Music To My Ears

18 02 2010

I can just imagine the day about 20 years ago when a truckload of new computers was headed northbound on the freeway, and unbeknown to the driver, a garbage truck filled with typewriters was headed south, en route to the dump. If they had only known to wave to each other.

That same highway is going to have another intersection of paths this year when digital music sales ($3.4 billion) passes CD sales ($3.1 billion) going the other way. Is that a tap tap tap I hear? I do believe there’s a coffin being built down at the cemetery.

Of course, it was inevitable. With iTunes now having sold over 10 billion songs, and fewer and fewer people actually worrying about whether they own tangible product, this simply stands to reason.

But even iTunes had better beware, because a growing number of online and smartphone listening services are making it possible for music fans (like me) to not even bother with ownership. All I want is the ability to listen, thank you very much.

Oh yeah…and I want to be completely in control of that process.

Which is where sites like MOG come in. For a mere $5 a month, users can not only have unlimited listening to genre-specific or like-artist stations, they can also create their own artist-only stations.

MOG is a mash-up of free sites like Pandora and Slacker, along with pay sites like Rhapsody ($13/month) and LaLa (which copies your entire iTunes library for remote access, yet also allows people to get listening rights to other songs for 10 cents apiece). Apple recently bought LaLa, and rumors persist that the new parent plans to turn it into a subscription-based listening service just like MOG.

Which may be a good move for Apple, because I think MOG is on to something here. Sure, iTunes may have eclipsed the 10 billion mark, but I am buying less and less these days. All I want to do is listen to the music. What good is it going to do me to own it?

And now for my “I Told You So” lecture to my students, this is yet another example of how cloud computing is taking over our lives. Whereas it took me until April 2008 to quit buying CDs, I am breaking the limit on that freeway of tech advancement. With a phone full of apps and a big puffy cloud following me wherever I go, I just don’t need to be burdened with stuff, even if it’s just electronic files.

Is that the iTunes truck up ahead I see coming at me?

Dr “Honk When You Go By” Gerlich

They Say It’s Your Birthday

17 02 2010

They said I wouldn’t last more than a year here.

That’s what all my friends, colleagues and family in the Midwest said when I came to West Texas A&M University for the Fall 1989 semester. It’s too provincial there. It’s too windy. It’s too far away.

And as I found out, it’s too close to perfect.

Today, my home and my employer mark a very big event. We (as in all of us who claim this great school) are 100 years young. To mark the occasion we have been holding events all week to mark the centennial, including this morning’s opening of a time capsule buried in 1985. This afternoon we’re having a birthday party.

At the risk of sounding just a tad sentimental, I must say that the 21 years I have been here have definitely been the best years of my life. Sure, I could always find something to gripe about, but WT has given me the academic freedom to run and play in my discipline, to try new things. To founder. To flourish. And to age nicely with an incredible group of colleagues.

I have always argued that the best testimony a faculty member could give to his or her employer is whether they would send their kids there. While my kids will be able to exercise their own academic freedom when they come of age, you can bet I will be doing everything I can to sell them on WT.

During my years in and around academia, I have seen many institutions of higher learning lose focus on their mission, their raison d’tre. All too many times I have seen schools strive to be something larger than what they are supposed to be, seeking to ascend to powerhouse levels of academic prestige normally reserved for a state’s flagship schools. In so doing, they have often forgotten their charter to serve a region, and to serve it well. Those big britches just don’t fit very well.

That doesn’t mean WT isn’t interested in growing. Show me something that isn’t growing, and I will show you something that is dying. It’s just that we haven’t forgotten why we are here, and who we serve. We are a regional institution with big league scholars and students. If others want to join us, we welcome them.

But we are the Texas Panhandle’s only four-year state university.

Am I proud? You betcha. The longer I stay here, the more I love this place. I raise my glass. Happy Birthday, WT! And may you…we…have many more.

