Move over iTunes, here comes…what was that again?

•13 August 2008 • Leave a Comment

Two days ago, iArtHouse launched. “What is this?” I hear you cry. To put it simply: it’s an emo version of iTunes. It lets you buy indie arthouse movies online. It’s a part of the global world cinema movement, which aims to promote foreign films. Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia. Get over it.

A screenshot of the iArtHouse website.

A screenshot of the iArtHouse website.

My question is this: how in demand will the over 800 movies be that iArtHouse has on offer? Titles include the controversial The Tiger and The Snow, which iTunes only has a trailer of. So yes, it might get a few downloads a month.

The announcement of the launch of iArtHouse coincided with the closing of two other online movie download channels, Morgan Freeman’s ClickStar and Verizon’s Vongo. ClickStar launched in 2006 and released movies like Ten Items or Less (the first legitimate online movie download) and Lonely Hearts with John Travolta and Salma Hayek. However, titles associated with ClickStar were shunned by cinemas, because it meant the movie would be available within homes in a matter of days or weeks.

So why did iArtHouse have the guts to step into the public arena? It must be because they think they have something up on iTunes. And they do: their titles are edgy, interesting and unique. It means they’ll only have a niche audience, but that’s all they really need to get by.

First or last place for online Olympics?

•13 August 2008 • Leave a Comment

So, I was browsing 24.com when I stumbled across a link to a to a link to a link to a blog to do with coverage of the Olympics. Online.

The sanctioned Amercian choice is obviously NBC, which is promising over 2 200 hours of Olympic online television. That’s all the events between all countries all the time. I think this is fantastic for people who have enough bandwidth to throw around with. A country like South Africa will never be able to get the full Olympic experience. Of course we talk about 8 channels of live Olympics on DSTV in hushed voices resonating with excitement. But will that ever beat being able to watch and re-watch an event where South Africa wins a medal? I realise we’re still waiting for this glorious moment, but so is Canada and they have a website dedicated to online Olympic television, CBC.

There are other providers of streaming television, such as WatchOlympicsNow.tv (snazzy title) and a special channel on YouTube.

But is this online experience all it’s cracked out to be?

Just to be petulant and demanding: all of these sites have placed some restrictions on viewing. WatchOlympicsNow is expensive: It costs $99 (R771) for the duration of the Games, and there is a brief pre-games window during which the price was down to $49.95 (R389). CBC has free coverage, but only for Canadians. NBC also streams free content, but only to America and has also placed other restrictions on its coverage; no events scheduled to be televised on normal NBC channels will be available online until after they are seen on TV. Bummer. YouTube lets you watch for free, but will sell advertising around the channel.

On the illegal down low, China is top nation in terms of peer-to-peer video streaming, with PPLive officially licensed to show the games — but only to an audience within China. If you can get a good proxy server to this site, you might get lucky.

It seems that it’s still best to watch the Olympics on television.  Just pray you’ll be there when we finally win a medal.

You did WHAT?

•29 July 2008 • 2 Comments

If Reporter.co.za was a person like you and me, his mother (also known as Citizen Journalism) would be really pissed off with him right now. She turned her back for one second and Reporter.co.za did what every mother fears: he stabbed her in the back.

OK, so let’s rewind back to 2005. The South African blogosphere was buzzing with the news that Johnnic was launching a citizen journalism site in January 2006. Although everyone had their sceptical 5 cent to add to the debate, they seemed to have been won over in the end. Reporter.co.za had found its niche and was doing surprisingly well.

Citizen journalism was carefully observing the new addition to its brood. When it was satisfied that Reporter.co.za was going to be just fine, Avusa dropped the bombshell:

Now the site has to be transformed to adapt to new technology. With video becoming such an important medium for news, a revamped Reporter site will need to be able to accept feeds from contributors whether they are shot by camera or mobile phone. The site also needs to be able to accept audio submissions.

It’s like the quiet before the storm. Nobody wants to open their big mouth, because they don’t want to be proven wrong again or ridiculed by the 6,000 contributors that have supported Reporter.co.za. But I’m going to say it: this idea is shit.

First of all, South Africans do not have the broadband capacity to post videos and view videos on a daily basis. If only 6,000 contributors participated in writing, how many will stick around to film a news clip? Reporter.co.za admits that it lacks breaking news stories – how will this change when switching to a video format? Contributors write about braai spots and Zimbabwe and they write poetry. They don’t become eye witnesses to corruption and natural disasters.

