July 9, 2007

Engadget just posted the second part of my look at the iPhone’s keyboard from the angle of suitability to task. With all the attention around the iPhone and it’s well-received if sometimes inefficient user interface, I have to wonder how the folks at Microsoft feel. Few if any companies have championed so many pen computing initiatives (Pocket PC, Tablet PC, Windows Mobile, UMPC) through the years and yet Microsoft. But now the company has had its thunder stolen by Apple as it failed to capture literally what Bill Gates articulated as Microsoft’s guiding vision throughout the ’90s, the notion of information at your fingertips In retrospect, it looiks like touch was right. It was the pen that was wrong.

May 29, 2007

Over at CrunchGear, Mike Kobrin opines that memory card usage in MP3 players and music-playing smartphones, which is that they will be the key to sharing your media across your various devices. With this, he reveals Sony’s aspirations for Memory Stick circa 1999. And alas, this dream wasn’t even realized by its more popular and capable rival SD. Mike could counter that things are different now since the cards are getting much bigger; 8GB microSD will be here before long. Still, not many MP3 players support removable memory although SanDisk certainly has its reasons.

As I suggested when I criticized Motorola’s promotion of these cards as bringing the ROKR Z8 up to par with standalone MP3 players,. I disagree. Memory cards haven’t even emerged as the primary way that digital cameras — their most popular host device — exchange photos with other devices, and any removeable media is simply doomed to be out of date within minutes in this age of constant content acquisition.

Mike decries Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this kind of sharing, but it’s not a problem with the networks. It’s a weakness of there being any kind of reliable cross-platform, cross-device synchronization. Indeed, this is a holy grail of consumer technology and something I plan to bring up the next time I speak with the DLNA.

May 15, 2007

I’ve had my say on Pure Digital and its newest flash-based camcorder. Thomson licensed the basic design of its first Point and Shoot camcorder, adding a switch to choose between higher quality and longer recording times. With the second-generation Small Wonder, though, its upped the ante, adding SD card expansion capabilities and flip-out screen for recording oneself. I took a chance and got one for my mom for Mother’s Day and was delighted at how she took to its its simplicity, at least for recording. For while playback of what’s on the camcorder is a simple matter of connecting the included composite video cables to a standard television, backing up those videos will require delving into software that, however well-designed and easy to use, will intimidate her.

And this is actually another reason why I chose the RCA version for her as Thomson plans to bring out a plug-and-play DVD recorder accessory for the Small Wonder later this year. Dock the Small Wonder into the drive and it should spit out a DVD. DVD recorders designed to be connected to camcorders aren’t new. Both Sony and JVC offer them. But I’m taking a small leap of faith that Thomson will stay true to the Small Wonder’s philosophy of simplicity to close the loop on mom-friendly video capture.

May 4, 2007

In this week’s Switched On, I wrote about Apple’s challenge with model diversification as the company’s line expands. It offers three main famlies of iPods. That’s a lot if you consider its pro desktop line to have one model, its consumer desktop line to have two. and its notebook line as arguably straddling both with the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

This week, though, Creative unveiled its iPod shuffle-like Zen Stone, which its Web site classifies as its 11th MP3 model line in the Zen family! Even trying to reduce that to branded families, you’re left with six — Vision, Neeon, V, Micro, Nano and now Stone. Creative even has its older MuVo line up there although the Nano is very similar in terms of form factor.

The Zen Stone may be Creative’s best-looking player in a while (maybe ever)  and at a great price point — with some nice accessories, too (I like the keychain) — that brings style into the portable CD player market price bracket, but this is from the company that criticized the first-generation iPod shuffle back in 2005 as follows:

We’re expecting a good fight but they’re coming out with something that’s five generations older. It’s our first generation MuVo One product feature, without display, just have a (shuffle feature). We had that — that’s a four-year-old product. So I think the whole industry will just laugh at it, because the flash people — it’s worse than the cheapest Chinese player. Even the cheap, cheap Chinese brand today has display and has FM. They don’t have this kind of thing, and they expect to come out with a fight; I think it’s a non-starter to begin with.

