Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I followed a link on Google News this afternoon, and immediately thought of PJ's recent rant about analysts on her Groklaw site:
I have decided what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a tech analyst.

No, don't bother to try to talk me out of it. My mind is made up. It's the only job I have ever heard of where you can have huge gaps in your knowledge, get random but truly vital facts utterly wrong, say the opposite of what is observably true, and nobody sues you. They don't even fire you. They don't even notice. No one says a word. In fact, they actually pay you good money, and the next time they want to know something, they forget you got it all wrong the last time and ask you for your opinion all over again.

Being a fortune teller might be just as easy. In fact, I met one once, by chance, and she confided in me what she did for a living and confessed, just between us girls, that she just made stuff up. But I think analysts get paid more, and I believe they get retirement benefits too. And of course it's steadier work.

The target of PJ's rant was Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio.

I discovered today that I've got a similar opinion of fellow Yankee Group analyst Mike Goodman.

A blurb on CIO Today entitled "ITunes Dominance in Peril" suggests that - even though Apple has sold over 250 million songs through the iTunes service since its launch, is now selling over a million songs per day, and is responsible for 70% of online music sales - its "days of...overwhelming dominance may be numbered."

And why might that be? According to Mike, it's because they have "shown no interest in the up-and-coming subscription business model for online music."


The 'subscription model' is what is used by the current incarnation of Napster: your music is tied to one to three PCs (it's "portable" if you happen to have a laptop), you can't burn CDs or transfer music to a portable player, and if you stop making your subscription payments, all 'your' music goes poof. Bye!

You can, of course, pay extra to have permanent copies of your music. Thanks, but that's what I wanted in the first place.

Mr. Goodman is excited about the 'Janus' digital rights managment technology in Microsoft's newest version of Windows Media Player - which enables 'tethered downloads,' so that music services can "tie individual downloads to a monthly subscription." (I'm sure Microsoft picked 'Janus' to evoke the Roman god of doorways and openings - but the fact that he is depicted as literally being two-faced lends an unintentional ironic overtone to the technology.)
"Apple certainly has the option of jumping onto the tethered download bandwagon, Goodman noted. But it has given no indication of doing so. That decision may cost it a drop in the sales of its immensely popular iPod music players from an 80-90 percent market share down to 50-60 percent, Goodman predicted."

Sorry, but I can't follow your logic, Mike.

First of all, let's talk about being tethered. Do you want to be tethered? I don't. If I've purchased music, I want to be able to play it on my stereo, in my portable music player, and on my computer. I want to be able to burn CDs for my cars. And most importantly, I sure as heck don't want it all to expire.

What happens, for example, to all the playlists and music you're 'leasing' from Napster if they get sued into oblivion again? I'll tell you - the same thing that happened to all the DIVX discs that people bought from Circuit City when they finally pulled the plug. They will become inaccessible and worthless.

I am absolutely astounded at the industry pundits who have forgotten the lesson of DIVX:
Building a product with artificial limitations that are intended to allow you to charge the same consumer over and over for same product, and expecting it to compete against services that don't, is a stupid idea.

There is nothing about being tethered that serves the consumer. "You can fool some of the people some of the time," but in the long run, it's doomed to fail. I sure can't see any compelling reason to choose a service with tethering over iTunes.

And for the life of me, I can't see how tethering technology will impact iPod sales at all. Where is the advantage to the consumer in using a tethered format? If I have to pay extra to download my subscribed tracks from my tethered service to my portable player, then I'm spending more than I would have if I had simply bought them from iTunes in the first place.

If all I'm after is personalized streaming radio, I can get that for free from Last.fm. (Although they'd appreciate a donation.)

And if the selling point is that it's cheaper - well, Apple hasn't been selling truckloads of iPods on cost anyway.

And like it or not, it's still pretty darned easy to download endless gigabytes of MP3s without paying for them at all. I can't tell you how - or if - the music industry will solve that one, but I can tell you that it's not going to be by expecting consumers to adopt a format which is specifically designed to artificially limit their choices.

So, why does Mike Goodman claim that a new DRM scheme is going to topple Apple's dominance? Well, if I were being cynical like Groklaw's PJ, I'd claim that it's because the tech analysts have stumbled into an incredible racket, where they can say damned near anything they want, even if it is entirely devoid of logic, and still make big bucks and get published in USA Today.

If I was being cynical like me, on the other hand, I'd say that it's because tech analysts, by and large, don't get paid to accurately predict the future.

They get paid to tell industry executives what they want to hear - and to provide excuses for those same executives when their mind-bogglingly stupid marketing decisions go down in flames. If you're sufficiently devoid of scruples, it is a heck of a racket.

Monday, January 24, 2005


A recent Slashdot post reminded me of LAUNCHcast - and introduced me to Last.fm.

Back when my wife Phaedra first discovered Launch.com (I'm guessing it was in 1999) we both thought it was exactly the sort of innovative and flat-out cool thing that the Internet should be all about.

