Christian materialism rakes in the cash.

I thought this Denver Post article on the rise in popularity of Christian themed stuff was just the ticket on the Eve of one of the most materialistic days of the year. Not that there’s anything wrong with that:

Among the items that one could put under the Christmas tree:

• An action figure of Jesus surfing.

• A doll named “Faith” holding a tiny Bible.

• A piece from the Psalm 23 jewelry collection.

Welcome to the world of Christian retail.

Since the 1980s, when the main product was the Bible, the evangelical retail market has soared.

This Christmas there are evangelical Christian toys, DVDs, candies, wines, alarm clocks and books.

The creator of G.I. Joe action figures, Don Levine, is offering a line called Almighty Heroes, featuring Moses, Samson and other Bible characters.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, is carrying Christian action figures from One2believe in 425 of its stores.

A “Pick Jesus” T-shirt is available from Amazon.com.

“After 40 years in the business,” said Bill Anderson, president of the Christian retail association CBA, “I know that both retailers and consumers always desire creative and fresh ways to express their faith.”

I suppose one could argue in their defense that it’s not like they can take their money with them once they’re raptured so they may as well spend it on this stuff. The retailers certainly aren’t complaining:

To be sure, other religions also have their product lines. Jewishsource.com. offers a hand-painted, wooden 10 Plagues bowling set. And one also can purchase Buddha pencil toppers.

The Christian market, however, with almost 70 million American adults and $2.1 trillion, or 28 percent of the national annual income in 2006, is the main event.

$2.1 trillion in Christian kitsch being sold every year? Holy crap! That’s some serious scratch for the money changers to be bringing home. I may be in the wrong line of work. I need to be slapping Jesus’ image on as many things as I can and getting them in the local WalMart!

 

“Activision Blizzard” is the new 900 lb gaming gorila.

Electronic Arts is no longer the biggest video game company as a new merger between Activision and Vivendi, parent company to Blizzard Entertainment, was announced yesterday in a press release on Business Wire:

Vivendi and Activision to Create Activision Blizzard – World’s Largest, Most Profitable Pure-Play Video Game Publisher

Combination Brings Activision’s Best-Selling Video Games, Including Guitar Hero®, Call of Duty®, and Tony Hawk, Together With Vivendi Games’ Portfolio of Leading Franchises, Including Crash BandicootTM and SpyroTM, and Blizzard Entertainment’s® StarCraft®, Diablo® and Global #1 Subscription-Based World Of Warcraft®

Vivendi to Contribute Vivendi Games Valued at $8.1 Billion, Plus $1.7 Billion in Cash in Exchange for Approximately 52% Stake in Activision Blizzard at Closing; Total Transaction Valued at $18.9 Billion

Activision Blizzard Will Commence Post-Closing Cash Tender Offer for Up to 146.5 Million of its Shares at $27.50 per Share, Representing 31% Premium for Activision Stockholders Based on 20-Trading Day Average

Transaction Will Unlock Value of Blizzard Entertainment’s Massively Multiplayer Online Games Business and Will Be Accretive to Stockholders of Activision and Vivendi

SANTA MONICA, Calif. & PARIS—(BUSINESS WIRE)—Activision, Inc. (NASDAQ: ATVI) and Vivendi (Euronext Paris: VIV) today announced that they have signed a definitive agreement to combine Vivendi Games, Vivendi’s interactive entertainment business—which includes Blizzard Entertainment’s® World of Warcraft®, the world’s #1 multi-player online role-playing game franchise—with Activision, creating the world’s largest pure-play online and console game publisher. The new company, Activision Blizzard, is expected to have approximately $3.8 billion in pro forma combined calendar 2007 revenues and the highest operating margins of any major third-party video game publisher. On closing of the transaction, Activision will be renamed Activision Blizzard and will continue to operate as a public company traded on NASDAQ under the ticker ATVI.

