20 January 2006

Pandora

Have you played with Pandora yet?  At the urging of a colleague I gave it go tonight, and am bowled over.

What is Pandora?  I’ll crib this description from the FAQ: “Pandora is a music discovery service designed to help you find and enjoy music that you’ll love.  It’s powered by the Music Genome Project, the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken.  Just tell us one of your favorite songs or artists and we’ll launch a streaming station to explore that part of the music universe.”



So I chose The Zombies, my all-time favorite band.  Then Pandora played a song that represents that band – how it knew A Rose For Emily is among my favorites I’ll never know.  It was kinda creepy.

After giving that song a thumbs-up, I listened to Pursuit, by The Souls of Inspyration, a band with which I’m not familiar.  Why this song?  “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, paired vocal harmony [sic] and melodic songwriting.”  Spot on!

Next up were The Who’s 1921, Smell of Incense by Southwest F.O.B., and Rock Me On The Water by Jackson Browne, all of which received thumbs-up from me.  I didn’t care much for Brian Wilson’s Wonderful, mostly due to his shaky voice.  As soon as I voted thumbs-down, Pandora played the next song: Grey and Black by Tempest.

Just to give you an idea of the depth of the catalog, here’re the songs suggested thus far for my Zombies station:
Christmas, Your Humble Suitor
Fresh Air, I’ve Lost My Faith
The Status Quo, Pictures of Matchstick Men
The Zombies, Beechwood Park (another favorite!)
Hunger, Open Your Eyes

After Pictures of Matchstick Men I was prompted to register for continued free access, which I promptly did.  This seems a small sacrifice for such a valuable service.

As one who constantly discovers new music using Rhapsody (disclaimer: my employer recently signed a Rhapsody distribution deal with RealNetworks), I’m always looking for smart recommendations.  Rhapsody’s catalog includes some 1.3 million tracks, compared with Pandora’s 300,000.  Yet the latter recommended artists I’ve never seen on Rhapsody, but you can bet I’ll now look.

So how will Pandora survive?  Clicking on each song spawns a small menu that enables users to buy the track from iTunes or the album from Amazon.  Also, there’s a tower ad in the right rail (right now it’s for iTunes).  Users can subscribe to an ad-free version for $36/year.

Rest assured I’ll comment on Pandora more later – right now I’m just enjoying The Raspberries. 

18 January 2006

Network neutrality

"Network neutrality" is a concept that's getting a lot of play in certain circles, especially those designed by L'Enfant. The idea is that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be prevented by law from discriminating against any Internet content or source, and that consumers have full say in how they use the Internet.





Recently, however, a few large ISPs -- notably BellSouth and AT&T (formerly SBC) -- have stated they’re investigating charging content providers based on volume of traffic and/or quality of service. This could include charging, say, Movielink to deliver its movies faster than normal, or video game hosts for a lower-latency experience. These issues and others are discussed in a recent article in the WSJ (subscription required). Both BellSouth and AT&T have committed to not blocking any content providers.





We all know this isn’t true, however, and we should thank ISPs for blocking some content. (Disclaimer: My employer is a large ISP/cable company; these opinions are mine only, and do not reflect the official position of this company.) Viruses, trojans, worms, and spam are among the content currently blocked by most ISPs. Some block phishing attempts, too. Yet few consumer groups howl in protest.





Paying for performance on the Internet makes a lot of sense. While its origins are as a government-funded network, the vast majority of investment over the past few decades has been private, at-risk capital. Why shouldn’t the shareholders of AT&T, BellSouth, and others expect to be paid for using these assets? Why should consumers shoulder the burden, as they do now (last I checked, Amazon and the WSJ don’t contribute to my Comcast bill)? If content providers wish to differentiate their products, and consumers are willing to fund this premium, why shouldn’t ISPs develop the mechanisms to do so?





The market will severely punish any who misbehave. For example, should AT&T block access to Google because the latter wouldn’t pay for bandwidth costs, AT&T’s DSL subscribers would flock to cable.





This concept isn’t so foreign. Many commuters pay to travel on limited-access turnpikes, or pay to use a “cruise card” thus avoiding stopping at tollbooths. Why, then, are those purporting to be advocating for consumers up in arms over the potential creation of a market for Internet turnpikes?





