A lot of the discussion about the MST3K reboot has centered around fans who want to see the old cast come back. Joel has said he'd like to bring them on as writers, and to appear in cameos. But the thing is, most of them don't seem to want to do it.

Here's what Mike, Bill, and Kevin said when Chris Ford asked them about it in a Diffuser interview last year:

Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he’d consider revisiting ‘MST3K.’ Is that something you’d consider?

Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?

Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing ‘MST3K,’ was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven’t made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive ‘MST3K’ have already failed because of such issues. So I’d be skeptical.

Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would … it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am.

Since the announcement of the Kickstarter, Mike and Bill have both reiterated their non-involvement, as have Mary Jo and Josh. Trace has ruled out even showing up in a cameo.

Joel addressed this in a Kickstarter update:

What about everyone else? Are the other MST3K writers and actors coming back?

This is the hardest question to answer, because there are several moving pieces involved.

Right now, I don't know who will agree to come back and work on the next season of MST3K… but if the Kickstarter is successful, everyone will be invited to take part.

Until yesterday, I wasn't even sure this whole Kickstarter idea would work. I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back.

Plus – as many of you know – so far, the old cast haven't been compensated as well as they (or I) might have liked. I wish I could go back and fix that, but if I'm going to ask them to participate in the next season, I want to be certain we can pay them what they deserve this time. As soon as we pass our initial goal of $2,000,000, I'm hoping to start making the invitations official, and I hope some of them will be able to join us before we start working in January.

And guys, as much as I'd like to see the old cast and crew back, given their responses so far I really don't think it's going to happen.

I think it's great that Joel is talking about royalties. I believe that Shout! Factory should pay royalties to all the former writers and cast members, not as leverage to get them to participate in the new show but because it's the right thing to do.

But while royalties have certainly been a sticking point for some of the former cast members, I don't think they're the only reason people are holding out on participating in the new show. Look at what Mike and Kevin said in the Diffuser interview I quoted above -- it doesn't sound to me like they're holding out for a better deal; it sounds like they just plain don't want to do it. And Josh has said he's working on two documentary films, so it sure sounds like his non-participation is because he's too busy with other projects.

Aside from what they've said in public, I can't speak for individual cast members' motivations. Mary Jo has complained about the lack of profit participation in the past, while Frank has said it doesn't bother him. I've seen a lot of fans assume that the reason the old cast members aren't interested in being part of the new show is because of their lack of profit participation, and that if Joel gives them a good offer they'll be onboard after all -- but I think that's fans' wishful thinking. I've seen no hard evidence to back it up; the only thing I've seen that even looks like a "maybe" is Bill's "It would depend completely on the arrangement" in that Diffuser interview.

There are other reasons why people might not want to participate -- Mike and Kevin have suggested that they're just plain not interested. As for other former cast members, the geographical issues that brought an end to Cinematic Titanic are still present; the simple fact is that many of them don't live in the place where the new show is going to be produced. Even if, say, Mary Jo gets a profit-sharing offer that she's agreeable to, she still lives in Austin.

In short, I think that while fans are absolutely right to call for a new royalty agreement for every former cast member and writer on MST3K, they should also tamp down their expectations that this will lead to the old team returning for the new show. I just don't think that's gonna happen. Look forward to the new show for what it is, not for what you wish it was going to be.

I think that's it for now on the subject of the upcoming MST3K relaunch. The Kickstarter page, one more time, is bringbackmst3k.com; I haven't pledged yet but I plan on throwing in at the $35 level. That'll get you the first episode of the new series, plus three classic episodes as DRM-free downloads. (The three classic episodes are not currently listed in the Rewards section, but Joel said in an update that they're being added to the $35 tier as a bonus. He has not yet specified which three episodes they will be.)

And on the subject of compensation for the cast and crew of the old series: Rifftrax has just started selling MST3K episodes; as of this writing they have Mitchell, Pumaman, Final Sacrifice, and Future War, each priced at $10, with another episode going up for sale every Monday. And here's the most important part:

A significant share of the profits of all MST episodes sold on RiffTrax will be paid out directly to ALL the principal cast members of MST – Mike, Joel, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank, Josh and Bridget. We feel it’s important that the original artists benefit directly from their awesome work. So if you want to support them, buy your MST here on RiffTrax!