The deal still has to be approved by Activision’s stock holders, but if it goes through it’ll create a new giant publishing house. Benefits above and beyond simply being the biggest will include the developers of Guitar Hero gaining access to the huge library of Universal Music Group. Fans of Blizzard’s games were posting to the forums yesterday asking what kind of an impact this would have on Blizzard’s games and were reassured it wouldn’t change things at all. At least for the moment. The above is only a small part of the full press release so if you want to read the whole thing just click the link above.

Good news for apartment dwellers: FCC slaps down exclusive cable TV deals.

The folks over at ArsTechnica have an entry up about a decision by the FCC to ban exclusivity deals between cable companies and apartment complexes:

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who lives in a multiunit dwelling (MDU), there’s a good chance that your rent or association fees pay for a TV service you may or may not want. Many such units are locked up in exclusive contracts that don’t allow condo owners to install, say, a Verizon FiOS fiber optic link instead of a Comcast connection.

Martin’s comments indicate that the FCC is serious about ending such contracts and may actually attempt to throw out current contracts before they expire. The very idea has cable operators incensed.

To consumers, the ability to choose sounds great, though in practice the choices available may be limited. The big backers of the change have been phone companies like AT&T;and Verizon, which (not coincidentally) have launched television services of their own. With nearly a quarter of Americans living in MDUs, missing out on this market could be a huge blow to telco expansion plans.

Despite worries that new FiOS and U-Verse installs might target only wealthy areas, several people I’ve spoken with on the issue say it’s really more about density. Costs for new fiber runs to less-dense housing can be astronomical, and MDUs are about the densest form of housing to be found. For companies struggling to justify massive capital expenditures on an entirely new business, being able to wire MDU residents could be a big boon.

Cable operators argue that such MDU contracts can actually lower rates by allowing people to pool their purchasing power and strike better deals, but as Martin told the Times, “Exclusive contracts have been one of the most significant barriers to competition.” He also claimed that cable rates have risen nearly 100 percent in the last 10 years.

Back when we were living in the apartment in Canton before I got laid off the first time we had briefly considered moving into a larger townhouse apartment in Canton that would’ve included a basement to give us a little more room. It was only slightly more expensive than the apartment we had already been renting and I was quite pleased with it until I found out that the complex had signed an exclusivity contract with Comcrap Comcast at which point I told the lady point blank I wouldn’t be able to move in on that basis alone. The apartment complex we were living in already had allowed both Comcast and Wide Open West to run cable through the buildings so when we got fed up with Comcast we were able to make the switch to WOW. Still being more than a little annoyed with Comcast at the time made that exclusivity a deal breaker for me and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever allowed a choice of cable company to determine where I lived.

So, needless to say, I think this is a great move on the part of the FCC though it remains to be seen if the cable companies will take this laying down. There are already rumbles in the industry of a potential court fight over it and I’m hoping that the FCC prevails. Canton has some of the better cable prices thanks to the competition and it’s something I love to see spread to more areas in Michigan.

DRM developers play Blame The Content Owners.

The folks who create the various DRM schemes used to try and secure content these days are growing uneasy as signs of a consumer backlash appear to be growing. So what do they do when faced with a potentially angry pitchfork wielding crowd? They hasten to blame somebody else for their sins:

SEPT. 19 | NEW YORK—The reason consumers hate digital rights management isn’t due to the technology itself but to how copyright owners have used it, DRM providers said at the Digital Rights Strategies conference here this week.

“Most deployments of DRM today have flown in the face of consumer behavior,” said Talal Shamoon, CEO of InterTrust, a leading provider of DRM and forensic tracking solutions.

In his opening presentation, Shamoon offered a laundry list of DRM’s current shortcomings, including:

  • it obstructs what people (legitimately) want to do;
  • it tries to defeat the advance of technology (digital copies, networking, online socializing);
  • the security is inevitably easy to defeat or is misapplied;
  • it’s used to protect monolithic vertical [interests] instead of enabling new business models.

Shamoon was not alone in pointing the finger at content owners.

“To some extent, DRM deployments have been done backwards: They started with the DRM and then tried to force consumers into certain usage models,” said Brian Lakamp, president of Fluxe, a start-up working to develop a neutral platform where consumers’ content could reside independent of particular DRM systems.

