TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: A price gouging grilling

Technology Spectator

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Cold, hard look at tech price gouging

Australian consumers will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief now that Canberra has decided to take a long overdue look at why we are paying so much more for hardware and software compared to folks overseas. The good news here is that the hard work of Labor MP Ed Husic is at least having some effect with Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy reportedly green lighting a parliamentary inquiry into the extraordinary price discrepancies.

According to Fairfax newspapers, the inquiry will see all the major players (Apple, Microsoft, Adobe) face a grilling, which should be particularly uncomfortable for Adobe which last week revealed that the latest version of its Creative Suite software was going to cost Aussie buyers up to $1400. The mark-ups are just as heinous for Microsoft and Apple offerings. Microsoft’s Office suite, which ranges in price from US$119 ($114.69) for a home version to $350 ($337.32) for a single licence professional version in the US costs around $169 to $499 here. Meanwhile, Apple not only slugs local buyers for its physical products but also makes a killing through iTunes. The bottom line for Australian consumers is that the tyranny of distance is making a bigger hole in our pockets and while the parliamentary inquiry is a step in the right direction any real remedy is still a while away.

However, it will provide the companies another opportunity to peddle their reasoning for the price hikes, which should range from local taxes, physical retail costs, local market conditions and logistics. The only difference would be that these justifications will hopefully be put under rigorous scrutiny, especially with the ACCC showing an increased willingness to take action.

The biggest thing in the favour of the tech heavyweights is that realistically Australian consumers don’t have a choice when it comes to buying the product and those fed up with the unpalatable mark-ups are moving to online channels to source their products. However, online sources may be good when it comes to buying devices but don’t work for software.

That reality is not going to be mitigated by this inquiry but here’s hoping that it will be at least shed light on the situation and hopefully prompt a bit more accountability from the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Adobe.

TV Now fight's innovation implications

Telstra and the footy codes (AFL and NRL) have managed to temporarily fend off the challenge posed by Optus’ TV Now service but the Federal Court’s decision could have grave implications not only on consumers but also on Australia’s reputation for tech innovation.

Optus has understandably suspended the TV Now service indefinitely as it mulls a High Court challenge but for now it would seem that Telstra and the sporting codes are getting their way. It will be a bitter pill to swallow for Optus, which had emerged triumphant in February, and worst of all the telco has surely burnt its bridges with the footy codes, if not the sporting codes in general.

Victory or defeat in this case hinged on who was held liable for the recording. In February, the court found the liability was with the users, however, the latest ruling contends that the burden is shared between them and Optus. According to the time-shifting provisions of the Copyright Act, added by the government in 2004, making a "a cinematograph film or sound recording of a broadcast solely for private and domestic use by watching or listening to the material broadcast at a time more convenient than the time when the broadcast is made" does not constitute a breach. However, the ruling said that "Optus cannot either as a maker alone or as a maker with subscriber" bring itself within the scope of the "private and domestic” defence outlined in the Act.

TV Now may be on hiatus for the time being but this is just tip of the iceberg when it comes to how technology will disrupt existing models. According to cloud coalition OzHub’s chairman Matt Healy, the court’s decision is a step in the wrong decision.

"The problem is that it creates huge uncertainty about whether the law is now going to apply to technologies or to behaviour,” Healy told Technology Spectator.

Healy poses a pertinent question: why is Optus held liable as the provider of a cloud recording service when someone records free-to-air TV, but the manufacturer of a digital recording device in the home is protected under the law? According to Healy, this kind of uncertainty can suffocate innovation and he is also fearful that the ruling takes Australia "out of step with how the law in other countries is responding to the development of new cloud technologies".

"If you were today about to launch a new cloud service, Australia would drop to the bottom, of your list of markets to enter.”

A win for Optus would have no doubt forced Canberra’s hand to do something quickly and, rightfully or wrongly, it would have come to the aid of the sporting codes. As things stand now, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon can continue to plod along with the task of bringing the Copyright Law up to speed.

YouTube’s Aussie movie channel; Quickflix seals Microsoft partnership

Google is now offering online movies on-demand through Google Play and a brand new movies page on YouTube for Australia.

The pricing is on par with iTunes, with new releases available at $5.99 for standard definition and $6.99 for high definition and library titles at $3.99 for standard definition and $4.99 for high definition.

For most movies, viewers will have 30 days to begin watching their rental, and, once started, 48 hours to finish.

Meanwhile, Quickflix has sealed a new partnership with Microsoft to stream Quickflix movies and TV series directly to the Xbox 360 console in Australia and New Zealand. The subscription streaming service will offer unlimited viewing of your favourite TV series and movies for a low monthly fee, and will be available to Xbox LIVE Gold* subscribers in Australia and NZ later in 2012.

Google sells SketchUp 3D; Facebook gets serious about malware; IBM boosts its 'big data' arsenal

In other deals involving tech heavyweights, Google has sold its SketchUp 3D modelling platform to Trimble Navigation Ltd for an undisclosed price. The deal will see Trimble work with Google in developing SketchUp's 3D Warehouse – an online treasure trove of models for users.

Facebook is getting serious about malware after inking a partnership with IT security and data protection company, Sophos. The deal will see Facebook use the website reputation service provided by SophosLabs, Sophos’s global network of research centres, along with their own security measures, to help assess whether a largely distributed link is malicious.

When Facebook users click a link, Facebook consults its database of malicious URLs to check the status of the link. Facebook will inform Facebook users if the link they clicked on is malicious, and users will be sent to a page that offers the choice to continue at their own risk, return to the previous screen, or obtain more information on why the link was flagged as suspicious. Mac users will also be given the option to download the free Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition from the Sophos Facebook Page as part of the Facebook AV Marketplace.

Finally, IBM has added another significant cog to its 'big data' machine with the acquisition of Vivisimo, which provides federated discovery and navigation software to help organisations access and analyse big data across the enterprise. Financial terms for the deal were not disclosed. The IT heavyweight said that the acquisition will help accelerate its big data analytics initiatives with advanced federated capabilities allowing organisations to "access, navigate, and analyse the full variety, velocity and volume of structured and unstructured data without having to move it".

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