February 3, 2008

Is Apple Really Skimming From Rentals To Pay for the Apple TV?

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tags: — Tom @ 4:09 pm

Apple TVIt’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here, but I’ve been roused from blog neglect.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball pointed out a Computerworld story by Seth Weintraub in which Weintraub accuses Apple of “subsidizing” the cost of the Apple TV with money skimmed from iTunes movie rentals. (No, really. When I say skimmed, I’m not trying to introduce hyperbole. He actually makes reference to Tony Soprano when describing the practice.)

The story received enough attention for Weintraub to address the Daring Fireball traffic directly, nastily adding

Also Valleywag, Gizmodo, Macrumors, and Mac Daily News among others have picked up this story and may have made it easier to understand for Mr. Gruber and his readers…

(Note that those sources simply link to or report on Weintraub’s story, without addressing his argument in a substantive way.)

In the comments, a number of people have pointed out that the article is kind of silly. Weintraub responded once stating that the commenter “managed to miss the point of the whole article,” and responded to additional comments with “See above.” It seems that the possibility that the article itself is a bit of a reach has escaped him.

I don’t think everyone’s just missed the point. There are a few reasons why rational people might draw a very different conclusion than Weintraub.

The Price Drop Isn’t U.S. Only

“Why did the US version price drop from $299-$399 to $229-$329 while the rest of the world still has to pay the same price for Apple TVs? … Apple is subsidizing the cost of the Apple TV hardware with movie rentals.” The problem with this conclusion is that price reductions are for the U.S. and Canada, despite the lack of rental content being offered in the Canadian iTunes store.

We’re Using iSuppli Numbers?

I don’t really want to debate the margins but we have to acknowledge that iSuppli’s numbers are at best educated guesses and at worst wildly inaccurate. Anyone can purchase a 160GB internal hard drive for at or near the prices iSuppli quotes — I suspect that Apple is doing much, much better.

Did We Expect Apple to Provide Movie Rentals at Cost?

Weintraub said in an update, “The point is the SUBSIDIZING Apple TV… Of course Apple deserves a cut of the products they sell.” He dismisses the sentiment that obviously Apple expected to make money from movie rentals, and thinks that perhaps capital letters will somehow make things more clear. But in the article he plainly makes the implication that even with music and video, Apple is merely trying to recover the cost of bandwidth.

Apple has always said that it made money on music and movies, just not very much. Movie rentals are no different — Apple is selling them at a profit. In other news, so does Blockbuster — the rentals aren’t there to improve margins on candy sales. Maybe this is a bit more complicated than Weintraub’s allusions to the game console market would allow.

Apple TV Isn’t the iPod, and Movies Aren’t Music

Weintraub seems to discount Apple’s approach based on the perceived dynamics of the music player market. With the iPod, there was a general belief that the store existed to provide content for the players and to create Apple lock-in.

(This belief isn’t necessarily supported by the facts, as reports have shown that most users’ experience mirrors my own — most of my music is ripped from my CD collection, and only slightly supplemented with iTMS purchases. The actual story is probably more complicated and related to risks associated with allowing another company to dominate the music download market.)

The movie download market has proven very different. Legal complications and DRM make ripping of movies far less common. There is no way to burn DVDs of purchased digital movies. And the market has demonstrated that there is limited appeal to viewing movies on one’s computer or media player. So where the iPod had massive back catalogs of music itching to be set free and an easy way to do that, the digital movie download/rental market desperately needs a simple way to get those movies to the living room television. And many companies have jumped in to try and create that mechanism.

Competition has heated up. There are some big players making a bid to deliver digital rentals to the family TV, including

Oh, We’re Talking About Made-Up Margin Numbers

“Of course, the exact amount that Apple pulls from the studios is a secret. I would guess that it is about $1 – $2 per movie…. The aggressive margins on TV content could very well be why NBC Universal dropped its iTunes relationship last year and why it took so long to get all of the studios signed up for movie rentals.” Here’s where Weintraub really seems to run off the rails — he says that no one knows what the margin is on rentals, makes a guess then cites that “aggressive margin” as a possible reason why Apple had trouble getting content.

It’s completely unfounded speculation that ignores a host of very real, very public explanations — NBC Universal wanted to force bundles on people, they wanted more flexibility to vary prices (higher or lower, depending on who’s telling the story — my guess is that the studios aren’t lining up to give me a deal) and that they’re trying to recapture control of how people can watch content with heavy DRM and forced ads on their website and Hulu. In fact, Weintraub’s supposition only makes sense if you buy into his premise — that Apple needs a 40% to 50% margin on movie rentals to pay for the Apple TV. It’s far more likely that Apple is getting the same or less than it does on music downloads, somewhere between 20% and 30%.

