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Google has rather quietly launched a catalog app for the iPad. After it’s last ill-fated attempt to digitize catalogs bit the dust two and a half years ago, the new tablet app (coming to Android devices soon) seems to be the right move at the right time. Even if you don’t enjoy shopping – or feel, like Engadget, that catalogs are best suited for starting fires in the fireplace (fair enough) – the new app has relevance. This is what retail and magazines should be like on a tablet. Digital periodicals have had a rough road so far, but there’s still a lot of potential in the medium, and if you add in an easier way to make money, the business should get a boost. The click-to-buy function gets at that powerful instant gratification impulse, and by couching it in an experience that’s fun, interactive, and playful, catalogs and publications should have an easier time drawing consumers in.

From a purely personal and frivolous standpoint, I love the new Google app. You can page through a range of catalogs with a swipe of the finger, zoom in on images, click to purchase, save favorites to a single location from different stores, share stuff with friends, and even create your own collages pairing together items from all over the place. It’s way cooler than the analog alternative, and much easier than opening up multiple windows on your PC to compare products. There are still a limited number of catalogs available in the app, but that will surely change. I expect we’ll see a big jump before the holiday shopping season. In the meantime, I’m happy with what I can get. It’s about time the tablet shopping experience got a makeover.

ESPN started the practice back in 2009 of tying online content access to a pay-TV subscription. And while it’s taken a while to catch on, the trend is starting to gather serious momentum. HBO has extended its campaign of streaming content behind a subscription-based authentication wall, and now Fox is getting in the game by pulling new episodes away from free websites, including its own Fox.com. Peter Kafka of All Things Digital reports that ABC may be next in line.

Here’s the thing. While ESPN and HBO have always been premium channels, Fox and ABC are part of the free broadcast television line-up, and the idea of paying for online access is a bit hard to swallow. If I own a computer instead of a TV (think dorm room), why shouldn’t I still be able to watch prime-time television?

The problem is that the business dynamics today are far different from what they were when cable television first entered the scene. First, online video delivery costs money above and beyond what it takes to broadcast OTA content. Second, cable (and telco and satellite) retransmission fees are a big part of programmers’ revenues, which means they have every incentive to make pay-TV subscription packages more valuable with exclusive content. And third, consumers can get free or cheap entertainment in a lot of different ways today, which means broadcast television really does align more closely with premium content than it did back in the 1980s and 90s.

I don’t like the idea of having to pay (directly or indirectly) for Fox content online any more than anyone else, but from a business standpoint, the programmer’s decision certainly makes sense. At least it does unless and until Fox starts to lose audiences. The question is, do consumers want their Fox content today as much as they wanted their MTV 20 years ago.

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Amazon has quietly launched an entirely web-based version of their Kindle e-reader platform. It’s not the Kindle 4 or a Kindle Air Android tablet but the Kindle Cloud Reader is an interesting product in its own right.

First, while the Kindle Cloud Reader is entirely web-based the iPad browser edition let’s you “download” or cache any book for offline reading. Meaning, when you hop on that plane, your digital book will still be accessible without Internet access. Next, the Cloud Reader is capable of something no Kindle iOS app is… by integrating a book store shopping experience. Browse and purchase a book without leave the “app.”

I assume this Amazon initiative was fast tracked when Apple threatened to take a 30% cut of just about everything consumed via iPad or iPhone — leading some to consider Apple App Store abandonment. But Apple somewhat relented, effectively forcing merchants to merely remove in-app shopping links should they choose to abstain from Apple’s non-favorable profit sharing plan. Given that change of course and Amazon’s native support of many mobile platforms, I wonder if there’s actually a need for or interest in a web-based reader at this point (which isn’t currently compatible with smartphone web browsers).

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Online video streaming service Hulu has been communicating via Twitter (here, here, here) that they’re considering an ad-free tier of service.

