November 22, 2008

imageThe bemused bits you see to your right compose one frame of the animated output of BigStage, a company I saw at a Pepcom media event earlier this week. BigStage generates avatars out of three digital camera pictures of your face pointing to slightly different angles in about a minute.

I thought the results were the most realistic digital me I’ve seen, although the generated hair is a bit more moussed than I usually wear it, the stock glasses are a little darker than my frames, and I’m pretty sure I can’t raise my eyebrow that high in real life. You can also choose from different expressions; an open-mouthed surprised was more realistic than a weakly smiling happy.

Getting the avatar is free, but the company is striking licensing deals as one source of revenue. You can insert your avatar, for example, into clips from old TV shows like The A Team and The Greatest American Hero. It looks comically out of place in film, but could work well in a video game; company representatives showed a convincing blend into Grand Theft Auto.They’ll also, of course, have their own digital goods to keep your avatar in the finest that virtual materialism has to offer. In any case, if you’re looking for a change of face for your Facebook or Twitter pic, it’s a lot of fun.

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September 25, 2008

imageVery often, people post ad hoc directions on how to reach customer service lines while circumventing  what an be daunting, time-consuming interactive voice response or menuing systems used by large companies. Fonolo plans to turn that into a scence wit a Web site that will list various departments at institutions such as banks, airlines and telcos. Better yet, it will call those companies, navigate the phone system menuingstructure and call you back just as the system needs your unique input.

It could be a great time-saver and, what’s more, doesn’t disrupt the systems that companies have in place. It simply automates using them. One limitation is that, in the case of long queues, Fonolo can’t “wait on line” for you, but the company says they’re working toward that.

Fonolo is a Web site, but it would be much handier as a mobile application.because most people have the least patience for such systems when they’re on their cellphones, burning up their talk time.

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image It says something about the promise of Tikitag that its champions were able to convince telecom equipment behemoth Alcatel-Lucent to spin out the initiative into a separate venture. Aiming to create an Internet of things that have little to no intrinsic intelligence (and clearly oblivious that many a commenter has beaten it to the punch), Tikitag’s first product is a kit that includes an RFID reader and a number of tag stickers that can be encoded with, say, a URL. Move the tagged object to the encoded reader and the PC takes some action such as displaying a Web site that provides more information about the object.

NFC in general obviously has huge potential, but I’m less sure about the launch product. Perhaps it will become one of those products that geeks buy for less technical friends and relatives, joining the ranks of MSNTV, Presto and Ceiva. At the Showstoppers tech media event last night, Tikitag PR representative Ann Revell-Pechar said that she had  put a tag on a picture of her daughter so that when her mother held it against the reader, she could call her granddaughter via Skype.

It would surely be helpful if the reader didn’t need to be tethered to the PC, but over time I’m sure that most phones will include RFID reading capabilities. In any case, Tikitag insists it’s trying to launch a platform here, and welcomes others to expand on the technology.

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September 15, 2008

image I’m en route to the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference, blogging this at 35,000 feet thanks to Gogo, the incredible in-flight Wi-Fi service from Aircell. American Airlines has done a good job promoting the service including lots of signage in its JFK terminal, an info card in the back seat pocket, and a short video played just after takeoff (which I couldn’t see due to a technical malfunction. It seems to be the “How It Works” video on Gogo’s site.

The service has been rock-solid since I logged on nearly five hours ago — very responsive and with seamless bridging of cells. While it hasn’t been quite fast enough to handle video (at least Hulu) consistently, I got through a couple of stuttering SNL sketches. One needs access to a browser in order to connect. (Also, ironically, I can’t use the “connected” Kindle since wireless WANs are still verboten on US aircraft. Sony, add Wi-Fi to the Reader!) Regardless, transforming one of the last bastions of digital solitude will have transforming implications for frequent travelers and in-flight entertainment. A $12,99 for a cross-country flight, it’s a no-brainer.

Gogo’s domestic partners include American Airlines, Virgin America and Delta Airlines while competitor Row 44 has been testing with Southwest and Alaska Airlines. JetBlue has been offering limited Wi-Fi. I hope, though, that JetBlue steps it up. I like the airline, but it will be hard to go back.

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August 21, 2008

imageOn the heels of my Switched On column on how PC companies should focus more on the notebook as the new living room PC, the alert team at Stage Two Consulting set up a meeting at Boxee‘s SoHo’s office, which is, um, close to those of Pando’s (which makes me wonder whether Boxee would integrate a Pando client at some point because it could be handy and oh such juicy lawsuit bait).

In any case, Boxee, which began life under the pirate flag of the Xbox Media Center, has won praise for its user interface, which I agree is a fresh, fluid and engaging departure not only from Front Row and Windows Media Center but also previous attempts at creating clones of them (such as MythTV) from the open-source community. Company co-founder Avner Ronen compares what Boxee is doing for the open-source media center UI to what Firefox did for the open-source browser.

Rather than overwhelming you with infinite entertainment choices, by default it filters up the top recommendations and consumed items from those in your social network. Of course, it can also broadcast out your entertainment choices. Boxee, like the Dash Express, can also post what you’re doing to Twitter and other social networks. The software is still in alpha, and thus has some serious feature gaps. Search, for example, is in the queue, and the company notes that recording of cable content will get a lot easier with Tru2Way. Boxee runs on Macs and Linux with a Windows version slated soon, and we talked about a number of potential paths to the living room..

I’ll be sharing more thoughts on Boxee in the coming weeks.

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August 12, 2008

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If your company is a startup, I’m generally not a fan of trying to distribute your product or service exclusively through established TV and landline service providers such as Comcast or Verizon. Mobile apps via wireless carriers are but one exception. But if you’re Starz Entertainment and you have relationships with these service providers and your product is a movie distribution service based on subscription, then it’s also a different story.

