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The price of convenience December 22, 2009

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Thwarted in my attempts to get to the office this morning (Thank you Southern Fail) I returned home to an empty house. Having spent all of yesterday unlocking almost every achievement in the enjoyable Assassin’s Creed 2 on X360 I decided that I would like to play something else.

Not being fussed by the possibility of a trip to a shop I decided that I’d try my hand at downloading a game for my PC.I was aware that obtaining a game from a download-only provider such as Steam or Direct2Drive is generally more expensive that buy a physical copy from a store. I also knew that my e-copy was going to be DRM’d to the hilt so there’d be no opportunity to recoup any cost with a swift listing on eBay after completion. But, hey, it’s freakin’ cold outside and I can’t be bothered.  

Hearing that Game were now offering downloads I headed over to their website and checked out their e-wares. This is what I discovered:  

My my, what reasonable pricing you have...

Dragon Age: Origins. A fairly new game and quite a good one if the reviews are anything to go by. I was suckered in by the lure of that £16.98 sticker price which, it transpires, is not the price available if you want to download the game. No, the purely electronic copy is over twice the price of the physical copy at £34.99.  

Game, if you’re going to advertise games in your ‘Downloads’ section then do so using the download price. I’ve clicked on the Downloads section because I’m looking for games to download, for instant gratification, not a feeling of being cheated and extorted. None of the games that you have available for download are cheaper than their physical equivalents. The worst case I could find was ArmA II which is available for £8.98 for a physical copy and costs 122% more for the e-copy at £19.99.  

Never have I seen such a stark contrast between downloaded and physical goods. Looking at those two prices side-by-side begs the question: where’s the value? Sure, I’m getting the game instantly and I don’t have to venture out on a cold December day and that’s fine. I can see that there’s some value in that and I’m prepared to pay for it but certainly no more than a few quid. Game have had substantially lower overheads in delivering a downloaded game to my HDD than they would do delivering a disc to my hand. There’s no store to rent and associated bills, reduced staff levels and warehouse and logistics costs fall to zero. Alright, you’ve got to run DRM servers and buy the required bandwith but don’t try and tell me those costs are greater than those incurred running a bricks and mortar store.  

Game is in a really good position to take a super-competitive stance in the PC downloads market. It’s got brand recognition, it’s got enough of the UK’s games industry to have some sway over suppliers and it’s got a channel. They should be working hard now to establish themselves in the downloads market with aggressive pricing, limited and targetted advertising and an increased catalogue of available games. This could be an important market for them as Microsoft and Sony start publishing X360 and PS3 games through the consoles themselves, effectively locking Game out the console market as anything other than a hardware supplier. Everyone is watching Apple make a killing out of being the sole content provider for their platform and planning on emulating this success. 

So, what do you think I did? Did I buy the download for £34.99 or did I opt for the £16.98 physical copy? Don’t be stupid. I didn’t do either. Amazon.co.uk have it on sale for £14.99 delivered.


Pay to Play October 10, 2009

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There’s a lot of rage right now surrounding the decision of a group of angel investors – those that provide initial capital to potential start-ups – to begin charging potential investees to view pitches.

Fees can be as much as $2,000 for a 20 minutes slot in which the start-up shows their product, explains their business model and then offers a stake in the company for investment cash. If you’ve seen Dragon’s Den then you’ll already be familiar with the format.

This charging of poor by the extremely rich has certainly got the backs up of some very vocal individuals. Jason Calacanis wrote a scathing blog post about this relatively new practice in which he says:

“These pay-for-play scams remind me of the “modeling agencies” that charge people for representation, acting lessons and to have their headshots done. Trust me kids, Brad Pitt and Kate Moss did not pay to get representation… If you’re paying to get an agent, it’s because you’re being scammed.”

But it’s not as simple as that. There are two main reasons that angel investors are charging for their time:

1. The Recession

Yeah, that ol’ bugbear. As a result of all that credit-crunchiness it is now much, much harder to obtain money for investment in new businesses. Hell, most companies that went under in 2008/2009 went under because the banks withdrew previously agreed overdraft limits of a couple of thousand pounds, severely impacting on a company’s cash flow. Trying to get your hands on the large quantities of cash required to start a business or buy a house has become significantly more difficult.

So, angel investors will charge because they can. You need their money and you may be struggling to get it from somewhere else. If you need those funds bad enough then you’ll pay the investor’s fee. And they know it. Sure it sounds unfair but that’s capitalism. As the availability of a commodity (in this case cold, hard cash) diminishes, so its value and price increases.