Dr “To The Future…And Beyond!” Gerlich

Waist Land

16 02 2010

It has been said that the best offense is a good defense. In this era of every company and their brother maintaining Twitter feeds and Fan Pages, it has become more about intervention than customer acquisition.

In other words, good old fashioned customer service.

The latest company to have to bite this bullet is Southwest Airlines concerning the recent flap over Director-Actor Kevin Smith being kicked off a SWA flight this last weekend. Already seated on the plane, Smith was evicted when he could not reasonably fit between the arm rests. The resulting firestorm of media attention has cast a bad light on the airline, the plight of the morbidly obese, and the power of new media.

So what did Smith do that caused all the buzz? He did what any self-respecting social networking user would do: He tweeted the daylights out of it. In the process he got the attention of SWA, as well as the entire Twitterverse.

Now Smith is not one to deny that he is fat. He used that word specifically, so there was no state of denial. It is rare when a person of size willingly makes fun of oneself; he was just upset about having been allowed to be seated and then kicked off.

Sure, one could argue that Smith is merely using his celebrity to not only chastise SWA, but also self–promote. If anything, a quick Google search will result in more articles one could ever hope to read. Chalk one up for PR. If Smith was trying to accelerate his career, he picked the right venue.

Regardless of the validity of his eviction, SWA should be recognized for at least monitoring the situation, and planning to contact the aggrieved Smith. Beyond that, there is probably little Southwest can do to appease a person who knowingly doesn’t fit within their “customer of size” policy. At least they didn’t let this problem get any bigger (sorry) than it already was.

Which leads me to my lesson for the day: Companies have to hire social media experts who are paid expressly to monitor this kind of stuff…and respond. With Twitter and Facebook akin to handing the microphone over to a world of potentially hostile strangers, no firm can afford to ignore the very real possibility that a posse is being organized. And they’re looking for you.

Five years ago no one saw this coming. Who could have ever envisioned that we would one day hire young 20-somethings who, already masters of the social networking landscape, could captain the corporate ship through dangerous waters?

Now if this seems like a dream job to my students, I salute you for being astute. Maybe you all need to go tweet and Facebook your brains out, because you may be able to turn a time-suck into a paying gig.

And wouldn’t it be better to get financially fat off the corporate payroll than to worry about whether you’re going to get kicked off airplanes?

Dr “Don’t Get Waisted” Gerlich

I hear You Knocking

15 02 2010

When the iPhone was first announced early in 2007, I made fun of it. Yes, I admit it. I was a techno-doofus. Why in the world, I argued, would anyone want to settle for an all-in-one device when you could carry three separate products?

Heck, the iPod I was toting back then was a 60GB model and could carry infinitely more songs than a 16GB phone. And the lame 2 megapixel camera on the phone was a throwback to an earlier era of digital cameras.

Boy, was I wrong. Today, I wonder how in the world I ever made it until April 2008 (my point of acquiescence). I stand in awe at how much one little gadget has come to dominate so many aspects of my life. I tolerate the crappy camera because I can post pics directly to Facebook and Twitter, or email them willy-nilly to all of my friends. I accept the smaller storage capacity because, well, I really don’t listen to 60GB worth of music anyway. And I totally dig all those cool apps made just for my phone.

Like the Knocking Live Video app I downloaded Saturday while in Albuquerque. Knocking effectively turns your iPhone into a web cam so that you can share live video with your friends.

Like a kid in a toy store, I had a blast putting this one through a test drive. My colleague and I were having a late breakfast at The Frontier on Central Ave, right across from UNM. We set up our Knocking accounts and then started sharing video.

And if this sounds a little bit like a social network of sorts for live video, you are right. Like the people with the first fax machines, they were pretty much worthless if you didn’t know anyone else with one. Same holds for this app. Naturally, then, Knocking prompts you to invite your friends (note to potential downloaders: If you aren’t careful, though, you may inadvertently allow it to spam everyone in your contact list. Use caution!).

And so I stepped outside and aimed my camera around the very bohemian neighborhood, while my colleague stayed inside and watched remotely. It was almost like being there.