As a standalone service, the cost of acquiring customers to Vongo must have been expensive. But by taking advantage of the existing billing relationships that Verizon’s FiOS TV has with its customers, Starz Play as the revamped service will now be known, will garner more exposure and, more importantly, more bundling opportunities. As Netflix has shown, a sustainable number of consumers like a subscription option for movies on demand. It’s just unfortunate that the handoff from Vongo couldn’t have been made more seamlessly.

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July 24, 2008

image On the heels of MediaMax/TheLinkUp shuttering its doors, TechCrunch reports that AOL will close down two of the more well-conceived online storage experiences, XDrive and Bluestring. The former gave away five gigabytes of online storage space accessible via the Web as well as a Windows and promising Adobe AIR application. This may actually mark Xdrive’s second death as the original version offering free storage went down during the dotcom bust along with competitors iDrive, Netdrive and others. The latter was another personal media sharing site albeit one that provided automatic uploading of content folders to the Web for free.

What killed them? Storage is cheap but bandwidth is expensive. Microsoft is still offering a little bit of storage space in the cloud via Windows Live SkyDrive and of course there are a number of subscription-based backup plays like Mozy and Carbonite. And Cucku gets around the hosting problem by enabling consumers to back up their hard drives to a friend for free. But none of the online backup plays have very robust media sharing features yet.

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July 23, 2008

imageI’ve long enjoyed the Pandora and Slacker Internet radio services for different reasons and the two companies have taken different paths to get their services playing on non-PC devices. I was really excited for a long time about the concept behind the Slacker Portable — a portable music player that gets loaded up with genre- and artist-driven music stations via Wi-Fi and can then be played practically anywhere with no monthly service fee required. However, the initial hardware execution left me a bit cold.

Pandora, meanwhile, has developed a simple but terrific free iPhone app that has become one of the most popular out of the gate. The main catch, though, is that since Pandora is only a streaming service, it isn’t available if you don’t have coverage. The Slacker service on the iPhone or iPod touch, though, would essentially be the best of all worlds, taking advantage of the device’s Wi-Fi, superior user interface and slim design while utilizing its storage for cached Internet radio stations that work where here is no connectivity.

I’m not sure how this would impact Slacker’s financials (the company pays a much higher licensing fee for the right to cache music locally on the device) or its strategic goals of developing a more cost-effective satellite radio competitor, but broadening device support to Apple’s mobile platform would certainly create a bigger pie from which to drive premium radio subscriptions. And competitive pressure may not provide many alternatives as it seems nearly every other Internet music site is developing some kind of iPhone presence.

Update: Looks like Slacker agrees. Laptop reports on information I’ve also received that a Slacker application is coming to the iPhone and Blackberry. Funny how, despite the success of Windows Mobile here in North America, it’s getting caught in the middle between these two vertically integrated offerings.

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May 30, 2008

I was especially skeptical about Akimbo from the first time I saw its set-top box, and things didn’t improve much when I finally got to try it out a while before the company’s last-gasp business model switch. However, I thought it had a chance to cash in on long-tail content in the heat of the YouTube frenzy. It seems, though, that the YouTube brand and breadth of free content drove manufacturers to add that instead of the managed semi-pro Akimbo portfolio.

Indeed, this obituary cites double (and sometimes triple) dipping and thin content as the double-barreled smoking gun that killed Akimbo. One note, though, is that it’s not exactly apt to lump Sezmi in with the likes of Akimbo or especially the Roku Netflix box as Sezmi is designed to compete head-to-head with cable and offer very mainstream programming.

By the way, I started one of my first professional writing projects using an killer (both in features and system requirements) word processor for the Mac called FullWrite Professional that was sold late in its life by a company called Akimbo after once being sold by PC database king Ashton-Tate.. It made Microsoft Word (especially on the Mac) look like amateur hour in its day.

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March 17, 2008

nyt-blogs.jpgtimes-blogs.jpgtimes-blogs.jpgtimes-blogs.jpgMark Cuban takes The New York Times to task for debasing itsesf by calling its blogs… “blogs.” Rather than having the Times’ imprimatur validate the blog, he argues, calling its blogs “blogs” drags the venerable newspaper down into that dangerous dystopia of dubious diatribe known as the blogosphere. Journalists, don’t go there alone at night if you value your kidneys. Once bloggers start moving into your publication, your media property values will sink like a stone.

The Times’ struggle against Internet commoditization began when the newspaper — like every other major news organization – established an editorial presence on the Web. Refusing to call its online presence a “Web site” in favor of something that nobody understands would not have changed the fundamental dynamics of the Web’s low barrier to entry. (That said,, the Times now follows Mark’s advice to tie into its print recognition by branding its Web site “all the news that’s fit to click.”) If blogging is as commoditized as Mark portrays it, then a flashy rebadge isn’t going to help much.

Also, I don’t see how Mark can dsmiss all of the positive connotations of blogs – intimacy, feedback, conversation, perspective and modernness. Calling the Times’ blog “realtime reporting” doesn’t convey any of this. ”Reporting” may reflect the Times’ traditional brand value, but doesn’t distinguish beyond what the Times may be doing online or, for that matter, what CNN does on television. Indeed, the Times could be doing a lot worse than blogs in attracting some sources of traffic.

Mark closes by referencing HBO’s “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” marketing slogan, but that’s an easy distinction to make in a bandwidth-constrained medium by a premium cable channel. Over a decade ago, HBO (once better known as an acronym for Home Box Office) shifted its emphasis from commercial-free movie airing to creating its acclaimed lineup of original, exclusive TV series. The slogan, which came later, reflected the reality. It didn’t create it.

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