Meeja: September 2008 Archives

Sooner or later it was going to come to this. Having taken a firm grip on the horizontal, a big company now wants to make sure it controls the vertical.

A few days ago, I got a message from Taiwanese foundry TSMC's European PR agency asking if I wanted to do an interview, under embargo, about an "advanced process announcement".

This could have been a number of things, either some extension to the existing 45nm processes or the advance information on 32nm*. When I got an email from the Common Platform Partner group later that day, the penny dropped. On the 30th, IBM and the gang have a seminar touting the benefits of their upcoming 32nm process. TSMC's embargo would lift the day before. Ah, it's the old "anything you can do..." PR gambit.

OK, I can live with that, I thought. So, I started to put in motion the plans for a story that would, in all likelihood, take in both. It wouldn't necessarily turn out that way, but I might as well plan for it. Given that both camps have said they will have high-k, metal-gate processes on 32nm, doing it as a head-to-head story for print, if not online, would make sense.

So, I start contacting some people, as I can't be in Santa Clara for the actual Common Platform seminar where these companies are planning to talk about 32nm. I hadn't seen any communication from IBM or Chartered at this point, so I don't know if they actually planned to time their own announcement for Monday as well, which could be possible.

However, in doing this, I break an agreement that I didn't actually knew existed until I get a second email, telling me (with my emphasis):

"The release is going to be available just beforehand and TSMC makes a total embargo request to everyone we're approaching, ie the subject matter should not be shared with anyone (including analysts or competitors) before the publication date even as part of any background research."**

When the PR rang to ask about a slot and whether this was OK, I said it was a problem as the subject matter, as far as I understood it, had already been shared. And, frankly, I wasn't about to stop trying to get hold the Common Platform people simply because TSMC didn't want it's shiny announcement tarnished.

Let's put this into perspective. TSMC holds a commanding market share in the foundry business. It has steam-rollered the competition out of the way at 65nm. The 45nm process from the Common Platform people is practically missing in action and number-two foundry UMC is, well, I'm not entirely sure where it is with an actual production-ready 45nm process. It's all gone quiet over there.

TSMC, market-wise is in a position of strength but has, it seems, in one of the cheesiest acts possible in the land of PR, scheduled a spoiler announcement ahead of a similar one from a group of smaller competitors. It's not uncommon, but I don't recall the last time anyone said, in effect: "Don't upset our spoiler by calling anyone else, not even an analyst."

What exactly is TSMC worried about? That an analyst or competitor might explain that doing something in a certain way is a bad idea? And, don't forget, this is going to be at the level of detail you can get from a half-hour phone call - you could end up with less than has already been discussed at conferences such as IEDM and VLSI Technology.

The problem is that, by putting such heavy restrictions on research - next they'll be telling us not to put certain keywords into a Google search - all you can do is parrot the spin. You can't call anyone to check whether a certain technique is viable, because that's verboten.

I should point out that I'm pretty careful about what does get relayed to a competitor while doing research under embargo: I try to keep it all very general but simply use the information I have to construct the questions. Also, checking out things ahead of the embargo lifting can help the company. I have significantly changed my construction of a story scheduled for Monday having spoken to a couple of people. The company that imposed the embargo didn't know certain things were happening and so didn't mention them, but the actions of one or two companies around this new product indicate how they feel about the launch.

But the kind of demand that has come from TSMC leads you to the point where the concept of doing an interview under embargo becomes worthless. You can't research the story in the way you know it needs to be done. So there can only be one answer.

* OK, they may be doing something crazy like skipping 32nm, but the actions of TSMC tend to suggest that the company is more concerned about looking behind the times with its announcement rather than leading the way. If you were going to scale right down to 27nm or 22nm, you would hardly be concerned what IBM and Chartered might say.

** Blacklist, here I come.

Update: TSMC has rethought. Normal embargo terms have been restored, apparently.

I hope for the LibDems' sake they haven't decided to pick a quarter million people in key marginals as the targets for Nick Clegg's telemarketing programme. I can't think of a better way of convincing floating voters to put a cross by the other candidates' names than to take a card out of the offshore scam-merchants' book and play them a recorded message.

It seems the SNP has lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner - oh the irony - about marketing by telephone without consent using a recorded message. I suspect there is enough of a loophole in it being an "interactive" call, as they can dress it up as market research. The automated element could still fall foul of the regulations (but I need to check). Or maybe they're going to phone from Florida.

Personally, I can live with the parties phoning to ask if I've voted on the day and probably also with a live human being asking what I like or don't like about a given policy. But to ring people and play a party political broadcast at them just has to be the height of stupidity, particularly when your poll ratings aren't all that good in the first place.

So LibDem delegates, go back to your consituencies and prepare for misery.