In other words: Don’t blame us for coming up with these protection schemes, blame the content owners for actually using them as intended! To which there’s at least some truth, though it hardly absolves the people who came up with the DRM in the first place. For their part, the content owners trot out the old “if we didn’t use DRM then we couldn’t release any content for fear of going out of business” argument:

Although content owners were scarce at the conference, Motion Picture Assn. of America executive VP Fritz Attaway acknowledged that current DRM systems are imperfect.

“DRM technology right now is not yet sophisticated enough. There is a problem in the area of fair use,” said.

But Attaway stressed that the studios have little choice but to use the technology available.

“Are you saying the studios should not release any content until the technology is there to allow consumers to do everything they want with it?” he asked at one point. “If we took that approach, I’m not sure we would have launched the DVD yet.”

No, we’re suggesting that your DRM doesn’t stop the pirates and thusly only punishes the honest consumers. But you don’t seem to have a problem with that.

The award for Most Hypocritical Statement comes from Scott Smyers, the VP of network and systems architecture for Sony Electronics, who readily admits the commits felonies on a regular basis:

“I think there is a role for DVD burning. My kids have a lot of DVDs that they play in the car, and after a few trips, they’re often unplayable. So I rip and burn them to protect the originals,” an illegal act that the CSS copy-protection system on DVDs was designed to prevent.

“You can’t deny that consumers want to protect their investment,” Smyers said.

A Sony VP who breaks his own company’s DRM. Go figure. The rest of the article discusses how what these people think the solution to the problem would be and you’ll never guess what it is! A different kind of DRM!

Worse, according to Lakamp, Apple’s successful use of a proprietary DRM system for iTunes has become the paradigm other operators are seeking to emulate.

“The technology is actually there already for interoperability” among DRM systems, Lakamp said. “The problem is that everyone who has the power to enable that model, from content owners, to CE, to IT, to network operators and wireless, has looked at what Apple did and is chasing its taillights trying to create a proprietary relationship with consumers.”

The result, Movielabs’ Helman said, could be a severe consumer backlash.

“We see a huge risk of a bad consumer experience from the inability to move content among devices,” he said. “The engine is not yet on fire, and the impact won’t be quite as bad as a plane crash, but there is definitely a huge risk out there.”

They say this as if it’s some sort of a surprise that folks are trying to follow Apple’s lead. Apple pretty much owns the digital music market at this point with not only a popular download service, but amazingly overpriced hardware that’s required to use it. What company wouldn’t love to have the same sort of lock on movies or TV shows? It’s almost as though, gosh, they were out to make as much money as possible.

There’s some debate on the legality of web ad blocking software.

It seems the kerfuffle caused by fringe religious fundy Danny Carlton by his Why Firefox is Blocked site which I wrote about a couple of weeks back is still drawing some attention here and there. The New York Times wrote about it as did a couple of other news sites and now the folks at CNet.com has an article up that discusses the legality of the software:

Tomorrow’s legal fight may be over Web browser add-ons that let people avoid advertisements. These add-ons are growing in functionality and popularity, which has led legal experts we surveyed this week to speculate about when the first lawsuit will be filed.

If ad-blockers become so common that they slice away at publishers’ revenues, “I absolutely would expect to see litigation in this area,” said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The article goes on to mention something I wasn’t already aware of which is that a few websites — MySpace.com, Six Apart’s Live Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, and a Fox TV Houston affiliate — have language in their service agreements that says you agree not to block ads on their services. In some cases (MySpace.com) it appears to be directed more at the person setting up a profile page on the site than on the visitors, but some of them are aimed at visitors to the site.

For the moment, however, a lobbying group representing the online ad industry has said it doesn’t have any plans to sue anyone and would really rather not do so:

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, the lobbying arm for the online ad industry, says it isn’t readying a legal offensive at this point. Mike Zaneis, the organization’s vice president of public policy, says he wants to work with software developers and consumers to come up with a middle ground on what he calls “an issue that is just now ripening.”

