What a treat to spend the weekend in New York checking out the Tribeca Film Festival. Brightcove is working with the Tribeca Film Festival on their broadband video initiatives such as enabling users to watch movie trailers and, most recently, streaming selected short films. Pretty slick Player experience, huh?
Back to the film festival. The Tribeca Film Festival has something for everybody — from documentaries and foreign films to animated and family friendly films, from movies about suicide and terrorism to romantic comedies, and star-studded events like the MI:3 premiere to events like the Drive-in for any and all to see. It takes place at a great time of year to be in New York — smack in the middle of spring with everyone in a good mood and dressed to impress (before the dog days of summer make being a slave to fashion decidedly uncomfortable).
-I went to the world premiere of Tell Me Do You Miss Me, the documentary on the last tour of my favorite band, Luna, including lots of footage from their last show ever. It was great to see the band in attendance. From my seat, I could see Dean and Britta’s reactions as the movie played — mostly Dean was squirming. The movie was fascinating. I’ll admit I’m biased, but it was really interesting to see the dynamics of how a band operates, and a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a top indie band that are just popular enough to be full-time musicians. As you can imagine, it’s not as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be. You can see them flying coach to Europe and Japan, loading their luggage and packing up after shows. At one point, Sean Eden, the guitarist remarks on how they basically break even on their touring and make money only by selling merchandise. Being in a band is like few other partnerships — you need an emotional connection to have the chemistry needed to make great music, but you’re also in business with your fellow bandmates and need to figure out how to govern yourselves. The movie highlights the emotional and creative tension between Dean Wareham and Sean Eden, which exists in any great partnership. The director, Matthew Buzzell and the band did a Q&A at the end, as with most of the films in the Festival. Great stuff.
-We then saw I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, written, directed and starring Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. My wife and I both gave it 1 Thumbs-up. It had its moments, both funny and poignant, but it fell flat or tired in other places. Jeff Garlin introduced the film in a very humble and personal way and then ended up sitting the row behind us….I must say it’s kind of awkward to watch a movie knowing that its director is sitting right behind you scrutinizing every reaction by the audience. That said, it must be so much more nerve-wracking to be in his shoes watching the audience and wondering if they’ll like it.
-Yesterday, we went to a taping of Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio hosted by James Lipton with Tom Hanks as his guest. They were of course late in opening the doors and getting the show going. Unlike the formats of evening talk shows that have maybe 5 minutes of time for the guest, this show has an extended format in which the host delves deep into the guest’s past work and tradecraft using this huge stack of blue cards that he has his questions written on. Tom Hanks is as you would expect — intelligent, articulate and congenial. James Lipton went over the films Hanks had done since he last appeared on the show in ’99, and Hanks had witty stories and astute observations about each one. We saw clips of the upcoming Da Vinci Code, which I’m looking forward to watching. James Lipton clearly researches his subjects very deeply and has an almost encylcopedic knowledge of film. Unfortunately, he can also be a bit pompous, which both my wife and I commented on. The taping lasted for almost 2 and a half hours and Hanks was personable and interesting throughout. Afterwards, we ate a late dinner at Nam in Tribeca.
It was a good weekend.
I’ve written before that content is back. I continue to believe this. There are some interesting plays out there focused on creating, marketing and distributing multi-platform, digital content and ancillary services to affinity groups — something that IP-enabled, narrowcast media like the Web and mobile are uniquely suited to doing. I also know that some top VC firms are starting to look at these types of opportunities as well. Good for them.
Code is becoming somewhat of a commodity. Obviously that statement needs lots of qualification. What I mean is that, with the proliferation of cheap hardware, Web service APIs and open source/LAMP-stack software, it’s becoming easier, cheaper and quicker to build web services and sites; hence the proliferation of so many social networks, video sharing sites, mashups and other so called Web 2.0 companies. Even the monetization of traffic is becoming common — sites can plug into an enterprise billing platform in Paypal, or tap into a network of thousands of advertisers via AdSense. Of course there are many applications and services that are very much not a commodity so this is by no means a sweeping generalization. So how to differentiate? YouTube has broken out of the pack of all the various video sharing sites. Part of the reason is their UI/UE, which many feel is the best out there. So innovation will continue to drive differentiation. The other key differentiator is content. And that is why I feel that content is back.
