April 23, 2014

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Predictions for 2013

After a year’s hiatus, our annual predictions post is back! As usual, these predictions reflect the results of brainstorming among many affiliates and friends of the blog, so you should not attribute any prediction to any individual (including me–I’m just the scribe). Without further ado, the tech policy predictions for 2013:

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Predictions for 2010

Here are our predictions for 2010. These are based on input from Ari Feldman, Ed Felten, Alex Halderman, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Tim Lee, Paul Ohm, David Robinson, Dan Wallach, Harlan Yu, and Bill Zeller. Please note that individual contributors (including me) don’t necessarily agree with all of these predictions.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

(2) Federated DRM systems, such as DECE and KeyChest, will not catch on.

(3) Content providers will crack down on online sites that host unlicensed re-streaming of live sports programming. DMCA takedown notices will be followed by a lawsuit claiming actual knowledge of infringing materials and direct financial benefits.

(4) Major newspaper content will continue to be available online for free (with ads) despite cheerleading for paywalls by Rupert Murdoch and others.

(5) The Supreme Court will strike down pure business model patents in its Bilski opinion. The Court will establish a new test for patentability, rather than accepting the Federal Circuit’s test. The Court won’t go so far as to ban software patents, but the implications of the ruling for software patents will be unclear and will generate much debate.

(6) Patent reform legislation won’t pass in 2010. Calls for Congress to resolve the post-Bilski uncertainty will contribute to the delay.

(7) After the upcoming rulings in Quon (Supreme Court), Comprehensive Drug Testing (Ninth Circuit or Supreme Court) and Warshak (Sixth Circuit), 2010 will be remembered as the year the courts finally extended the full protection of the Fourth Amendment to the Internet.

(8) Fresh evidence will come to light of the extent of law enforcement access to mobile phone location-data, intensifying the debate about the status of mobile location data under the Fourth Amendment and electronic surveillance statutes. Civil libertarians will call for stronger oversight, but nothing will come of it by year’s end.

(9) The FTC will continue to threaten to do much more to punish online privacy violations, but it won’t do much to make good on the threats.

(10) The new Apple tablet will be gorgeous but expensive. It will be a huge hit only if it offers some kind of advance in the basic human interface, such as a really effective full-sized on-screen keyboard.

(11) The disadvantages of iTunes-style walled garden app stores will become increasingly evident. Apple will consider relaxing its restrictions on iPhone apps, but in the end will offer only rhetoric, not real change.

(12) Internet Explorer’s usage share will fall below 50 percent for the first time in a decade, spurred by continued growth of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari.

(13) Amazon and other online retailers will be forced to collect state sales tax in all 50 states. This will have little impact on the growth of their business, as they will continue to undercut local bricks-and-mortar stores on prices, but it will remove their incentive to build warehouses in odd places just to avoid having to collect sales tax.

(14) Mobile carriers will continue locking consumers in to long-term service contracts despite the best efforts of Google and the handset manufacturers to sell unlocked phones.

(15) Palm will die, or be absorbed by Research In Motion or Microsoft.

(16) In July, when all the iPhone 3G early adopters are coming off their two-year lock-in with AT&T, there will be a frenzy of Android and other smartphone devices competing for AT&T’s customers. Apple, no doubt offering yet another version of the iPhone at the time, will be forced to cut its prices, but will hang onto its centralized app store. Android will be the big winner in this battle, in terms of gained market share, but there will be all kinds of fragmentation, with different carriers offering slightly different and incompatible variants on Android.

(17) Hackers will quickly sort out how to install their own Android builds on locked-down Android phones from all the major vendors, leading to threatened or actual lawsuits but no successful legal action taken.

(18) Twitter will peak and begin its decline as a human-to-human communication medium.

(19) A politican or a candidate will commit a high-profile “macaca”-like moment via Twitter.

(20) Facebook customers will become increasingly disenchanted with the company, but won’t leave in large numbers because they’ll have too much information locked up in the site.

(21) The fashionable anti-Internet argument of 2010 will be that the Net has passed its prime, supplanting the (equally bogus) 2009 fad argument that the Internet is bad for literacy.

(22) One year after the release of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive, the effort will be seen as a measured success. Agencies will show eagerness to embrace data transparency but will find the mechanics of releasing datasets to be long and difficult. Privacy– how to deal with personal information available in public data– will be one major hurdle.

(23) The Open Government agenda will be the bright spot in the Administration’s tech policy, which will otherwise be seen as a business-as-usual continuation of past policies.

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2009 Predictions Scorecard

As usual, we’ll kick off the new year by reviewing the predictions we made for the previous year. Here now, our 2009 predictions, in italics, with hindsight in ordinary type.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

By tradition this is our first prediction, and it has always been accurate. Guess what our first 2010 prediction will be? Verdict: right.

(2) Patent reform legislation will come closer to passage in this Congress, but will ultimately fail as policymakers wait to determine the impact of the Bilski case’s apparent narrowing of business model patentability.

Everyone agrees that patent reform is needed, but no specific bill is close to passage, and everyone is waiting for the Supreme Court’s Bilski decision. Verdict: right.

(3) As lawful downloading of music and movies continues to grow, consumer satisfaction with lossy formats will decline, and higher-priced options that offer higher fidelity will begin to predominate. At least one major online music service will begin to offer music in a lossless format.

People seem to accept lossy formats. Verdict: wrong.

(4) The RIAA’s “graduated response” initiative will sputter and die because ISPs are unwilling to cut off users based on unrebutted accusations. Lawsuits against individual end-user infringers will quietly continue.

“Graduated response” has gotten lots of talk but hasn’t had much of a practical impact yet. Verdict: mostly right.

(5) The DOJ will bring criminal actions against big-time individual copyright infringers based on data culled from the server logs of a large “private” BitTorrent community.

I don’t think this happened. Verdict: wrong.

(6) Questions over the enforceability of free / open source software licenses will move closer to resolution.

Debate continued, but I don’t recall any major legal rulings on this issue. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(7) NebuAd and the regional ISPs recently sued for deploying NebuAd’s advertising system will settle with the class action plantiffs for an undisclosed sum. At least in part because of the lawsuit and settlement, no U.S. ISP will deploy a new NebuAd/Phorm-like system in 2009. Meanwhile, Phorm will continue to be successful with privacy regulators in the UK and will sign up reluctant ISPs there who are facing competitive pressure. Activists will raise strong objections to no avail.

