Surprise: Sohu leads the copyright attack on Youku

The Chinese online video space has long been dominated by a number of local youtube clones, among which youku.com is a leader. Like so many other web spaces, the international players have not been able to beat their local Chinese clones, mostly due to cultural differences (and therefore quality of localization) and often policy issues (government interference, in the case of Google). In the online video space, the local players have also been much more lenient with copyright infringement. Usually these sites just turn a blind eye (for example I just did a quick search and found episodes of Prison Break on Sina’s video site, the Chinese crowd-sourced bootlegged version with Chinese subtitles), while for PR purposes they may claim to have sophisticated systems to take down infringing material as soon as possible.

Well, headlines today are certainly a surprise (at least for me – I haven’t been following this space closely). Sohu, who has just led the formation of a “Online Video Anti-piracy Coalition” (my translation) with some other web partners, has decided to sue Youku.com 50-100MM RMB (about 8-15MM USD) for copyright infringement. A quick google search shows that lawsuits in this space have been heating up – earlier this year H.Y. Brothers, the leading local private film studio, sued a bunch of Internet properties (including Sohu and Youku); and before that Youku had also sued competitor Tudou.

While it’s clearly obvious that these lawsuits are tactics to pursue vested interests, I feel they are helping to push the industry towards a more mature stage where laws and regulations are properly enforced. One reason businesses like Netflix and Hulu don’t exist in China is because the cost of piracy is so low. Of course, Chinese consumers are spoilt in the sense that they have become accustomed to the fact that almost all forms of home media entertainment are free or very cheap (thanks to piracy), so any movement to enforce adequate copyright laws will be met with consumer resistance. But it should be clear that real businesses shouldn’t be founded in the hope that they will thrive due to the piracy environment – free may be a business model, but piracy isn’t.

Vinod Khosla Speaks at Haas

This evening I attended the Dean’s Speaker Series at Haas. Tonight’s guest speaker was Vinod Khosla, who was, among other titles, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, and the founder of Khosla Ventures (his bio here).

Mr. Khosla’s speech is lengthily titled “The Innovation Ecosystem and Its Role in Shaping Our Renewable Future” (or, elegantly titled “Punditry / Invention” on the presentation deck, made by Mr. Khosla’s daughter who was also present). The presentation material had a distinct marketing flavor to it (think Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth slides, or Steve Jobs’ keynote slides, as opposed to conservative consulting / banking slides), with most slides containing only a few words or phrases in massively-sized fonts.

And Mr. Khosla’s argument was as concise as the material he was using. His core argument is that the advancement / adoption rate of technology will always be substantially underestimated – there is simply no accuracy in any forecasts of what will happen 10-20 years in future (examples presented: computer and mobile penetration rates, compared to expert forecasts in the past). He therefore implies that while clean-tech appears cost-prohibitive and unfeasible for massive adoption, there will almost certainly be technological breakthroughs (“black swans”) that completely transform the industry outlook. The conclusion – instead of trying to predict the future through extrapolation of the past (which is a futile exercise), we should simply invent our own future. In Mr. Khosla’s case, he is very optimistic in clean-tech will continue to invest in this area.

I think the takeaways for me from this one-hour presentation are three-fold. One is the concept that Mr. Khosla was selling, the mindset of optimism about change, which in other words is a call for action. Second is perhaps some observations on soft-skills, through his style of delivery and general on-stage presence. Probably the third takeaway is a reminder to myself to be always open to new ideas – personally, I’ve been somewhat of a skeptic on the clean-tech trends, and if Mr. Khosla is such a firm believer in it (he is certainly putting his money where his mouth is), I should probably re-examine my own thoughts and beliefs.

Apple’s major releases today

There’s an Apple event today, and as expected all the major tech blogs have been flooded with coverage from the iPod-only event. I skimmed through the coverage on Techcrunch, Engadget, VentureBeat, Silicon Alley Insider, TUAW etc. The gist of the announcements are these:

Hardware side:

  • New iPod Touches. Pretty expensive at $399 for the 64GB ones. Besides the memory bump, the CPU has also been upgraded to the one used in the iPhone 3GS, which should make this a serious gaming / networking device (Apple made comparisons with the PSP and NDS). The letdown, at least from the tech press perspective, is that the new iTouch doesn’t have a camera. Rumors are flying this is because of a engineering issue, not because of a conscious design choice.
  • New Nanos, with a video camera and FM radio (besides other new features), making this a general purpose portable entertainment device. This is probably the biggest hardware release of the day.
  • New Shuffles. More colors, cheaper.
  • New iPod Classics. Improved storage, same price. This is really more of an afterthought.

Software side:

  • iPhone / Touch OS 3.1. I’ve done my upgrading already. Wondering if it breaks tethering on AT&T, as rumored.
  • iTunes 9, with some new features. Perhaps the most important one for iPhone users is the ability to manage / organize apps on iTunes instead of on the phone (so less dragging apps across screens)

For the details on any of those bullets, just head over to any major tech blog or Apple’s own webpage.

