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Twitter Rolls the Dice

Twitter Rolls the Dice

Twitter is greeting users with a new interface redesign, giving them more elaborate controls and new ways to communicate. While some users, particularly businesses, may welcome the changes, others might decide they complicate the simple process of tweeting, following and being followed. Meanwhile, RedBox partners up for streaming, RIM takes another bruising, and the Web's red light district opens for business.

When a social media site undertakes a major redesign, it's kind of like that scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Drink from the right cup, and you're completely re-energized. But there are a lot of poor choices you can make, and drinking from any of the wrong cups will turn your site into a dried-out husk.

Twitter just took the plunge with a major interface refresh that offers a lot of new options and features to regular users as well as businesses and brands that use the service to communicate with customers.

An array of new buttons organizes content, and new profile displays let users tell their followers more about themselves. That can be especially important for brand pages.

For personal users, a new Home section provides an assortment of news, commentary and tweets, while Discovery draws in information based on factors like location and the things the user's followees are looking at. The new Me button is designed to promote one-to-one interaction. It's all about trying to foster actual conversations rather than having everyone shouting in a digital cacophony.

For businesses, the new features may come as a welcome change. Twitter now gives them more opportunities and ways to talk about themselves, more techniques for wending their way into conversations, more ways to customize their profiles and slap branding all over the place.

But there's also the risk that the changes make Twitter a little too busy. Simplicity has always seemed to be one of the network's major themes. While Facebook adds a million new features every year, Twitter has mostly kept it clean: 140 characters, these people follow you, you follow these people, retweet if you like something. Hashtag linguistics and impenetrable acronyms aside, it's always been a fairly straightforward user experience. And it still is, but now all sorts of new buttons and switches are festooned all over the interface. While some might see the new features as useful tools, others will look at them as unnecessary complications.


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Red on Red

RedBox, the company that put a big DVD rental kiosk right in that spot where the wino used to sit outside your favorite convenience store, is teaming up with Verizon to order offer video content sent straight to your home via the Web, according to a TechCrunch report.

The partnership, which neither company would confirm to us, is apparently dubbed "Project Zoetrope," referring to a very old-timey way of showing moving pictures. It'll connect with various desktop browsers, as well as devices like Android and iOS mobiles, Xbox, Roku and Google TV.

For Verizon, this could be a way to reach beyond the traditional cable TV services it already offers. Streaming providers are often at odds with ISPs due to the burden video puts on a network, but Verizon has the advantage of being an ISP itself.

As for RedBox, for the time being, it's getting a fair amount of traction with its business of renting out physical media. It's part of the reason BlockBuster's just about buried, and it's even giving Netflix's DVD service a run for its money. RedBox rental kiosks are incredibly convenient. You don't have to wait for the mail to arrive, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper to maintain than big stores that have to pay for trifles like rent and employees.

But streaming and downloading movies directly to viewers via the Internet is the trend RedBox is going after here. Netflix is the leader with that, though it's showing signs of weakness lately. You've also got Brightcove, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and probably a half-dozen others.

That sounds like a crowded market, so in order for this not to be a total waste of time, Zoetrope is going to have to offer something unique, and that may come in the form of its payment system. Apparently it's a credit-based subscription -- pay a monthly fee and you get x number of credits to spend on streaming and downloading various titles. Presumably older stuff will cost less, newer stuff more. But unless that involves something like rollover credits, it could make customers feel like they overpaid if they don't spend all their credits before the end of the month, and out of luck if they do spend them all but there's something else they want to see.

Then again, one reason movie studios haven't let companies like Netflix put their biggest new movies on Instant is because they don't think flat-rate all-you-can-eat plans are good enough for their AAA content, and they may think a credit-based plan like this is a more deserving system.

Losing the Name Game

If ever there was a company in need of a break right now, it's Research In Motion. Market share is dwindling, stock value's cratering, its devices keep getting outshined by iPhones and Androids, and its attack on the tablet market's been a mess.

Much hinges on the arrival of the next version of RIM's mobile operating system, which will combine the DNA of its regular BlackBerry OS with that of QNX, which it bought last year. It sounds like it's going to be a major departure for RIM, a big step in a new direction with a huge software change that could make or break the company. So it slapped a new kind of name on its new software. Forget the numerals; this one's called "BBX."

Not bad, really. It's nice and short, it makes sense given the names of the two parent OSes, and it includes X, certainly the alphabet's most sinister letter.

