A Successor to MP3?

In his story You Can’t Be Too Thin for Slate, Paul Boutin describes aacPlus (AAC+SBR) as a potential successor to MP3 for low-bitrate audio. A proprietary variation of standard AAC (without SBR) is used in iPods and iTunes and is somewhat better than MP3 for some applications. AAC is also used by some radio stations and IT Conversations for studio-to-studio links over ISDN lines. Another variation, AAC-LD (for low-delay) is great for audio over POTS lines. The popular presentation at Pop!Tech 2004 by Malcolm Gladwell was streamed from Maine to IT Conversations this way, then re-encoded into MP3 for downloading. aacPlus does indeed sound good at 48kbps and remarkably good at 64kbps. (The 18-month-old reporty cited by Paul wasn’t able to test 64kbps at that time.)

But for the hard-core audio geeks out there, a few clarifications: The basic AAC and MP3 algorithms are in the same family known as perceptual codecs. The “plus” is Spectral Band Replication which is also available with MP3s as MP3Pro. Also, Paul describes aacPlus’ handling of stereo as L+R and L-R signals. This isn’t all that new, since most modern codecs use this scheme and some go even further. (The EBU’s test document doesn’t say which stereo scheme was used for their tests.)

Paul writes that “Webcasters spend most of their money paying for network traffic,” and refers to a $4,000 monthly bill to support 1,000 listeners. I did that math, and he’s in the ballpark. If those listeners were tuned into a 64kbps stream 24 hours a day for the entire month, the cost would indeed be between $5,000 and $8,000 each month and somewhat less at 48kbps. Of course, with BitTorrent the costs drop dramatically, but BT only helps with downloads, not streams. There are, however, P2P technologies for streaming and others are on the way.

But is Paul correct that “Future digital music players will support the format just as surely as they do MP3?” I’m not as optimistic. Sony, for example, is just now coming around to supporting MP3, and Apple has a lot invested in its proprietary version of standard AAC. My sense is that it will take a long time. Don’t hold your breath.

An IT Conversations Update

(Hear the MP3 version.)


  • Email Announcements. As those of you on the email list can see, I’m sticking with the weekly announcements for now, and I’m using simple text-only messages rather than HTML. The feedback on that issue was overwhelmingly one sided. I received nearly 200 email messages this time, and virtually everyone said that they either preferred text to HTML or that it didn’t matter one way or another. So text it will be. And I’m sorry I can’t reply to all your great messages with words of support and encouragement. There are just too many. What a great problem to have!
  • Google Groups – An Experiment. I’m about to try another experiment with the email list. I want to see if Google Groups, which is now in beta, works as well as or better than the current system. If it does, I think Google Groups will be much simpler to maintain since it’s easier for users to manage their own options. So for next week I plan to upload the entire email list to Google. According to their claims, the email addresses should remain confidential and you shouldn’t receive any spam from Google or its partners. But before I run the test I want to find out if anyone out there knows of a reason I shouldn’t do this. If you think it’s a bad idea, send email to me at doug@itconversations.com. Don’t send a message if it’s okay with you; I’ll take silence as consent to run the test in this case. But if you see a problem with using Google Groups for email announcements — particularly a privacy problem — let me know.
  • RSS Feeds. And still on the topic of email, many listeners have pointed out that RSS is a superior alternative to email. This makes me wonder whether they realize that IT Conversations has over 100 different RSS feeds. I agree that RSS is better in many ways than email, so if you don’t already know about the feeds and all the variations including enclosures and topic-based feeds, take a look at the Podcast/RSS page.
  • Feedburner. And while I’m on the subject of RSS, I’m trying yet another experiment. If you currently subscribe to one of the site-wide “Everything” feeds, you may have noticed that your feed now comes through Feedburner. This is a new service that helps track RSS subscriptions so that I can attract sponsors and underwriters by giving them independently compiled statistics. I’m about to switch all of the IT Conversations feeds to Feedburner, so please let me know immediately if you’ve had any RSS problems in the past week.