The Times has professional reporters who go out and film news as it happens. But even a video as newsworthy as stranded refugees only scores 136 hits. OK, maybe that’s overdone. Let’s try something more original. Formula 1 action in Sandton. Nearly 700 views. Wow. The Times had its big hurrah with the xenophobic violence outbreaks. What has that gotten them? No more regular viewers than usual it seems. And this isn’t because no one is interested. It’s because nobody has quota to throw around with.

Internet in South Africa is a matter of get in, get out. Almost like a military operation. Sure, I’m chilling here writing my blog, watching videos and playing around on facebook. That’s because I’m paying big bucks to do that. At home, I have to watch my little 3G counter very carefully, cause if I look at too many photographs (not videos!) I shoot R50 over my allowance. It hurts the wallet. I’m a middle-class white student. I haven’t even mentioned the poverty barrier which people hit against when wanting to be kick-ass citizen journalists.

Over 57% of the population is below the poverty line. THOSE are the citizens. They should be the ones practicing citizen journalism. Not bored housewives and rich lawyers with nothing better to do than make an extra R35.

An additional concern with Reporter.co.za’s big plan is the quality of the footage they receive. Even if it is lo-res, you can see the content quality of South Africans shooting videos on their mobile phones or digital cameras (expensive equipment!) at Myvideo.co.za. Don’t forget to snort in derision when you see this or this!

Dear Reporter.co.za. Please rethink your plans for video citizen journalism. South Africa is just not ready yet. Gotta run, my quota is finished!

Brace yourselves. This is the future.

•22 July 2008 • 1 Comment

So this is how far it’s come. Interactive TV (also called iTV) is finally a reality. Watch this clip and see what the future holds for us at home.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

The technology is of course still in its infant shoes, but this is how it works: The programmers of this special TV have placed millions of little dots as reference points in this excerpt of a popular German daily soapie. Therefore, the TV recognises objects as ‘newspaper’ and ‘human’, etc. It can therefore incorporate objects into the visual sequence or take them away. It has basic knowledge like “Water in a cup is meant to be drunk. A straw performs this function. Therefore a straw inserted in the screen can make the water disappear from the cup.” This is not shown in the clip, but it was shown in a full-length report on German TV. This new type of TV is more like a computer. It has a sensor pad on all sides. When you tip the TV, you renegotiate all the little points so the whole scene shifts and objects can fall over. 

Currently, this technology is not on offer to the public. When it does get released, only limited programmes will participate in the trail run and the interactivity will not occur in real time. So does this make it iTV at all? Interactive TV is characterised by immediacy. One of its features is that it acts as a type of electronic democracy. Viewers communicate with the programmers by giving their opinion or vote (by telephone call).

So what do we have on our hands here? A technology that will blow current iTV definitions out of the water? Or will it create a new theoretical wave? We could call it “New Television”. Either way, with these basics of a new kind of iTV already discovered, who knows what other clever things our scientists will come up with?

OK, so you must be feeling really pretty stupid right now. The man showing off this “brand new technology” is in fact a magician, Simon Pierro. Yes, that’s right. He’s pulling your leg. And so am I. Except the part where the future of iTV is a lot more complicated than current definitions make it out to be.

Bad news is good news

•28 May 2008 • 1 Comment

I hate to say this, but the recent xenophobic attacks have really given South African online video a boost. The Times has 70,768 hits on their photo slideshow ‘Flames of Hate’ and there are close to 10,000 views on the other xenophobia-related clips.

WARNING: VIEWER DISCRETION IS STRONGLY ADVISED

But why did we need this devastating thing to happen to get our nation’s Internet users to watch online video? The answer is simple: broadband. In 2006, 10.3% of South Africans were connected to the Internet. Experts estimate that up to 15% could now be connected. However, the stats for broadband are much lower. South Africa’s broadband penetration has been pinned at 0.5%.

What is broadband? I like the following definition:

Broadband in telecommunications means a wide range of frequencies that are available to transmit information. This ultimately means that the wider the range of frequencies available, the high the amount of information that can be sent at one given time. For an easy way to picture a broadband internet connection compared to a narrowband internet connection, think of a highway. With a one lane highway (narrowband), only one car at a time can travel, however with broadband, you can have a highway with 6 or 8 lanes, allowing more traffic to pass at one specific time.

So basically this means that most South African users have a slow Internet connection. But that isn’t even the half of it. You need to have serious money burning a hole in your pocket to be able to afford broadband. Or even narrowband for that matter. The fastest broadband offering in South Africa is Telkom’s DSL 4 Mbps service. This service is priced at R675 a month and allows for a 3GB monthly usage allowance which means the service costs R56,25 per Mbps/GB.