NebuAd is now dead and Phorm appears to be in trouble. US ISPs steered clear of them after strong pushback from consumers and legislators. Phorm seemed to have some preliminary deals with ISPs in the UK, but it appears that they have not yet had a wide deployment there (since an early pilot program in 2007). Verdict: mostly right.

(8) The federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral argument in the case of U.S. v. Lori Drew, the Megan Meier/MySpace prosecution. By year’s end, the Ninth Circuit panel still will not have issued a decision, although after oral argument, the pundits will predict a 3-0 or 2-1 reversal of the conviction.

The Drew case did not reach the Ninth Circuit, because the original trial judge set aside the jury’s guilty verdict. Verdict: wrong.

(9) As a result of the jury’s guilty verdict in U.S. v. Lori Drew, dozens of plaintiffs will file civil lawsuits in 2009 alleging violations of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act premised on the theory that one can “exceed authorized access” or act “in excess of authorization” by violating Terms of Service. Thankfully, the Department of Justice won’t bring any other criminal cases premised on this theory, at least not until it sees how the Ninth Circuit rules.

Despite worries, we didn’t see many such lawsuits. The DoJ did not bring criminal cases. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(10) The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) will be the new DMCA. Many will argue that the law needs to be reformed, but this argument will struggle to gain traction with the lay public, notwithstanding the fact that lay users face potential liability for routine behaviors due to CFAA overbreadth.

This hasn’t happened, at least not yet. There are concerns about the CFAA, but the issue hasn’t gotten tracttion. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(11) An academic security researcher will face prosecution under the CFAA, anti wire tapping laws, or other computer intrusion statutes for violations that occurred in the process of research.

Thankfully, this didn’t happen. Verdict: wrong.

(12) An affirmative action lawsuit will be filed against a university, challenging the use of a software algorithm used in evaluating applicants.

Verdict: wrong.

(13) There will be lots of talk about net neutrality but no new legislation, as everyone waits to see how the Comcast/BitTorrent issue plays out in the courts.

There has been lots of talk but no legislation passed. The main action on net neutrality seems to be in the FCC. Verdict: right.

(14) The Obama administration will bring an atmosphere of antitrust enforcement to the IT industry, but no major cases will be brought in 2009.

The atmosphere is indeed more pro-enforcement. We almost made it to the end of the year without a major case being filed, but then the FTC brought a case against Intel in mid-December. Verdict: mostly right.

(15) The new administration will be seen as trying to “reboot” the FCC.

There are certainly changes at the FCC, but not a full-on reboot. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(16) One of the major American voting system manufacturers (Diebold/Premier, Sequoia, ES&S, or Hart InterCivic) will go out of business or be absorbed into one of its rivals.

ES&S bought Premier. This was one of our best calls. Verdict: correct.

(17) The federal voting machine certification regime will increasingly be seen as a failure. States will strengthen their own certification processes, and at least one major state will stop requiring federal certification. The failure of the federal process to certify systems or software patches in a timely fashion will be cited as a reason for this move.

Consensus is growing that the certification regime is expensive and ineffective. But not much has changed on the state level. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(18) Estonia and other countries will continue experimenting in real elections with online or mobile phone voting. They will claim that these trials are successful because “nothing went wrong.” Security analysts will continue to claim that these systems are fundamentally flawed and will continue to be ignored. Exactly the same thing will continue to happen with U.S. overseas and military voters.

Verdict: right.

(19) We’ll see the first clear-cut evidence of a malicious attack on a voting system fielded in a state or local election. This attack will exploit known flaws in a “toe in the water” test and vendors will say they fixed the flaw years ago and the new version is in the certification pipeline.

Thankfully, this didn’t happen. Verdict: wrong.

(20) U.S. federal government computers will suffer from at least one high-profile compromise by a foreign entity, leaking a substantial amount of classified or highly sensitive information abroad.

Such a breach probably happened — what are the odds that such a large number of computers could be secured continuously for a year — but I don’t recall a “high-profile” compromise. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(21) There will be one or more major Internet outages attributed to attacks on DNS, BGP, or other Internet plumbing that is immediately labeled an act of “cyber-warfare” or “cyber-terrorism.” The actual cause will be found to be the action of spammers or other professional Internet miscreants.

Thankfully, such attacks did not happen. Verdict: wrong.

(22) Present flaws in the web’s Certification Authority process, such as the MD5 issue or the leniency of some CAs in issuing certificates, will lead to regulation of the CA process. Among other things, there will be calls for restrictions on which CAs can issue certs for which Top Level Domains.

The CA process does have serious problems, but regulators have not stepped in. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(23) One or more major Internet services or top-tier network providers will experience prolonged failures and/or unrecoverable data severe enough that the company’s president ends up testifying before Congress about it.

The closest thing to this kind of failure was Danger’s loss of customer data. In the end, most of the data was recoverable; and no Congressional testimony occurred. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(24) Shortly after the start of the new administration, the TSA will quietly phase out the ban on flying with liquids or stop enforcing it in practice. The color-coded national caution levels (which have remained at “orange” forever) will be phased out.

Practical enforcement of the liquid ban became spotty. We still had to separate our liqud-baggie at the checkpoint, but in practice the TSA almost never complained about larger containers left in carry-ons. Of course, all this may have changed due to the attempted attack last week. The color-coded caution levels remained in place. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(25) All 20 of the top 20 U.S. newspapers by circulation will experience net reductions in their newsroom headcounts in 2009. At least 15 of the 20 will see weekday circulation decline by 15% or more over the course of the year. By the end of the year, at least one major U.S. city will lack a daily newspaper.

This one is tough to check exhaustively. Preliminary research shows headcount reductions at all major papers. Circulation fell at all of the top-20 papers that reported figures, but not by as much as we predicted. Half saw a 10% drop but only about a quarter saw a drop of 15% or more. We’re not sure if there’s a major U.S. city without a daily — it probably depends on what counts as “major”. On the whole, things were bad but not quite as bad as we predicted. Verdict: mostly right.

(26) Advertising spending in older media will plummet, but online ad spending will be roughly level, as advertisers warm to online ads whose performance is more easily measured. Traditional media will be forced to offer advertisers fire sale prices, and the ratio of content to advertising in many traditional media outlets will increase.