There's no mention of Paul Chaplin; I wonder if that's an oversight, or if they don't know how to get in touch with Paul these days or what. I hope he gets a cut too.

At any rate, much as I love the DVD sets, I have to recommend from here on in that if you want to buy old episodes of MST3K, you buy them through Rifftrax, because right now that's the only way the cast and writers get a percentage of your purchase dollars. Again, I'm hoping that changes and the series' new owners at Shout! reach a deal to give them a piece of all purchases and streaming revenue. But for now, they only get paid if you buy them through Rifftrax. So do that.

The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.

Before I say anything else, let's get the obvious out of the way: nobody is obligated to contribute to any Kickstarter, ever. If you don't like Jonah Ray, if you're disappointed that the old cast isn't onboard, if you're strapped for cash or saving for Christmas or more interested in that Maya Angelou documentary or just plain don't feel like it, that's your prerogative. It's your money, and it's up to you how you want to spend it. And it's your time, and it's up to you whether you want to commit to a show that runs over 90 minutes an episode. I would like to make it clear that, while I'm about to make some criticisms of online negativity and some fans' tendency to prejudge, I'm not for one moment saying that you're obligated to feel excited about the new series, let alone to contribute money to it sight unseen.

That said, if you do watch the new MST3K, you should pay for it. Pirating MST3K would be a dick move.

Jonah Ray

Joel's announcement that Jonah Ray would be the new host sounded downright defensive:

Since this is the internet, I guess some people will hear this news and rush to declare – for better and for worse – "what this means for the future of MST3K." (In fact, since a lot of people guessed that it was Jonah's voice in our first video, that's already happening!)

I can't really tell you what kind of host Jonah is going to be, but I hope you'll give him a chance to show you. And even if you're familiar with Jonah's career, remember: that doesn't mean he'll bring the same exact approach to MST3K. I think a lot of you may be surprised. Plus, like the previous members of our cast, I think Jonah has great instincts and a lot of range. He's funny, he's wicked smart, and like I said, his heart's in the right place. He loves MST3K, he seems to understand what makes it so special, and most important, I know he takes the role seriously.

And man, a lot of people seem angry about Jonah Ray. I mean, it's the Internet, and everybody's always angry about something, and the people who really really hate something are almost never a representative sample. The Kickstarter's raised another half-a-million or so since the announcement, so it sure doesn't look like most people are too bothered by it.

I don't know much about Jonah Ray. I don't listen to the Nerdist podcast and I haven't seen his standup. Maybe I'd like it and maybe I wouldn't.

But I think Joel's right here: neither of those things is likely to be a good indicator of what he'll be like as host. And while it's true that each host is different and does the show his own way, it's also true that it's still the same show under Mike that it was under Joel. (Well, I think so, anyway; there are folks who disagree.)

There is a general feeling that the Mike era was meaner than the Joel era, that under Mike there was more of a tendency to outright insult the films, where Joel's era felt more like good-natured ribbing. (And in the host segments, Joel was certainly more friendly and deferential to the Mads than Mike was -- "What do you think, Sirs?")

(I've even seen folks in the Info Club comments section complain that there was too much sexual innuendo in the Sci-Fi Channel era, and...well, Jesus, apparently MST3K fans are a sheltered bunch.)

And I think it's easy to see Jonah Ray take Mike's tack a bit more than Joel's.

But, y'know, he's still a fan.

Being a fan doesn't automatically mean he'll be good in the role. But I think it does mean he'll show deference to the original show.

I mentioned in the previous post that Joel's got to thread the needle and make a show that's fresh and new and still noticeably MST3K. That might be true even moreso for Jonah as the new host.

and Friends

We don't know who else is going to be on the show yet. I've seen several people refer to an alleged Entertainment Weekly article that calims Felicia Day is playing the new Mad and Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount are playing Servo and Crow (not sure which is which, but since I don't know who Vaughn or Yount are that's kind of a moot point). I have never seen a link to the alleged EW article in question, nor been able to find it on ew.com, so I am skeptical.

For the record I think Day would be a great choice, not just because I've wanted to see her play a villain since Dr. Horrible but because there's simply nobody with more experience at making a cult TV show on the Internet without studio backing.