Yes, there are some shortcomings to the app, such as its native inability to provide audio. Users have to first call their friend and then “knock” them to accept the video feed. It is thus a two-step video phone process. Furthermore, this is not Skype, so it is only a one-way video transmission.

And just to make sure this thing really worked over long distances (OK, I was having too much fun with it), I “knocked” another colleague who was in the mountains, and the video exchange worked flawlessly.

The Pointy Heads people who created this app have also developed Knocking Live Pics that allow users to share…well, you get the picture (sorry). And never mind that their web site and the iTunes page suggest that this is only for iPhone 3G and 3GS models, because it works fine on a 1st-gen phone (as long as you have OS3.1 installed).

Now if this all seems frivolous to you, I can understand. After all, I ballyhooed the entire idea of the iPhone. But as my little phone increasingly rules my hectic multidimensional life, it is little apps like this one (free at that) that affirm my choice nearly two years ago. It’re not just a phone. It’s not even my brain. It is pretty much everything I could ever hope to do with a pocket-sized gadget. And with Knocking Live Video and I can now bring my friends along for the ride.

Dr “Glad I Opened The Door” Gerlich

Five Years Young

14 02 2010

The story behind the beginning of YouTube is probably as mythical as that of eBay’s beginnings, but it makes for good storytelling anyway. Not to mention marketing bluster. Never mind that it likely did not happen quite the way the story goes. The fact of the matter is, it has been, more or less, five years since its conception.

Birthed on 14 February 2005 and domain name registered the day after, the first video was posted two months later, a 19-second clip of Jawed Karim standing in front of the elephants at the San Diego Zoo. Now there’s some trivia to impress your friends with at your next party. Forget about that first MTV video…this is far more culturally relevant (or the fact that Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube in October 2006).

Jumping forward five years, YouTube is now the 5th most-visited site in the world with 134.4 million viewers and 13 billion viewings in the US alone, and ahead of Facebook.

And you thought it was silly for people to post status updates in Facebook. Apparently it is even more acceptable to watch those status updates. Why merely type when you can broadcast yourself?

That is precisely the pop culture impact of YouTube. Whereas iPods allowed us to become our own DJs, and social networks allowed us to publicize our comings and goings, YouTube allows us to become Steven Spielberg wannabes. Entertainers and educators. Parodiers and partiers.

It is no surprise, of course, that both Facebook and YouTube have become marketing playgrounds, almost to the point of being co-opted. Fan pages and dedicated YouTube pages are a dime a dozen as the emphasis morphs from showing and telling to showcasing and selling.

Is this a better place because of YouTube? For those who have never been, I’m sure I know the answer. But for those of us who use it as a search engine in and of itself (hmmm…those Google guys sure are smart), the answer is quite the affirmative. Half the time I am looking for a visual presentation of something anyway, so it makes sense to go straight to the bank.

The sad but true reality is that much of the content filling YouTube servers and bandwidth is copyrighted material owned by unsuspecting others. But that doesn’t stop 40% of all USAmericans from going there. Someday the copyright police will find a way to intervene, but until that day YouTube will continue to be the pipeline for our video creativity. Join me in singing a round of Happy Birthday to one of our favorite cultural icons.

Just don’t shoot it and put me online. That’s a story I’d rather not have shared.

Dr “Let’s Cut The Cake” Gerlich

Making Copies

13 02 2010

One of my favorite recurring skits on Saturday Night Live in the early-1990s was the one featuring a geeky, socially-inept Rob Schneider “making copies.” Little did they know back then that making copies would one day become a very real problem for all of us, because the digital environment that lay just a few years ahead made it child’s play for anyone with a computer to replicate just about anything that resembles intellectual property.

Perhaps the issue that got the most attention (and is still a problem today) is that of illegal music file sharing (otherwise known as music piracy). Not only is it ridiculously simple to copy CDs onto computers (and hence make duplicates for friends), the internet made it possible for us to make copies for the whole planet. Napster became synonymous with free music; so prominent did this practice become that normally law-abiding citizens did not even see file sharing or CD burning as illegal (and hence) unethical) activities.