Speaking of new kids on the rock, RCA — which places itself as number three in the MP3 market behind Apple and SanDisk — released most of its new Gem line yesterday. I agree with Engadget’s Paul Miller that the Jet is the best-looking of the bunch.

May 1, 2007

My recent column on Windows Mobile spurred a great e-mail exchange with a member of the WinMo team. In response to my raising the anti-trust spectre, he noted that carriers can and in some cases will easily turn off Windows Live Messenger and Live Search. Fair enough, but the abysmal state of most third-party multi-network IM implementations combined with WinMo’s general awkwardness makes alternatives unappealing to the consumer while the price of third-party offerings probably reduce their appeal to carriers.

Sharing that I believe basic, text-based IM to be as much of a utility as SMS, I suggested that Microsoft create an extensible IM architecture similar to that of Trillian and pre-load it with Live Messenger. Assuming the other IM providers or third parties supported that, you’d have the prospect of better OS integration that could be pursued by carriers or consumers. Search choice is even easier. Microsoft could simply provide a way to change the default search provider (probably no more than rewriting a URL) as it does in IE7.

Read the rest of this entry »

April 13, 2007

I extend a hearty congratulations to my friend and editor Ryan Block on passing the 5,000-post mark and, perhaps more incredibly, the million-word mark blogging for Engadget. Jeremy Toeman totally shows me I’m not his BFF by letting Dave Zatz but not me contribute to what may be the closest thing to This Is Your Life in a blog post honoring the achievement, noting that he’s only written about 290 in the same amount of time. Cheer up, Jeremy. They go a lot slower when they’re multimedia extravaganzas.

Peter Rojas brought me to Engadget in its first year and Ryan has been one of the key reasons writing for the site has been such a delight. He is a “writer’s editor” who always provides the highest levels of support and stands for the highest standards of professionalism and one of the finest people with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working. Anyone I meet who knows Ryan loves him, even his robot clone from the future that’s been sent back in time to kill him. Oooh, sorry Ryan, guess I should have told you about that earlier. My bad.

In preparing this week’s Switched On column on Soda Club, I had a blast collaborating with him on the text in the lead graphic, which parodies the nearly subliminal warning on the Fight Club DVD. Thanks, Ryan.

Speaking of Switched On, I should note the column will be moving to Monday starting next week.

April 10, 2007

I received a fair amount of feedback on my Apple TV vs. TiVo column from a few weeks ago, but none on the headline. Come on, people! Doesn’t anyone remember the famous New York Post headline? Anyway, some readers have suggested that Apple TV is really more competition for cable itself than simply TiVo. For that argument, I will consider cable as coming without DVR service, since cable DVRs are unavailable without cable, and we’ve already considered Apple TV vs. TiVo, which is one of the best retail options for those who would want DVR service without cable or satellite.

TiVo’s business model was initially designed to make it an attractive partner for cable, but such is not the case with Apple TV. Apple TV dips its toe into what some regulators have been asking for in “cable a la carte” but goes even further. Whereas cable a la carte advocates would like cable providers to offer only the channels they want, iTunes sells content by the series or even the episode.

Apple claims that it now offers 70 percent of the primetime offerings of major broadcast and popular cable networks such as Bravo. Of course, cable and satellite providers offer over 1,000 hours per week of programmed entertainment, even though we’ve all heard the complaints about there being “500 channels and nothing on.” When asked in an Engadget Mobile interview about broadcasting TV to cell phones a la MediaFLO, Helio CEO Sky Dayton  responds rhetorically, “When was the last time you watched linear programming?”

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot on broadcast and cable that isn’t on iTunes, or isn’t on iTunes until the followiong season. As was the case for TiVo, if your tastes don’t wander outside iTunes’ selection (which will certainly grow), buying your content from iTunes may make sense, but for now Apple TV can’t compete with the breadth of cable or satellite television that most consumers value.