As for Servo and Crow, well. It's definitely going to take some adjustment. On Servo in particular.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, it's actually a refreshing change of pace seeing an angry fandom express the importance of the creative folks. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've seen posts where I've excoriated fanboys who think characters are more important than their creators. People who think Scourge is more important than Ken Penders, that Thanos is more important than Jim Starlin, that Iron Man is more important than Jack Kirby.

It is, at least, really refreshing to see fans who think that MST3K is more than just a couple of puppets named Tom Servo and Crow, and that it matters who's operating those puppets, dammit.

And it does! It definitely does!

But we've been through this before. There's a well-known story in the fandom that when Josh Weinstein left the show and Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo, a fan mailed him a six-foot-long banner saying "I hate Tom Servo's new voice."

Well, 25 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks Josh was a better Servo than Kevin. (Sorry, Josh.)

And while there are people who don't like Bill Corbett as Crow, I think he was great. I still have a "You know you want me, baby!" T-shirt around here somewhere.

I think the fans need to thread the needle too, in our own way: while it's totally commendable (and encouraged!) to acknowledge that just because a show's got Servo and Crow and a guy in a jumpsuit on the Satellite of Love riffing on cheesy movies doesn't mean it's going to be the same MST3K we know and love, that it's the people who made the show great.

But we should also acknowledge that just because there are new people in those roles doesn't mean it's going to be a bad show, either. Yes, it's going to be different. But different doesn't always mean bad. You don't have to be optimistic about the new show, but y'know, you don't have to be pessimistic about it either.

Of course, the show's not just about the people in front of the camera, either. And in my next post I plan on talking about the writers, the importance of the ensemble, and how continuity in the writers' room was one of the main reasons the old show stayed consistent even when the cast changed. That's one more challenge the new show's going to have.

It's a great time to be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan -- though there are those who disagree.

MST3K is coming back. Shout! Factory bought the rights to the series, and creator Joel Hodgson is running a Kickstarter to fund new episodes. He's passed his goal of $2 million, which will be enough to set up the infrastructure and shoot three episodes; he hopes to raise at least $5.5 million, make a full season of 12 episodes, and convince TV executives that there's enough of a fanbase to pick up the series.

Joel has announced that the new host will be Jonah Ray. I'm not familiar with Mr. Ray or his work, but a lot of people on the Internet seem very angry about this. Some people are angry about the selection of Jonah Ray in particular; some are more generally uneasy that it just won't be the same show.

And it won't. And that's tricky. Joel has to thread the needle here: the reason he's bringing back the MST3K name, brand, and characters is because there's nostalgia and goodwill attached to them (both on his part and the fans'), but, at the same time, this will by its nature be a different show. I'm looking forward to it (and I haven't pledged yet but I plan to), but it is an unknown quantity.

Joel notes, rightly, that every cast member on MST3K got swapped out at one time or another. Nervous fans note, rightly, that it never happened with the entire cast at once, let alone the entire staff. So far, only one person from the old show is involved with the new one, and that's Joel himself -- and he won't be hosting it. So we're not just looking at an entirely new cast, we're also looking at an almost-entirely-new writing team.

Will it feel more like the old MST3K than Cinematic Titanic did? More than Rifftrax does?

Well, obviously that question is something we won't know until we actually see the show. It's also entirely subjective.

Over the next couple of posts, I intend to go into my subjective opinions about those topics and others. Sodium, won't you?

So, per the last couple of posts, I find it entirely possible that, as vendors develop tablets that double as PC's, they may replace traditional desktop and laptop computers. For the common end user who just needs a web browser and (maybe) an office suite, I don't think that's going to be a tough sell.

But there are markets that rely heavily on more powerful computing hardware.

One is PC gamers. Others are the various types of media creators: people who create images, music, movies.

I've already mentioned dumb terminals and software as a service (SaaS) as a major current trend, with programs like Google Docs running in a browser and working as an effective substitute for traditional locally-run programs like Microsoft Word.

Of course, a word processor is one thing; an enterprise-quality photo editor is another, and a game requiring split-second timing is something else again.

But developers are working on it.


Last year Adobe released a limited beta of a streaming version of Photoshop for ChromeOS. Photoshop itself doesn't run in the browser; the app is a Remote Desktop shell that interacts with an instance of the Windows version of Photoshop running on a remote server.