This one is hard to evaluate but is consistent with anecdotal reports. Verdict: mostly right.

(27) An embarrassing leak of personal data will emerge from one or more of the social networking firms (e.g., Facebook), leading Congress to consider legislation that probably won’t solve the problem and will never actually reach the floor for a vote.

We didn’t see an accidental leak, but Facebook’s privacy changes late in the year are a lesser version of what we predicted. It’s not clear yet what if anything Congress will do. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(28) Facebook will be sold for $4 billion and Mark Zuckerberg will step down as CEO.

Verdict: wrong.

(29) Web 2.0 startups will not be hammered by the economic downtown. In fact, web 2.0 innovation may prove to be countercyclical. Costs are controllable: today’s workstyles don’t require lavish office space, marketing can be viral, and pay-as-you-go computing services eliminate the need for big upfront investments in infrastructure. Laid off big-company workers and refugees from the financial world will keep skilled wages low. The surge in innovation will be real, but its effects will mostly be felt in future years.

It’s hard to judge this, but I think it was right. Innovation continued to be robust, even though investment capital was (relatively) scarce. Verdict: right.

(30) The Blu-ray format will increasingly be seen as a failure as customers rely more on online streaming.

Blu-ray growth has been disappointing, but streaming of movies has not shown as much growth as we predicted. Verdict: mostly right.

(31) Emboldened by Viacom’s example against Time Warner, TV network owners will increasingly demand higher payments from cable companies with the threat of moving content online instead. Cable companies will attempt to more heavily limit the content that network owners can host on Hulu and other sites.

Verdict: right.

(32) The present proliferation of incompatible set-top boxes that aim to connect your TV to the Internet will lead to the establishment of a huge industry consortium with players from three major interest groups (box builders, content providers, software providers), reminiscent of the now-defunct SDMI consortium, and with many of the same members. In 2009, they will generate a variety of press releases but will accomplish nothing.

An initiative called DECE tried to do exactly this, with the predicted results. Verdict: right.

(33) A hot Christmas item will be a cheap set-top box that allows normal people to download, organize, and view video and audio podcasts in their own living rooms. This product will work with all of the major free online sources of audio and video, and a few of the paid sources.

This prediction made a certain amount of market sense but, realistically, there would have been no way to negotiate the necessary permissions. Verdict: wrong.

(34) Internet Explorer’s usage share will fall below 50 percent for the first time in a decade, spurred by continued growth of Firefox and Safari and deals with OEMs to pre-load Google Chrome.

IE’s share is falling but is still above 60%. Chrome didn’t get many (any?) OEM deals. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(35) Somebody besides Apple will sell an iPod clone that’s a drop-in replacement for a real iPod, complete with support for iTunes DRM, video playback, and so forth. Apple will sue (or threaten to sue), but won’t be able to stop distribution of this product.

Verdict: wrong.

(36) Apple will release a netbook, which will be a souped-up iPhone with an 8″ screen and folding keyboard. It will sell for $899.

This didn’t happen. Instead, we will apparently get the long-rumored Apple tablet computer, a souped-up iPhone with a 8-10″ screen, selling for $800 or so. Verdict: wrong.

(37) No white space devices will be approved for use by the FCC. Submitted spectrum sensing devices will fare well in both laboratory and field tests, but approval will be delayed politically by the anti-white space lobby.

Verdict: right.

(38) More and more Internet traffic will encrypted, as concern grows about eavesdropping, content modification, filtering, and security attacks.

Concern about traffic modification is growing, but we haven’t seen much growth in encryption. Verdict: mostly wrong.

The bottom line: 9 right, 6 mostly right, 12 mostly wrong, 11 wrong. Our goal was to make bolder predictions than in previous years, and we did succeed in that respect. Our accuracy suffered accordingly. Interesting, provocative predictions are rarely safe, but still I would have preferred a higher success rate.

Stay tuned for our 2010 predictions.

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The Future of Smartphone Platforms

In 1985, I got my very first home computer: a Commodore Amiga 1000. At the time, it was awesome: great graphics, great sound, “real” multitasking, and so forth. Never mind that you spent half your life shuffling floppy disks around. Never mind that I kept my head full of Epson escape codes to use with my word processing program to get what I wanted out of my printer. No, no, the Amiga was wonderful stuff.

Let’s look at the Amiga’s generation. Starting with the IBM PC in 1981, the PC industry was in the midst of the transition from 8-bit micros (Commodore 64, Apple 2, Atari 800, BBC Micro, TI 99/4a, etc.) to 16/32-bit micros (IBM PC, Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes, etc.). These new machines each ran completely unrelated operating systems, and there was no consensus as which would be the ultimate winner. In 1985, nobody would have declared the PC’s victory to have been inevitable. Regardless, we all know how it worked out: Apple developed a small but steady market share, PCs took over the world (sans IBM), and the other computers faded away. Why?

The standard argument is “network effects.” PCs (and to a lesser extent Macs) developed sufficient followings to make them attractive platforms for developers, which in turn made them attractive to new users, which created market share, which created resources for future hardware developments, and on it went. The Amiga, on the other hand, became popular only in specific market niches, such as video processing and editing. Another benefit on the PC side was that Microsoft enabled clone shops, from Compaq to Dell and onward, to battle each other with low prices on commodity hardware. Despite the superior usability of a Mac or the superior graphics and sound of an Amiga, the PC came away the winner.

What about cellular smartphones then? I’ve got an iPhone. I have friends with Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry devices. When the Palm Pre comes out, it should gain significant market share as well. I’m sure there are people out there who love their Symbian or OpenMoko phones. The level of competition, today, in the smartphone world bears more than a passing resemblance to the competition in the mid-80′s PC market. So who’s going to win?

If you believe that the PCs early lead and widespread adoption by business was essential to its rise, then you could expect the Blackberry to win out. If you believe that the software/hardware coming from separate vendors was essential, then you’d favor Windows Mobile or Android. If you’re looking for network effects, look no farther than the iPhone. If you’re looking for the latest, coolest thing, then the Palm Pre sure does look attractive.