2. Barriers to Entry

The barriers to entry in to the tech industry are relatively low. There’s no expensive machinery that needs to be purchased, no extensive premises that need renting and the technical knowledge required is not in shortage and so is not prohibitively expensive. This means that there are plenty of people able to consider entering the market, particularly as general media coverage increases as a result of Twitter, Spotify and the iPhone App Store.

Investment companies as a result are becoming inundated with requests for time from people who seek the investment that can start them off on their way. Some companies can see many hundreds in a month and end up with only 1-2 final companies that a worth taking a chance on. This is a very inefficient way to screen candidates. If you have a job vacancy do you interview expressing an interest? No, you have an application stage, and perhaps a telephone interview conducted by a member of your HR team/PA. I’m not suggesting that start-ups submit a written business plan first but what’s clear is that investors have had to increase the barriers to entry to clear away some of the dross.

Calacanis argues that a mature or better start-up would refuse to pay present their case to investors, instead relying on word-of-mouth buzz or industry connections. Instead the only people that would pay would be the less connected or the less good: those that had not invested the time to foster a network and/or those who did not have an inspiring product. Problem is, that’s the wrong way around. A bad start-up likely knows that they don’t have a very good idea and are not likely to want to risk their own funds if there’s a good chance they won’t receive funding. Whereas a good start-up will likely believe themselves to have a better chance of obtain a fistful of readies and so will be happy to pay (or at least, accepting of) the pay-to-play fee.

Paying that fee demonstrates self-belief, self-investment and overall a confidence in the future of your company. In a time when the the investment world is still firmly in the recovering stages that confidence can mean a lot. Who wants to invest in the future of your company when you won’t?

While I don’t disagree entirely with the practice I believe that some rules do need to be put in place in order to prevent abuse of the system. Angel Capital are calling for a cap on pitch fees at $500 and others believe that a fee should be charged as a percentage of the level of investment requested which sounds proportionate and fairer.

Those who believe that charging is altogether outrageous need to appreciate that start-ups are now more prevalent and far more risky than they were in earlier years – particularly while the question of monetising the web remains unanswered. Perhaps the trend will reverse as the global economy improves and the struggle to profitability lesson slightly. Somehow though, I feel that while the level of fees charged may rise and fall the modus operandi is here for good.

How to teach an ardor stance on net security? October 9, 2009

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It has been widely reported that 10,000 Hotmail email addresses ended up on the internet with matching passwords attached to each. After some brief fear of a widespread hacking job it became clear that these details had not been extracted by any black-hat coding ninjas. Rather, that the owner of each compromised account had willing given their details away to a fraudulent phishing attack.

Anti-virus companies spend millions, freakin’ millions on developing software designed to keep people safe from the more shady corners of the net. They developed file scanners, firewalls, spam-blockers and heuristic detection algorithms to keep the public safe and then they sold it to them so that they could protect their hardware from spyware, Trojans and worms. So they installed it, and all at once did they feel safe and good.

The problem is that it’s not enough. The general public seem to think that they’re protected from everything just because they downloaded AVG for free (or bought a Mac). They don’t appreciate that Anti-virus software has its limitations, the biggest one being its inability to save a user from their own stupidity.

Despite every company in the known world trying to tell their customers that they will NEVER ask for log-in details and or a password people will still give hand their passwords over to any email with a .jpeg file of any particular bank’s logo sutured on. People are still sending money to the sons of wealth Nigerian princes with liquidity problems. People are still clicking on banners telling them they’ve won a laptop, or a plasma television, or a holiday, or Tower Bridge. Apparently even Heads of the F.B.I. do it.

They just want to get on and use the computer for what they want. They’ll download anything, confirm everything and care nothing as they fumble their way around the internet, just so long as the computer remains usable. Their PC can be part of a botnet sending a hundred spam email a day but everything is hunky-dory if iPlayer is still working.

The only two things that prompt a response from an apathetic user from this malware co-existence are a) they download something that actually prevents them using the computer, or b) their bank account is emptied via a cash point in Taiwan.

Only education will save the day. People have to be taught about what is most likely safe and what probably isn’t. But people don’t care a massive amount about internet safety. They don’t care about computers at all. Go and find someone over the age of 30 and ask them what processor they have their computer. See that glazing of their eyes? That’s proof, that is.

It’s not a new problem – plenty of garages see cars with engines that detonated because they didn’t have any oil in them and they will continue to do so until the end of time. Or at least until the electric car becomes the norm and then it’ll just be something else going wrong.