If the technology permits it, then it must be OK, right?

The RIAA didn’t see it that way, and proceeded to sue everyone from 8-year-old girls to grandmothers.

But even the advent of iTunes and legal music downloads has not stanched the flow of stolen property. Illegal file sharing still goes on; it is the undocumented illegal alien of the internet world. Worse yet, it is often perpetrated by people who do know even know they are breaking the law. Making matters even worse, one could argue they are aided and abetted by the very technology that has also turned them all into thieves.

And that is precisely why my colleagues and I at GNU MediaLab have been tasked with creating a copyright policy for our university. You see, while the original round of music theft got its big push on university campuses, the ivory towers of academe are still a big player in more recent variations on these crimes.

I am speaking of the seemingly innocent use of copyrighted material for allegedly academic purposes, which then finds its way online. And often on YouTube.

Perhaps the most common illegal activity is the practice of simply adding a background audio track to a home movie (e.g., a class project). No one would argue that the audio track can make a short video infinitely more tolerable to view, but if that background track is owned by someone else, then you have broken the law.

To be sure, there is a lot of leeway in academia regarding Fair Use of copyrighted material, as long as it is done behind the locked doors of the institution. Once it gets posted to YouTube, all bets are off. And suddenly you have shoplifted, your purloined pop tune all the evidence the RIAA might need to haul you to court.

As well as create lots of trouble for the university.

This is a mine field for anyone to navigate, but it is one that must be swept clear of flash points. I will not argue that YouTube is entertaining precisely because so many people have done creative things with other people’s stuff, but that does not make it legal. And it is no better, no worse than those creepy “mix tapes” I once made for friends 30 years ago, ostensibly sharing my exquisite musical tastes. It’s wrong. It’s illegal. And we’ve got to educate as we eradicate.

Buzz kill? Yeah, many will say so, but I wouldn’t like it you stole this blog and put your name on it, either. Could you do it? Yep. It would only take you a second to click-drag-copy and then paste it elsewhere.

But you wouldn’t do that, right? Rob Schneider should have had it so easy.

Dr “Whatever Happened To Him Anyway?” Gerlich

Let The Games Begin

12 02 2010

In the old business model, the only interaction customers had with a brand was by direct contact with the product itself. Advertising was ephemeral, lasting only an instant in the customer’s sensory arena. With thousands of other voices in the fray, often it was he who could shout loudest that would carry the day.

Today, it’s not about being loudest (or even most annoying). No, it’s about engagement. It’s about providing ways for people to interact with the brand long after the initial communication. It’s about engagement and creating a platform as sticky as a fly trap.

And with the Winter Olympics set to begin tonight, we are about to witness not just athletic competition, but also a battle among marketers to entice you to their fly paper.

And it’s all being done with…wait for it…social media sites and phone apps.

The Super Bowl and Olympics offer advertisers an incredible 1-2 punch to hit many millions of people in short order, but those ads are expensive…and, like ads of old, fleeting. But today’s savvy marketers use those ads to lay bait, in hopes that viewers will drop what they are doing and run over to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, or download a phone app.

And some of these efforts have very short shelf life. I just downloaded the NBC Winter Olympics app, and its relevance lasts only for the duration of the game: 2 weeks. NBC is hoping their app pulls me farther into the Olympics; a simple schedule of events and broadcast times on my phone may very well cause me to park in front of the TV tonight…and then see some of the ads NBC has selling to the same folks (e.g., Coke, McDonald’s, Visa) also hoping to engage me with their brands.

If it all seems like a big loop, then pat yourself on the shoulder. Throw in some online buzz and sharing with friends, and you wind up with a viral loop for which advertisers a generation ago would have been willing to ski off the edge of a mountain.

And if it all works as planned, they’ll be handing out gold medals to marketers as well as athletes.