“We don’t want to go down a route that would seem adversarial at all,” Zaneis said. “People are free to ignore ads, and they often do that, but when you have a third party blocking those ads, that’s the real problem.” He said IAB is “looking at all the options.”

Any lawsuit would likely invoke two arguments: copyright infringements are taking place (through derivative works), and the Web site’s terms of service agreement is being violated.

“From a pure legal point of view, a Web site can do anything it wants, so to speak,” said Michael Krieger, an intellectual property and business lawyer with the firm Willenken Wilson Loh & Lieb in Los Angeles. “That’s a little overstating it, obviously, but suppose to get into Google, you first have to click ‘I agree, I’m not blocking ads.’ I think it’s perfectly within their rights to do that.”

It may be a moot point to begin with, however, as even if they did sue the creator of AdBlock Plus it’s doubtful they could actually kill it thanks to it’s status as Open Source software:

While statistics for ad-blocking tools are hard to come by, an estimated 2.5 million users worldwide currently run Adblock Plus, and an even greater number has downloaded the utility, lead developer Wladimir Palant said in an e-mail interview. He estimated the product is attracting 300,000 new users each month after an initial spike in adoption attributed to users switching over from Adblock, a related utility with a development path that has diverged.

Palant said he believes Adblock Plus is in “no way illegal” and suggested that suing companies like his ‘out of business’ won’t do anyone any good. He added that no one to his knowledge makes money, directly or indirectly, off the software.

In addition, because the source code is publicly available, development would likely continue in another nation with different copyright laws. “The software that I am making is open source, even if I stop working on it—each Adblock Plus user has a copy, and any of them could develop it further,” Palant said. “If the advertisers have a problem, they will not be able to solve it in the legal way. As long as people want to block ads, they will be able to do this.”

Personally I don’t use ad blocking software myself, though I have tried it in the past. Most ads on websites are innocuous enough that I don’t have a problem with them and, though it’s rather rare, there has been the occasional ad that actually was something I was interested in. Some ads are more annoying than others, however, such as the interstitial ads that pop up when you’re browsing from one page on a website to another on the same site (or worse, pop up before you ever see any content at all), but most sites that use them have reduced the frequency enough that I can tolerate them. The two sorts that most tempt me to install ad blocking software however are the ones that make noise and, most hated of all, the ones that pop up over top of content requiring you to click a “close” button to get rid of the fucking things.

The obtrusiveness of ads actually goes a long way to determining what websites I’m willing to visit. I used to hit IGN.com’s sites daily, but they got so hung up on interstitials popping up every two clicks along with big loud flash overlays in the middle of whatever you were trying to read that I rarely go by any of their websites anymore. Their content isn’t that compelling that installing an ad blocker would be worth the effort, especially when the same news can be garnered from a dozen other similar sites without those annoying ads. It also helps that I do a lot of my reading via RSS feeds these days which has the benefit that A) very few of them have any ads at all and B) the ones that too are currently limited to static images at the bottom of an article every so often. That’s something I can easily live with.

The truth is I have no problems with websites trying to make a buck or two through advertising on their pages, hell I’ve got Google ads to try and offset the cost of running SEB myself so I’d be a hypocrite if I did, and I treat most of them the same way I treat most television commercials; as a necessary evil that I can usually live with and occasionally write snarky blog entries about. Whether or not it’s legal to block web ads is not something I could say either way, but I suspect that most rulings on the issue would be similar to ones in the past in regards to VCR users being able to fast-forward through ads. Back then the courts said not enough people did it to really bother with prohibiting it. And, as I said before, it’s not even clear that banning it would actually stop it from happening as the genie is already out of the bag.

As an aside, the Google ads experiment here on SEB has been a mixed bag so far. Since I put them on the site back in May I’ve earned in total to date a whopping $48.12, which is a bit over what it costs to run SEB for one month. The only problem is that Google doesn’t pay out revenue until you’ve earned up $100 so it may be awhile before I see it. That’s actually a better result than I had expected, though certainly nothing that would let me quit my day job and become a professional full-time blogger. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve only implemented the one ad in the left hand bar as opposed to the two or three instances they recommend, plus I’ve not put in AdSense search or a AdSense referral button which both would also add some revenue. Guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a dot.com millionaire.