New Programs This Week

  • The Gillmor Gang (rated 3.3). Now Google’s VP of Engineering, Adam Bosworth joined The Gang last Friday with his vision for the future of search architecture. Adam points out that today’s databases are built on the relational model, but most of today’s queries are not. They’re looking for keyword precision, location and semantic context — not a textual or numeric match. The relational model works when both the data and the queries can be anticipated, but in today’s world, neither are typically known in advance. This is one of the more popular Gillmor Gang shows, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the future and technology of databases and the Internet.
  • Andy Ihnatko – Tales from the Crypt (rated 3.2). A regular columnist for Macintosh magazines, Andy describes himself as America’s 42nd Most-Beloved Industry Figure. In this session from the Mac OS X Conference, Andy presents unique examples of creative genius from the past. He then turns his sights to the future and look at collaboration technologies that are flowing our way. Because as we all know, business health requires that you always drink upstream from the herd. A good program for those interested in the Macintosh world.
  • John Doerr at at Web 2.0 (rated 2.9). John is one of the most prolific venture capitalists in the world, and his most recent — and most spectacular — success is Google, which he backed in 1999 despite significant skepticism among other VCs. Asked at the time why he would back a search company with no proven business model, John responded: “With this kind of traffic, we’ll figure it out.” Seems they did. In conversation with John Heilemann, who has been jousting onstage with Doerr for nearly a decade now. John is always an interesting guy, even if you’re not into the VC world.
  • Gian Fulgoni – Broadband Internet & Consumer Behavior (rated 2.8) Ever wondered what the research companies know that you don’t? Gian Fulgoni, chairman and co-founder of comScore Networks, presents “Research Examining the Impact of Broadband and Internet Tenure on Consumer Behavior.” From the Web 2.0 Conference. In general, the new-company announcements like this one are rated below average by our listeners.
  • A Dinner Conversations with Mark Cuban (rated 4.0). On the other hand, although he’s a serial entrepreneur, Mark Cuban’s conversation with John Heilemann at Web 2.0 is very entertaining. After Mark made a billion or so selling his company to Yahoo! during the height of the Web 1.0 craze, he decided to buy a basketball team. Fortunately, he bought the Mavericks, a team whose name suits his style: brash, out there, and unconventional. Now he’s back in the media business with HDNet.
  • Dan Gillmor on Memory Lane (to new to rate). It’s too early to quote the stats on this one, but Dan is always popular on IT Conversations. In this edition of Memory Lane, Halley Suitt interviews Dan, the nationally known columnist for The San Jose Mercury News who recently left the paper to pursue a new venture in citizen journalism. Dan is the author of the book We The Media: Grassroots Journalism By The People, For The People, which was published in 2004 by O’Reilly. His new venture, Grassroots Media, has everyone talking and visiting his new blog, where he’s got a great discussion going on about blogging and journalism.
  • Evan Ratliff. This week on Tech Nation Dr. Moira Gunn speaks with Evan Ratliff, author of SAFE: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World. They talk about making America safe — or at least the issues which underlie it.
  • Moira also speaks with with geographer and social scientist Barbara Heinzen. With a background in geography and cultural dynamics, her focus is uncertainty – how do we make decisions when we can’t possibly know the answers we need.
  • In the BioTech Nation segment, Moira interviews Dr. Wim Jongen, professor and researcher, at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, about the design of new foods and food products – the goals and the challenges.
  • And from the archives, here’s one of my personal favorite programs from the IT Conversations archives: Dan Geer: The Shrinking Security Perimeter (rated 3.8). Dan has a long-term view of information security, and has codified some of his thinking in a white paper entitled The Shrinking Perimeter — Making the Case for Data Level Risk Management. Dan is best known as the guy who was fired for co-authoring a report, Cyber Insecurity, suggesting the security risks posed by the monoculture caused by Microsoft’s dominance of the software industry. I recommend this one for everyone; it’s truly one of my favorite interviews with an absolutely brilliant guy.

