Author Archive | Harry McCracken

What Ms. Pac-Man Could Teach Hasbro About Scrabulous

I know I sounded cold and uncaring about Scrabulous fans who are being forced to go cold turkey when I blogged this morning. But I’m still sorry that a happier endgame didn’t happen, and still hold out a tiny sliver of hope for an unexpected fairytale ending.

And it dawned on me that there’s little-known precedent for the notion of Hasbro deciding to legitimize and leverage Scabulous, in the well-rounded, chomp-chomping-chomping form of Ms. Pac-Man.

Nobody other than hardcore arcade-game nuts remembers this, but–as Wikipedia explains–the distaff member of the happy Pac-Man couple had her origins in a bootlegged hack of Pac-Man called Crazy Otto, from a Boston-area company called General Computer Corporation. Midway, Pac-Man’s American distributor, liked the game so much that it gave Otto a sex-change operation and made the game an official sequel to Pac-Man. Namco, the Japanese company that originated Pac-Man, eventually ended up owning his spouse as well.

According to Wikipedia, there’s at least a little bad blood between Ms.P. and Namco to this day–she’s not mentioned in Namco’s official archives. But twenty-seven years after her birth, she’s if anything more omnipresent than ever, and all those quarters have added up to untold millions in profit for Midway. (I played a lot of Ms. Pac-Man back in the early 1980s, but if you’d told me back then that in 2008 I’d own a phone made by that Apple II company, and could play a perfect recreation of Ms. Pac-Man on it, I’d never have believed you.)

The story isn’t an exact parallel for the Scrabulous saga–Midway adopted La Pac before anyone had heard of her, not after she became a phenomenon. And it’s important to remember that we don’t really know Hasbro’s thinking on the notion of acquiring Scrabulous–whether it never seriously considered doing so, flirted with the idea, or tried to and was rebuffed. But the birth of Ms. Pac-Man was sure an example of a large company showing some creative thinking when it was faced with a small company’s unauthorized use of its intellectual property. And the Scrabulous takedown certainly was not.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have a sudden, inexplicable desire to play a game or two of Ms. Pac-Man…


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Sorry, Scrabulous Fans, I’m Only Mildly Sympathetic

Today’s news brings one of the least-startling developments in recent tech history: U.S. and Canadian Facebook users are being denied access to Scrabulous, the extremely popular app that lets people play…well, let’s just say it: It lets them play a thinly-veiled pirated clone of Scrabble. The move was inevitable after Hasbro, which owns the North American rights to Scrabble, licensed Electronic Arts to do an official Scrabble Facebook app and sued the Indian brothers behind Scrabulous. (Facebook is saying that it was Scrabulous’s developers that decided to disable it; for now, the game seems to live on at the Scrabulous site.)

We’ll presumably see a bunch of posts like this one by Don Reisinger on Mashable, siding with Scrabulous fans and the Brothers Agarwalla and caricaturing Hasbro as a company run by clueless geezers who don’t understand the Internet. And it’s tempting for me to join the dogpile-on-the-rabbit. The happiest scenario would have been for Hasbro to acquire or license Scrabulous and legitimize it–or, for that matter, to have rendered it unneccesary before it ever existed by coming out with a Facebook version of Scrabble a long time ago.

But truth to tell, I’m not all that irate at Hasbro, and I’m not all that sad on behalf of Scabulous fans or the Agarwallas. Unless you’re opposed to copyright law, period–or least contend that the Scrabble copyrights and trademarks should have expired already, which I guess is a defensible position, but one at odds with actual law–Hasbro has the right to protect Scrabble. It even has the right to do so in a way that other people believe to be stupid and unreasonable. (I’m a great believer in the idiosyncratic, libertarian notion that laws exist in part to permit people to behave in ways that other folks may believe–correctly, in some cases–to be stupid, unreasonable, and self-defeating.)

If forcing the Agarwallas to shutter the Scrabulous app turns hundreds of thousands of Scrabulous fans into Hasbro haters…well, that’s Hasbro’s call.

As for the Agarwallas, they’re clearly smart, talented guys. Maybe they could have figured out that Facebook-izing Scrabble without Hasbro’s consent might be a bad idea? Is it impudent of me to suggest that they coulda avoided all this by coming up with a compelling online word game that was…original?

(Full disclosure: I’ve played only a couple of games of Scrabble in my life. If this dust-up involved Monobulous or Cluebulous, I’d take this all a little more personally…)


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Microsoft’s Mojave Experiment: Fooled Ya, PC Users!