Thus far all the attention has been focused on DSL and cable companies, mostly due to the statements from AT&T and BellSouth. What I’ve not yet seen, however, are similar network neutrality demands placed on wireless carriers. One should marvel at the tight-fisted control the carriers have maintained over their networks. At what point do public interest groups and lawmakers decide these carriers are essentially utilities, and attempt to enact such legislation?





Really, what are the differences between a cable company’s HFC plant and the wireless networks? Both were built with private capital. Both are used for a growing number of communications and entertainment services. One could make the argument that since the wireless networks use public spectrum (admittedly carriers paid dearly for their licenses), the public has even more rights to these networks. Where are the demands that cable companies frequently see in franchise negotiations, such as bandwidth for public use? Given the communications problems public safety officials experience in times of emergency (e.g., 9/11, Katrina), one would think there would be an even greater demand for public use of the carriers’ private networks.





But this hasn’t happened. Yet. And it shouldn’t. Let consumers decide who gets their business, and ISPs will make network decisions based on this environment.



Lastly, I noodled for a bit over how to categorize this post. It should be "business" or "technology," but it ended up in "politics." Hopefully politicians won't meddle in this market.

12 January 2006

From the "Now I've Seen It All" department

The Unofficial Mac Weblog has this toilet-paper dispenser/iPod dock from Atech.  The first question one should ask is "Why?"  The second question is "How do the speakers sound?"
Ipodtp

10 January 2006

Chronic of Narnia

For those who haven't seen the SNL rap "Chronic of Narnia," here 'tis:



Just in case the embedded player doesn't work, here's a link.



As much as I enjoyed the books as a youngster, the movie just didn't do it for me.  The first clue that perhaps I wouldn't like the movie came during the in-theater previews, which were all animated films for kids.  Seems the studios and theater owners know their audiences, in this case -- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was more of a kids movie.  Lord of the Rings it wasn't.

We should have seen King Kong.

07 January 2006

Fabric Keyboard

As Smartphone and PDA screens grow, keyboards
typically shrink. Imagine using your PDA on an airplane table with a
wireless full-sized keyboard. No worries if a pocket of turbulence
spills your coffee on the keyboard -- just throw it in the washing
machine.



That's what a company called Eleksen
offers with its fabric keyboard. After
using it for a few minutes, I can confirm the touch typists will be
much more effective on this than a tiny thumb keyboard. It may not
sport the usual key travel and click, but the slight depression leaves
no doubt when a key is pressed. When done, just roll it up and stuff it
in your computer bag, or even your pocket. It doesn't take up much
space, and it won't break. Connectivity options include Bluetooth and
USB.



Eleksen also uses this technology in
clothing. On display was a ski jacket with music player controls
embedded in the sleeve. No, these "buttons" aren't sewn in or ironed on
-- they're part of the fabric. (The buttons are activated by pressure,
not heat, so gloves can be kept on.) The jacket included a headphone
jack and a microphone built into the collar, and the control unit is
smart enough to pause the music when you answer a call (all via the
sleeve buttons). The picture just doesn't do it justice.
Sleeve_controls

Digital Camera Diatribe

For all the advances in digital photography, the
objectives haven't changed much: make the picture quality equal or
surpass film, and shrink the cameras as much as possible. Progress has
been measured in megapixels of resolution, optical zoom levels, and
storage capacity.



In their quest to duplicate
film camera functionality, digital camera manufacturers haven't taken
advantage of digital capabilities to truly differentiate new products.
This is recognized, however. Yesterday Kodak's CEO Antonio Perez noted
they've been too focused on swapping "silicon for silver."



Slowly,
however, gee-whiz features are creeping into cameras. Last year Kodak
introduced the EasyShare-One, which uses an included Wi-Fi radio to
send pictures from the camera to either a computer on the home network
or Kodak's online EasyShare Gallery. This year Kodak's big CES
announcement was the V570, dubbed as the first dual-lense digital still
camera in the market. One lense is a nice 3x optical zoom (39mm-117mm,
and the other is a 23mm wide angle lens. That wide-angle lens works
with onboard software to take nifty panoramic photos.