So, by definition, this is no replacement for the Windows version of Photoshop -- because it is the Windows version of Photoshop. But it demonstrates a potentially compelling alternative to buying expensive, high-end hardware just to run Photoshop: what if you could buy cheap hardware, and pay a subscription fee to run Photoshop on someone else's expensive hardware?

Reactions to the ChromeOS version of Photoshop seemed generally positive; I would expect it to have some latency issues, but I also bet it runs faster on a remote server than it did on the Core 2 I had to use at GoDaddy. (Hey, when I said the Core 2 Duo was the last chip most users ever needed, I said I wasn't including Photoshop.)

Adobe has already moved Photoshop's licensing to a subscription model instead of a purchase model. (A lot of people are very angry about this, but I haven't heard anything to suggest it's led to a drop in "sales"; that's the thing about monopolies.) It's not hard to envision a transition to a subscription model where you run the program remotely instead of locally. Hell, they could even charge more money to give you access to faster servers.

A/V Club

Other media development suites could, potentially, move to streaming services, but there are caveats. Uploading raw, uncompressed digital audio and video files takes a lot more time than uncompressed images. And what about storing your source files? My grandmother puts together home movies on her iMac, and she's got terabytes of data going back some 15 years. That's the kind of storage requirement an amateur filmmaker can rack up; now think of how much somebody who does it for a living might wind up with. If you're renting storage space on an external server, on a month-to-month basis, that could get pretty costly.

But it's technically feasible, at least, that audio and video editing could be performed on a remote server.

Recording audio is another story. Anything more complex than a simple, single-track voice recording is still going to require specialized mixing hardware. And transferring your recording to a remote server in real-time, without lossy compression? You'd better be sitting on fiber.

So I think we can put "recording studios" -- even the home-office variety, like mine -- into the category of Stuff That's Not Going Anywhere for Awhile.


Moving games to a streaming system is a challenge -- but I'm not sure it's as big a challenge as recording studios. It's more or less the same requirement as Photoshop: take simple inputs from a human interface device, send them to a server, have the server run them and respond accordingly, stream the video output back to the client. The trick is managing to do that in real-time with minimal loss of audio and video quality. That's the challenge -- but engineers are working on it.

The OnLive streaming service was a failure, but Sony bought it out; it sees value there. nVidia's got its own streaming solution too, in GRID. One of these things is not like the other -- Sony sells consoles at a loss and would stand to benefit from selling cheaper hardware, while nVidia makes a ton of money selling expensive graphics cards to enthusiasts and surely doesn't want to cannibalize its own market -- but obviously there's more than one type of gamer, and the people who shell out over $300 for a graphics card are in the minority.

Now, as minorities go, high-end PC gamers are still a pretty sizable minority; it's still a multibillion-dollar industry. But it's a fraction of the console gaming business, and it's expected to be surpassed by mobile gaming by the end of this year. Like the PC industry as a whole, it's still big and it's still growing, but it's growing a lot slower than other sectors and could be facing a long-term threat from new platforms.

Switching to a streaming platform could have a lot of appeal to game publishers; it combines the simplicity of developing for consoles with the superior hardware capabilities of the PC. Think about the possibility of developing for the latest and greatest hardware, but only for a single specific hardware build.

It would also, at long last, produce a form of DRM that could actually work.

While the industry has tried many, many copy protection schemes over the years, all of them are, sooner or later (and usually sooner), crackable. And there's a simple, logical reason for this: no matter what you do to encrypt the data of your program, you have to give the computer the means to decrypt it, or it won't work. No matter where or how you hide the key, if you give it to your users sooner or later they're going to find it.

But that's only true if the software is running on their computer. If the binary data is never copied to their hard drive, never stored in their memory, if the program is actually stored and run on a remote server somewhere and all the client has access to is a program that takes inputs and streams audio and video? Well, then there's no way they can copy the game, unless they actually break into your servers.

(Which, given Sony's history with Internet security, might not actually be so hard.)

I am not saying this is a good thing; in fact, I consider it something of a nightmare scenario.

Consider every problem you've ever had with an online or digitally-distributed game. Now think of what it would look like if every game had those issues.