Audio Recordings and Transparency

David Berlind, Dan Gillmor and Dan Bricklin have written about the practice of linking to on-line audio recordings as source material for journalists and others. Dan G also mentioned the value of transcripts.

I learned a few lessons about recordings and transcripts 30 years ago when I covered the Senate Watergate Hearings for NBC International. Beyond my day job, I was also one of those Watergate junkies who hurried home after a long day working and flying between New York and Washington to catch the re-runs on PBS. After John Dean spilled the beans about the White House tapes, I was one of the first in line at the Federal Building to get a printed copy of the transcripts. I read the whole thing, cover to cover, but it wasn’t until I actually had a chance to hear portions of the tapes that I really understood the depth of the evil at work in the White House. Not only were the transcripts filled with errors that almost anyone could have detected (some of substance), but they never came close to capturing the temprament of the Oval Office. Only the audio could do that.

Three decades later I recorded and transcribed the O’Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In for IT Conversations. We didn’t know it would happen until the last minute, but Joe Trippi showed up and became the main attraction of the event. I believe it was his first public appearance after leaving the Howard Dean campaign a few days before. In addition to streaming the event live, I was able to post the audio of Joe’s presentation within a few hours and the transcript two days later. What surprised and humbled me was that the transcript quickly became the ‘official’ record of Joe’s speech, and it was quoted frequently in the press. How do I know? Not because most journalists linked to my transcript, which would have led readers to the primary-source audio, but because I subsequently proofread and corrected the transcripts once again, and found that the mainstream press had quoted my transcripts verbatim, warts and all. (Why not? It’s a whole lot easier for a reporter than making his or her own transcription.)

The lessons learned? Yes, transcripts are great, but even more important is to have the original audio available like a chain of evidence so that the transcripts themselves can be transparent and that ‘downstream’ journalists and others have the opportunity to review the source.

This is one reason why, with the help of Jon Udell, I created the clip facility for IT Conversations: to make it easy for others to place audio excerpts directly in their blogs so that readers can experience the source material in its most-transparent format. In fact, this is why I created IT Conversations in the first place. I was interviewing experts as source material for a book I was writing, and I realized that if I could turn readers of my written interpretation into listeners of the experts’ own voices, I could take myself out of the loop and provide a more transparent path from guru to student. In the role of author, I was just getting in the way. In the role of interviewer and editor, I was abe to clarify. Better writers can do that in print, but I feel more confident in audio, particularly if I’m not the one who’s suppsoed to be the expert!

Podcast Ad Sales – An Opportunity

This is a topic I’ve discussed with a number of high-end podcasters in the past two weeks. Many of us are ready to get serious about sponsorship and underwriting of our programs. The problem is that we’re not ad-sales people — we’re hosts and producers — and none of us have enough traffic to support a salesperson. We need the same level of professionalism in ad sales that exists for more traditional web advertising and sponsorship, and we need that help from someone who can explain to prospective sponsors the unique opportunities (and challenges) of podcasting. For example, unlike display-ad sites, we don’t get explicit click-throughs since most of our listeners are anonymous, retrieving their content via RSS and podcatcher software.

I doubt that any single podcast will achieve the levels of traffic sufficient to support a full-time ad-sales person this year. But if an independent sales rep or organization were to build a portfolio containing today’s best podcasters, I’m confident there’s enough revenue potential to justify at least one dedicated person.

The opportunity is there with the existing high-end podcasts. All it takes is for a qualified person or company to step up and take it on.

Update: See a post by Brad Gibson.

Why Ogg Vorbis?

About once a week I get a request for IT Conversations audio encoded using Ogg Vorbis. These requests come in via the anonymous survey mechanism, so I don’t get a chance to ask…Why? What is it about Ogg Vorbis that people want?