Using the Digital Opportunity Index (DO!), South Africa can be ranked 38th when compared to 40 other countries. SA is 10 times more expensive than China. Dr. Tim Kelly, from the ITU Strategy and Policy Unit said, “South Africa is paying far too much for broadband.”

Sounds pretty hopeless doesn’t it? However, there is a little gem called 3G. It’s the third generation in wirelesss technology. In South Africa, mobile service providers such as Vodafone and MTN offer 3G to thir customers. It basically works with a sim card and over the cell phone network. And because the cell phone network is far more advanced than the landline system, the 3G speed is quite impressive. Even in little old Grahamstown, 3G works like a charm. I have it at home and the ‘Flames of Hate’ slide show downloaded superfast. Plus, I’m not paying an arm and a leg for it. So the good news is that mobile technologies provide a decent alternative for the lower end of the market.

But where does this leave online video? The Times has chosen to wait until the “broadband bubble pops” – yes, that overused phrase. We’re all wondering if it’s ever going to pop. Until then, they’ll just have to wait like vultures for the bad news. Because fluffy video diaries just don’t cut it anymore.

Don’t look now, but God is watching!

•19 May 2008 • 3 Comments

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Then he sat back for a couple of thousands of years, watched what he’d done and decided it was not good. It was too dull and pathetic. Therefore, he reached down to give humans a slice of heaven: the Internet.

However, with the Internet came sinners who created websites praising sloth and greed. God was forced to reach down one more time. And he created GodTube.

A Christian online TV service.

How pretentious of him. GodTube is a Christian version of YouTube. Ground rules: there is only one God. OUR God. Therefore, don’t upload any non-Christian content. Never mind if you call your god God.

Sorry, I’m veering off the topic. What I actually wanted to talk about was the awesomeness of using online TV for freedom of religious expression. I got a bit distracted by the territorial nature of it.

I think the idea of GodTube and other such online religious channels is a good one. When I searched for “Christian” on YouTube, the first video I found showed a gay kiss. Hmmm, not that Christian I think. Through online religious TV, worshippers are guaranteed to get some good, clean, holy fun.

There are other religious online TV services, such as IslamicTube:

Islam has also jumped on the online TV bandwagon.

This is especially relevant in the African context. Restrictions on freedom of religious expression and a low amount of free TV channels have restricted the way in which worshippers negotiate their religion. An Episcopal report has highlighted concerns over church attendance drop. Whether this has anything to do with minimum exposure to the Christian faith in popular culture may be debated, but I think it may have something to do with it. As journalists, we are told to report both sides of the story. We no longer cover Christian book launches, Islamic traditions, and Buddhist rituals: we investigate them. And the media delights in atheism, because it always causes a stir.

What are the youth being taught about their faith? It is no longer “cool” to wear a khumūr or parade your faith by wearing a cross around your neck. Maybe by praising their respective gods online, religions can attract younger worshippers. They sorely need it.

I am not religious, but I feel everyone has a right to express their religious thoughts and feelings. Online TV might just be the next frontier that religions need to utilise a lot more.

This is a sign

•12 May 2008 • 2 Comments

South Africa needs to hurry the hell up. The USA is getting ready to go green by recycling their old Analog TVs and upgrading to HDTV. This is in advance of the Digital Transition Act which is forcing consumers to switch to lower energy television sets.

What does it mean to “go green”?

Consumer electronics, as a whole, are more eco-friendly than ever. Today, virtually every product on the shelf contains fewer chemicals, is more energy efficient, and is easier to recycle, repair and upgrade. Many manufacturers have developed green electronics lines. These products go the extra mile to contain fewer chemicals and are more energy efficient. In order to be labeled green, a product must meet a stringent checklist of criteria. There are hundreds of green electronics from plasma TVs and computers to MP3 players and cameras.

The USA doesn’t even have serious power failures, which are what South Africans in major cities have to experience on a daily basis. The government tells us: “Save energy!” but they don’t guide us in the right direction. Call me ignorant, but until I stumbled across the My Green Electronics website I didn’t realise that newer televisions save energy. It seems obvious now.

American cable companies are required by the FCC to keep supporting consumers with analog tv until 2012. After that, they will probably start charging extra to keep the connection going.

Cue the scary music. According to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, “If the cable companies had their way, you, your mother and father, or your next door neighbor could go to sleep one night after watching their favorite channel and wake up the next morning to a dark fuzzy screen.”

I think the way this whole undertaking is being run is exemplary: it might be profit-based, but it is a strong move towards Digital TV and will therefore help the planet go green.

South Africa needs to shape up and guide its population towards effective ways to save energy by saying “Bye, bye!” to Analog:

Analog tv is on the way out.