Simple Explanations are the Best

For me — and obviously other commenters on Weintraub’s blog — the logical conclusion is that Apple needs some broad adoption of the Apple TV if they’re going to gain any traction in digital movie distribution. The price cuts for the Apple TV (regardless of how much Apple is actually earning) are simply a smart business move to compete with a host of other solutions.

The VUDU is an especially strong offering and Apple needs to do something to address that. But they don’t need to find $70 to make up for the Apple TV price cut — the margins are likely larger than iSuppli suggests already, and even iSuppli says there’s some profit there. Maybe the confusion is that the margins aren’t as large as Apple’s computer hardware business. Did anyone expect them to be?

Weintraub’s conclusion that Apple must be “taking a bit off the top” is a puzzling non-revelation. The idea that Apple gets a portion of movie rental revenue is beyond obvious. And the idea that Apple needs to direct that money to boost the Apple TV margin? Weintraub never adequately explains why this would even be necessary — there’s never any suggestion that Apple is losing money on the Apple TV, just that the margin isn’t large enough.

Unless Weintraub has some inside information on what Apple’s margin expectation was when they launched what Jobs called a “hobby,” why is it so hard to consider that they’re just trying to price it competitively and create a compelling ecosystem of products?


May 31, 2007

Apple Delivers DRM-Free Music, YouTube for Apple TV

Filed under: Apple, DRM, Media — Tom @ 4:43 pm

Yesterday Apple made good on its promise to put DRM-free content in the iTunes store. It comes in the form of iTunes Plus, a separate section of the iTunes store dedicated to the higher-quality, DRM-free audio announced last month. After updating to iTunes 7.2, I was able visit the iTunes Plus section.

A banner at the top of the iTunes Plus page told me there were only 15 songs I could upgrade out of the 236 iTunes Store purchases in my library. I’m hoping the remaining labels go DRM-free soon.

Apple TV + YouTubeApple also announced a software update for the Apple TV that will add the ability to stream YouTube video. It looks like you’ll be able to browse featured videos, the most recent videos and the most popular videos, in addition to being able to search for content.

The Apple TV also received a build-to-order option for a 160 GB hard drive for $399. Additional storage on the Apple TV has been one of the most common requests and its great to see this upgrade. I hope that we’ll continue to see enhancements to the Apple TV.

Apple also announced iTunes U, a section of the iTunes Store that carries audio and video content from major universities. The content includes MIT’s OpenCourseWare, MIT’s initiative to provide open access to their course materials.

Pretty cool stuff.

May 11, 2007

BarCamp Portland Starts Tonight

Filed under: Media, Portland, Technology — Tom @ 3:38 pm

I’m thinking of going to BarCamp Portland tonight.

I’ll admit that the BarCamp site has me a little nervous — rules about no tourists and everyone must contribute or present or something. I don’t consider myself much of a blogger. I haven’t been doing this very long and don’t have many people visit here. I’m not a technical guy and couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag. I’m not certain that my interest in the social aspects of technology and media provide a whole lot of material to fuel my contribution.

What the hell. I’ll show up and see if they throw me out.

March 20, 2007

Apple TV Now Shipping — No, Really

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 8:54 am

After my ridiculous mistake where I thought my Apple TV had shipped last week, I got my e-mail from Apple today letting me know that it was on its way.

(For those of you who want the short version, Apple had broken my order into two shipments. I thought it was the Apple TV and posted that it was on its way. Minor confusion ensued at a few discussion boards.)

I’m really looking forward to checking this thing out. As I posted before, I think I seriously underestimated the potential impact of the Apple TV. I’m looking forward to watching my enormous backlog of video podcasts on my television and seeing what else Apple can do with this platform.

March 18, 2007

Apple TV Shipping – Follow-Up

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 11:17 am

Shipments are happening and my Apple TV is already in Portland, according to FedEx. Woo! It should be here tomorrow.

FedEx Apple TV Tracking

UPDATE: Based on a number of skeptical posts over at Investor Village, I went back to my order on the Apple website. Apparently, they went ahead and shipped some accessories — the Apple TV is still showing Tuesday. Bummer. I was so excited about the Apple TV that I forgot I’d even ordered anything else.