Not just latency, lag, server outages, and losing your progress every time your Internet connection goes out. Consider that if a game is no longer profitable, they'll pull the plug. If a developer loses a license, the game(s) associated with it will go away. (Was GoldenEye ever released on Virtual Console? I don't think it was.) If a game gets updated and you liked the old version better, too bad. And remember when Nintendo ended its partnership with GameSpy and killed all the online multiplayer features of every Wii and DS game ever made? Imagine an entire generation's worth of games not working at all anymore, online or otherwise. Even though you paid for them.

Now, there's recent evidence that a strategy like this would fail. The Xbox One is still reeling from customer backlash against early plans to restrict used-game sales and require an always-on Internet connection even for single-player games, even though those plans were never even implemented.

On the other hand, there's evidence that even a wildly unpopular strategy could still succeed. Have you ever heard anyone who doesn't work for EA praise the Origin distribution service (or whatever the fuck they're calling it now)? I know I haven't, but people still use it. Because if you want to play Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, your only choices are consoles, Origin, and piracy.

And then there are examples that could go either way: Ubisoft continued to use DRM that required an always-on Internet connection for about two years, from 2010 to 2012, before finally giving in to market backlash.

It's hard to say how existing high-end PC gamers would react if the major publishers tried to force a transition toward streaming games -- or whether high-end PC gamers will continue to be a big enough market for the major publishers to care what they think. But for the foreseeable future, I think PC gaming will continue on much the same as it has for the past 15 years. There could be major changes on the horizon, but I sure don't see them happening in the next 10 years.

Then again, five years ago I was saying there was no way that streaming video would outpace Blu-Ray because there was just no way to stream 1080p video over a home Internet connection. So keep that in mind before trusting any predictions I make.

Over the past couple of posts, I've given some of the reasons I think tablet PC's could replace traditional desktops and laptops. Today I'm going to talk about why I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon: the business market.

In enterprise, Microsoft still rules the roost, with Windows and Office. The lock-in is strong.

And while the BYOD trend isn't likely to go away, and in fact there are some major features of Android Marshmallow that are designed to make it easier to use a phone with dual profiles for home and work, that's still a far cry from replacing work-provided computers with devices that workers bring from home.

And there's a simple reason why: whatever costs a company incurs by buying a computer for every one of its employees are offset by standardizing on hardware and software to make IT's job easier. When everybody's running the same few programs on the same few models of computer, it limits the number of potential compatibility issues. When every computer is running the same stock image, it's easier to control devices' security, and when IT pushes every software update, it limits the possibility that the latest patch will break anything. And when a computer does break down, it makes it easy to replace it with a machine of the same model with all the same software and settings.

And when data is stored on an internal company server, it's less vulnerable than if it's in somebody's Google Docs account, or Dropbox, or whatever the hell MS and Apple call that thing where your home directory automatically gets uploaded to their servers now.

And that's just talking general best-practices for every company. You start getting into companies (and government agencies) where security is tightly restricted, whether that be military, intelligence, healthcare, or just a lot of sensitive proprietary information, and there's no fucking way you're going to allow people to use their personal devices for work.

(Unless you're the Director of the CIA and send confidential information to your personal fucking AOL account. But I digress.)


All that said, business has already started transitioning away from desktops to laptops, and I can foresee the possibility of Windows-based convertible tablets like the Lenovo Yoga and the MS Surface picking up some traction. I don't think it would be a BYOD scenario; I don't think businesses are apt to move their operations over to workers' own personal tablets -- but they could eventually start equipping every worker with a company-supplied tablet instead of a company-supplied laptop.

But first, prices are going to have to drop. The reason laptops passed desktops is that their prices approached parity; that hasn't happened with tablets yet. You can get a respectable mid-range Lenovo laptop for under $400; you can get a Lenovo tablet with a keyboard in that price range, but it's going to come with pretty anemic specs. 2GB RAM and 32GB internal storage is okay for a tablet, and might work for a device you only use when you're traveling, but I don't think a machine like that is good enough to use as a daily driver, even for end-users who only need Windows and Office. If you want a convertible tablet with comparable specs to a mid-range laptop, you can expect to pay 3 times as much -- at least, for now. Moore's Law is still in effect, and that gap's going to close, just like the gap between desktops and laptops did.


There's one more factor that can make the puny specs of a 32GB tablet moot: apps that run in a browser instead of locally. Office 365 could potentially replace the traditional client-side version of MS Office for business users.