Some thoughts:

The iPod lineup is certainly diversifying and evolving from just music to all entertainment. Apple has been marketing the gaming abilities of the Touch; now the Nano seems to be aiming at Flip’s niche. But really, at this point, the gamers / amateur video directors who will switch to the Apple camp from PSP / NDS and Flip respectively are the casual players. The iPhone and iTouch are great for games, but for a different breed of games – the gaming experience is drastically different (just think of the Wii vs. the Xbox 360 / PS3). It almost feels like that Apple has too many opportunities to explore right now, and needs to make some conscious choices about what to pursue and what not to pursue.

Take gaming as an example. Positioning itself as a serious player in the space is very different compared to a hardware maker which also supports some games. If Apple is actively and seriously considering this space, it needs to be courting developers, and possibly peripheral makers (or consider some hardware functionality add-ons itself, like an external game-pad) – as opposed to just acting as the gate-keeper for apps.

And for the new Nano, if it does turn out to be a major competitor to the Flip, and Apple does care about taking a stake in that niche market, then Apple will have to make customizations and modifications of future models that put much more focus on the video-making aspects of the device.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say, and perhaps repeating myself here, is that I’m a firm believer that any device should have a focused purpose (despite the convergence trend). It’s fine for the PS3 / Xbox 360 to be able to support Netflix, web-browsing etc., but at the end of the day, the device’s main purpose is to play games. In the case of Apple, the iPod line-up is now converging with several other markets (portable gaming / video-making). Apple can either continue its current path of including these extra functionality as additional value propositions, or really start diversifying and entering these separate categories. This is a big strategic choice, and it’s perfectly fine to remain focused on music as the core proposition. Personally I think it would be a challenge to be competing in so many different markets where Apple has little experience. Regardless, it would be very interesting to observe how this develops.

Why the Palm Pre has been subpar

As the inaugural post for this blog, I wanted to summarize some thoughts on why the Palm Pre has not lived up to the hype. There has been recent discussions how the Pre is far from meeting Sprint’s sales targets; earlier back there were also some talks of Palm cutting back on production. This is of course in sharp contrast to the fanfare we’re used to of recent iPhone launches (long lines, stock outs etc. – from personal experience, I had to trade up to the 32GB version of the 3GS as the 16GB were out of stock at the local AT&T).

So what went wrong for a product that, if you recall, had pretty impressive hype just a few months back? Below are my two cents.

  • Poor marketing execution. This is obviously the easiest target of all, since everyone has been talking about these ads that makes no sense (see Fake Steve Jobs’ ranting analysis here). Like Fake Steve says, these ads show that Palm and Sprint seem to be confused about who their target consumer is (female smartphone users? That’s a tiny market), and the execution itself is creepily effective at driving negative PR.
  • Lost PR momentum. Somewhat related to the previous point. The Pre was announced at the CES 2009 in January, and was definitely the hit product of the show. (I remember at the time being very hyped about the phone, and wanting to buy one immediately. The phone and its UI just looked very sexy.) However, as time passed, people’s interest gradually waned – the smartphone industry is extremely competitive with lots of players vying for consumer eyeballs, and Palm is not Apple, with a loyal base of media support (e.g. TUAW). With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if Palm kept Pre under wraps until very close to the launch date (of course there will be info leaks, but that would just help fuel the PR). And certainly it didn’t help that Apple announcing the iPhone 3GS two days after Pre launched in the US.
  • iPhone’s first mover advantage. Namely, installed user-base and scaled up App Store. This is actually a huge advantage for Apple, and appears to indicate a winner-takes-all end-game – the more users, the more developers, and therefore more quality apps, which in turn attracts more users. The primary and only reason that I again bought an iPhone upon arriving in the States (and bearing with AT&T) is the App Store. This is the equivalent of the Windows eco-system on PCs. Competing OSes just lack the richness of the applications available, and for a computing device, it is all about the apps.
  • But most fundamentally, unclear target consumer and value proposition. The Pre’s most innovative feature is the webOS, which supports concurrent applications – a key feature that the iPhone has not yet opened to 3rd party developers. However, the only people who would seriously care about this feature are smartphone power users – i.e. the millions of iPhone users – who can appreciate its benefits. But to convince iPhone users to switch, the Pre is lacking one major dimension: the App Store. There is no point in being able to run multiple apps if there are no apps. So in effect, the Pre’s most talked-about feature was a no-feature.

So what are the things that Palm could do to alleviate the situation?

  • Build up the developer eco-system. It’s cliched, but it has to be done. Palm needs to have quality apps on its phones. This is an uphill battle, but one which must be fought nonetheless. One thing that Palm can do to attract developers is to have an open platform for developers to publish their work (as opposed to Apple’s draconian control on apps).
  • Re-think its marketing strategy. And not just in terms of marketing communication – the entire marketing strategy, i.e. which geographic markets and which consumer segments. We should remember that the US is not the only mobile market in the world (Nokia, which has almost no share in the US market, is still the global leader in every mobile category, including smartphones). It’s probably an wild idea, but if Palm can focus on certain markets where the iPhone has not had such an impact, it could build up some user-base scale. (Again, while Nokia is heavily entrenched in most global markets, their smartphone eco-system – or the lack thereof – leaves plenty of space for newcomers to attack. In such markets as China, it’s more about the hardware and the UI, rather than the apps, and the Pre would probably fare better?)

It’s certainly not going to be a smooth revival at Palm. But they do have a quality product, they just need to realize who to sell it to.