Let's
say you're trying to capture a wide scene. Using most cameras, you'd
start on one side (say the left), snap the first picture, locate an
object on the right side of the viewer (maybe a blue house), then
slowly turn your body to the right until that blue house is on the left
side of your viewer. Snap picture number two. Lather, rinse, and repeat
until the entire scene is captured across multiple images. Hopefully
software on your computer can help you crop and stitch the images into
one photo.



The V570, however, simplifies this
process, by previewing that "blue house" on the LCD, then using onboard
software to stitch together what you missed. It'll also adjust lighting
and combine edges to give the finished image a smooth look.



But
this isn't the leap ahead we expect. Hopefully over the next few years
camera manufacturers will declare a truce in the megapixel war and
focus on features.



By the way, I'm often
asked what to look for in digital cameras. I suggest you buy the
smallest one that fits your budget, as a snazzy camera is useless if
it's not handy. Try to get one with an old-fashioned viewing window, so
you can frame pictures when the LCD is washed out by direct sunlight or
the batteries are running low. Make sure the memory card works with
your other devices (my camera, MP3 players, and Smartphone all use SD
cards; the PSP, alas, uses a MemoryStick Pro Duo. Blast you, Sony!).
And take the time to learn an application that eases transferring the
photos into your computer, editing, and sharing. I highly recommend
Google's free Picasa.

Remember Fruit Roll-Ups?

This one is special. Philips is showing a
polymer display that can be rolled up when not in use. Right now it's
greyscale only with a slow, 1-second refresh rate, but I was assured
Philips has color versions in the works, and the refresh rate will
improve enough to handle video.



Applications
of this technology are mind boggling. The picture shows a computer that
rolls up (that's the keyboard on the right -- a fabric one could also
act as a protective sleeve for the entire device). No longer is the
device size limited by the display. Battery life is vastly improved,
too, as power is only used to change, not maintain, pixels. Philips
indicates mobiles using this technology will hit the market in 2007.Philips_display

06 January 2006

VONGO

Since a number of colleagues have asked about the Starz VONGO service, I figured a few comments are in order.



In short, VONGO is a service that downloads movies to a computer and synchronizes them with a portable player.



Sounds
simple, right? Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the fine print
conspires with business realities to cripple a seemingly compelling
service.



  • Computers must run Windows, and have a recent version of Windows Media Player (a free download).


  • Only a handful of portable devices support the right DRM (digital rights management).


  • Even if one has the right hardware and software, moving content from
    the computer to the player can be excruciating. Ask me for a demo, then
    come back after a few hours to check progress.


  • Usage rules can be
    confusing. For example, you may have only 24 hours to finish a movie
    from the time you start it. This isn't so convenient for travelers who
    watch part of a movie on the flight out, and hope to finish on the
    return flight.


  • Great content is sparse. Starz does seem to have
    better and more recent movies than, say, CinemaNow, but users are
    limited to the movies currently offered by Starz. Compare those with
    HBO and Showtime. Given that DVD sales represent over half the revenues
    of typical movies, studios aren't too eager to canniabalize their
    primary money maker. Hopefully this will improve as business models are
    worked out (thank you, Apple), but even studio-owned MovieLink has been
    starved for good content in the years since it launched.


Notwithstanding
these limitations, it's hoped Starz can make a go of VONGO. Indeed,
they need successful innovations to differentiate from the likes of
HBO, which attracts subscribers with such stellar original programming
as "Deadwood" and "Entourage."

LCD picture frame

One major advantage of increased LCD
manufacturing capacity is the availability of attractively priced
electronic picture frames. These babies can cycle through a slide show
of your favorite vacation or family photos, which they obtain
wirelessly via your home network, or through an onboard memory card
reader.



Such frames aren't new, but have
often been paired with a clunky, closed subscription service, or just
look too plasticy. What's much more intriguing is a frame on the wall
that's simply an output option of your favorite photo management
application. Send some pictures to your online photo album, some to
your preferred print processor, a few to your home printer, and a bunch
to the LCD frame on the wall in the living room.



Before you whip out your credit card, the frame on the right in this photo, from Art Evolution, carries a suggested retail price of $2,000.
Lcd_frame

Skype here, Skype there, Skype everywhere

You can't swing a dead cat here without hitting
a Skype phone. In addition to these devices, Skype users benefit from a
much improved user experience. Even Walt Mossberg of the WSJ had good things to say about the service.
Download and try it.