As I’ve written before, the wiki format is well suited for travel guides given the dynamic nature of travel-related information, and that there should be a real travel wiki. Well, TripAdvisor, perhaps the site best suited to doing this, just announced that they would be creating a wiki around travel information, to be edited by their users and starting with the London and California guides. It’s about time. I look forward to checking it out.
Business 2.0 has a nice, if not glowing, profile on Warner Music and its bid to remake itself by being at the forefront of the shift of music consumption to digital formats. There are some anecdotes their adoption of digital marketing and tactics such as the use of pre-release ringtones to stoke demand for the Madonna record, and bundling extras to increase the sale of digital albums. So, while Warner has about 17% of the CD market in the US, it has a 23% share of the digital album market. Moreover, Warner is well on its way to transforming itself from a record label to a "music-based content company" — the concept of horizontal integration that I’ve written about before. I see this shift as being one of the inevitable by-products of the digital consumption of music — recordings become less important and so labels will need to adapt.
Time Warner sold WMG for $2.6 B, which, given their $3.3 B market cap, seems to have been a steal. The stock is just off its 52-week high but I’m still looking at going long on them — if the worse days of the labels are behind them, maybe it’s a good bet to make.
The article notes the sentiment by many that WMG will merge with someone like an EMI to bulk up and protect itself from disintermediation by "web-empowered" artists. I don’t buy it. Yes, economies of scale could be wrung out of such a marriage (if the antitrust bodies blessed it), but I don’t see how that protects you from being distermediated. Yes, some artists will go direct to consumer, and will be able to make a decent living out of it. But, at the end of the day, the fundamental value-add of a
label music-based content company, will be to find talent (so the consumer doesn’t have to), and market it so it rises above the noise. As consumers have even more entertainment options going forward, I see these functions being more not less important over time.
[I've been so busy with work and travel that I'm only now just getting around to writing the next installment of this travelogue. Part 1 can be found here.]
The morning after we summited Mt. Toubkal, we set off from the refuge in freezing cold, snowy conditions. As we descended, the snow turned to a light rain and then the sun peeked out. There were a few shops along the way and some of our group got their first taste of bargaining, Moroccan-style, when they negotiated the sale of 3 ‘authentic’, ‘best quality’ Berber head-wraps for $10 each. Never mind that, while they thought they’d gotten a great deal in the heat of the moment, it quickly sunk in that one could buy entire robes in Marrakech for $10. We made it back to the village of Imlil where we checked into the Berber guest house they’d arranged for us. Light, airy and clean, it was quite the change from the infamous Toubkal refuge (which had been nicknamed the "Hell Mansion"). We sat down to a meal of tagines that was basically an omelette with vegetables and meatball — absolutely delicious. The group was ravenous and had every morsel of food to the probable chagrin of our hosts (who cooked us a lot of food in the evening to make sure we wouldn’t run out).
After a short break, we went into town to pick out our mountain bikes and, after some shuffling of equipment to make sure everyone had something that fit, we set off on our bikes…UP A MOUNTAIN. Seriously, the biking was basically straight uphill. Needless to say, after having climbed a mountain, and being in the shape we were, it wasn’t pretty. But we climbed uphill for a couple of hours and were treated to some breathtaking views of the valley with its terraced plots of lush green land.
Central heating is not common in Morocco. Instead, at least in the Berber villages, they tend to use fires or ovens for heat with many people sleeping in the same room. We of course slept Western style in the Berber house, ie in our separate rooms, and so we had a comfortable but cold night.
The next day, we were driven to a plateau on the plains near Marrakech — one that had a paved road but was mostly deovid of traffic. Now this was more like it! Flat terrain, expansive views of the plains and the High Atlas range in the background, and great weather.