April 6, 2007

This week’s Switched On, which should be posted later today, discusses HP’s discontinuation of its Digital Entertainment Center living room form factor PCs and Microsoft’s struggles to advance PC form factors. As far as I know, CEPro broke the story. Those who follow the convergence or PC retail space should read Julie Jacobson’s excellent series of articles about HP’s experience with the DEC in the custom installer channel. Part II looks at HP’s experience with the custom install channel earlier in the article, but the third part of the article, which I believe was posted today, delves deeper into why HP is leaning toward its MediaSmart TVs.

I akso had to chuckle as Julie found this way to sidestep an “off the record” comment:

Although HP spokesperson Pat Kinley did not want me to quote her as saying that the HP product and interface is simpler to use than the MCE solution, PC World did quote her: “We have other products on the market now and future products that I can’t talk about that perform essentially the same function in a way that’s easier for the consumer [to use].”

The article concludes with HP trying to position more as competition for AppleTV vs. Media Center Extenders, but you can’t compete with one without competing against the other, as Microsoft has been driving home with its comparisons between the Xbox 360 and AppleTV. In any case, building well-implemented DMR capabilities into the TV is a good differentiator for now, and most consumers would likely prefer no external box to even a small one like AppleTV, but with Pioneer, Sharp and surely others to follow, how long will it be before this falls too far below the consumer purchase criteria list to matter?

March 22, 2007

AppleTV adopts something I’ve been calling for for a long time in the digital media adapter market — a “sync and store” architecture. Yet,  it also supports streaming, which is particularly good for ad hoc content sharing. When I wrote about Brookstone’s SongCube for Engadget last September, the same month in which AppleTV (then iTV) was announced, I noted “The inclusion of networking capability so that the SongCube could be loaded and ideally synchronized over a home network would greatly benefit the product.” (Even though the column was posted after the Apple event, it was written before it and certainly before I knew that AppleTV would have a hard drive.) I also was relativley lenient on the product’s user interface — advanced for a stereo but primitive compared to most modern portable digital audio players.

AppleTV, which costs the same  as the SongCube but lacks speakers, addresses both of these issues. However, there’s another catch — you need a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. So, I’m thinking there’s room in the market for one of those companies that did the add-on flip-up LCD screens for the GameCube and Xbox like Pelican Accessories (or perhaps a Mac peripherals maker like Griffin?) to do a similar product for the AppleTV. Add a pair of powered multimedia speakers and — voila — you have the slickest shelf system ever.

Years ago, I tried matching up Apple’s PowerCD with Apple’s old gray powered speakers for a different-looking bedroom CD player, but could never get it to work for some reason.

February 22, 2007

This week’s Switched On takes Nintendo to task for the “Wii supply” of its popular game console, particularly given that the company has commended itself on the launch. I suspect that some will counter that Nintendo executed perfectly well and the “problem” that no company could anticipate is overwhelming demand. (This is in contrast to Sony, which encountered blue diode manufacturing issues. I also recall that Microsoft encountered some manufacturing issues at the launch of the Xbox 360, perhaps around heat dissipation, but that Peter Moore announced at CES 2006 that it had brought on a third manufacturing partner to finally resolve supply constraints. Now that’s transparency.) Either way, supply and demand are just two sides of the same shortage problem. Certainly the impact to the consumer is the same.

A close friend once asked me whether I thought that companies “manufacture” manufacturing shortages for PR hype. I don’t think so for a few reasons. First, shortage PR is, at best, two-sided. Second, it would be outweighed by the positive word-of-mouth from actual customers (assuming a product is genuinely good). Third, the value of such PR would be outweighed by PR resulting from higher adoption numbers. And finally, it’s hard to conceive of any PR outweighing the top-line value of incremental sales. This advantage is magnified when the product is in an extremely competitive segment and especially so when that segment is a new platform vying for developer support.

One could argue that Microsoft and Sony have some interest in selling consoles later in the cycle when they can reduce costs and subsidization, but Nintendo makes money on its hardware.