Link crazy

16 September 2008

One of the most depressing things about media on the Internet is the way that people make fetishes out of otherwise unremarkable pieces of web infrastructure to the point that they start to think an entire economy could rely on them.

Take the link. Scott Karp regards the link as the key to entire media businesses. The poster children for the church of the hyperlink are Google, Drudge Report and the blogs on which they write. All make heavy use of links, naturally, and at least two of them have made business out of exploiting links. But to fixate on the link itself is a bit like saying roads are dangerous because people get killed on them.

Roads are safe; they are idle bystanders in the daily carnage. The cars are the things you need to watch out for.

If links provided the only currency, Google engineers would hardly be spending their working days trying to work out how to knock spammers' link farms off the results pages. If all links are good, why aren't theirs?

The reality is that people come back to sites that are relevant, useful or just fun. Or all three. For a community of Internet users, Matt Drudge has a knack of seeking out the stories they want to see, so they keep coming back.

You go back to Google because you know roughly what you're going to get in terms of results. If you didn't you'd be going to Live.com, Yahoo or Ask. The links simply provide a means to an end for the search engine and its users. Relevance determines the utility of the search site.

And blogs? Well, there's always some original content at the end of the link. Or at least you'd hope so.

Karp is right in recommending that media sites link out more. If you find a constituency of regular readers and contributors, then giving them links they want to use is a good way to keep them coming back. But if the stuff out there is lacking for your consituency, then you have to provide that material yourself. Adding more links because "links are good" won't be any help at all. But, if you can get to understand why people are turning up at your site, then that's the key. Links simply provide a means to an end.

"I want to believe"

15 September 2008

Tim Berners-Lee would like to give some websites the stamp of trustworthiness to help stamp out the incredible amount of bunk on the Intertubes, he said in an interview with the BBC's Pallab Ghosh:

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Naturally, in the world of blogs, Berners-Lee's idea is an affront to free speech. It does not take long for people to get the idea that Big Government is going to stomp on the little website owner who might simply be expressing an unusual idea. However, what he is looking for are just rating systems:

"I'm not a fan of giving a website a simple number like an IQ rating because like people they can vary in all kinds of different ways," he said. "So I'd be interested in different organisations labelling websites in different ways".

This all sounds very sensible. Some of the systems might work, depending on what they are rating. But, it does not take long before you start coming up with ways to game the system. And, in reality, disinformation is not really the core problem. Some people just like believing in bollocks.

300dpi

5 September 2008

In the broadband age, how much bandwidth a picture attached to an email chews up probably shouldn't matter. But it does, especially when you've got PRs sending you, unsolicited, 5MB attachments.

It doesn't matter when I'm at my desk: the hard drive will take a while to fill up. But when you're on the road or abroad and trying to download page proofs over 3G at the same time those big emails come in, it makes a big, big difference. And for quite a few people who are on-staff at publishers, it's a problem. Because they all too often have just 50MB or 100MB in their server email accounts. Get a release with a 5MB attachment and you've just blown away 5 or 10 per cent of your storage allocation. So, guess which emails get deleted.

Even more stupefying is when you get a picture like this.

plantfull.jpg

Yes, the photo has been shot through a window so you get the benefit of the reflection in the image. But that's not the best bit. You see, we keep telling people that if they want to send images they should be 300dpi. Then we adjusted the advice because people would go into Photoshop and simply change the pixel resolution on their digicam shots from 72dpi to 300dpi. All you do then is make the physical dimension of the photo smaller. So, we said: "Make it the equivalent of a 7 x 5in print at 300dpi". That would sort it out, surely?

Um, no.

plantpic.jpg

From this detail at 100 per cent, you can see what they've done. They've taken a tiny, overcompressed JPEG and, in Photoshop, enlarged the image to a 7 x 5in at 300dpi and then, to cap it off, put it into the CMYK colour space and saved at Maximum quality. Bingo: instant 4MB file.

If nothing else, you get a visual lesson in what effect overdoing JPEG compression has on images. Just look at the ghosts you get around any moderately hard edges.

Believe it or not, the EXIF data for the photo says it was shot on a Canon Eos 1Ds. Yes, that's right. A proper camera. However, why they shot it at f/2.8 is something of a mystery given that, even from this bad a sample, hardly anything seems to be sharp. The bigger mystery is why someone took an 11Mpixel image, crunched it down to something like a 100KB JPEG, boosted it back to the 4Mpixel range, and then sent it out to a bunch of magazines expecting it to get used.

Sending JPEGs in CMYK, by the way, is generally a bad idea too because it practically doubles the size of the image and some image-editing software packages have been known to silently lose one of the colour planes, thinking it's just an RGB JPEG. That is, unless you like seeing pictures of purple people, because that's generally the effect you get.