I’ll argue that this time will be different, and it’s the cloud that’s going to win. Right now, what matters to me, with my iPhone, is that I can get my email anywhere, I can make phone calls, and I can do basic web surfing. I occasionally use the GPS maps, or even watch a show purchased from the iTunes Store, but if you took those away, it wouldn’t change my life much. I’ve got pages of obscure apps, but none of them really lock me into the platform. (Example: Shazam is remarkably good at recognizing songs that it hears, but the client side of it is a very simple app that they could trivially port to any other smartphone.) On the flip side, I’m an avid consumer of Google’s resources (Gmail, Reader, Calendar, etc.). I would never buy a phone that I couldn’t connect to Google. Others will insist on being able to connect to their Exchange Server.

At the end of the day, the question isn’t whether a given smartphone interoperates with your friend’s phones, but whether it interoperates with your cloud services. You don’t need an Android to get a good mobile experience with Google, and you don’t need a Windows Mobile phone to get a good mobile experience with Exchange. Leaving one smartphone and adopting another one is, if anything, easier than transitioning with a traditional not-smartphone, since you don’t have to monkey as much with moving your address book around. As such, I think it’s reasonable to predict, in ten years, that we’ll still have at least one smartphone vendor per major cellular carrier, and perhaps more.

If we have further consolidation in the carrier market, that would put pressure on the smartphone vendors to cut costs, which could well lead to consolidation of the smartphone vendors. We could certainly also imagine carriers pushing on the smartphone vendors to include or omit particular features. We see plenty of that already. (Example: can you tether your laptop to a Palm Pre via Bluetooth? The answer seems to be a moving target.) Historically, the U.S. carriers are somewhat infamous for going out of their way to restrict what phones can do. Now, that seems to be mostly fixed, and for that, at least, we can thank Apple.

Let a thousand smartphones bloom? I sure hope so.

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Hulu abandons Boxee—now what?

In our last installment, I detailed the trials and tribulations of my attempt to integrate legal, Internet-sourced video into my home theater via a hacked AppleTV, running Boxee, getting its feed from Hulu.

One day later (!), Hulu announced it was all over.

Later this week, Hulu’s content will no longer be available through Boxee. While we never had a formal relationship with Boxee, we are under no illusions about the likely Boxee user response from this move. This has weighed heavily on the Hulu team, and we know it will weigh even more so on Boxee users.

Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence — bumps and all — we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via Hulu.com and our many distribution partner websites.

(emphasis mine)

On Boxee’s blog, they wrote:

two weeks ago Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee. we tried (many times) to plead the case for keeping Hulu on boxee, but on Friday of this week, in good faith, we will be removing it. you can see their blog post about the issues they are facing.

At least I’m not to blame. Clearly, those who own content are threatened by the ideas we discussed before. Why overpay for cable when you can get the three shows you care about from Hulu for free?

Also interesting to note is the acknowledgment that there was no formal relationship between Hulu and Boxee. That’s the power of open standards. Hulu was publishing bits. Boxee was consuming those bits. The result? An integrated system, good enough to seriously consider dropping your cable TV subscription. Huzzah.

Notable by its absence: Hulu content is also supported on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 via PlayOn, which serves pretty much the same niche as Boxee. Similarly, there’s an XBMC Hulu plugin (recall that Boxee is based on the open-source XBMC project). We don’t know whether Hulu will continue to work with these other platforms or not. Hulu seems to be taking the approach of asking Boxee nicely to walk away. Will they ask the other projects to pull their Hulu support as well? Will all of those projects actually agree to pull the plug or will Hulu be forced to go down the failed DRM road?

It’s safe to predict that it won’t be pretty. My AppleTV can run XBMC just as well as it can run Boxee, which naturally returns us to the question of the obsolescence of cable TV.

There’s a truism that, if your product is going to become obsolete, you should be the one who makes it obsolete. Example: hardwired home telephones are going away. In rich countries, people use their cell phone so much that they eventually notice that they don’t need the landline any more. In poor countries, the cost of running wires is too high, so it’s cheaper to deploy cellular phones. Still, guess who runs the cell phone networks? It’s pretty much the same companies who run the wired phone networks. They make out just fine (except, perhaps, with international calling, where Skype and friends provide great quality for effectively nil cost).

Based on what I’ve observed, it’s safe to predict that cable TV, satellite TV, and maybe even over-the-air TV, are absolutely, inevitably, going to be rendered obsolete by Internet TV. Perhaps they can stave off the inevitable by instituting a la carte pricing plans, so I could get the two cable channels I actually care about and ignore the rest. But if they did that, their whole business model would be smashed to bits.

For my prediction to pan out, we have to ask whether the Internet can handle all that bandwidth. As an existence proof, it’s worth pointing out that I can also get AT&T U-verse for a price competitive with my present Comcast service. AT&T bumps up your DSL to around 30Mb/sec, and you get an HD DVR that sucks your shows down over your DSL line. They’re presumably using some sort of content distribution network to keep their bandwidth load reasonable, and the emphasis is on real-time TV channel watching, which lowers their need to store bits in the CDN fabric. Still, it’s reasonable to see how U-verse could scale to support video on demand with Hulu or Netflix’s full library of titles.

U-verse does a good enough job of pretending to be just like cable that it’s completely uninteresting to me. But if their standards were open and free of DRM, then third parties, like TiVo or Boxee, could build compatible boxes and we’d really have something interesting. I’d drop my cable for that.

(One of my colleagues has U-verse, and he complains that, when his kids watch TV, he can feel the Internet running slower. “Hey you kids, can you turn off the TV? I’m trying to do a big download.” It’s the future.)

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TiVo, AppleTV, Boxee, and the future of HD television delivery

I don’t watch as much TV as I once did. Yet, I’m still paying Comcast every month, as they’re the only provider who will sell me HD service compatible with my TiVo-HD. Sadly, Comcast is far from ideal. I’m regularly frustrated at their inability to debug their signal quality problems. (My ABC-HD and PBS-HD signals are right on the edge, in terms of signal quality, so any slight degradation makes those channels unwatchable through the MPEG block errors, which seems to happen on an irregular basis.) Comcast customer service wants me to sit around all day waiting for a tech to come out when the problem has nothing whatsoever to do with my house. When I’ve attempted to report the signal strength measurements I’ve taken and how they vary from channel to channel, I’ve found I might as well be speaking to a brick wall.