LAUNCHcast used a Flash-based interface to play streaming 'Internet radio.' In and of itself, this wasn't all that impressive. The audio stream wasn't very high-fidelity, in particular.

But the collaborative environment was the killer feature. You could rate songs, on a ten-point scale from 'never play again' to 'favorite'. The LAUNCH system would gradually learn your music preferences, and tune your streaming radio to play more of your highly rated songs. But it would also let you find other users with similar listening preferences, and subscribe to their stations - adding their choices to your own, and allowing you to discover new (or old!) music. You could also add your friends - allowing them to influence your station as well.

Suddenly, I was discovering and enjoying new music like I did back in high school and college. Yeah baby!

Let me pause for a moment to point something out: I'm 38 years old. I went to high school and college in the '80s. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, ELO - and got the full effect of 80s post-punk synth-pop new-wave hair-metal right in the middle of my teen-angst years. Peter Gabriel, Eurythmics, New Order, Prince, The Cars, U2, Ozzy, Def Leppard - bring em on! And MTV played music videos! Lots of 'em!

WMMS in Cleveland was a highly influential and eclectic station, and we could listen to it all day. (Now it's just one more Clearchannel station.)

We also had our own high school radio station - which is today, two decades later, basically devoid of meaningful student participation - despite the fact that it's still located on the high school campus. Shame on you, Kenston High!

Radio today is homogenized, soulless, and gutless - and it's not for me. It certainly isn't something I can use to discover new music!

So Phaedra and I each spent a lot of time listening to LAUNCHcast, evangelizing it to our friends, and tweaking our stations. I had close to five thousand songs rated in my profile - making me a 'fanatic.'

But it was too good to last.


Because you could choose to listen to just your own LAUNCHcast station (without any other influencing stations) and choose to play only highly rated songs, it was possible to construct a LAUNCHcast station which would play a given song at a predictable time. Never mind that no one in their right mind would actually want to go through the trouble to do it - remember, this wasn't high quality audio, and Napster was providing a readily available method for copying specific songs, if that was what you wanted - all the RIAA cared about was that you could.

The RIAA sued LAUNCH in May of 2001 because the sevice was too interactive, and, they claimed, violated the level of licensing that LAUNCH had negotiated. This was my first clue that the RIAA didn't get it. I could understand the outrage over Napster, but LAUNCHcast radio was a licensed service which had substantially increased my music purchases (you could buy a song or album on LAUNCH by clicking on the Now Playing image) - I was actively buying music after almost a decade of commercial-radio-influenced apathy. I didn't see any reason that wouldn't continue.

That is, until the RIAA shut them down. Passionate e-mails to Hilary Rosen (then the president of the RIAA) went unanswered.

LAUNCH re-emerged after being purchased by Yahoo! But in order to use the new service, you had to create a new account! All the hours of rating music, artists, and albums by the old LAUNCH fanatics were gone. Your friends were gone. And Yahoo! filled my station with ads, and then encouraged me to buy a subscription to get rid of 'em again. There was also a limit on how many songs I could skip without a paid subscription. Phaedra bought one. I said "Screw 'em."

(I learned, from another Slashdot poster, that the same sort of thing had happened when LAUNCH was started from the ashes of Firefly.com. Microsoft bought Firefly to acquire the technology which would become Passport, and then let Firefly die. None of the ratings database that the old members had painstakingly created survived. What a missed opportunity for Microsoft!)


So now there's Last.fm. It's essentially the same idea as the old Firefly and LAUNCH services - you rate streaming music, the system learns your tastes, and once you've rated enough music, you acquire neighbors who influence your profile station.

It's still officially in beta, and there are a number of issues. (As I write this, a banner at the top of the home page reads: "Radio recommendation service restarting. You may experience 'random radio' for a while...") There aren't that many users yet, so you might not find a good match in the beginning. (Before you have your own profile, you can search for other stations by entering up to three artists. I entered Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, and The Prodigy. There were no matches. Uh-oh.) There's quite a bit of available music, but you might find that some of your favorite songs, albums or artists aren't available yet. Response to the 'Skip' button is slow, and the current track doesn't always update promptly - or at all. It might take a day or two of dedicated listening and rating before you have your own profile radio.

So, does it suck? No, it rocks! LAUNCH had a lot of the same problems, and it I put up with them because, ultimately, it still worked. Last.fm works.


What helps make Last.fm better is a family of plug-ins called Audioscrobbler. Rather than the occasionally flaky Flash-based LAUNCH control panel, Audioscrobbler plugs into your favorite media player - WinAmp, iTunes, XMMS - and there are versions for Windows, Mac OS, UNIX & Linux, and even Amiga! And not only does Audioscrobbler record your preferences when you're listening to Last.fm, but it also rates songs while you're listening to your own collection. Cool!

I'm using iTunes, largely because my wife has been actively importing our CD collection into iTunes on our old G4 Mac - making our music library accessible from any of the computers in the house. (She's been making compilation CDs for the car, but I think she's also planning ahead for her inevitable iPod purchase.)

