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July 27th, 2006

Cartoonists release 'Odd Job Jack' into the Creative Commons

Cartoonists release 'Odd Job Jack' into the Creative Commons

Smiley Guy Studios, the maker of a Canadian television cartoon called Odd Job Jack, has made a plucky decision to give away its master files under a creative commons licence. You’ll be able to download the flash files, the backgrounds, characters, and props and use them in your own productions. Amateur animators will be able to disassemble the Flash code for a broadcast cartoon for perhaps the first time.

Why is this a brave move? At a time when big media companies are terrified of the internet and strictly enforcing control over their output, Jack’s creators are not just giving data away. They are giving away control. You are allowed to use their work to create derivative works, provided that the original authors are credited, your work is non-commercial and you grant people the same rights in your spin-off. Those rights are granted using a standard Creative Commons licence.

One of the criticisms often levelled at copyright law is that it stops people from building on our shared culture and stifles freedom of speech. Of course, that criticism assumes that the community as a whole has a greater claim to a piece of creative work than the person that first made it, which is highly contentious. In any case, by using a Creative Commons licence, Jack’s creators have given anybody the creative freedom to critique, parody and regenerate their work.

What if Jack and friends are used to promote a political cause the cartoonists oppose? What if their characters are used to spread hatred? As far as I can see, there’s nothing they can do about it, and this is a weakness in the Creative Commons system. It assumes that creators want to license usage based on how people reproduce and adapt their work and whether they make any money, and not based on who they are. We can all think of organisations and individuals who we wouldn’t want to help promote their views, even if we respect their right to express them freely.

Of course, permission on a case by case basis would be completely unscalable. A key strength of Creative Commons is that it scales well: you decide your licence once, and your works go off into the world on their own adventures. You just have to be willing to release them into the wild.

Through this release, described by Jack’s creators as ‘a free gift to the entire planet’, Smiley Guy Studios is investing in the next generation of cartoonists as well as giving the concept of Creative Commons a ringing endorsement.

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July 21st, 2006

Sky joins budget broadband bun-fight

Sky joins budget broadband bun-fight

The budget broadband battlefield welcomed a new force this week in the shape of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

This story was broken first in The Sun, a paper owned by News Corporation, which in turn owns 38 per cent of Sky (it’s also on mad.co.uk). Sky says it is planning to ‘give away’ broadband access to its eight million residential customers. Subscribers to the ‘Base’ service with 2GB per month capped downloads and speeds up to 2Mbps will have to pay a connection charge of GBP40 then no further fees. Those opting for the ‘max’ service offering speeds up to 16Mbps and ‘unlimited’ usage will be charged a further GBP10 monthly subscription. For another GBP14 a month, Sky will happily throw in an ‘unlimited’ phone call package to existing BT customers.

This deal strongly echoes the ‘free broadband’ TalkTalk deals marketed to the hilt by Carphone Warehouse earlier this year. Essentially both companies are covering the provision costs of ‘free’ or at the very least ‘relatively cheap’ broadband access in return for luring the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers in some other area of service provision. I fully expect to be enticed by similar deals from my bank, utility companies, supermarket, insurance companies and local boozer in forthcoming months.

The thing is, despite currently paying nearly thirty quid a month for broadband access from a company I have no particularly positive feelings towards, I’m still unlikely to change provider.

Why not? My current deal is expensive and not exceptionally reliable, while alternative deals are cheap and are unlikely to be any more or less clunky than my current line. I guess these things are just habitual. Perhaps I inherently avoid change. I’m certainly getting on a bit. All factors I’m sure. Perhaps ISPs are like bank accounts, and if you’ve been with one company for over a decade you’re just not going to change. The capital lettered ‘FREE’ adverts just fade into a background of white noise marketing.

So, I have three questions for you (assuming you’re happy to comment on blogs – I certainly don’t want to be an unwanted catalyst for change myself…)

~Are you likely to change ISP in the near future for a free or cheap deal in exchange for your loyalty in other areas of service provision?
~If not, who do you think IS happy to change whenever a new deal like this comes along?
~And finally, when is Carphone Warehouse going to change that anachronistic brand once and for all?

Carphones, I ask you…

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July 11th, 2006

Windows 98 dies, leaving 70 million potential zombies on the internet

Windows 98 dies, leaving 70 million potential zombies on the internet

As of today, Windows 98 is no longer supported. If it breaks, you can’t get Microsoft’s help fixing it. Even if new viruses attack the platform, Microsoft won’t issue any new security fixes or patches. It is an ex-platform. It has ceased to be.

For many users, that couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. According to the BBC, there are still 70 million people using Windows 98. Most of them will be pottering along quite happily – Windows 98 is a big improvement on 95’s stability and only differs from Windows XP in the details.

Microsoft is advising Windows 98 users to upgrade to a more secure operating system, such as XP. This seems an odd strategy, given that XP is due to be superseded when Vista eventually comes out next year. If people have waited this long to upgrade, they’re likely to wait another year to upgrade or not bother. It’s also going to be hard to persuade people to spend about £90 to replace something familiar that already fits their needs adequately.