Yes, I know I could put an old-school antenna on the roof and feed it into my TiVo. That would do pretty good for the local channels, but then why am I paying Comcast at all? Answer: for the handful of shows that we watch from cable channels. More than one person has asked me why I don’t just download these shows online and cut the cable. You can get Comedy Central programming from their web site. You can get all sorts of things from Hulu.com. All free and legal!

To that end, I’ve hacked my AppleTV with the latest patchstick, a remarkably painless process, and now my AppleTV, running Boxee, based on the open-source xbmc project, can play DVD rips from my file server (including DVD menus), just about anything I download from BitTorrent [see sidebar], and can get at content from a variety of streaming providers, including Comedy Central and Hulu.com, theoretically covering enough ground that I could legitimately consider dropping the Comcast subscription altogether.

In practice, the Internet TV experience was a let-down. I’ve got AT&T’s “Elite” DSL package (“up to 6Mb”, which is pretty close to what I see in practice), so I’ve got enough bandwidth for streaming. What I actually see is not utilizing that bandwidth. Comedy Central is not giving anywhere near 30 frames per second. It’s jumpy, unwatchable. Hulu has moments of greatness (i.e., higher resolution and quality relative to the non-HD channels that Comcast feeds me, but nowhere near broadcast HD) but Hulu also freezes up, sometimes for seconds at a time. If Boxee implemented TiVo-like Season Passes, they could download my shows in advance and yield a real winner of an experience. Or TiVo could implement Hulu support, as they already have batch downloads of Internet video content, mostly from Amazon, albeit with low SD quality and unacceptable self-destructing DRM.

Astute readers will note that I have several other options left to pursue. I could sign up for an unlimited Netflix subscription and have access to their streaming library (either to my TiVo or to my Boxee/AppleTV). I could also “subscribe” to the shows that I care about through Apple’s iTunes Store. (That’s how I’ve been watching Entourage, since I can’t otherwise justify the $20/month that I’d have to pay Comcast for HBO. See also the sidebar.)

Netflix doesn’t have the current TV shows that I want, and the iTunes store is pretty pricey. Those Entourage episodes are $2 each for 30 minutes of SD quality video. iTunes HD content, when available, is pretty much broadcast HD quality. Good stuff. iTunes SD content looks fine on an iPhone, but has a variety of problems on a proper HD set, most notably that any dark colors are pulled down to 100% black, presumably to improve compression. Very distracting. Regardless, friends I have with Netflix streaming seem to swear by it, and the iTunes Store clearly provides a good experience, albeit with high prices.

Clearly, Comcast is in deep trouble. Their product is expensive. Their customer service is lacking. Similar issues can be expected for other cable TV vendors, much less the satellite people. The Internet already has sufficient capacity to deliver the non-broadcast shows that I follow, directly to my TV. All the pieces are in place and they’re starting to work well together. The only missing piece is the business model for the future of online TV delivery. Hulu.com, for example, probably thinks they have to require video streaming so they can force you to watch ads. If you could download it, you could skip the ads and there goes their revenue.

I figure the one true hope in all of this is the ever-declining cost of serving up content. At some distant point in the future, the cost of delivering tens of megabits per second of video, for several hours every day, to all of the homes who might want it, will eventually be small enough to not matter any more. Once we get there, the people who make shows can sell them direct to the consumer, insert occasional and targeted ads, and still come out ahead. It could be a long wait.

[Sidebar: BitTorrent is a brilliant system, from a technical perspective, but it was never designed to provide any anonymity to its users. If you join the torrent for, say, an HBO show, HBO can trivially observe that you (or, at least, your IP address) is there, giving them grounds to go after you in one form or another. From that perspective, you'd have to be insane to download a mainstream movie or TV show from BitTorrent, or you'd have to do something terribly anti-social, like tunnel your entire BitTorrent session through Tor, which Tor was never designed to handle, although there are several designs to improve Tor or anonymize BitTorrent. So then, what shows do I feel safe to download via BitTorrent? So far, only the latest episodes of the BBC's Top Gear. They air in the U.K. six months to a year ahead of their appearance on BBC America and availability on the U.S. iTunes Store. If there were a way to get these shows in the U.S. simultaneous with their British release, I'd happily pay for the privilege, even the $2 rate at the iTunes Store, but I'm not given that option at any price.]

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The Perpetual Peril of Open Platforms

Over at Techdirt, Mike Masnick did a great post a few weeks back on a theme I’ve written about before: peoples’ tendency to underestimate the robustness of open platforms.

Once people have a taste for what that openness allows, stuffing it back into a box is very difficult. Yes, it’s important to remain vigilant, and yes, people will always attempt to shut off that openness, citing all sorts of “dangers” and “bad things” that the openness allows. But, the overall benefits of the openness are recognized by many, many people — and the great thing about openness is that you really only need a small number of people who recognize its benefits to allow it to flourish.

Closed systems tend to look more elegant at first — and often they are much more elegant at first. But open systems adapt, change and grow at a much faster rate, and almost always overtake closed systems, over time. And, once they overtake the closed systems, almost nothing will allow them to go back. Even if it were possible to turn an open system like the web into a closed system, openness would almost surely sneak out again, via a new method by folks who recognized how dumb it was to close off that open system.

Predictions about the impending demise of open systems have been a staple of tech policy debates for at least a decade. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is rightly remembered as a landmark work of tech policy scholarship for its insights about the interplay between “East Coast code” (law) and “West Coast code” (software). But people often forget that it also made some fairly specific predictions. Lessig thought that the needs of e-commerce would push the Internet toward a more centralized architecture: a McInternet that squeezed out free speech and online anonymity.

So far, at least, Lessig’s predictions have been wide of the mark. The Internet is still an open, decentralized system that allows robust anonymity and free speech. But the pessimistic predictions haven’t stopped. Most recently, Jonathan Zittrain wrote a book predicting the impending demise of the Internet’s “generativity,” this time driven by security concerns rather than commercialization.

It’s possible that these thinkers will be proven right in the coming years. But I think it’s more likely that these brilliant legal thinkers have been mislead by a kind of optical illusion created by the dynamics of the marketplace. The long-term trend has been a steady triumph for open standards: relatively open technologies like TCP/IP, HTTP, XML, PDF, Java, MP3, SMTP, BitTorrent, USB, and x86, and many others have become dominant in their respective domains. But at any given point in time, a disproportionate share of public discussion is focused on those sectors of the technology industry where open and closed platforms are competing head-to-head. After all, nobody wants to read news stories about, say, the fact that TCP/IP’s market share continues to be close to 100 percent and has no serious competition. And at least superficially, the competition between open and closed systems looks really lopsided: the proprietary options tend to be supported by large, deep-pocketed companies with large development teams, multi-million dollar advertising budgets, distribution deals with leading retailers, and so forth. It’s not surprising that people so frequently conclude that open standards are on the verge of getting crushed.

