This is the 300th blog to be posted in this space. It won't be the last, but thanks to our spiffy redesign, my news stories will move from here to another part of the website. You'll find them under HT News, right below the Buyer's Guides, and you needn't even scroll down, because the section lies "above the fold," to borrow some old newspaper talk. I'll continue posting to HT News from Monday through Friday barring holidays, trade shows, and other predictable interruptions. And Darryl Wilkinson will continue to write news and product items in his always readable and enjoyable style. The two-voiced diablogs and reviews of small audio products will continue in this "From the Edge" blog and eventually I may find something equally self-indulgent to add to them. So please look for me in HT News on weekdays and check this space for non-news goodies every few weeks. Thanks for all your comments and encouragement.
The news that EMI will sell no-DRM downloads through iTunes couldn't have come at a better time. Music downloads are growing but not fast enough to offset sinking CD sales. Electronic libertarians assert that digital rights management is a big part of the problem, because it balkanizes the music-player world, preventing iTunes purchases from playing on non-iPods. Steve Jobs flew to London especially to join EMI in announcing that the big label's entire catalogue will become available in AAC, the iPod's favored file format, without DRM, and at 256 kilobits per second, which should provide higher quality than either MP3 at the same data rate or standard iTunes downloads at 128kbps. You'll have to pay a premium price of $1.29 per track. And if your music player doesn't do AAC, you're out of luck. However, EMI will cover those bases by selling through other download services in MP3 and WMA. For law-abiding music lovers, this is great news. Note, however, that this move is more a breakthrough in marketing than in law. EMI and Apple aren't saying you can copy anything anywhere. But it would be fair to interpret this as tacit recognition of reality--the beginning of the end of the criminalizing of fair use. It has been at least several months in the making, following the anti-DRM manifesto of Jobs and small-scale experimentation by EMI. No word on when the Beatles catalogue will become legally downloadable. Yet.
A California superior court ruling saved Kaleidescape from extinction yesterday. The decision is good news for what is arguably the best-designed home networking system for movies and music. But it is bad news for similar products, and those who might want to market or buy them, because it spares Kaleidescape only on a technicality, and does not necessarily set a precedent that would protect similar devices. The plaintiff was the DVD Copy Control Association, which argued that Kaleidescape illegally de-encrypted its Content Scramble System in copying DVDs (including potentially rented or borrowed ones) to the system's hard drive. Kaleidescape argued that the material remained secure on the hard drive and was distributed throughout the home via protected interfaces such as HDMI. Judge Leslie C. Nichols ruled against CCA, saying that the CSS spec was not legally part of the licensing agreement, which he characterized as "a product of a committee of lawyers." You can't make this stuff up. He also faulted CCA for failing to provide guidance when Kaleidescape solicited it: "I saw this as a case where no one sat down to talk." Kaleidescape feels "vindicated"; CCA may appeal. CCA's lawsuit against Molino Networks, whose $2000 system cost far less than Kaleidescape's, killed that company in 2004 by starving it of venture capital. The Motion Picture Association of America has "warned" about 80 chip makers about CSS and obtained three out-of-court settlements. Your right to store DVD content on a home network remains ambiguous at best. See EETimes and ArsTechnica coverage.
Arguably one of the biggest tech stories of our lifetimes is the transformation of telephone companies into full-service providers of television, internet, and phone service. The latest news is that Verizon is making this transformation much faster than AT&T. Verizon has signed up 207,000 subscribers for its FiOS service while AT&T's U-verse lags behind at 10,000 (a figure the company is actually bragging about!). This isn't a direct competition because their service areas don't overlap. Verizon serves northeastern and mid-Atlantic states while AT&T dominates the south, the midwest, and part of the west coast. There is, however, a struggle between two visions: Verizon's, which brings fiber right to your doorstep, and AT&T's, a hybrid that uses old copper wiring for the last mile. Verizon is pressing its point with the announcement that FiOS network speeds will multiply by four to eight times with the implementation of GPON (gigabyte passive optical network) technology from Alcatel-Lucent. When I visited Verizon last year, I was told GPON would enable delivery of as many as three simultaneous HD signals by 2007-08.
Soon after announcing their hoped-for merger, Sirius and XM told an investor conference call they planned to raise rates. They're beaming a different tune now. If the merger goes through, they promise to allow subscribers to block adult channels, pay a la carte, and save an unspecified amount off the current minimum of $12.95/month. The climate surrounding the merger has been chillier than expected. FCC chair Kevin Martin has expressed the opinion that the satellite services' federal operational licenses prevent them from being combined into a single company. And Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), chair of the Senate Antitrust Committee, has referred to the proposed merger as "a real bad deal for consumers."