People who don’t like Windows Vista? They’re just ignorant! That would seem to be the message of The Mojave Experiment, a new Microsoft marketing site for Windows Vista. Earlier this month, the company gave 120 users of various versions of Windows, OS X, and Linux demos of “Project Mojave,” an upcoming new version of Windows. The videos at the Mojave site show them being dazzled by its features and performance.

But then Microsoft told them that Mojave was a ruse: What they were being dazzled by was Vista. Apparently Their previous distaste for the operating system was borne of misinformation; once they were educated, they became converts.

Which reminded me of another ad campaign I hadn’t seen in awhile:

Mojave is a very clever conceit, and for some Vista skeptics, it’s probably effective. But…

The folks in Microsoft’s clips must be, by definition, casual computer users–more advanced types. even if they weren’t Vista users, would have been able to tell that “Mojave” was Vista. (Microsoft doesn’t say how it screened its Mojave subjects or whether its trickery was effective in every case–I wonder if any of the test subjects politely asked, “Why are you showing me Windows Vista and saying it’s something else?”) You can see in some of the clips that these people are not deeply into PCs: When one guy is told that Windows Media Center lets him watch TV for free, he looks dumbstruck.

These people had existing impressions of Vista–most likely derived from reading about it or talking to other people who’d used it. Those impressions were negative. They were swayed by a ten-minute demo by someone working for Microsoft. The bottom line is that A) the experiment was incredibly superficial and any subject who changed his or her mind about Vista based on a brief demo is pretty darn impressionable; and B) it seems to say that ten minutes of marketing by Microsoft provides a better portrait of the OS than talking to friends and family who have spent hands-on time with it in the real world.

The whole idea is of a piece with other Microsoft marketing campaigns that have a subtext that its customers aren’t all that bright. The company’s slogan is the patronizing “Your Potential. Our Passion.” It’s compared users of non-current versions of Office to dinosaurs. It just caught flack for saying that being dubious about Vista is akin to thinking the world is flat. In short, it keeps on drawing some sort of vaguely insulting connection between being an unsuccessful schlub and not buying the current versions of Microsoft products.

Telling the Mojave subjects that Vista was a new version of Windows was as harmless as little white lies get, but it sorta makes me uncomfortable. Who wants the companies they do business with to tell them fibs of any sort? Why couldn’t Microsoft have done something similar that involved giving people a fresh look at Vista without deceiving them? A truly interesting experiment of this sort would involve Microsoft lending Vista machines to real people for a month of hands-on experience. The results would undeniably tell you more about Vista than how people respond to a demo.

The Mojave site has a page of “facts” about Vista, and while some are significant, such as the number of third-party products that work with the OS today, there’s a section that refers to “actual Windows Vista users,” and says that 89% are satisfied–but then brings up the ten-minute demo again. Looks like the facts intermingle information about Vista users and Mojave subjects in a way that’s confusing at best and misleading at worst.

The thing is, Vista’s problem is much deeper than one of perception among people who don’t know much about it. A lot of home and business users have made entirely rational decisions to avoid it. I’ve talked to countless people who have bought Vista and were either very unhappy with the experience or found it to be something less than the life-changing experience that Microsoft has promised in advertising. It’s possible to know what you’re talking about and not like Vista.

I don’t wanna come off as sounding like I’m saying that the people in the Mojave videos are dummies. Some of the smartest people I know know very little about computer operating systems; some people who are operating-system experts need to get a life. But the Mojave site really doesn’t address the millions of smart, well-informed people who Microsoft is having a tough time turning into Vista fans.

Over at CNET’s News.com, Ina Fried, who broke the Mojave story, says that Mojave isn’t part of the big, pricey ad campaign that Microsoft is planning to help turn the Vista tide. I’m very curious to see those ads. And I hope for everybody’s sake that unlike much Microsoft advertising, they feel like they’re addressing intelligent adults…


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Ten Reasons It’s So Damn Hard to Out-Google Google

Sifting through the blogosphere buzz on search engine Cuil today, just about everyone broaches the question of whether it might be a better search engine than Google–maybe even a more successful one someday. Judging from my experience with it so far, the real question is whether it’ll get marginally adequate, not whether it’ll topple the most dominant Web site the planet has ever known. But the chatter got me thinking: Why is it so [email protected]#@$% difficult to beat Google at its own game?