Phishing is one of those problems that will exist in some form forever, a result of a failing in human nature that no software can reprogram.

I’ll bet anyone £20 that of the 10,000 addresses published, less than 50 per cent have had their passwords changed by the end of next week. Care to bet against me? No, I didn’t think so.

PSP Go doesn’t Go far enough October 6, 2009

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Sony's PSP Go

Sony's PSP Go

Sony’s new PSP Go was launched last week to a fanfare of umms and errs. Whilst reviewers have generally found the PSP Go to be a satisfactory evolution of the PSP line many have questioned Sony’s plan in bringing this device to market.

Much has already been said about the price. In the UK it’s RRP is £224.99 – some £90 more expensive that its predecessor despite offering almost nothing extra in terms of features or tricks. Whilst the new Go is rocking a 16GB flash drive it also features a smaller screen, has no upgraded internals, has lost its user-replaceable battery and gained a proprietary Sony connection (surprise!) which means all your previous accessories will now be totally useless unless you fork out extra for an additional and unsightly adaptor. Not only that but there’s now no UMD drive either, so your existing catalogue of PSP games are also totally useless. Don’t worry, you can purchase them again online for their recommended retail price. Yay!

But who’s going to buy it? Well, nobody that already owns a PSP. Why pay over the odds for a machine that won’t accept you’re old accessories or your existing library of PSP titles and which won’t do anything that your current PSP couldn’t already? That’s right, you shouldn’t. And people won’t.

Sony has essentially created a new, non-backwards compatible piece of hardware which ordinarily would be fine. Ordinarily new, non-backwards compatible pieces of hardware are normally released when there’s a shift to the next system. People wouldn’t mind if their old games didn’t work and if their accessories were junk had Sony released the PSP2 and that’s exactly what they should have done. They could have gone right ahead and released their online catalogue of original PSP games and made them available to download to both PSP and PSP2 users. All PSP2 games would then only ever be released for download and Sony could merrily charge as much as they wanted for all of time. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do a transition.

Instead they release the PSP Go and have the balls to charge 66% more for the device in the mistaken belief that the Go is something to which gamers will ‘aspire’. Gamers don’t aspire to consoles. They buy consoles because they want to play fun, entertaining games that they will enjoy. I’ll admit that the PSP Go makes the DS looks like an ugly brick but it’ll be Nintendo laughing by the time accounts are submitted for the financial year 09/10.

The PSP Go is available now.

“Netbook of the future”? September 24, 2009

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Archos have announced their upcoming 9-inch tablet computer. Following on from their recent introduction of their Android-lovin’ Archos 5 Internet Tablet, the bigger brother – catchily coined ‘9PCTablet’ – will be running off of an Intel Atom processor and packing Windows 7 Starter Edition for your multi-touching pleasure.

The reveal took place at the Intel Developers’ Forum which is currently taking place in San Francisco. Archos have referred to this device as the “netbook of the future.” It is easy to see how correct they could be. The tablet PC is an area that is starting to capture some real interest now that everyone thinks that’s what Apple is pushing for. It also helps that technology is quickly reaching a point where such tablets can be powerful enough to do some trick tasks whilst remaining thin and with battery life measured in hours, not minutes.

One of the things that is missing from the 9PCTablet is a 3G SIM card slot: an omission that may prove to be a little short-sighted and may limit this product to niche-market popularity. Tablet PCs are not powerful or practical enough to do a vast majority of tasks that the average Joe may want to undertake on a computer. The thing, nay, the only thing that a tablet or netbook does well is providing portable internet access on relatively small budget.

Whilst Wi-fi will happily suffice when you’re at home or at a friend’s house, it isn’t much good when you’re on a train, or in a car, or at the park, or the office canteen on your lunch break, or anywhere further than 20 miles of the local exchange. The one thing preventing many people from spending money on a portable internet device is that its portability is drastically limited without a 3G dataplan.

Most of the mobile phone vendors in the UK have realised this and now sell dataplans with subsidised netbooks with integrated 3G modems – though some annoyingly persist with a dongle: a result of either having to maintain brand recognition or woeful techical foresight. Or both.

A device like the 9PCTablet would do much better being offered with a dataplan and, vitally, subsidisation from a third party phone network. You think that Apple’s (assumingly) forthcoming tablet will lack a 3G modem? Think again, Archos. Think again. What the 9PCTablet will have, however, is a 1024×600 pixel display, Bluetooth 2.1, USB 2.0, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, stereo speakers, built-in microphone, optical trackpoint, and an 1.3 megapixel camera. The device is slated for release in conjunction with Windows 7 on 22 October 2009 for a retail of $499 plus taxes.