We stopped for a picnic lunch — a nice spread of bread, sardines (a key export of Morocco’s), and veggies, before heading back on the road. We came to the end of the plateau and then descended down to the bottom. Great views but quite scary. The road was uneven and our forearms were strained in applying the brakes the entire way down. Once we got down and gave up our bikes, we were taken by 4×4 through some rugged terrain towards the hills. The countryside was beautiful — flowering fields, cliffs carved by the wind over the years, the dry riverbed…
We checked into our next Berger guest house and…let’s just say we got a very good dose of what it is to live in a village. We went exploring and wandered through the village. The people here have not been jaded by tourists and so all eyes were on this motley, multi-national crew of people strolling through their street. We had a few East Asians in our group and, at one point, an elderly lady in the village saw them from her doorway and yelled "Chinois! Chinois!" and, seconds later, a little girl’s eyes peered out from behind her grandmother. We had a nice meal of kabobs that evening and played the card game Mafia and slept soundly, Berber-style, in our rooms.
Day 5: Camel trek! Our faces fell when we first saw the camels…they didn’t look that clean nor pleasant. And sure enough, our eyes did not deceive. Camels are not pleasant animals. Moreover, they are not the most comfortable to ride. But there we were, atop a convoy of 16 camels, navigating our way through the land looking like the tourist chumps that we were. We stopped for lunch after a couple of hours and, slowly, but surely, the members of our party started getting tired of the ride and dismounted. At one point, one of our camels sensing potential freedom from their handlers, starting galloping down the road off into the fields and taking 3 others with it but the handlers quickly put the kibosh on this. There was certainly no love lost between camel and handler. Neither treated the other well although I’m sure the handlers are the culprit. Anyway, by the time we came to the end of our camel trek, only 3 of the 16 of us were still atop their camels. This was the least favorite part of the trip for everyone. I’ve concluded that the idea of riding camels is much better than the actual act.
The place we stayed that night made all of the discomfort of the cames worth it. In true Berber deadpan, our guides had asked us at the beginning if we wanted to sleep under a tent during night 5 as opposed to a Berber house. We had enthusiastically said yes to the tent but, during our hiking and biking, there was some trepidation as to just what the tent experience would be (we pictured all 16 of us sleeping under 1 big tent). Turns out there is an upscale campsite of sorts by this lake run by a Frenchman. The tents were really nice — they were made out of goathair, which apparently expands during rain, had two rooms and simple but comfortable cots with a lantern providing the only light. Even better, they had western-style toilets AND hot water for showers! And if that wasn’t good enough, they even had a bar, which is where most of us headed after we got to camp.
That night, we enjoyed a veritable feast that they’d prepared for us under some tents. I will never forget it. Well, the ‘traditional’ Berber dancers that performed for us (and shook us down for tips) were, unfortunately, quite forgettable, but the food. My mouth still waters thinking about it. They served harira (traditional Moroccan soup), which had a nice kick to it. And then came the coup de grace: the beef (slow cooked in a tagine). I can only say that it ranks as one of my top food experiences EVER. The beef was so tender, it melted in my mouth, but not to the point of being mushy. Moroccans often put raisins, dates or prunes in their savory dishes and this added a slight, sweet counter to the flavorful beef. It was acompanied by a nice tagine of vegetables, which I grudgingly ate. While I’ll never be able to replicate the experience, we did bring back a tagine to try some slow cooking back home.
Day 6: We drove to Marrakech the next morning where, after checking back into the Royal Mirages, we were taken to see some of the sights like the Bahia palace
and the Mirabelle Gardens. Unfortunately, no one really liked our guide, admittedly he had a tough act to follow, but still, he made little effort to explain things to the entire group. One member of our group also noted that he’d cited some inaccurate facts based on what the guidebook said. Marrakech is an interesting city with a storied past. It was the place for trade and the empire centuries ago, and yet it isn’t ossified like Venice. It is more of a city to experience walking around the streets than to see the sights and tourist attractions. Walk the alleys of the Medina (the old city), find some bargains in the various souks where nearly anything can be had…for a price. Check out the storks that perch on top of the buildings. Visit a spice shop with its varied smells — maybe you’ll find something to treat your stress! Stroll the Djemaa al Fnaa square at sunset.
Morocco had been on our short list for new places to visit for a while (Peru and Turkey now top the list), and so, when we saw a spring break "trek" to Morocco advertised by her school’s Outdoors club, we jumped at it. We usually like to plan and organize our own trips as opposed to doing group tours, but neither of us had time to do any planning and we were very glad to take a ‘plug-and-play’ vacation.