For example, Zittrain makes the iPhone a poster child for the flashy but non-generative devices he fears will come to dominate the market. And it’s easy to see the iPhone’s advantages. Apple’s widely-respected industrial design department created a beautiful product. Its software engineers created a truly revolutionary user interface. Apple and AT&T both have networks of retail stores with which to promote the iPhone, and Apple is spending millions of dollars airing television ads. On first glance, it looks like open technologies are on the ropes in the mobile marketplace.

But open technologies have a kind of secret weapon: the flexibility and power that comes from decentralization. The success of the iPhone is entirely dependent on Apple making good technical and business decisions, and building on top of proprietary platforms requires navigating complex licensing issues. In contrast, absolutely anyone can use and build on top of an open platform without asking anyone else for permission, and without worrying about legal problems down the line. That means that at any one time, you have a lot of different people trying a lot of different things on that open platform. In the long run, the creativity of millions of people will usually exceed that of a few hundred engineers at a single firm. As Mike says, opens systems adapt, change and grow at a much faster rate than closed ones.

Yet much of the progress of open systems tends to happen below the radar. The grassroots users of open platforms are far less likely to put out press releases or buy time for television ads. So often it’s only after an open technology has become firmly entrenched in its market—MySQL in the low-end database market, for example—that the mainstream press starts to take notice of it.

As a result, despite the clear trend toward open platforms in the past, it looks to many people like that pattern is going to stop and perhaps even be reversed. I think this illusion is particularly pronounced for folks who are getting their information second- or third-hand. If you’re judging the state of the technology industry from mainstream media stories, television ads, shelf space at Best Buy, etc, you’re likely not getting the whole story. It’s helpful to remember that open platforms have always looked like underdogs. They’re no more likely to be crushed today than they were in 1999, 1989, or 1979.

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Predictions for 2009

Here are our predictions for 2009. These are based on input from Andrew Appel, Joe Calandrino, Will Clarkson, Ari Feldman, Ed Felten, Alex Halderman, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Tim Lee, Paul Ohm, David Robinson, Dan Wallach, Harlan Yu, and Bill Zeller. Please note that individual contributors (including me) don’t necessarily agree with all of these predictions.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

(2) Patent reform legislation will come closer to passage in this Congress, but will ultimately fail as policymakers wait to determine the impact of the Bilski case’s apparent narrowing of business model patentability.

(3) As lawful downloading of music and movies continues to grow, consumer satisfaction with lossy formats will decline, and higher-priced options that offer higher fidelity will begin to predominate. At least one major online music service will begin to offer music in a lossless format.

(4) The RIAA’s “graduated response” initiative will sputter and die because ISPs are unwilling to cut off users based on unrebutted accusations. Lawsuits against individual end-user infringers will quietly continue.

(5) The DOJ will bring criminal actions against big-time individual copyright infringers based on data culled from the server logs of a large “private” BitTorrent community.

(6) Questions over the enforceability of free / open source software licenses will move closer to resolution.

(7) NebuAd and the regional ISPs recently sued for deploying NebuAd’s advertising system will settle with the class action plantiffs for an undisclosed sum. At least in part because of the lawsuit and settlement, no U.S. ISP will deploy a new NebuAd/Phorm-like system in 2009. Meanwhile, Phorm will continue to be successful with privacy regulators in the UK and will sign up reluctant ISPs there who are facing competitive pressure. Activists will raise strong objections to no avail.

(8) The federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral argument in the case of U.S. v. Lori Drew, the Megan Meier/MySpace prosecution. By year’s end, the Ninth Circuit panel still will not have issued a decision, although after oral argument, the pundits will predict a 3-0 or 2-1 reversal of the conviction.

(9) As a result of the jury’s guilty verdict in U.S. v. Lori Drew, dozens of plaintiffs will file civil lawsuits in 2009 alleging violations of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act premised on the theory that one can “exceed authorized access” or act “in excess of authorization” by violating Terms of Service. Thankfully, the Department of Justice won’t bring any other criminal cases premised on this theory, at least not until it sees how the Ninth Circuit rules.

(10) The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) will be the new DMCA. Many will argue that the law needs to be reformed, but this argument will struggle to gain traction with the lay public, notwithstanding the fact that lay users face potential liability for routine behaviors due to CFAA overbreadth.

(11) An academic security researcher will face prosecution under the CFAA, anti wire tapping laws, or other computer intrusion statutes for violations that occurred in the process of research.

(12) An affirmative action lawsuit will be filed against a university, challenging the use of a software algorithm used in evaluating applicants.

(13) There will be lots of talk about net neutrality but no new legislation, as everyone waits to see how the Comcast/BitTorrent issue plays out in the courts.

(14) The Obama administration will bring an atmosphere of antitrust enforcement to the IT industry, but no major cases will be brought in 2009.

(15) The new administration will be seen as trying to “reboot” the FCC.

(16) One of the major American voting system manufacturers (Diebold/Premier, Sequoia, ES&S, or Hart InterCivic) will go out of business or be absorbed into one of its rivals.

(17) The federal voting machine certification regime will increasingly be seen as a failure. States will strengthen their own certification processes, and at least one major state will stop requiring federal certification. The failure of the federal process to certify systems or software patches in a timely fashion will be cited as a reason for this move.

(18) Estonia and other countries will continue experimenting in real elections with online or mobile phone voting. They will claim that these trials are successful because “nothing went wrong.” Security analysts will continue to claim that these systems are fundamentally flawed and will continue to be ignored. Exactly the same thing will continue to happen with U.S. overseas and military voters.

(19) We’ll see the first clear-cut evidence of a malicious attack on a voting system fielded in a state or local election. This attack will exploit known flaws in a “toe in the water” test and vendors will say they fixed the flaw years ago and the new version is in the certification pipeline.

(20) U.S. federal government computers will suffer from at least one high-profile compromise by a foreign entity, leaking a substantial amount of classified or highly sensitive information abroad.