Don't get used to it, though, because RIM's given it up. Several weeks ago, shortly after RIM announced BBX to the world, another company, Basis International, filed a trademark infringement suit over use of the name, which Basis was already using to refer to a line of products called "Business Basic eXtended."

The judge in that suit recently issued a temporary restraining order against RIM, and the company promptly folded. The next-gen BlackBerry OS will simply be called "BlackBerry 10." The current version is BlackBerry 7; now we're skipping to 10. Don't ask questions, just play along.

So what's the name change going to cost RIM? Perhaps a little bit of dignity. Once again, it's made to look like it can't execute, that it can't even check to see if a name is already taken, and if so, how likely the owner is to sue. It wanted to make a big break with a new brand, but instead it was publicly slapped back into its box.

But perhaps now that it's at this point, giving up was the wise thing to do. The product isn't even out yet. And if RIM did decide to fight, critics would never let the company hear the end of how it bogged itself down in a protracted legal war over the name of an OS it hadn't even launched. RIM just needs to get its next OS out there, regardless of what it's called, and make sure it's incredibly good.

Pocket Picked

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus will come to the Verizon network in the U.S. very soon, and buyers who pick one up will be getting one of the most advanced smartphones on the market. It'll be the third in Google's line of Nexus phones -- phones featuring pure, unadulterated and untweaked versions of the very latest Android build. In this case, that's Ice Cream Sandwich.

But what those buyers won't be getting is Google Wallet, Google's newly born mobile payment system. Here's this beautiful, flagship phone with an OS that was immaculately conceived when Google whispered in Samsung's ear, yet it'll be missing the cutting-edge feature that represents Google's big leap into the mobile payments space. And it's all thanks to Verizon.

So is Verizon blocking a Google app? Is Google taking this sitting down? Is this the beginning of a brand-new wireless grudge? Well, if the two aren't getting along, they're keeping quiet about it. Asked why Google Wallet isn't part of the Verizon Galaxy Nexus, a Google spokesperson told us Verizon asked them not to include it. See, very cordial! And a Verizon rep told us that the carrier isn't blocking any apps; it's just that Google Wallet requires a certain hardware element to work, and the two are still hashing it out. So, someday its Nexus will have Wallet. Maybe.

However, there's also the fact that Verizon is one of three major U.S. carriers to support ISIS, a mobile payment platform that competes with Google Wallet. The others are AT&T and T-Mobile, so this might not be the last time we hear about a new Android phone leaving the house without a Wallet.

But why would Google roll over on this without a fight? Well, we don't know there wasn't a fight; only that whatever conflict might have happened stayed behind closed doors.

And maybe the reason it's giving in is because consumers just don't care that much about mobile payments yet. There are still very few places you can use Google Wallet, ISIS or anything else to pay for retail purchases with your phone. Most people don't own phones that are capable of doing it, and most probably aren't even aware any of this stuff exists. Sure, it might be big in a few years, and right now the stakes are high for companies that want to get in on the early stages of the trend, but for now, perhaps Google thinks Job No. 1 is getting Android phones with NFC hardware into as many pockets as possible. In order to do that, it's going to have to keep carriers happy, so maybe now is a good time to take a knee.

.XXX Marks the Spot

If you've ever wanted to set up shop in the Web's official red light district, now's the time. The ICM Registry just started selling .xxx domain names. Better hurry up -- it's on a first-come, first served basis.

Actually, even if you have a fairly well-known brand that has absolutely nothing to do with porn, erotica, adult entertainment, or whatever else you want to call it, you may still want to register that brand with a .xxx domain anyway, lest someone offering a very different product tries to mooch off your established name.

The creation of the .xxx domain has been a very controversial issue, and the fight over whether or not to go through with it has been going on for years. On one hand, putting the Web's dirty bits in one corner could theoretically make them easier to avoid for people who don't want to see them -- and easier to find for those who do.

It could also make things easier for automatic tools, like security filters that can be programmed to be extra vigilant against malware when a browser visits a .xxx site, or filtering programs used by schools and parents that can simply deny access to anything under a .xxx domain.

But critics see another side to it. They say the creation of the .xxx domain could easily turn from voluntary to mandatory registration. And if all porn sites are made to carry a .xxx domain, who gets to decide what falls under that definition?

For now, though, it seems very little is going to change about adult content on the Web. The voluntary registration of .xxx mostly means large brands will register to protect their names, and established porn purveyors will register simply because that's what it's there for. But meanwhile, most will likely keep their established .com and .net domains as well, and it's business as usual.


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