usable.

The BCC is most definitely not a "run & gun" camera--it doesn't have the necessary ergonomics. It's not really a "beginner's" cinema camera, since grading is essential in order to get the best quality output. It's not the camera that you want to use if you don't know what kind of lighting you'll have to work with. It's not even as inexpensive as it first appears, because of the external gear necessary to make it useful (rig, external battery, external viewfinder/monitor and ND filter.)

If you can live with the BCC's limitations, it's still a great camera for the money--but it's not the camera that's going to "democratize" cinema production.
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