(21) There will be one or more major Internet outages attributed to attacks on DNS, BGP, or other Internet plumbing that is immediately labeled an act of “cyber-warfare” or “cyber-terrorism.” The actual cause will be found to be the action of spammers or other professional Internet miscreants.

(22) Present flaws in the web’s Certification Authority process, such as the MD5 issue or the leniency of some CAs in issuing certificates, will lead to regulation of the CA process. Among other things, there will be calls for restrictions on which CAs can issue certs for which Top Level Domains.

(23) One or more major Internet services or top-tier network providers will experience prolonged failures and/or unrecoverable data severe enough that the company’s president ends up testifying before Congress about it.

(24) Shortly after the start of the new administration, the TSA will quietly phase out the ban on flying with liquids or stop enforcing it in practice. The color-coded national caution levels (which have remained at “orange” forever) will be phased out.

(25) All 20 of the top 20 U.S. newspapers by circulation will experience net reductions in their newsroom headcounts in 2009. At least 15 of the 20 will see weekday circulation decline by 15% or more over the course of the year. By the end of the year, at least one major U.S. city will lack a daily newspaper.

(26) Advertising spending in older media will plummet, but online ad spending will be roughly level, as advertisers warm to online ads whose performance is more easily measured. Traditional media will be forced to offer advertisers fire sale prices, and the ratio of content to advertising in many traditional media outlets will increase.

(27) An embarrassing leak of personal data will emerge from one or more of the social networking firms (e.g., Facebook), leading Congress to consider legislation that probably won’t solve the problem and will never actually reach the floor for a vote.

(28) Facebook will be sold for $4 billion and Mark Zuckerberg will step down as CEO.

(29) Web 2.0 startups will not be hammered by the economic downtown. In fact, web 2.0 innovation may prove to be countercyclical. Costs are controllable: today’s workstyles don’t require lavish office space, marketing can be viral, and pay-as-you-go computing services eliminate the need for big upfront investments in infrastructure. Laid off big-company workers and refugees from the financial world will keep skilled wages low. The surge in innovation will be real, but its effects will mostly be felt in future years.

(30) The Blu-ray format will increasingly be seen as a failure as customers rely more on online streaming.

(31) Emboldened by Viacom’s example against Time Warner, TV network owners will increasingly demand higher payments from cable companies with the threat of moving content online instead. Cable companies will attempt to more heavily limit the content that network owners can host on Hulu and other sites.

(32) The present proliferation of incompatible set-top boxes that aim to connect your TV to the Internet will lead to the establishment of a huge industry consortium with players from three major interest groups (box builders, content providers, software providers), reminiscent of the now-defunct SDMI consortium, and with many of the same members. In 2009, they will generate a variety of press releases but will accomplish nothing.

(33) A hot Christmas item will be a cheap set-top box that allows normal people to download, organize, and view video and audio podcasts in their own living rooms. This product will work with all of the major free online sources of audio and video, and a few of the paid sources.

(34) Internet Explorer’s usage share will fall below 50 percent for the first time in a decade, spurred by continued growth of Firefox and Safari and deals with OEMs to pre-load Google Chrome.

(35) Somebody besides Apple will sell an iPod clone that’s a drop-in replacement for a real iPod, complete with support for iTunes DRM, video playback, and so forth. Apple will sue (or threaten to sue), but won’t be able to stop distribution of this product.

(36) Apple will release a netbook, which will be a souped-up iPhone with an 8″ screen and folding keyboard. It will sell for $899.

(37) No white space devices will be approved for use by the FCC. Submitted spectrum sensing devices will fare well in both laboratory and field tests, but approval will be delayed politically by the anti-white space lobby.

(38) More and more Internet traffic will encrypted, as concern grows about eavesdropping, content modification, filtering, and security attacks.

Feel free to offer your own predictions in the comments.

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2008 Predictions Scorecard

As usual, we’ll kick off the new year by reviewing the predictions we made for the previous year. Here now, our 2008 predictions, in italics, with hindsight in ordinary type.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

We predict this every year, and it’s always right. This prediction is so obvious that it’s almost unfair to count it. Verdict: right.

(2) Copyright issues will still be gridlocked in Congress.

We could predict this every year, and it would almost always be right. History teaches that it usually takes a long time to build consensus for any copyright changes. Verdict: right.

(3) No patent reform bill will be passed. Baby steps toward a deal between the infotech and biotech industries won’t lead anywhere.

Verdict: right.

(4) DRM-free sales will become standard in the music business. The movie studios will flirt with the idea of DRM-free sales but won’t take the plunge, yet.

This was basically right. DRM-free music sales are much more common than before. Whether they’re “standard” is a matter for debate. The movie studios haven’t followed the record industry, yet. Verdict: mostly right.

(5) The 2008 elections will not see an e-voting meltdown of Florida 2000 proportions, but a bevy of smaller problems will be reported, further fueling the trend toward reform.

As predicted, there was no meltdown but we did see a bevy of smaller problems. Whether this fueled the trend toward reform is debatable. The problems that did occur tended to be ignored because the presidential election wasn’t close. Verdict: mostly right.

(6) E-voting lawsuits will abound, with voters suing officials, officials suing other officials, and officials suing vendors (or vice versa).

There were some lawsuits, but they didn’t “abound”. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(7) Second Life will jump the shark and the cool kids will start moving elsewhere; but virtual worlds generally will lumber on.

Second Life seems to have lost its cool factor, but then so have virtual worlds generally. Still, they’re lumbering on. Verdict: mostly right.

(8) MySpace will begin its long decline, losing customers for the first time.

I haven’t seen data to confirm or refute this one. (Here’s one source.) Comscore said that Facebook passed MySpace in user share, but that doesn’t imply that MySpace decreased. Verdict: unknown.

(9) The trend toward open cellular data networks will continue, but not as quickly as optimists had hoped.

This one is hard to call. The growth of Android and iPhone unlocking would seem to be steps toward open cellular data networks, but the movement has not been rapid. Verdict: mostly right.

(10) If a Democrat wins the White House, we’ll hear talk about reinvigorated antitrust enforcement in the tech industries. (But of course it will all be talk, as the new administration won’t take office until 2009.)

Verdict: right.

(11) A Facebook application will cause a big privacy to-do.

