Netflix – Evolve or Die

NetflixStreaming platforms have become so popular that they are becoming bywords. Netflix has been the subject of numerous internet memes and is notorious on college campuses for its ability to distract students for hours on end. It’s pretty common to hear people recommend TV shows and then mention that they are available on Netflix, making the assumption that just about everyone has access to an account. Sites like Netflix seem to have become integrated into our popular culture.

I explained in a past article how streaming services can offer a convenient way of saving a little money on your media intake. This is one of many reasons people are starting to favor internet streaming over cable for watching their favorite shows. Streaming is also far more convenient in that it allows for control over one’s viewing experience; no more pandering to TV’s rigid schedule or flipping through channels endlessly to find that there’s simply nothing good on. Streaming allows viewers to watch what they want, when they want, and to watch as much of it as they want. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of digital content which is a package that’s hard to beat.

Even as Netflix has reached meme status, its foothold could be slipping. In much the same way that Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services have undercut cable and started eating into that market as cheaper alternatives, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick are beginning to challenge the growth of streaming services by offering even cheaper options. It just goes to show that you should never get too comfortable, resting on your laurels. That’s why Netflix is currently working on implementing a couple of new plans to adapt to the competitive nature of the industry.

Undaunted by competition and potential threats, the streaming company has been gradually making the shift towards producing its own original content. Several recent Netflix original shows have reached mainstream popularity, and are well-loved by critics and fans alike. With sites like YouTube steadily increasing in popularity and viewership over the years, people generally seem more open to original content produced solely for the internet than they might have been just a few years ago. Netflix appears to be the first major streaming service to move in this direction, which could grant them the advantage of seniority.

Their tech people have also been working on new methods for encoding their content that could cut data usage and give them a little boost in speed and efficiency. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a layman’s explanation of encoding is that it’s the method used to store media as digital information that can then be transmitted. Currently, Netflix uses algorithms to choose bit rates at which to stream, based on their users’ connection speed. The new algorithms also take into account the complexity of the video being streamed. This means that content with lower complexity can be streamed at a higher quality than more complex content at the same bit rate. Streaming through Netflix with these encoding algorithms would be optimized for each individual piece of content as well as for network conditions, which should lead to a better streaming experience all around.

Only time will tell if Netflix’s moves to stay ahead will pay off. It’s hard to imagine that something as ubiquitous as Netflix could die off, but remember that MySpace was once relevant too. Netflix seems to be forward-thinking and hopeful, despite share prices that have been slipping.

Foibles of a Free Internet

adblock logoThe latest round in the battle for a free internet came last week when Yahoo opted to ban adblockers from Yahoo Mail. Users of the mail service who were running adblockers were barred from accessing their email and presented with a message telling them to disable the plugins in order to continue. Needless to say, this move wasn’t very well received, but this type of heavy-handed tactic didn’t come completely out of the blue. Companies like Yahoo are increasingly bemoaning the negative impact of adblockers on the viability of ad-supported free content models. Yahoo’s action even led tech news site Cio.com to declare the web as ‘broken’.

The internet is most certainly at an important crossroads. The free and open nature – that allowed it to blossom and become the vast network that forms the backbone of modern society – may be poised to undo itself. 

The greatest threat to the very principles that made the internet so revolutionary and disruptive are not external but internal. Read More…

Can Free Markets Repair a Broken Healthcare System?

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As a health services administration graduate student at the University of San Francisco in 2006, I felt like a lone voice among my colleagues in championing a free market healthcare system. Despite the release that same year of  Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition On Results - a book by noted Harvard professor Michael Porter – the overall tenor and conversation around a competitive healthcare marketplace resembled the noise of crickets in the countryside.

Four years later, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Unsurprisingly since that landmark legislation, the U.S. healthcare system has continued to spiral out of control. And as of this writing, amid recent news of crumbling state healthcare exchanges and word of the largest insurer’s anticipated exit from the program, Obamacare is arguably on life support. This has led to calls on the part of a small but vocal lobby to discard this failing model and pursue instead a fresh set of free market healthcare strategies.

A friend of mine who was frustrated by the lack of affordable options, turned me on to TruPrice, a startup firm seeking to develop a real alternative to the current healthcare crisis. Founder and President Mark Gantner believes that the current ACA model is unsustainable and that without alternatives, it will result in louder calls for a single payer system. In his view, this represents a significant constitutional threat; one that has the potential to erode the basis of personal freedoms upon which this country was founded.Keep reading…

Small Business Saturday – Good Intentions, Bad Economics

small-business-saturday-2015First there was Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, and now there is Small Business Saturday, a day intended to promote shopping at small local businesses for the holiday season as a way to support their livelihood, enhance the local community and even help the environment. While certainly well-intentioned, the movement is misguided and can actually end up hurting more than it helps.

Ironically, the term Small Business Saturday was conceived and promoted by the financial services giant American Express, which also holds a trademark on the term. Nevertheless, the idea – to encourage consumers to shop at small local brick-and-mortar retail shops – has been around for awhile.

The claimed benefits are numerous, but they mostly center around the supposed idea of ‘keeping the money in the local community,’ which in turn supports those businesses, creates local jobs and even has a multiplier effect as the money spent locally circulates around the community more than money that is sent off to say, Amazon.com.

Like many economic fallacies, there is always a grain of truth that makes it potent and appealing to the logic of its believers. It is somewhat true that if you buy a television set online, that money is sent to the online retailer, who is probably not based in your local community. Whereas if you buy the same set from Bob’s Great TVs down the street, Bob has the money in hand which he may very well spend at the local car repair shop that you own. A much better situation, right?

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Don’t Push the Big Red Button!

pizza buttonIt’s here, and it’s just in time for the holidays! Domino’s has unleashed a quick order button housed in a micro-sized pizza box. Amazon already unveiled their Dash Button, which allows customers to order frequently purchased items through Amazon Prime at the touch of a button. It was only a matter of time before the pizza gods would bless us with the same kind of convenience and fun; no one can resist pushing a big button.

The first batch of buttons is slated for release in the U.K. this December, with a second batch scheduled for February. Domino’s has said that they will let the public know when plans are finalized for releasing the button in other places. Read More…

A Tough Year For Gold, But Positives Ahead

FuturesIt has been a disappointing year for gold investors in 2015 so far with gold gradually declining since the beginning of the year. Investors may be getting sick of the yellow stuff after the 2014 performance of gold going nowhere, and then the drop in 2013. However, it is during such times that it is important to review the reasons for owning gold and keep its performance in perspective. In this article, we will review the performance of gold, look ahead at the financial landscape, and review whether holding gold still makes sense.

Gold Continues to Outshine, Despite Short-Term Performance

Gold is currently down around 10% year-to-date, bringing its one-year performance down to about the same at -11%. The current price of $1,070 hasn’t been seen since November of 2009. The five-year performance of gold is now down around 21%. This comes after 2014, where gold was essentially flat for the year, and 2013 where gold was down around 28% after correcting from its big run-up to $1,900 an ounce.

Periods of poor performance are certainly painful, and years of poor performance can seem excruciating in the short-term. However, gold as an asset must always be viewed in longer time frames and should always be compared to the other options. From 2001 through 2012, gold had positive gains, with eight of those years showing double-digit gains.

The ten-year performance of gold is up 116% and the fifteen-year performance is a positive 303%, compared to the S&P 500 which is up only 65% and 55% respectively! Gold is clearly holding its own, considering it should be an underperformer because it doesn’t represent a business or return a cash flow.

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