It’s not like nobody’s giving it all they’ve got. Cuil is merely the most recent startup to be positioned as a possible Googleslayer: Others have included Powerset (recently snapped up by Microsoft), Wisenut (which is no longer with us), and Wikia. And every time Yahoo or Microsoft or Ask launches some feature which will supposedly prove an irresistable lure to Google fans, Google’s share of all searches only trends upward.

In short, nobody’s really even managed to give Google a flesh wound. As with Freddy Krueger, tryng to kill it seems to do more harm than good. But why?

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Cuil is Back Up! Sort of!

Last night when I trudged off to bed, much-hyped new search engine Cuil had launched, was giving me odd-to-awful results–and then was replaced with a “We’ll Be Back” page saying that it was proving so popular that they had to take it offline to beef up their server capacity.

This morning, it’s back up and running. But despite claiming the planet’s largest index, it still has some sort of glitch that results in it sometimes failing to find any results at all:

In other Cuil news, my friend Dan Tynan is rightly wondering what Cuil’s founders were thinking when they gave their site that name. They say it’s an old Irish word for knowledge, and that it’s pronounced “cool.”

It seems inevitable that half of Cuil’s users will have no idea how to pronounce it. And if any of the the other half recommend it to a friend in person, that friend will have no idea how to spell it unless it’s spelled out–which is kind of a singular achievement for a word with only four letters in it.

It gets weirder: Until recently, Cuil was going to be called Cuill. They say that they changed the name to simplify the spelling…

To be named Cuill and change the spelling to Cuil based on that rational is sorta like living near the San Andreas Fault and deciding to move to safer territory–and buying a house that’s fifty yards to the south.

Safe prediction: It Cuil turns out to be good enough to gain traction, it will be called something else someday. Maybe soon…


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Is Cuil a Googleslayer? Nope, Not Yet–Not Hardly

A search engine called Cuil launched tonight. It touts itself as the world’s largest search engine, with more than 121 billion pages indexed–three times as many as Google, it says. Its “About Cuil” page sniffs at “superficial popularity metrics”–for which read Google’s PageRank–and says that it has a better approach to figuring out a page’s content and relevance. The site’s management includes multiple veterans of Google, plus Louis Monier, who was instrumental at AltaVista, the first important search engine. In short, both its claims and its staff set the bar high. And its claims, in particular, beg you to compare it with Google.

After spending a bit of time playing with Cuil, though, I’m more puzzled than impressed by the results. It would appear that the site is suffering some technical glitches tonight: In some cases, it’s told me it found zero results for a search, then has returned lots of them when I tried again. In fact, that’s happened often enough that I’d be cautious about judging any results that Cuil provides tonight:

I’ve done a bunch of other searches in hopes of finding an instance in which Cuil clearly beats Google. No luck so far. When I search for George Washington, the first result relates to George Washington University, not the Father of the Nation. The second result is Wikipedia’s entry on the great man, but the text excerpt is a snippet from the bibliography at the end of the article, so that’s not clear. The third result is a page about the George Washington Carver museum in Austin, Texas. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that that outdoes Google’s results. In fact, placing a result relating to George Washington Carver so high is evidence that Cuil’s understanding of my search was shaky; it’s unlikely that anyone looking for information on George Washinton Carver would fail to include the “Carver” in the search.

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Gateway: Direct Sales No More

This is kinda sad: On Friday, Taiwanese PC giant Acer announced that its Gateway subsidiary will stop selling PCs direct to buyers over the Web and will focus on indirect sales–that is, through retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City, and Costco. Along with Dell, Gateway created the direct-sales PC market starting in the mid-1980s; for a long time, it was the only way to buy a Gateway, and the company’s whole reason for being centered around the idea that the best way to buy PCs was directly from the manufacturer.

There was a time when it looked like most PCs might end up being sold direct. And at its best, it was and is a wonderful way to buy a computer. Now only Dell remains as a major manufacturer focused on the direct market, and it’s dabbling in retail itself and generally no longer a shining example of the virtues of buying direct.

Today’s news is no shocker, since Acer not only doesn’t sell direct but has thrived in recent years by actively spurning direct sales in order not to compete with the retail outfits that sell its PCs. Only a really schizophrenic company could have done business both the new Acer way and the old Gateway way.

A lot of us whose memories of PCs go back to the 1980s probably retain some residiual fondness for Gateway–the plucky, quirky upstart founded as Gateway 2000 by Ted Waitt in in Sioux City, Iowa in 1985, with the wacky, cow-centric marketing. That company disappeared a long time before Acer bought it–it was certainly gone by the time it launched an ill-fated attempt to reinvent itself as a consumer-elecronics company and then ended up acquiring eMachines, and eMachines’ business strategy. in 2004. But the warm fuzzies for the Gateway name have helped sustain it, even though the company in its current form has almost nothing in common with its original incarnation except the word “Gateway” in its name.