Thanks to the Investor Village folks for getting me to double-check this. I apologize for the confusion. Let the virtual comeuppance begin.

UPDATE: Damn. Now I’m officially classified as a rumor-monger — and an unreliable one at that. CouchApple.TV picked up this article. As of now, it hasn’t picked up my correction.

FINAL UPDATE: As expected, today FedEx delivered… my component video cables. That’ll teach me to look twice before I blog about something.

March 16, 2007

Apple TV Shipping

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 12:45 am

As in my Apple TV is shipping!

I’d been wavering on this. Then g-whiz posted that it had started to ship. And for some reason I headed over to Apple’s site and put in my order. By 9:00 p.m. Apple had sent me an e-mail that my Apple TV was on the way.

Why this sudden, dare we say impetuous, purchase?

Apple TV

Here’s the deal. When Steve announced the “iTV” last fall, I was really underwhelmed. It fell way short of my expectations. There’s no input? It doesn’t do DVR? Come on, Apple, I thought, make this something I need! You don’t even need to start from scratch — go buy TiVo, port their software to OS X and create the ultimate media center. And include their subscription service as part of .Mac, so it will be more than an overpriced e-mail/file-sharing service. (Yeah, iWeb is cool, but it creates ridiculous URLs and I’d prefer to host a website under my own domain.)

So while I thought the Apple TV would be neat, I didn’t see why I’d want one. Over the intervening months, however, my thinking started to change.

First I found a bunch of new video podcasts to get hooked on. I was already way behind on GeekBrief.TV and Strong Bad Email, and now this! Four Eyed Monsters and TEDTalks and Amanda Congdon! Then Videomaker Presents and Mastering Videography. And on. And on.

There’s some great content out there. And pretty soon, I was finding that I’d rather watch podcasts than anything offered on cable. Hmmm. Sure would be great if I could just watch them on the TV.

Then I started to rethink cable. It was already terrible. In fact, I think my cable bill is higher because it’s terrible. The movie channels rehash the same stuff over and over so much that we subscribed to absolutely everything to try and get more movie options. But we’ve really ended up just TiVoing a handful of shows each. And stuff I really wanted, like Race To Dakar, didn’t even make it to cable but is now sold as a download.

Wow. Cable sucks. And my $1,200+ a year cable subscription would buy a lot of iTunes season passes. (Heroes? Check. The Office? Check.)

I’m not ditching my cable this week. Or even this year, probably. But Apple may be onto something and I very likely underestimated the appeal of the Apple TV. I wanted it to fit into what I thought watching TV should be. But I just didn’t get it.

There’s a whole new world of media out there that’s got nothing to do with that hunk of coax coming out of the wall. I’ve been a believer in this stuff for a long time and I still didn’t get the Apple TV.

So if you aren’t exploring what’s out there, do yourself a favor. Fire up iTunes and go search through the video podcasts. Or go to PodShow and check out some channels there. Go visit iFilm. Download an episode of Race to Dakar. Check out the Internet archive. You can even go keep an eye on the guys in Washington. (But C-SPAN, I’m not installing that damn Real player. Get some H.264 versions up and dump Windows Media and Real.) And there’s always YouTube. Geez, just install the Democracy Player and get it all.

I promise you’ll find something that blows you away. And maybe a year from now the only place that coaxial cable goes is to your modem.

Update: Sorry to the Windows users out there. I didn’t realize that the apple symbol isn’t a valid unicode character. I’ve replaced all my “[apple symbol]tv” references with the more traditional “Apple TV” wording.

March 1, 2007

DRM-Free Motorcycling Shows Released

Filed under: Apple, DRM, Media, Motorcycling, Movies — Tom @ 4:33 pm

The Unofficial Apple Weblog reported on the documentary “In Search of the Valley”, which has just been released using the digital rights management-free Streamburst store. I thought this was kinda interesting but TUAW threw in an aside that caught my attention — Streamburst has also been used to build the storefront and sell DRM-free digital downloads of the television series Long Way Round and Race to Dakar!

Race to Dakar

I’ve already purchased the first two episodes of “Race to Dakar” and am really happy — there are three different formats to choose from and you can download all three if you want. I can move them around to any computer in my house and watch them using a variety of players, or burn a DVD and use it wherever I want. I love that I don’t have to deal with the restrictions imposed by DRM. I hope people start buying these because DRM-free distribution deserves to come out on top.

February 20, 2007

Dreaming of a DRM-Free World

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 11:54 pm

It’s been two weeks since Steve Jobs posted his Thoughts on Music memo. It’s generated a lot of discussion, none more revealing than the responses from Warner chief Edgar Bronfman and Macrovision CEO Fred Amoroso.