Getting there: We flew from Boston to JFK where we caught a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca and then caught a connecting flight for the 45-minute journey to Marrakech. Royal Air Maroc was a fair experience — I’ve been on airlines that are worse and ones that are better. The food wasn’t bad on the way there (worse on the way back but by no means inedible). My biggest gripe about them is that, while they code share with Delta, there are no miles to be earned on any frequent flier program except theirs.
Royal Mirage/Marrakech: We checked into the Royal Mirages hotel not very far from the center of Marrakech. It used to be a Sheraton and bills itself as a 4-star hotel. It was nice and very comfortable, but not comparable to a 4-star in the States. For instance, they had a continental buffet dinner in one of their restaurants, which had a lot of different dishes all of which were exceedingly bland. We caught a nap and then went into town to get some fresh air and get our bearings. We ended up in the world famous Djemaa el Fnaa square. What a scene! There is a huge square filled with spectacle — snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, and these storytellers, who were these particularly fascinating older ladies that would tell elaborate stories to crowds of onlookers (unfortuntely we couldn’t understand them as they spoke in Arabic). Besides the performers, beggars and tourists (western and moroccan), there are all sorts of vendors with stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice, dates, nuts, kabobs, tagines , fish and even goat head and brains.
Mt. Toubkal: After the aforementioned bland hotel dinner and a good night’s sleep, we set off the following morning for the Berber town of Imlil, which has become a base for people going to climb Djebel Toubkal (Mt. Toubkal), the tallest peak of the High Atlas mountain range, and, at 4,167 meters, the tallest peak in Northern Africa. We had received a trip packet containing information on our itinerary and what to pack. Based on the way it was written, we thought we’d be in for some active sightseeing, if a bit strenuous at times. Well this perception completely changed as soon as they started fitting us for crampons and handing out ice picks to us at Imlil! They put our bags onto some mules and, after getting our first taste of the famous Moroccan mint tea, off we went. The trail wasn’t bad as we navigated around the valley, across a dry riverbed and to the other side. As we climbed higher, we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the valley dotted with Berber villages. It had been a fairly wet winter and their terraced plots of land for farming were a luscious green.
We stopped for lunch at the marabout (or tomb of a holy person) of Sidi Chamarouch. The white dome in the picture below is the shrine/mosque with the village around it. There were some shops selling snacks for the trail, and we loaded up on some Mars and Snickers bars for the journey ahead. It was a good call!
After hiking a couple more hours, we came upon the snow line, which is where the mules stop and the porters take over. We kept on going and, about an hour later, we got to the Toubkal Refuge towards the end of the day. We had climbed to quite an altitude and my wife was feeling it already. Here she is sitting outside the house looking pensive in a sign of things to come.
From the outside, the refuge looked very inviting indeed — almost like a ski lodge made of stone. Inside, it was quite a different story. The Toubkal Refuge is basically an indoor campsite. It had rooms with wall-to-wall, floor-to-celing bunk beds, common mess rooms to take meals in and bathrooms below. Given the number of campers that pass through, let’s just say it wasn’t the cleanest of places. The other groups at the refuge consisted of what seemed to European mountain men — tall, grizzled, and with all the right skiing and camping gear.
Our guides cooked us some buttery pasta (carbo loading before the big day), and, after a fitful night’s sleep, we awoke to climb to the top. Our goal was to set off at 7:30 am. By the time everyone finished breakfast, got their crampons on and we were actually able to leave, it was more like 9 am. In the meanwhile, our European roommates had all set off, except they climbed the surrounding slopes on skis, which seemed ultra hard-core to us.
Off we went all bundled up for the cold, with our crampons and ice-picks. About 15 minutes in, after we traversed a little ravine, we took a break. We continued zig-zagging up the mountain in single file.
It was tough going as the incline was quite steep and we had to be deliberate hiking on the snow. As we neared the top, I could feel the altitude — it was harder to catch my breath and I felt a headache coming on. But we made progress and we finally reached the summit where we took the obligatory pictures.