HTC Hero finally the phone it was always supposed to be September 16, 2009

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Having waited a not inconsiderable amount of time for the ROM to download from the HTC Europe servers (101MB @ ~20KBps = sad face) I finally completed the upgrade.

The process itself was simple. Plug in the phone via USB and run the downloaded program. Click a few ‘next’ buttons and then just sit tight for a few minutes. Voilà! New firmwarey goodness.

The phone is so much better than it was before. Screen transitions are smooth and faster. I can now turn on the screen animations in the settings menu and not feel my phone slowly grinding to a halt. Using the Mail and Messages widgets is a real delight. In short, this phone finally feels like the phone that it always should have been from release. If you live in the UK and have a HTC Hero then I urge you to get this upgrade. Even if you thought your phone was fine before, you’ll think it’s awesome afterwards.

Unfortunately, if you purchased yours on contract from Orange or T-Mobile (or T-Orange, as I suppose they are now) then your phone will be running a custom ROM and will not be able to update with this program. Sorry folks. That said, if you’re feeling brave then head over to MoDaCo to learn about rooting and installing their custom ROM which is based on this new release.

It’s not all sugar-sweet happiness though. The new firmware hasn’t addressed a couple of niggling issues. Peep, the HTC-provided Twitter client still refuses to connect through the Vodafone network and you are still unable to send files to your friend’s mobiles via bluetooth. Importantly though, my phone has stopped doing the weird ‘ghostly-trackball trick’ that I videoed.

Also, I noticed for the first time that neither Android or HTC has a suitable or complete method to backup your phone. Having used a Nokia for years and years I’ve become very used to their Nokia Suite and the included backup programme that will make copies of all messages, pictures, settings, notes, EVERYTHING. Nothing like this exists for the Android market except a couple of downloadable apps from the Android Market but even these to not offer a complete solution. Given how much vital information most people now store on their phones I think that it’s surprising that this has not been addressed.

Sure, I could use Nandroid. But I’m not confident enough to root. Yet.

Updated HTC Hero ROM 2.73.405.5 available in UK! September 15, 2009

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I’ve just checked the HTC website and discovered that the new ROM build has now been made available in the UK. It’s already been available for the Scandinavian market and has now been unleashed upon our tiny isle.

I’m downloading the new ROM as I type and I’ll post back once I’ve completed the upgrade.

I want my high-powered Androids! September 12, 2009

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The new Motorola CLIQ

The new Motorola CLIQ

With the recent announcement of Motorola’s new MOTOBLUR-running phones, Engadget have posted a handy hardware comparison chart for the handful of handsets currently handling Android.

The spec chart reads similarly to a netbook comparison sheet – the hardware between the comparators is almost identical. That 528MHz Qualcomm chip is quickly becoming the standard for Android.

But for how much longer? The internet is awash with people (including myself) who believe that Android handsets are a bit underpowered and in need of a boost. I wonder if battery life is a contributory factor given the platform’s ability to multitask?

I want my Snap(py)dragon.

HTC Hero broken already? September 10, 2009

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The issue that I’ve been having with the trackball on my HTC Hero is getting worse. I managed to finally grab some footage of it acting up so that I can take it in to Carphone Warehouse and see what they’re going to do about it. Having looked at their website it would appear that they will only do anything for you with 28 days. Annoyingly, if I go into Carphone Warehouse tomorrow it’ll be 32 days since purchase. Hopefully they’ll cut me some slack. It would appear that they have a repair service but it looks like they charge.

One thing I am clear on is that I am not paying to get this fixed. The phone is clearly suffering a manufacturing fault. It hasn’t been dropped, been exposed to liquid or any force or pressure. I’ve cared for this phone more than I would my own child (were I silly enough to have any).

I can’t find evidence of anyone else on the internet having this problem but can that really be the case? Is everyone having the flawless trackball experience that HTC must have intended for us all to have?

Apple’s iPod Event September 9, 2009

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Today is the day where Apple is holding their ‘It’s only Rock and Roll’ event where they are expected to introduce a refreshed iPod lineup in time for Christmas.

For live coverage of the event head over to Engadget for blow-by-blow coverage at the following link: Engadget: Apple’s ‘It’s only Rock and Roll’ event

Action kicks off at 10am PST (6:00pm GMT)