But most business users don't just use Microsoft Office. I've worked at companies both big and small, and nearly all of them have some sort of ancient proprietary program that they rely on for day-to-day use, and often several. Transitioning from an already-long-in-the-tooth program to a new one that performs the same features but runs on a server is not a quick, easy, or cheap task.

I'll talk more about SaaS in the next post -- and, in particular, the challenges it faces in displacing high-performance applications like multimedia editors and games -- and I think it's making major inroads. But the business sector depends so heavily on legacy software that I just don't see it transitioning entirely to the cloud within the next decade. We'll have cost-competetive convertible tablets before we have every app in the cloud.

In my previous post, I established that, despite strides made in screen keyboards and text-to-speech programs, a hardware keyboard is still the best way to write text documents.

In this one, I'll look at how phones and tablets work as replacements for PC's.

Problem 3: Phones Are Still Phones

Of course, you can connect a phone to a computer monitor, and to a keyboard. Or to a game controller.

Awhile back I hooked my phone up to my TV, and paired it to my DualShock 4, and fired up Sonic 4.

The game ran fine -- I didn't like it very much but it ran fine.

And then my mom called me.

The game stopped, and my TV screen filled up with a message that I was getting a phone call. So I walked across the room, picked up my phone, disconnected it from my TV, and answered it.

This is not optimal behavior for a computer.

Now, there are possible ways to fix this.

Headsets and speakerphone are two ways to answer the phone without having it in your hand, but neither one is optimal. Speakerphone is often hard to hear and can have that awful echo. And as for headsets, well, do I carry one in my pocket? Do I keep one in every room where I might dock my phone and use it as a computer?

A better solution would be to "connect" your phone to a monitor and speakers wirelessly, maybe using a device like a Chromecast. That way you could keep it next to you, or in your pocket, while still editing documents, or playing Sonic 4, or whatever. And if it rang, you could answer it, and not lose whatever was on your screen -- say I get a call where I want to take notes with my keyboard (as frequently happens); there could be a way to do that.

But the easier solution is probably to have the device that's connected to your keyboard and monitor(s) not be your phone. Especially if people continue to buy other devices, such as laptops or tablets.

Problem 4: Phone Interfaces Don't Make Good Desktop Interfaces

Windows 8. Do I even need to elaborate?

Microsoft tried to design an interface that would work on phones and on desktops. It was a huge failure.

This was entirely foreseeable. A 4" touchscreen is completely different from a pair of 1080p monitors with a keyboard and mouse attached to them. An interface designed for the former is a lousy fit for the latter, and vice-versa.

So, with Windows 10, Microsoft tried something else, and something altogether more sensible: the OS was designed with a phone/tablet interface and a desktop computer interface, with the ability to switch between the two. If you connect your phone to a dock that's hooked up to a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse, then the interface changes to desktop mode.

Which is a good idea (and one that Canonical has been moving toward for years), but Windows Phone hasn't exactly set the world on fire (and Ubuntu Phone isn't a thing that anybody seems to want). Windows tablets, on the other hand, including Lenovo's Yoga series and MS's own Surface line, have fared much better.

Google's moving toward this sort of convergence too; it hasn't gotten as far as MS or Canonical yet, but there have been hints of future compatibility between Android and ChromeOS.

Ah yes, ChromeOS -- and the return to dumb terminals running server-side programs.

I think that's going to be key to bringing a few of the major special-case users on board with the transition to lower-powered systems: gamers and media designers.

We'll get to them soon. But in the next post, I'll be looking at the market that's really going to continue driving PC sales: business.

The other day, Ars Technica posted an article called Cringe-worthy “PC Does What?” campaign wants you to upgrade, about a new ad campaign the PC industry is pushing to try and convince users to buy new computers.

The PC industry is in trouble. It's built around a pattern of regular upgrades that customers just aren't buying anymore. And it's trying whatever it can to stop the bleeding.

On the other hand, rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. In the comments thread on the Ars article, someone named erikbc said:

Well, if anyone believes PC is dead they need to get their head checked.
And understand some numbers:


A user named has responded:

…said every horse-and-buggy salesman in 1900 ever.