There were Facebook privacy issues, but mostly about non-application issues. Overall, interest in Facebook apps declined during the year. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(12) There will be calls for legislation to create a sort of Web 2.0 user’s bill of rights, giving users rights to access and extract information held by sites; but no action will be taken.

Verdict: right.

(13) An epidemic of news stories about teenage webcam exhibitionism will lead to calls for regulation.

Verdict: wrong.

(14) Somebody will get Skype or a similar VoIP client running on an Apple iPhone and it will, at least initially, operate over AT&T’s cellular phone network. AT&T and/or Apple will go out of their way to break this, either by filtering the network traffic or by locking down the iPhone.

Various VoIP clients did run on the iPhone. Apple said they would allow this over conventional WiFi networks but intended to prevent it on the cellular network, presumably by banning from the iPhone App Store any application that provided VoIP on the cell network. Verdict: right.

Our final scorecard: six right, four mostly right, two mostly wrong, one wrong, one unknown.

Stay tuned for our 2009 predictions.

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The future of photography

Several interesting things are happening in the wild world of digital photography as it’s colliding with digital video. Most notably, the new Canon 5D Mark II (roughly $2700) can record 1080p video and the new Nikon D90 (roughly $1000) can record 720p video. At the higher end, Red just announced some cameras that will ship next year that will be able to record full video (as fast as 120 frames per second in some cases) at far greater than HD resolutions (for $12K, you can record video at a staggering 6000×4000 pixels). You can configure a Red camera as a still camera or as a video camera.

Recently, well-known photographer Vincent Laforet (perhaps best known for his aerial photographs, such as “Me and My Human“) got his hands on a pre-production Canon 5D Mark II and filmed a “mock commercial” called “Reverie”, which shows off what the camera can do, particularly its see-in-the-dark low-light abilities. If you read Laforet’s blog, you’ll see that he’s quite excited, not just about the technical aspects of the camera, but about what this means to him as a professional photographer. Suddenly, he can leverage all of the expensive lenses that he already owns and capture professional-quality video “for free.” This has all kinds of ramifications for what it means to cover an event.

For example, at professional sporting events, video rights are entirely separate from the “normal” still photography rights given to the press. It’s now the case that every pro photographer is every bit as capable of capturing full resolution video as the TV crew covering the event. Will still photographers be contractually banned from using the video features of their cameras? Laforet investigated while he was shooting the Beijing Olympics:

Given that all of these rumours were going around quite a bit in Beijing [prior to the announcement of the Nikon D90 or Canon 5D Mark II] – I sat down with two very influential people who will each be involved at the next two Olympic Games. Given that NBC paid more than $900 million to acquire the U.S. Broadcasting rights to this past summer games, how would they feel about a still photographer showing up with a camera that can shoot HD video?

I got the following answer from the person who will be involved with Vancouver which I’ll paraphrase: Still photographers will be allowed in the venues with whatever camera they chose, and shoot whatever they want – shooting video in it of itself, is not a problem. HOWEVER – if the video is EVER published – the lawsuits will inevitably be filed, and credentials revoked etc.

This to me seems like the reasonable thing to do – and the correct approach. But the person I spoke with who will be involved in the London 2012 Olympic Games had a different view, again I paraphrase: “Those cameras will have to be banned. Period. They will never be allowed into any Olympic venue” because the broadcasters would have a COW if they did. And while I think this is not the best approach – I think it might unfortunately be the most realistic. Do you really think that the TV producers and rights-owners will “trust” photographers not to broadcast anything they’ve paid so much for. Unlikely.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Red’s forthcoming “Scarlet FF35 Mysterium Monstro” will happily capture 6000×4000 pixels at 30 frames per second. If you multiply that out, assuming 8 bits per pixel (after modest compression), you’re left with the somewhat staggering data rate of 720MB/s (i.e., 2.6TB/hour). Assuming you’re recording that to the latest 1.5TB hard drives, that means you’re swapping media every 30 minutes (or you’re tethered to a RAID box of some sort). Sure, your camera now weighs more and you’re carrying around a bunch of hard drives (still lost in the noise relative to the weight that a sports photographer hauls around in those long telephoto lenses), but you manage to completely eliminate the “oops, I missed the shot” issue that dogs any photographer. Instead, the “shoot” button evolves into more of a bookmarking function. “Yeah, I think something interesting happened around here.” It’s easy to see photo editors getting excited by this. Assuming you’ve got access to multiple photographers operating from different angles, you can now capture multiple views of the same event at the same time. With all of that data, synchronized and registered, you could even do 3D reconstructions (made famous/infamous by the “bullet time” videos used in the Matrix films or the Gap’s Khaki Swing commercial). Does the local newspaper have the rights to do that to an NFL game or not?

Of course, this sort of technology is going to trickle down to gear that mere mortals can afford. Rather than capturing every frame, maybe you now only keep a buffer of the last ten seconds or so, and when you press the “shoot” button, you get to capture the immediate past as well as the present. Assuming you’ve got a sensor that let’s you change the exposure on the fly, you can also now imagine a camera capturing a rapid succession of images at different exposures. That means no more worries about whether you over or under-exposed your image. In fact, the camera could just glue all the images together into a high-dynamic-range (HDR) image, which yields sometimes fantastic results.

One would expect, in the cutthroat world of consumer electronics, that competition would bring features like this to market as fast as possible, although that’s far from a given. If you install third-party firmware on a Canon point-and-shoot, you get all kinds of functionality that the hardware can support but which Canon has chosen not to implement. Maybe Canon would rather you spend more money for more features, even if the cheaper hardware is perfectly capable. Maybe they just want to make common feature easy to use and not overly clutter the UI. (Not that any camera vendors are doing particularly well on ease of use, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Freedom to Tinker readers will recognize some common themes here. Do I have the right to hack my own gear? How will new technology impact old business models? In the end, when industries collide, who wins? My fear is that the creative freelance photographer, like Laforet, is likely to get pushed out by the big corporate sponsor. Why allow individual freelancers to shoot a sports event when you can just spread professional video cameras all over the place and let newspapers buy stills from those video feeds? Laforet discussed these issues at length; his view is that “traditional” professional photography, as a career, is on its way out and the future is going to be very, very different. There will still be demand for the kind of creativity and skills that a good photographer can bring to the game, but the new rules of the game have yet to be written.