If you don’t follow these kinds of things, let me bring you up to date. DRM is nasty software that restricts how you can use stuff that you’ve paid for. It’s the software that forces you to watch previews on some DVDs when you really want to get right to the movie. It’s what keeps you from re-installing software that you own after a computer meltdown until you’ve called some guy in Hyderabad and begged him to let you activate it again. It’s what will make sure that even after copyright has expired, you still won’t be able to do what you want with your music or videos. (Although that argument is something of a straw man, given that the Congressional representatives from the state of Disney are paid to see that copyright never expires again.) And, in one of its most familiar incarnations, it’s the software that keeps you from playing songs you’ve purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store on more than five computers or burning the same playlist more than seven times.

DRM is a pain, especially to companies like Apple who have to update it constantly to close holes created by those who crack the protection scheme. So Steve Jobs suggested that the world might be better off if we just got rid of it altogether. He even thought people might buy more music.

Pretty quickly Edgar Bronfman said at a conference that this was a terrible idea. He attacked Steve’s argument that most music is sold on unprotected CDs anyway, but reports I saw didn’t have him giving us any reason to keep it. Sure, he spoke of protecting intellectual property but didn’t address the fact that DRM gets cracked all the time. Even his own executives recognize that DRM sucks — Jupiter Research found that nearly half of all record executives think that dropping DRM would improve music sales.

The jaw-dropper was nitwit Fred Amoroso from Macrovision, however. First, I’ll admit I have a little sympathy for the guy — he’s in the unenviable position of running a company that makes products that nobody really wants. Consumers certainly don’t ask for it (although if you’re running any pricey software, you may be using it yourself).

But sympathy quickly evaporates because Fred’s letter is one of the most self-serving bald-faced pack of lies you’ll come across. Here’s the part that’s genuinely offensive:

DRM increases not decreases consumer value –
I believe that most piracy occurs because the technology available today has not yet been widely deployed to make DRM-protected legitimate content as easily accessible and convenient as unprotected illegitimate content is to consumers. The solution is to accelerate the deployment of convenient DRM-protected distribution channels—not to abandon them. Without a reasonable, consistent and transparent DRM we will only delay consumers in receiving premium content in the home, in the way they want it. For example, DRM is uniquely suitable for metering usage rights, so that consumers who don’t want to own content, such as a movie, can “rent” it. Similarly, consumers who want to consume content on only a single device can pay less than those who want to use it across all of their entertainment areas – vacation homes, cars, different devices and remotely. Abandoning DRM now will unnecessarily doom all consumers to a “one size fits all” situation that will increase costs for many of them.

Did I read that right?

Fred seems to be saying that media companies are lining up to give me cheap options for digital movies and music if they could just get the whole world locked up with their DRM.

Except they’re not. The music companies tried to force Apple to jack up pricing at the iTunes Store in 2005 — and even wanted a cut from the sale of iPods (yeah, that was Bronfman again). And movie studios refused to budge on their pricing, demanding that prices be as much as (and in some cases more than) DVDs, even though their costs would be much lower to distribute digitally.

No, the fact is that big media is scrambling for ways to squeeze more money from its customers and DRM certainly isn’t going to be seen by them as a chance to cut us a deal. Still, Fred seems pretty convinced that they’d like to.

But Fred isn’t here to just throw stones at Jobs’ suggestion — he’s a solution man. He’s got an answer. He suggests that Apple give their DRM to Macrovision. Macrovision would just take it over for them. Just to help them out.

I realize Fred was just taking a stab at Apple, who hasn’t expressed any interest in opening Fairplay for all the reasons Jobs describes, but it doesn’t come across as clever or funny. It’s just strips Macrovision down to their bare, disgusting core — a company that would prefer a world where they can control every scrap of digital content that you ever purchase. A world where the fair use — whether it’s a song shared throughout your home on your private network, or a snippet of video to punctuate a little presentation — and first sale vanish in a cloud of rights management dictated by rights holders eager to pay.

The facts are that movies, music and software are traded illicitly all the time and no amount of DRM will keep that from happening. Meanwhile, legitimate consumers are forced to deal with more and more hassle while record companies and movie studios tilt at these windmills.