A shift to Linux also seems highly unlikely, given that people using Windows 98 are on the whole unlikely to be at the cutting edge of technology.

So the likely outcome of Windows 98 reaching the end of its supported life is that we’ll have tens of millions of unsupported PCs connected to the internet.
The BBC reports that there is a team of Russian hackers that specialises in creating malware for Windows 98. If there are no official security patches being issued, Windows 98 users will be sitting ducks. As they are increasingly exploited by spammers, the whole internet will suffer.

There are several possible solutions for this. Microsoft might be pressured into responding to the biggest threats (that seems highly likely). Third-party patches might become the norm – 70 million users is a massive market for a software startup to address. Or, the vulnerabilities could go unpatched, leaving Windows 98 users exposed and everyone else bearing the brunt of the resulting spam and malware.

Clearly we shouldn’t expect software companies to support products forever. It would have been more responsible, though, for Microsoft to wait until there was a smooth migration path to Vista before dumping 98. At that point people might upgrade for the benefits, rather than because they’re threatened with having no further support or buying another product that will be superseded in the next year.

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July 6th, 2006

Are web 2.0 social media press releases the future?

Are web 2.0 social media press releases the future?

PR agency Shift Communications has got itself some nice coverage in Business Week (PDF) with a press release entitled ‘Shift Communications debuts first-ever template for “social media press release”‘.

The company argues that now journalists use the web a lot, press releases should ‘use the latest tools (social bookmarking, RSS, etc.) to provide background data, context and on-going updates to clients’ news’. Shift goes on to say that this new media press release can gather all different types of information (including video) into one place for convenience.

I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t sound like a press release, it sounds like a website. But let’s take a look at the template (PDF) they’ve created anyway:


The template’s a bit confusing because you’re not actually supposed to use those coloured boxes. It’s supposed to look like this press release. So all they’re doing is telling you what order they think you should put things in and suggesting that you should be using more links to websites. They say the template is free for anyone to use and they’re not enforcing copyright. Which is good, because it would be hard to see how they could.

I’m not convinced journalists would find many of these links useful in this context. Just because they use digg, it doesn’t mean they want to vote for your press releases. Indeed, the fact that only three people have voted for this release on digg proves this point. The only comment on digg about this template says: ‘Cool idea but I think most of the people I send releases to would be like “huh?”‘.

Through Technorati and digg you can find out what people in the blogosphere are saying about your story, but that cuts two ways. Companies could benefit from the credibility of having positive commentary around their release, and this might convince journalists that they’re worth covering. But is that worth running the risk of introducing journalists to all independent commentary? It could come from competitors, customers, suppliers, anyone with an axe to grind, or complete strangers trolling. By linking to these independent fora, all this comment is effectively attached to the press release. It might be very web 2.0, but it also seems very risky as a PR strategy. Journalists will do their own further research where warranted and there’s no reason for a PR agency to put both sides of the story. That’s not what they’re paid for.

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July 5th, 2006

Tech Marketing for Chimps

Tech Marketing for Chimps

On the way to the office the other day I was flicking through the pages of Metro on the train when I saw something exciting: A cryptic teaser advert for a website, featuring a picture of a monkey wearing headphones and a slogan asking if I was an ‘iChimp’. Am I an iChimp? I don’t know, but I certainly needed to find out. So being a sucker for any kind of product endorsed by a monkey (or great ape) I ripped the ad out of the paper and took a look at the site, www.idont.com, just as soon as I got to the office.

The site has all the hallmarks of a 1998 dotcom disaster in waiting. Pointless animated intro movie that you can’t click through, excessive and unnecessary use of Flash throughout the site, pages of meaningless content which carefully avoid explaining what all this is actually about.

Underneath all the faux-counter-culture nonsense, dismal attempts at humour and general pointlessness, there’s a page which finally gets to the point, which is this: It’s an MP3 player. It kind of looks like an iPod, but it’s not, no, this is different from an iPod. If you buy an iPod, you’re a sheep, but if you buy this MP3 player, you’re cool, free-thinking and independent, apparently. Yawn.

Are we going to start doing this sort of thing again in tech marketing? Really? We all know what happened last time people started spending buckets of cash on flashy websites that bury any useful content they might have under a pile of painfully hip new-meeja garbage.

On top of everything else, I find it hard to believe that this kind of site will actually work for the client. I can’t imagine many people looking at this site and rushing out to buy one of Sanddisk’s Sansa e200 players off the back of it – I think they’d sell a lot more by using the ad-space in Metro for a straightforward advert extolling the many undeniable virtues of their product.

I shudder to think just how miniscule the hit rate for this campaign must be, when you look at the number of barriers it places between the consumer who first notices the advert and any real information about the product. And if the buzz on the blogosphere is anything to go by, there are a lot of people out there who are positively offended by this ‘marketing poorly dressed up as anti-conformity’ nonsense.

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