Hulu currently offers free access via web browser and an $8 monthly subscription that expands access to mobile and television devices. But both levels are saddled with commercial interruption. As a subscriber, I’ve found the advertising to be a non-issue. Yet there appears significant pushback from what are perhaps prospective customers. The common argument seems to be folks shouldn’t have to both pay and be subjected to commercials. Yet, most of us are subjected to similar on a regular basis with relatively little complaint… as most pay cable and satellite television channels and programming are similarly presented. Unfortunately for Hulu, this counter argument was easier to make before Netflix unveiled their (commercial free) streaming-only package at the same price point as Hulu. And I doubt the majority of those making noise are likely to pony up at the proposed “higher price.”

At the end of the day, again as a subscriber, I’d say Hulu’s biggest problem is content chaos – different shows are selectively available on different platforms coupled with limited programming predictability. You’d think the descendent of the studio system could have done a more masterful job navigating these licensing waters.

(via GigaOm)

By any measure, Google TV has been a failure. In fact, I’d say they’re not even in the game. And no company has paid the price more than Logitech with their bad bet on Google’s initial foray into the living room. Just how bad has it been? More Logitech Revue hardware was returned in the second quarter than was actually purchased. Ouch. I’m sure both Google and Logitech shoulder their fair share of blame – neither did an effective job explaining the unique benefits of this product or platform. But the software experience failings themselves are on Google. At $250 or $300, as originally priced, there are very few people I could (or did) recommend the Revue too.

However, as of today, the Logitech Revue is now merely a hundred bucks. And its capabilities and shortcomings look much different at this price point… First off, in my experience, Google TV offers the very best television-based web browsing experience. Neverminding for a moment those blocked sites. Next, while the Google TV platform has remained relatively stagnant and most “apps” are actually just reformatted webpages, you’ve got access to core services similar to what’s found find competing platforms in this range – like the new Roku 2. In fact, I’d say Netflix, Amazon VOD, Pandora, and YouTube make the Revue fairly well rounded. Pulling it all together is the full-on wireless QWERTY keyboard… which ran $99 until last week. So now you get Logitech’s complete Google TV experience for the price of the keyboard.

Of course, it’s not entirely clear how committed Logitech will remain to this product or Google TV in general given the massive hemorrhaging. But if they deliver the marketplace-powered Android Honeycomb Google TV update this summer, as promised, it’s a whole new ballgame.

As much as people like to hold Netflix up as a competitor to cable TV, the truth is it’s much more akin to HBO in both value and price. The one big difference between the two is HBO’s steadfast determination to tie its distribution to cable subscription packages. On that front, the company got another boost today with the official launch of the HBO Go and MAX Go (Cinemax) apps for Charter subscribers. These Internet apps mean authenticated users can get HBO and Cinemax shows virtually anywhere. And with Charter on board now, the only big players without mobile HBO on the docket are Cablevision and Time Warner Cable.

HBO is following in ESPN’s footsteps, proving that good content can dictate carriage in the online world as much as it can in the traditional pay-TV space. However, the more HBO expands its online content, the more it sets itself up as a direct rival to Netflix. Both are roughly the same price, and offer a mix of great content along with some middling stuff. HBO distinguishes itself in the original content domain, but even there, Netflix is looking to make its own waves. So the question becomes, are people more likely to pay for something separate from cable, or for a bundled cable add-on? And if we want both, just how high do we think we can we stretch the monthly entertainment budget?

Can’t Trust The Cloud?

Dave Zatz —  July 6, 2011

As we increasingly construct virtual identities and migrate our digital possessions into the cloud, it’s a worthwhile exercise to periodically reflect on these increasingly amorphous services. And my top two concerns are security and dependability.

On the security front, my guiding principle is an assumption that just about any host can and will be hacked. Which is why we turn to encryption for additional layers of defense. Unfortunately, some companies offer insufficient protection or overstate their capabilities. For example, it now appears that cloud file storage and sharing provider Dropbox embodies both. Whereas the company originally claimed user files were encrypted in such a way that even employees couldn’t access the data, it turns out encryption is handled on Dropbox servers and they maintain the encryption keys. Meaning, yes, employees can and have accessed user data… leading to a FTC complaint. Additionally, a recent service update inadvertently left all Dropbox accounts without password protection for about 4 hours – a startling development. Is Dropbox unique in their shortcomings? Continue Reading…