Which, okay, doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. (In fact I am fairly confident that very few horse-and-buggy salesmen in 1900 ever said "If anyone believes PC is dead they need to get their head checked" and then linked to Wikipedia.) But, like many shitty analogies do, it got me thinking about why it was a shitty analogy.

Mainly, I don't think the PC will go away to the extent that horse-drawn carriages have. I think it's possible that tablets could completely replace desktop and laptop computers, but I don't think that can happen until they effectively duplicate the functionality of PC's -- in effect not actually replacing PC's but becoming them.

General Case: Typical End Users

While it's easy to point to the rise of the smartphone as the reason for declining PC sales, it's only one of the reasons. There's another one: the last processor most end users will ever need was released in 2006.

A typical end user only needs a few things in a PC: a web browser, an office suite, music, and videos. (And those last three are, increasingly, integrated into the first one; I'll circle back to that in a later post.)

In 2006, Intel released the Core 2 Duo, which, paired with even a low-end onboard graphics chip, could handle HD video and drive two 1920x1080 monitors. And it's 64-bit, so it can handle more than the 3GB of RAM that 32-bit processors max out at.

There have been plenty more, and plenty better, processors in the 9 years since. But they're not better for people who only use their computer for browsing, Office, listening to music, and watching videos. The Core 2 Duo was good enough for them.

There are people who greatly benefit from newer and better processors -- gamers and people who produce media rather than just consuming it. But they're special cases; I'll get to them later. For the average user, the difference between a Core 2 Duo and a Core i7 isn't even noticeable.

The computer industry grew up in the 1990's around the expectation that people would upgrade their computer every few years to handle new software. And people just don't do that anymore. They buy a new PC when the old one quits working; not before.

But, at least at this point, they still need a PC. People may be buying more phones than PC's, but, at least in America, a phone is not a replacement for a PC.

Problem 1: Screen Keyboards

Screen keyboards are a pain in the ass.

They're fine for short communication -- text messages and tweets -- but they're just too slow and imprecise for long-form writing. (I thought of writing this post entirely on a screen keyboard -- like last week's handwritten post -- but I think that would make me want to gouge my eyes out.)

There are still plenty of requirements for longform writing in day-to-day life -- reports for school and reports for work, for starters. And that's even in professions where you don't have to write for a living, never mind ones where you do. People who write articles, and especially people who write books, are best served with a keyboard to type on.

And maybe that won't always be the case. Maybe kids growing up with screen keyboards aren't learning to type on traditional keyboards; maybe they're faster with screen keyboards than they are with hardware ones. Maybe, within a generation, we will see essays, reports, articles, even books, all written with screen keyboards. I suspect that if we do, they'll look a whole lot different than they do today.

Or maybe screen keyboards will get better. Maybe predictions and autocorrect will improve. Maybe a faster paradigm than qwerty + swipe will catch on. There's a lot that can happen in this space.

Or maybe we won't be using keyboards at all.

Problem 2: Text-to-Speech

Speech recognition software has grown by leaps and bounds. Terry Pratchett used Dragon Dictate and TalkingPoint to write his last few novels.

But being good enough for a first draft, for a user who is no longer physically capable of using a keyboard, isn't the same thing as being able to recognize a full range of standard and nonstandard grammars and sentence structures, pick correct homonyms, and understand slang and regional dialects. (Pratchett liked to tell the story of how he had to train his text-to-speech software to recognize the word "arsehole".)

Text-to-speech software might be good enough for simple, clear documents, such as manuals, lists, daily work logs, AP-style newsbriefs, and technical writing (provided you're writing on a subject that doesn't have a lot of jargon words that don't appear in a simple dictionary). But for writing that's meant to convey personality -- editorials, reviews, fiction, even this blog post -- text-to-speech algorithms have a long way to go.

So, for now at least, a good old hardware keyboard remains the best way to input large blocks of text into a computer. In my next post, I'll examine why a dedicated PC is still the best thing to connect to that keyboard, and how phone and tablet OS's are (or aren't) working to bridge that gap.

The migration should be complete and everything should be here. If you trip over any missing images, wrong formatting, etc., contact me.

My hosting company is in the process of moving servers and I didn't get the memo; all my stuff was copied over a week ago but I haven't changed DNS settings yet. So if some posts disappear and reappear, that's why; normal service should resume within the next couple of days.