One device is a mouse that, when picked up, is a phone.  This is fine until the caller says "Now click on this link..."



More
than a few people have commented on the outrageous price eBay paid for
Skype, especially when one considers that making it easier for buyers
and sellers to talk may result in lost sales, as they'll complete
transactions offline, depriving eBay of its cut.

05 January 2006

Personal Media

While announcements from major media companies,
such as Disney vastly increasing the video content available via iTunes
(how uncomfortable was Keith Jackson directing viewers to download
highlights from iTunes during last night's Rose Bowl?), one mustn't
overlook the proliferation of personally-created content.



Capturing
photos and videos becomes easier every day. Camcorders shrink in size
and price, as solid-state memory replaces tapes and drives (this
improved battery life, too). Although still too clunky for most
consumers, a few digital cameras sport Wi-Fi radios that enable users
to immediately send pictures to their computers or even online albums.
LCD screens on some cameras are big and sharp enough to allow simple
editing, often obviating the need for computers. And new camcorders
finally boast lens quality good enough to perform double duty as still
cameras.



What to do with these photos and
videos once they're in the camera? Commonplace are printers and TVs
with memory card slots, so folks can display their handiwork
immediately. HP expanded its relationship with Snapfish to include
editing and hosting of consumer videos online, in addition to standard
photo tools. Google provides a free video hosting service; finding interesting videos is aided by
Google's popular and powerful search technology.



Many
speculate that the ease with which consumers can create, edit, and
share content will accelerate a shift into the "Long Tail" of media
created by the masses. So the thinking goes, consumers will no longer
have to settle for mass-market entertainment created by a cabal of
major studios and distributed by a handful of networks and cable
companies. The democratization of content!



As
enticing as this looks, especially to one who benefits from increased
usage of the Interent, this observer firmly believes in the value of
artful editing and appropriate aggregation. Sure, the video of the
crazy Christmas light show set to a rockin' Trans-Siberian Orchestra
song was thoroughly enjoyed many times over by this awed fan (as an
aside, the viral power of the Internet was demonstrated by the ranking
of that song #1 by Rhapsody users; heck, Miller Lite even based a
nationally televised commercial on that light show), but nothing (yet)
can replace the entertainment value of top-notch TV shows such as "The
Wire
." Yes, we have to rely on the experts at HBO to fund that series,
and we pay the cable company $10 a month for access to that network,
but that's OK -- indeed, one expects to pay for valuable entertainment.



Over
the next few years we can expect far easier access to "Long Tail"
entertainemt. Broadband speeds will increase. Watching
Internet-delivered videos on the TV won't require a 12-year-old hacker
in the family or a $2,000 computer. Finding content tailored to our
needs will be greatly aided by next-generation program guides and
search interfaces. Yet it's doubtful consumers will completely bypass
professionally-programmed networks and established distribution
channels. Rather, they'll dig a bit deeper into the well of
personally-created content. And those that make it simple to create,
share, find, and consume this content will be rewarded.

04 January 2006

Mobile Music

Let the press release deluge begin. In no particular order:
Motorola_rokr_e20_1



Motorola ROKR E2 and iRadio. No, this isn't another iTunes phone,
although the E1 version could be vastly improved. The ROKR E2 plays
MP3s and supports Moto's new iRadio service,
which is comprised of 435 radio channels transmitted via the cellular
network. The E2 also sports an FM tuner, and users can upload songs
with USB 2.0 or a Secure Digital card.



Sony_ericsson_w810i



Not to be outdone, Sony Ericsson is showing off the Walkman W810i
(pictured), which now supports Quadband and EDGE, and has dedicated
music buttons in the joystick. The camera boasts 2 megapixels and a
flash. External storage is, of course, a Memory Stick Duo Pro.






Xm_pioneer_inno0
Expect to hear a lot from the satellite radio folks, too. (Disclaimer:
I've been a very happy Sirius subscriber for three years.) XM announced
two more portable players that also store songs in MP3 and WMA format.
Samsung manufactures the Helix, while Pioneer is behind the Inno
(pictured).

03 January 2006

On the road from CES

Over the next few days I'll be posting from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  As much as I enjoy the gadgets, I'm not looking forward to trudging through 2500 exhibitors with 150,000 of my closest friends.  So on with the comfy shoes -- Vegas, here I come.