Okay, the cow spots remain, too…


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That’s Xdrive. As in “Ex-Drive.”

So AOL is cutting back on a lot of its online properties, and one of the unlucky ones is Xdrive, the venerable online service whose current incarnation provides 5GB of free Internet storage space. We don’t know much about what’ll happen to the service other than what’s in an internal AOL memo that’s been published at TechCrunch–that it’s being “sunsetted”–which is usually a code-word for “gradually wound down rather than abruptly shuttered” and that AOL is “exploring” how to migrate Xdrive users’ data in a way that provides “the best possible transition experience.” TechCrunch also says that AOL is trying to sell Xdrive for $5 million.

That would seem to suggest that AOL decided to close Xdrive before figuring out exactly what to do with all those terabytes of data that its users have stored on their Xdrives. And the Xdrive site doesn’t mention the service’s apparent. impending doom. Actually, it’s still touting itself as a fabulous option for backup up vital data.

Sounds like there’s at least some chance that Xdrive will survive in a form that makes the transition seamless for its users–or at least doesn’t leave them having to figure out what to do with their data. But now would not be a good time to sign up for an Xdrive account.

The news comes at the same time that Yahoo is closing its online music store and getting ready to turn off its DRM servers–and therefore telling paying customers that they won’t be to get access to their music from new computers after September.

All of which is a hassle for AOL and Yahoo customers but a perversely useful reminder that online services are fungible, fragile things. You can’t assume they’ll be around forever–no matter what you were told when you signed up, and even if they come from gigantic companies. As Pogo once said of life itself, they ain’t nohow permanent.

Which leaves me mulling over the online services I use, and what I’d do if they vanished. I’ve got a Gmail account with gigabytes of mail, some of it very important. And even though I still buy most of my music on CD and rip it, I’ve paid Apple for a fair amount of stuff on the iTunes store.

The chances that Gmail will be “sunsetted” anytime soon or that Apple will give up on its DRM servers are as close to nonexistent as is possible in the real world. But will Gmail and iTunes be around in ten years? Probably. Twenty? Quite possibly. Thirty, forty, or fifty? It’s certainly conceivable, but who knows?

Bottom line: When it comes to your data and content, paranoia is isn’t just healthy, it’s essential. Some of the services you use may outlive all of us, but it makes sense to act like they might disappear tomorrow…


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Knol’s Well: Google’s Encyclopedia Looks Cool

Back in December, Google said it was working on a platform for knowledge sharing called Knol–and I wrote what seems in retrospect an unusually cranky post about it. I admitted that it could be neat, but I said I was tired of Google hopping on bandwagons, and that Knol sounded like a me-too project. I was also irked by the fact that Google said at the time that it wasn’t sure whether it would ever actually launch Knol. In short, I was just plain pissy.

Flash forward to today: Knol has indeed been launched at knol.google.com. And maybe I just happen to be in a better mood today, but I’ve gone from grudgingly admitting it might be OK to being…well, enthusiastic about it. Or at least guardedly optimistic.

What’s Knol, in one sentence? It’s Wikipedia–except that the content is written by identifiable individuals, in theory experts in their field, who are allowed to have a point of view, and who can get a cut of Google advertising displayed on the entries they write. Over at Wired News, Steven Levy has a very nice piece on the idea, with opinions from Knol advocates (including Google’s Udi Manber, its inventor) and Knol naysayers (such as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia).

Knol is not exactly a radically new idea. It sounds a little like an open-admissions variant of About.com, and even more like Seth Godin’s Squidoo. But mostly, It’s impossible to talk about Knol without comparing it to Wikipedia.

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Shameless Plug: Technologizer Community

One of the key things I’m trying to do here at Technologizer is create a place for smart folks who like to share opinions and advice about personal technology. Which is why I built the Technologizer Community on Ning. It’s home to social networking features such as forums, groups, and profiles; you can check it out without registering, but if you choose to join, it’s quick and painless.

My post on Microsoft’s Windows Vista apology/defense struck enough of a chord that it’s the most-read item in Technologizer’s short life. So I’ve created a forum thread in the community for further discussion of Vista. If you’ve got an opinion, I hope you’ll weigh in…


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