As usual, the descent was as painful as the ascent, if not more so. It wasn’t as bad on my knees as the scree in Kilimanjaro was, although it was slower because we were on snow. It was cold, my head was throbbing and I was feeling faintly nauseous but we all made it back to the refuge in one piece.
We were craving hot showers but the refuge was NOT the place for it. Yes they had hot showers, but no one wanted to brave this. So we had a hearty dinner and, the next morning, made our way back down towards Imlil retracing the steps we’d taken 2 days earlier on the way up.
On the way down, our fearless guide, Mohammed, pointed to the trees in the hills and said that’s where we’d be headed in the afternoon on our mountain bikes. I cheekily asked if this was the Tour de France or something, which he and our other guide, Abdul, found really funny.
We got to Imlil and checked into a local Berber guest house with a warm reception from their owner. They served us a lunch of "kefta" tagine, which is basically an omelet with meatballs and veggies, and we ate up every last bit of it. We ate so much that they must have been embarassed for having run out and so made us a huge dinner that night with lots of leftovers.
That’s it for Part 1. I’ll cover the biking and camel riding parts of our trip in Part 2, and then Marrakech and general impressions in Part 3.
A little while back, in a post I wrote about the Dis-Connected Home, I mentioned how Sonos and Windows Media Center seemed like candidates to help connect the home, but appeared to be too costly. The folks at Sonos offered to send me a started set to try out to see for myself. For those not familiar with the product, it is trying to be to the home stereo what the iPod was to the Discman. So I got their shipment and following is my take, which largely mirrors Fred Wilson’s conclusion, which is that it rocks as a product even though it is pricey and has a few shortcomings:
The Context, aka my Dis-Connected Home: My wife and I both have iPods. Most of our music collection resides on our Powerbook although I have some music on my Windows laptop as well. Given the size of our place, there are 2 rooms that we have stereos in. To date, when I’ve wanted to listen to my music collection at home, I’d either play it from the Powerbook or play it through my iPod, which is connected to our home theater’s speakers from the iPod dock.
The Install: The Sonos set came with good instructions and setup was quite easy. The Sonos system consists of these brick-like things called ZonePlayers and a remote called a Controller — catchy, isn’t it. The bricks are basically the equivalent of stereo receivers and connect to speakers. One of the bricks has to be directly connected to your broadband connection so, ideally, your broadband modem is in a room that also has speakers, otherwise it’s a bit of a ‘waste’ of a brick, which was the case for me as we have a DSL modem in our office but no speakers in there. Once you’ve connected a brick to the internet, you can add others wherever you have a need to play audio and each newly-added ‘child’ brick will find the ‘parent’ and, voila, you’ve just created a wireless music network. You install their software, which will find the music on your computer(s) and add them to your virtual music library, which can be accessed via the Controller. What’s nice here is that you can have multiple computers with music on them and all of it shows up in 1 place via the Controller.
Performance: The folks at Sonos have built a first-rate product. I’m now able to navigate my music collection from the comfort of my couch. Even better, I can tune into various internet radio stations or Rhapsody. The Controller is intuitive and gives that satisfying ‘click’ as with the iPod when you’re using the scroll wheel. You can use the Controller to play different audio in different rooms (called Zones), control volume and add to playlists on the fly (which is an annoyance on the iPod). Besides working seamlessly, it’s a well-designed product too evoking the clean, smooth aesthetic of the iPod. There are also some nice touches: for instance the Controller has a motion sensor so it turns itself on from standby mode as soon as you pick it up. Cool.
Wishlist/Gripes: There are some shortcomings:
The Upshot: The Sonos Digital Music System is a beautifully designed and engineered premium product that will greatly enhance your digital music consumption and experience in your own home. It is intuitive and easy to install and won’t be an eyesore in your home. It is for people that have a lot invested in their music collections, and so ought to be willing to pay to extract more value out of the investment they’ve made in their music. Sonos is also for you if you have a big house or lots of rooms. I look forward to continued innovation from the team at Sonos. They have a good thing going.
[Disclosure: While the Company sent me a unit for review, I have not received any compensation nor was I obligated to write about the product.]