Dr “Medallurgist” Gerlich

My Generation

11 02 2010

After watching The Who terrorize Super Bowl fans with off-key vocals and flashes of flabby midriff, all I could think was that my generation had better get it together before we die. Or else we’re not going to be remembered too fondly. I bet there were plenty of 20-somethings using their iPhone TV remote app to mute that tribute to getting old.

I count myself one of the lucky ones in that generation, because I was among a select group of high school students who had access to computers starting back in 1974. While the hardware we used can best be characterized as Stone Age tools (i.e., rocks and clubs), it did allow me to more or less grow up digital. No one has ever had to sell me on technology since then.

But today’s children are a far cry from that small group of young Baby Boomers in Mr. Thompson’s Honors Math classes. Take my kids, for example. Both daughters have had a mouse in their hands since the age of 1. Whereas my generation will be remembered for KISS single handedly putting Max Factor’s kids through college, my kids’ generation will be remembered for keeping Best Buy in business.

So stark are the differences, even compared to the Millenials just a few years older than they, that books are already being written about “iGeneration kids.” My 12-year-old daughter knows more about Facebook than do I; she navigates through Gmail’s ever-changing features like a grizzled veteran. Were it not for the fact that I am the Keeper of the Password for my iTunes account, she would have filled several iPods by now.

And if you think you can multitask, just watch your kids. They can juggle gadgets like the circus dude tossing bowling pins on the tightrope. And just like the speed of technological innovation is ever increasing, the size of generations is shrinking. The difference between a person born in 1995 and one in 2000 is profound; the younger kid is probably just as adept online, if not more so, than her slightly older sibling.

The implications of the current hyper-digitized generation are enormous. No doubt their attention spans will be as short as the fuse on a firecracker. No doubt they will just expect always-on 24/7 access to everything (my oldest daughter asked me at 11:00 last night if we could buy some more music…try doing that at Best Buy). And no doubt this generation will give up on print and demand to have the world at their fingertips, just a Google search and a click away.

Unlike some folks in my age bracket, I do not fear this rapidly accelerating rate of change, nor the fact that our kids are completely lost in their techno-worlds. I stand in amazement, wishing that I could do in 1974 what they can do now, yet grateful for the chance to simply try to hang on.

Because today’s kids aren’t going to wait for change to happen. They’re going to make it happen. Fast. And folks like Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend, KISS, and, yes, even me…had better hang on for dear life.

Or is that let go?

Dr “Generation Gapped” Gerlich

The New Gnu Knew

10 02 2010

We knew it was inevitable. My colleagues and I at GNU MediaLab love all the new media at our disposal, but, like all things trying to find a place on this warp-speed techno-planet, it’t here today and gone tomorrow. It’s not only 5:00 somewhere, it’s already tomorrow somewhere.

So I wasn’t surprised one bit to read of what could be a nascent trend: the anti-social networking movement. Tired of the lack of F2F interaction, there are some who have tweeted their last tweet and booked their last face.

And, to add a pinch of irony, this revelation comes hot on the heels of Google’s announcement to add some Buzz to its Gmail service. Here’s some buzz for you, Google…you’re supposed to be a leader, not a follower!

So out of this postmordial soup of social networking sites there is a new creature crawling, one seeking the higher land of genuine relationships. Not a mouse click away, but rather a hug or a handshake. A new animal who says, “Social networking sites are so 2009.”

But the question remains: Is this new animal the continued evolution of social man, or just a bunch of Luddites who never really got it in the first place? Is this a trend worth watching, or just the backlash of a storm that has already moved on?

If it’s the latter, it’s a well-organized backlash. Sites like Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Seppukoo offer users a web tool for quick and easy deselection from the so-net gene pool. So threatened is Facebook by Suicide Machine that they have blocked SM’s servers from even accessing the FB site. In other words, you can point the SM gun at your head, but the chambers are empty.

But here’s something to ponder. Maybe it took Facebook, Twitter, et al, to show us how much we really crave and need human interaction. I have had way too much fun on these sites reconnecting with old friends (all the way back to the early-70s), but maybe it’s time to go beyond Direct Messages and have Direct Contact.