I’m one of those consumers. I’m a huge music and movie fan. The closest I’ve gotten to copyright infringement is making mix tapes for friends. (OK, mostly girls.) (Oh yeah — tapes were these things we used before CDs. Refer to the movie High Fidelity for more info.) I don’t accept copies of CDs, software or movies from people who offer them and I don’t duplicate stuff for friends. I’ve paid for everything on my iPod and my computer.

I’m just tired of being viewed as a criminal and I don’t buy much anymore. After my first year of post-college employment, flush with my first decent, regular paycheck, I looked at the growth of my CD collection and estimated that I’d spent 5% of my gross income on music. These days, I might buy a couple CDs a year and download a handful of songs from the iTunes Store.

Here’s my open letter to people like Bronfman and Amoroso:

You’re the problem. You’re why I don’t buy music anymore. You’ve driven off hardcore music fans who don’t want to deal with wondering whether they’ll be able to rip a CD to their iPod to listen on the road. You’ve driven off people offended by watching our legal system choked with lawsuits against kids and our tax dollars squandered by having the FBI help you pursue what should be civil cases.

Jobs made the point that there doesn’t seem to much benefit to DRM’d digital distribution when almost all music sold today has no DRM at all. Bronfman continued to argue the technology angle — why, he asked, should digital music be denied DRM just because prior technology exists that has no protection?

The point they should both have taken away is that most people don’t steal music, not because of DRM but in spite of its failures. Take away the fringes of this debate — the RIAA spokesbots who think we’re all thieves and the anti-establishment types who think we should all get whatever we want for free — and you’ll find average people who are willing to pay a fair price for a decent product. And there’s some evidence that piracy doesn’t have anything to do with declining music sales anyway.

So Edgar — please, take a chance. Release music without DRM. Bring prices down to a reasonable level — say 79¢ for an iTunes track and $7 or so for a CD. I’ll come back, I promise. Start investing in new bands again, using all the cash you’ll be saving from cheaper production technology and digital distribution. People will try out new stuff and might even get excited about music again.

And Fred — maybe you guys should look for a new line of work. Maybe there’s money to be made in kicking puppies and taking ice cream from little kids.

January 31, 2007

Boston — Piling Up the Bad Decisions

Filed under: Media — Tom @ 11:38 pm

Boston was apparently in chaos today as authorities shut down streets and train stations and rushing in the bomb squad to combat… a bunch of Lite-Brites.

When you’re one of the people in charge and your people send a major city into mass hysteria, what do you do? Admit that it was a false alarm? Try to figure out how law enforcement, who are supposed to be trained to recognize terrorist attacks, mistook a marketing prank as a major attack?

No, of course not. You let the media to crank up the hysteria, as MyFoxBoston.com did. Check out this screenshot from the Fox site — despite the “suspicious devices” headline, you can see from the (tiny) caption that they already knew this was advertising.

Wind ‘Em Up

Then you get out there and demonstrate some outrage. And then you go arrest the poor guy who had the misfortune to be hired by Turner Broadcasting to hang these things in Boston. And it doesn’t hurt to get an editor to talk about how somebody else should have to pay because your people decided to take the city to Defcon 1.

It’s now apparent that these things have been hung up in cities all over the country as part of a national marketing campaign. Turner Broadcasting has said they’ve been up for weeks. No other city has devolved into the kind of scene you’d normally call Snake Plissken in to resolve.

Boston, haven’t you embarrassed yourself enough? Are you really going to indict this guy and hold a trial and everything? Where’s the video of a Turner Broadcasting marketing exec being escorted out of his house in the middle of the night?


Update on Thursday: Further demonstrating that Boston officials are trying to cover their ass after this massive overreaction — Boing Boing reports that apparently, there were two fake pipe bombs yesterday that were totally unrelated to this marketing campaign.

It appears that these were intended to cause panic, being placed at a hospital and a bridge. And although officials believe they’ve identified the individual responsible for the fake at the hospital, no charges have been filed. Maybe the Boston police are too busy arresting artists.

January 28, 2007

Biggest Loser Club: Old Media Failure

Filed under: Media, Technology, Weight Loss — Tom @ 5:38 pm

Old media really doesn’t understand the web. And the squandered opportunities seem to keep stacking up.

I recently signed up and quickly canceled my subscription to BiggestLoserClub.com. As most people who watch any television probably know this is a weight-loss-oriented site tied in to NBC’s Biggest Loser reality show. I’d signed up looking for a more robust alternative to the online tools available at Weight Watchers.

Unfortunately, BiggestLoserClub.com is a perfect example of old media missing the mark. It’s Web 1998. Interactivity? What’s that?