Pepsi tries a little truth on Aquafina bottles.

The popularity of bottle water just boggles my mind when you consider that it costs more than gasoline at the moment and most folks can get the equivalent from the tap in their kitchen sink. The fact that a lot of devotees seem to be under the impression that bottled water is somehow superior to their tap water probably has something to do with it, but the truth is that at least two brands — Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani — are little more than tap water taken from the same public water sources as your household tap. Now, after a bit of hassling from various watchdog groups, the folks at Pepsi are going to label bottles of Aquafina with the source of the water:

According to Corporate Accountability International, a U.S. watchdog group, the world’s No. 2 beverage company will include the words “Public Water Source” on Aquafina labels.

“If this helps clarify the fact that the water originates from public sources, then it’s a reasonable thing to do,” said Michelle Naughton, a Pepsi-Cola North America spokeswoman.

At the very least Pepsi can now truthfully say, “We TOLD them it’s just tap water and yet they continue to buy it! Who are we to deny them their right to spend way more than they need to for water?”

What’s interesting to me is the slowly growing backlash against bottled water. The backlash isn’t so much because folks are wasting money as much as it is because the amount of waste in the form of plastic bottles in landfills and the energy and resources to make said bottles and transport said water. Several cities are already taking steps to discourage bottled water:

San Francisco’s mayor banned city employees from using city funds to buy bottled water when tap water is available. Ann Arbor, Michigan passed a resolution banning commercially bottled water at city events and Salt Lake City, Utah asked department heads to eliminate bottled water.

Critics charge the bottled water industry adds plastic to landfills, uses too much energy by producing and shipping bottles across the world and undermines confidence in the safety and cleanliness of public water supplies, all while much of the world’s population is without access to clean water.

Alas, it’s doubtful even telling people it’s just plain old tap water isn’t likely to put much of a dent in sales:

“Consumers have an affection for bottled water. It’s not an issue of taste or health, it’s about convenience,” the newsletter’s publisher, John Sicher, said. “Try walking up (New York City’s) Third Avenue on a hot day and getting a glass of tap water.”

But industry observers said such opposition is unlikely to drain U.S. sales of bottled water, which reached 2.6 billion cases in 2006, according to Beverage Digest. The industry newsletter estimated that U.S. consumers spent about $15 billion on bottled water last year.

Dammmnnnnn! $15 billion selling people plain old tap water. I’m definitely in the wrong business.

I can certainly see where convenience may play a role in sales of bottled water, I’ve stopped and bought a bottle during more than one road trip (though I usually prefer diet pop), and I can also see an argument for bottled water in homes without access to a municipal water system, but I have to shake my head at people who buy whole cases of bottled water when they have perfectly decent tap water in their homes. Seems a little silly to me, but it’s not my money.

EMI drops DRM and ups the quality on digital music files.

Elwed dropped me a note with a bombshell from the folks at EMI. Seems they just put out a press release stating their plans to drop the DRM from their digital music files while also upping the sound quality.

Eric Nicoli, CEO of EMI Group, said, “Our goal is to give consumers the best possible digital music experience. By providing DRM-free downloads, we aim to address the lack of interoperability which is frustrating for many music fans. We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music.

“Apple have been a true pioneer in digital music, and we are delighted that they share our vision of an interoperable market that provides consumers with greater choice, quality, convenience and value for money.”

“Selling digital music DRM-free is the right step forward for the music industry,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “EMI has been a great partner for iTunes and is once again leading the industry as the first major music company to offer its entire digital catalogue DRM-free.”

This is great news for music fans and hopefully will lead to other companies following in their footsteps. Kudos to EMI for taking the lead.

Borders to shutter some stores and launch new online retail website.

Borders has been having a rough time in the traditional brick and mortar bookstore business so they’ve just announced a major restructuring:

The Borders Group, one of the nation’s largest book retailers, announced a new strategic plan yesterday to close nearly half of its Waldenbooks stores, sell off or franchise most of its 73 overseas superstores, sever its relationship with Amazon.com and start its own online retail site.