  • Compatibility? Don’t MP3s play just about everywhere?
  • Quality? At the same bit rate, I don’t think Ogg encoding of IT Conversations sound any better than MP3.
  • Legality? My MP3 encoder is fully licensed and paid for, and there’s no restriction on the rights to play encoded IT Conversations shows.

Something else? What’s the allure of Ogg Vorbis?

IT Conversations Announcement for January 14, 2005

Here’s the latest news from IT Conversations…

(Hear the MP3 version.)

More on Email Announcements

  • Yes, this week everyone is receiving a text-only version of the IT Conversations announcements, even those who normally get the HTML version. Is it good enough? I produce the text version anyway (in addition to an HTML version), so if this is good enough for eveyone, I can put the extra time into something more worthwhile. Let me know: just Reply to this message. Thanks. …doug

    I received 53 email responses, which is about 1% of the mailing list; not a bad sample. The ratio was more than 2:1 in favor of weekly versus per-program announcements, but it’s clear that those of you who prefer to receive a message for each individual program feel strongly, and I’d like to find a way to accommodate everyone. The challenge is that it’s a lot of work to produce either version, and doing both just takes more time than I have available. So I’m still pursuing other options, particularly those that would do a decent job of generating a weekly announcement automatically from the individual-show announcements without just appending the files into one big ugly message.

    At the moment, I produce three different versions of each message: a pretty one in HTML, and two plain-text versions, one for AOL subscribers and the other for everyone else. Among the possibilities are dropping all but a single text version, and perhaps switching to a more self-managed email system like Yahoo Groups or the new Google Groups.

    For now, I’ll stick with the weekly messages, but there are more changes yet to come, but I welcome your further feedback. It’s extremely helpful.

New Programs This Week

  • The Gillmor Gang: The Gillmor Gang included guests Sam Whitmore and Robert Scoble. While the old-guard media talks about the latest gadgets premiering at CES, The Gang explores what’s going on behind the scenes. Will Robert defend Bill Gate’s Communism remark? Is HP hedging its bets by supporting both Microsoft and Linux-based entertainment systems? What about the architecture: Will there be PCs in our living rooms, or will they just be entertainment peripherals? And will anyone buy this media-center stuff or is it really too expensive?
  • Douglas Rushkoff — Renaissance Prospects: Douglas Rushkoff analyzes, writes and speaks about the way people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other’s values. He sees “media” as the landscape where this interaction takes place, and “literacy” as the ability to participate consciously in it. This excellent presentation from Pop!Tech 2004 has been rated higher than 3.9 by IT Conversations listeners.
  • Wiley Hodges – Xcode: This was Macworld Expo week, and I started with a presentation from the O’Reilly Mac OS X conferencey by Wiley Hodges, Senior Product Line Manager for Developer Products at Apple Computer, in which he looks at how Xcode 2 has evolved with Mac OS X Tiger, and how Xcode can help you take advantage of some of Tiger’s unique new features.
  • Leander Kahney — Cult of Mac: Continuing on the Mac theme, I posted a show from Dr. Moira Gunn’s Tech Nation archives in which Moira speaks with cyber-journalist Leander Kahney, who writes the Wired News column: Cult of Mac. They talk about everything Apple — and just how devoted their followers are.
  • Andy Hertzfeld – Macintosh Folklore: And finally, in the Mac theme, is a terrific presentation by Andy Hertzfeld, who joined the original Macintosh team in February 1981, as the second programmer on the project. He wrote much of the original operating system and user interface toolbox in 68000 assembly language. Even after leaving Apple in March 1984, he continued to make major contributions to the Macintosh platform as a third party developer by writing programs like Thunderscan, Switcher and Servant. And fortunately for us, he has a terrific memory. A very entertaining presentation from the Mac OS X conference.
  • Shai Agassi – Achieving Enterprise Agility: Shai Agassi, executive board member of SAP, delivered a presentation on ‘Achieving Enterprise Agility’ at Acceelrating Change 2004. It’s too early to report any listener feedback, but Shai’s a smart guy who always has something interesting to say.
  • Frans Johansson – The Medici Effect: Frans Johansson, the author of The Medici Effect, is Moira’s first guess on Tech Nation this week. He shares his perspective
    on innovation today, a spark not unlike the remarkable developments the world witnessed at the time of the Medici.
  • Eckart Wintzen – Environmental Entrepreneur: Moira also interviews environmental entrepreneur Eckart Wintzen, who tells us how companies might change and how the interactions between people might evolve with the new technology.
  • Alison Murdock – Starting Your Own Stem-Cell Line: And finally, Moira interviews Dr. Alison Murdock, a gynecologist and Professor of Reporductive Medicine at Newcastle University, who tells you how to start your own stem-cell line — just in case.
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink: Malcolm Gladwell’s long-awaited new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, is now available. Buy it from Amazon.com by clicking here, and add a few pennies to the IT Conversations coffers. And make sure you listen to Malcolm’s presentation at Pop!Tech 2004 — one of our most popular recordings.