I hope Last.fm avoids the fate of Firefly and LAUNCHcast. I'm loving it so far. If you sign up, give my station a listen.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Who's Responsible for Your Domain Name?

How much value do you attach to your domain name? Many companies seem to treat theirs as if it is only worth the $20 or so they might have spent to register it in the first place.

"Now wait a minute," you might be saying, "we know that it's an extremely valuable business asset." I'm sure you do. So who's responsible for it?

Hint: "My ISP handles all that stuff" is a bad answer.

Two years ago, I got a frantic call from one of my clients - a small insurance firm. They weren't getting any e-mail. A brief investigation soon revealed why - their domain had expired.

Typically, when your domain is in danger of expiring, your registrar will send you numerous e-mails, and probably a letter or two. After all, if your domain expires, they won't collect your renewal fee.

In this case, however, the domain had originally been registered by their previous consultant, and his e-mail address was associated with all the contact information for the domain. He had subsequently shut down his business - so e-mails to him went nowhere. The insurance company had also moved to a new office - so the physical address associated with the registration was wrong. The phone and fax numbers had changed. Even the credit card that had been used to pay for the registration had been cancelled. There had simply been no way for the registrar to contact my client - and no one at the client had realized the need to update the information. They are not a technology company - that's the sort of thing they relied on their 'computer guy' to handle. When their previous consultant left, the domain registration had 'fallen off the radar.'

The lesson I learned was that I could never assume that a new client had anyone who was responsible for their domain, and my 'best practices' for new clients now includes a domain audit.

Among the things that I recommend:

  • Domain registrations include several contacts: at a minimum, there will be an Administrative contact and a Technical contact. It is not uncommon to have a Billing contact as well, and there may also be a separate Registrant for the domain. All the contacts should not be the same person! At a minimum, the Administrative contact and Technical contact should be different, and at least one of them should have a contact e-mail address that is not in the registered domain. (If the domain is offline, or there are transfer issues, it may not be possible to reliably send e-mail to addresses within that domain.)

  • Your company's network documentation file or binder (you do have one, right?) should list the registrar, the contact information, and the expiration date for the domain. A specific individual should be responsible for domain renewal, and should have a reminder (whether it's an Outlook appointment, a reminder in their contact manager, or a physical 'tickle' file) to renew the domain before it expires. Do not rely on the registrar to contact you. They should, but if something can go wrong, it will. The same responsible person should update the records at the registrar if your company's phone number or address changes. Some pretty substantial companies, who should know better, have failed to renew their domains in time - with embarrasing or amusing results, depending on your point of view.

  • Find out whether your registrar will allow you to lock your domain records (most will; many will have already done it for you) in order to prevent unauthorized transfers or changes to your records.

  • Your documentation should also list the public DNS servers responsible for your domain (which might also be maintained by the registrar, or by your ISP, by a third party, or by your company itself - depending on the nature of your business, and the extent of your Internet presence.)

  • The first entry in a DNS zone file is the SOA, or Start of Authority record, and it includes the e-mail address of the 'responsible' administrator for the domain. Make sure that this is a valid address (at a company where I just completed an e-mail migration, it wasn't) and that the mailbox associated with that address is monitored. This is often a postmaster, hostmaster, or root address, so that it doesn't need to be updated, even if the person who holds that role in the organization changes.

  • Keep a copy of the DNS zone file itself, including the names and IP addresses of web servers and mail servers. If you ever have to reconstruct a DNS record from nothing (for example, after a botched transfer to a new ISP or DNS hosting company) this can mean the difference between getting back on the Internet in minutes or hours, rather than days.

  • And if you're moving from one ISP to another, or changing registrars, have the process managed by a consultant or engineer who understands how DNS works - and who has successfully run migrations for other organizations. Ask for references.

    Done correctly, a move shouldn't even be noticable. But a botched move can result in a domain effectively vanishing from the Internet, and due to the nature of the DNS caching process, it may be impossible to completely correct for 24 hours or more. One former client - against my advice - chose to allow their new ISP to manage the move from their old one. Twice.

    Each time, they dropped off the Internet for more than a day. And when all of your revenue is generated from your web site, discovering that your home page now says "Future home of..." is cause for panic.

    Partly as a result of their experiences, I now avoid telling an organization's old ISP anything about a move until everything - web site, e-mail, DNS records - is up and running at the new one.


If no one seems to know who your registrar is, you should be able to look it up using the WHOIS tool at Whois Source. (Any registrar will have a WHOIS tool; I like this one because it will also display the former registration records for recently expired domains.) You can verify your records, and the expiration date of your registration.

James Ponder has written a fantastic online tool for all kinds of DNS diagnostics; you can use it to verify your SOA, MX and A records, and perform general troubleshooting on name resolution for your domain.

If you're curious about the inner workings of DNS, DNS and Bind by Paul Albitz and Cricket Liu is generally considered to be the reference. You should have a decent grasp of networking in general - and the TCP/IP protocol suite in particular - before you dive in.

Make sure someone's responsible for your domain name now, instead of after someone asks, "Where did our web site go?"