The company also reported a dismal fourth quarter that ended with a loss of $73.6 million, in contrast to a profit of $119.1 million in the period the year before.

“Clearly, our 2006 results were disappointing, as our company and the industry as a whole continued to face a challenging environment,” George L. Jones, the chief executive of Borders, said in a statement. “This performance is not indicative of this company’s many strengths, and it’s not where Borders Group is headed in the long run.”

Not that this means the end of the B&M stores altogether:

The reorganization would put much of the company’s focus on its roughly 500 domestic superstores. A new technology-heavy concept store that has been in development since late 2006 will open in early 2008.

Borders also promised to introduce “digital centers” in its stores that will allow customers to buy audio books, MP3 players and electronic books.

The same article also mentions that rival bookstore Barnes & Noble is struggling with lower than expected revenues as well with a forecast of a loss for the first quarter of this year.

I love Amazon.com, but I do think it would be a shame if all brick and mortar bookstores were to shut their doors. Amazon.com is something I use when I know exactly what I want, but a lot of great books that I’ve found over the years has come from wandering aimlessly through the shelves at a local Borders or B&K and you don’t get quite the same experience from browsing randomly through Amazon.com.

General Motors supposedly in talks to buy Daimler Chrysler.

This is just bizarre if it ends up being true. GM has been losing billions so they think buying another company that’s also losing billions would be a smart thing to do? So says the folks at Leftlane News:

Rumors of an alliance first appeared in Germany’s Manager-Magazin, but today’s report is the first calling for an outright acquisition. Speculation about a GM acquisition began this week, but today’s report is the first claiming to cite high-level sources. What’s more, this is the first we’ve heard of actual negotiations taking place.

Following its announcement earlier this week of a $1.3 billion loss in 2006 for the Chrysler Group, Daimler Chrysler said it would consider all possible options to rectify the situation.

“No option is being excluded in the interest of arriving at the best possible solution for the Chrysler Group and Daimler Chrysler as a whole,” the company said.

German newspapers Handelsblatt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said Daimler Chrysler was specifically looking at a spin-off of the Chrysler Group on the stock market. The reasoning behind such a move is to avoid the hassle of finding a company to acquire Chrysler. However, it appears GM was quick to step up to the plate.

Sounds like a desperate move to hold onto the title of “Worlds Largest Automaker” when they should be more concerned about trying to become the world’s most profitable automaker.

Biggest. Profit. Ever. Made by your friends at Exxon Mobil.

Another year has passed — one that saw gas prices spike to well over $3.00 a gallon in many parts of the U.S. — and the folks at Exxon Mobile are breaking record profits:

Exxon Mobil Corp. roared past Wall Street expectations and set a new record for the highest profit ever earned by a U.S. company in a single year.

Exxon said today the company’s 2006 profits reached $39.5 billion, trumping its own 2005 record of $36.1 billion. Excluding a $410 million tax benefit, annual profits reached $39 billion &#xu2;014 still nearly $2 billion higher than the $37.1 billion analysts expected.

Not that Exxon Mobil is alone in their accomplishment, several other oil companies also did very well:

The Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell earned $5.28 billion in the quarter, a 21 percent jump over $4.39 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005. Full-year earnings were $25.4 billion, a 1 percent rise over $25.3 billion in 2005.

And Marathon earned $1.08 billion, or $3.06 per share, a 17 percent drop from $1.26 billion, or $3.43 per share in the fourth quarter of 2005. Excluding one-time items, Marathon earned $838 million, or $2.38 per share, compared to $1.33 billion, or $3.61 per share in the year-ago period.

Either way, Marathon exceeded Wall Street expectations. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial expected earnings of $2.26 per share for the quarter.

For the year, Marathon earned $5.2 billion, or $14.50 per share, up from $3 billion or $8.44 per share in 2005.

Hopefully they’re putting some of that money into researching alternative fuel sources seeing as the oil isn’t going to last forever.