Other Items

  • Phone-In Comments: Got comments about IT Conversations or a particular program? Call our voicemail line at 206.202.TALK (206.202.8255). I may put your comments into a future program.

Skype for Interviews? Read This!

If you’re trying to use Skype for Podcast interviews — or for anything else, for that matter — you must read this post by security guru Mark O’Neill. I learned about Skype’s super nodes during Niklas Zennstrom’s phoned-in presentation at Supernova, but I forgot all about it. It will be interesting to see if accepting inbound TCP and/or UDP ports makes Skype less susceptible to dropouts and therefore more suitable for recorded interviews and discussions.

IT Matters

ZDNet’s executive editor David Berlind has launched a new IT-industry podcast called IT Matters. Two in-depth interviews so far: one with Gytis Barzdukas, director of product management in Microsoft’s Security Business and Technology Unit; the other with THINKStrategies founder and managing director Jeff Kaplan to get his insights into utility computing, managed services, outsourcing, and the IT research sectors in 2005.

Honesty in Editing

John Solomon did a great 11-minute piece on NPR called Pulling Back the Curtain, about the fact that their shows are heavily edited. (Hear it [Real Audio] or read it.) Once in a while I’m asked about how much editing goes on at IT Conversations.

  • Live-to-tape programs like The Gillmor Gang have very little editing. For most shows, even the intros and outos are done live-to-tape and unedited. The only edits I typically make are when someone enters or leaves the conference call and I want to eliminate the clicks and beeps. Steve will typically ask whoever was talking at the time to repeat what they were saying. Occasionally I’ll also edit other behind-the-scenes talk, but there’s very little of that once we start the show.
  • Interview shows such as Dave Slusher’s Voices in Your Head and Halley Suitt’s Memory Lane are only slightly more edited. Dave records his audio on his own computer and sends me that file. I replace the telco-quality audio of him I’ve recorded here in the studio with the one from Dave so he gets that ‘studio’ sound. I typically remove a few pauses, and depending on the guest, I may take out a few ‘umm’s and ‘ahh’s, but typically no more than a dozen edits in each program.
  • Conference presentations aren’t edited for content, but I sometimes spend a great deal of time with noise reduction, equalization and level normalization. When some impatient person has asked a question without waiting for a microphone, I’ll try to pull his level up out of the background noise, but often I’ll delete the question and perhaps the answer. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to listen to the pauses in the audio from a long-winded questioner that you couldn’t hear.
  • My own interviews, on the other hand, are the most-heavily edited programs on IT Conversations. I’ve been known to edit a 90-minute interview down to 45 minutes, re-order the questions and answers, and make over 200 edits. Call it ego if you like, but to me it’s just insecurity at the sound of my own voice. I also want to make my guests sound as confident and erudite as possible, and I want to make the interviews flow at a good pace to keep the listeners’ interest.