Just last month I attended an Amarillo Tweet-Up at a nearby bowling alley. I knew only a few of the people from F2F interaction, but followed the vast majority of them on one site or another. It was good to put faces with the avatars. We drank beer. We bowled. (OK, maybe this is not a good combination, but it turned my lousy form into comedic relief.) We had fun.

My colleagues and I knew that things would change, and that they would change fast. It’s a landscape on which the paint never dries. But we are still looking at this new counter-movement to see if it has legs. Or is it going to simply crawl out of that soup and slither along on the beach of ideas that didn’t stick?

That’s a lot to ponder there as we pack up and head to the Pop Culture Association Southwest conference in Albuquerque tomorrow. But to be on the safe side, we’ll be tweeting and Facebooking the whole time. We kind of like this soup, you see.

Dr “Waiter, Another Bowl!” Gerlich


9 02 2010

I remember a long, long time ago, there were gas stations. And there were convenience stores. But gas stations did not sell snacks or groceries, and convenience stores did not sell gas.

Somewhere along the line, though, c-stores started installing gas pumps, and quickly stole a chunk of the business from the gas stations. In their defense, many gas stations remodeled, and converted their service bays to small c-stores. But in the end, the c-stores won out; the mom-and-pop gas station now sits in the dustbin of retail history. Right next to the little office supply store for whom I once worked.

It always seems like the grass is greener on the other side. If only we can add a product category that The Other Guy has, why, we can increase our sales! And while fast food restaurants and banks have managed to peacefully coexist all these years (remember when McD’s used to say, “We have a deal with the bank…we don’t take checks, and they don’t sell hamburgers”?), the “fillin’ station” of lore is now just that. Lore.

So I laughed aloud when I read that Google is now tring to add social networking features to its Gmail service. As if Google doesn’t already have enough on its plate. No, being the most-visited web site is not enough. You see, Facebook is in fourth place. The more people you have coming to your site, the longer they stay, the more frequently they come…that all adds up to advwertising opportunities.

And as Google knows (along with Facebook), this is all about advertising. Google may offer us search, but it is an ad agency first and foremost. Facebook may offer us connections and silly farm games, but it is an advertising engine.

So what in the world could Google possibly do to make Gmail act more like Facebook? Are they going to put pumps out front?

Good question. While I absolutely love my Gmail account (it is, in my estimation, the best of the free email sites), I really do not want to use it for anything beyond that. Last fall Google launched Google Wave in an effort to create some stickiness to emails and online conversations, but it has thus far proven to be such a dud for me that I had to…ahem…Google the idea to even remember the name! Once I found it and logged in, I found withering conversations from three months ago between a handful of beta-testers…about as exciting as the first group of people who owned fax machines.

Basically, the new Googlebook will offer us the ability to share pics and videos (as if YouTube and Picasa weren’t enough in their portfolio), as well as the ability to add status updates. Look, I already get a zillion emails at Gmail…the last thing I want is your status updates with them. That’s why I use Facebook and Twitter.

And never mind that millions of people still do not care what you are doing. Or me.

Further complicating the mess is the fact that many FB users now use it instead of email, which means that, unless Google can do something to keep people back in the 1990s world of email, it will start to actually lose eyeballs.

Here’s the problem. Google was not able to buy Facebook a couple of years ago. It’s not that they didn’t try. It’s just that FB wisely rebuffed Google’s overtures. The FB geniuses know their property is hot and worth a fortune; they turned down an offer of $750 million (after Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for $580 million), and instead wanted over $2 billion. That’re more than Google paid for YouTube.

So since Google can’t buy the gas station, they’re just going to sell gas. Along with beer, soda and cigarettes. The question is whether users will shop at Google’s c-store with the pumps, or Facebook’s gas station with the snacks. As for me, I’m drawing a line on my monitor and keeping these two separate.

I just hope neither of them ever start selling hamburgers.

Dr “Fill ‘Er Up!” Gerlich