So why do I find this such a squandered opportunity? Well, here we have this reality show and it’s a huge success in traditional media. They have an existing audience that guarantees an enormous amount of traffic to their site (and they worked it, too, pushing the site repeatedly during the show). All they had to do was create a compelling destination to hold onto those people.

Instead, they build something that brings over a lot of the old media model — they’ll send me information and I’ll receive it. The value of the community itself is, as always, undervalued.

For my subscription dollars, here’s what I could do:

  1. Create a profile — weight, height, goal.
  2. Track my weight at weekly intervals.
  3. Get suggested meals. This included the ability to swap out components of a suggested meal and the ability to print a shopping list.
  4. Get a suggested workout. This consisted of listing “Rest”, “Cardio”, or “Strength” for each day of the week. Links would take you to more information on exercise suggestions and some information on how to do the strength training exercises.
  5. Message boards. These message boards were pretty poor; they supported very basic functions. (I get better forums with my City of Heroes subscription — and they’d prefer I was playing the game instead of reading the forums!) The screenshot in the BiggestLoserClub.com tour even sadly shows that most of the boards have zero activity. It’s rare that a website manages to actually depress me.

Old media continues to think they can leverage a brand and get us to buy whatever they’re selling. And they stick to the old tricks to keep us paying, too. Seth Godin discussed the fallacy in making it hard to leave a service recently. This was more of the same — it was just a few clicks and some credit card info to join. Quitting was another story. Try to cancel and you’re informed that you have to call them — and only during a six-hour window in the middle of the day. (To their credit, when I e-mailed support and told them I wanted to quit, they cancelled my account.)

I expect a lot more for my money from a website in 2007. At a minimum, I want to be able to log my food and exercise choices and get real-time tracking of calories in and calories used each day. Instead, BLC provides a journal. A journal! This is one of those choices that make me want to track down some executive and shake some sense into him or her. Big media, here is your free clue — we will not come to your website to do things that are more easily done with paper and pencil. Or a word processor. Or a blog. Or any of a thousand options that are better than a website’s database that I don’t have any control over. And I don’t want to go through a bunch of possible exercises and then find videos of how to do them — I want to be able to fire up a chat session with a trainer and ask what I should be doing.

And the message boards? Why even bother when they’re that bad? I want fully-featured forums — I should be able to flag a thread, choose to get notified when new posts appear in it, and send private messages to forum members who have opted in. But let’s go beyond that — why can’t I pair up with other members? Form individual relationships? Start individual support groups? Where’s MySpace for fat people?

In fact, let’s go all the way — what should a modern, socially-networked weight loss and fitness site look like? I’d better be able to put in what I eat, of course, and track my exercise. Which exercises? I should be able to identify what I own (bicycle or free weights, for example) and have access to (like flagging that I have a gym membership or a pool). Then the site can tell me what exercises I should do when and I can approve them. Now I just log in and say how much time I’ve got and the site can suggest something from my approved list. Thirty minutes — go for a run. An hour — head to the gym and do these exercises.

And then I set alerts — maybe I want a text message or e-mail if I haven’t exercised in 2 days, or logged food in the last 8 hours, or whatever. Maybe someone else should be getting alerts, too, assuming I’ve opted in. Trainers could receive all the data — everyone who hasn’t worked out in the last week, for example — and invite me to a chat session to discuss why I’ve fallen behind and help me find new activities that will freshen things up and get me motivated.

Meanwhile, I can make my profile public and information about my progress available to everyone — members can search for people with similar interests, or goals, or locations and find virtual or physical workout buddies. When I log on after dinner and enter my meal, maybe I see that my workout buddy is online. We can start a video chat and motivate each other to go for an impromptu run or bike ride. Members can also volunteer to serve as coaches for each other — I’d have the option of opening my workout and meal history to my buddies as well. We’d be able to set challenges with each other to inspire ourselves.

For the time being, I’ll be sticking with Weight Watchers online tools and I’ll talk more about why I think they’re a better option within the next few days (and where they still miss the mark). And I’ll be taking some of the fitness social networking sites, like SparkPeople, PeerTrainer, and Traineo.

In the early nineties, I recall critics worried that the Internet and the worldwide web were isolating people and we were all spending too much time interacting with technology and machines. But the lessons learned from those days — taught by the explosive growth of e-mail and instant messaging — are being re-taught by sites like MySpace and Facebook and LinkedIn and ignored by sites like BiggestLoserClub. The lesson that what really matters is not the technology we use but the connections it creates.

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