Looking for a new way to get TV onto your PC? If you already subscribe to AT&T's next-generation U-verse service, you can also sign up for a free 14-day trial of OnTheGo. If you keep it, you'll pay an extra $10 month (over and above the usual U-verse cost) to access 30 channels from your PC. Mac users will not be pleased to hear that the service requires Windows XP, Internet Explorer, and the Windows Media Player. And the initial lineup may provoke further gripes: Fox News and Bloomberg but no CNN, Comedy Time but no Comedy Central. However, AT&T promises to add more channels as well as video on demand. OnTheGo is a joint venture with MobiTV, whose other activities include routing TV and XM channels to cell phones.
When you record a program with your DVR, does it matter whether the hard drive lives in your set-top box or on your cable company's network? Yes it does matter, a federal district court has ruled, effectively killing Cablevision's Remote Storage DVR. Soon after Cablevision introduced the innovative device, it was sued by CNN, Fox, NBC, Paramount, and TBS, who claimed the RS-DVR was not merely recording programs, but rebroadcasting them--a violation of copyright law. Cablevision argued in vain that the device was not rebroadcasting because recording and playback were controlled by the consumer. The decision will affect not only Cablevision's three million New York-area subscribers, but also cable consumers nationwide, by preventing other cable operators from introducing their own network-based DVRs. Cable operators like network DVRs because they're less costly to operate than the conventional kind. Cablevision may appeal. If it drags out the fight long enough, and Congress passes the Fair Use Act, the RS-DVR may get a second chance. The proposed law protects devices "capable of substantial, commercially-significant non-infringing use."
What's the latest cinematic sensation? The New York Metropolitan Opera! The Met struck a deal with exhibitor chain National CineMedia for high-def theatrical telecasts of six operas. The first four--The Magic Flute, I Puritani, The First Emperor, and Eugene Onegin--sold out 48 of 60 houses, making Mozart, Tan Dun, Bellini, and Tchaikovsky more popular than Prince, Bon Jovi, and The Who. The fact that people are paying $18 per ticket, versus $10 for rock acts, brings even wider smiles to exhibitors. Next up are The Barber of Seville (Rossini) and Il Trittico (Puccini, set model by Douglas W. Schmidt pictured). While the telecasts have prospered in big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Washington, they're also drawing crowds in smaller markets including Huntsville, Alabama; Pueblo, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; and Dayton, Ohio. The Met will continue its longstanding Saturday-afternoon FM radio and more recent Sirius broadcasts. Its public-TV exposure had dwindled in recent years due to union pressures, but thanks to a new profit-sharing plan with the unions, the same half-dozen productions listed above will air on public TV, in HD, with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. There is, however, a window between theater and television. So if you just cannot wait for Rossini--or just like the social ritual of enjoying opera in the presence of fellow music lovers--check your local theater listings.
Should the Motion Picture Association of America add a sixth rating? The current set of five includes G, for general audiences:
PG, parental guidance suggested; PG-13, parents strongly cautioned; R, restricted; and NC-17, no one 17 and
under admitted. Pressure is building to subdivide R into two new ratings, one for fleetingly racy material, and another (already informally known as
hard-R) for extremely graphic horror pics. There are precedents for subdivision and name changing. After all, before there were PG and PG-13,
there was a single M rating, for mature audiences. And X changed its name to NC-17 when the terms obscene and pornographic
became "legal terms for courts to decide," as the MPAA notes in its explanation of
ratings (a comic masterpiece of hairsplitting and equivocation). Now pressure is building from parent groups who feel, as Variety explains, that the current R "is too broad,
encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and
disembowelments." Hollywood is listening, but doesn't want to shove hard-R titles into NC-17 because exhibitors shun films in that ultimate category
almost completely and Blockbuster won't stock them at all. My suggestion: Rather than complicate the system with a sixth rating, keep the hard-R
material within R, and move soft-R material down into a broadened PG-13. The MPAA's rating guide already uses 306 words to describe PG-13
versus a mere 65 words to describe R. I say add another hundred words of fork-tongued bureaucratese to PG-13 and call it a day. (The illustration
is facetious, not a serious proposal.)
A watermarking technology used to trace pirated movies back to the source will soon be built into set-top boxes. Thomson developed NexGuard to trace pirate masters back to the theaters where they were stolen with camcorders or to DVDs distributed to reviewers and awards juries. Soon chips will be built into STBs to read watermarks in MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC, and VC-1 formats. The technology might be applicable to cable, satellite, or any other kind of STB. So if a piece of copyrighted material enters your home through the box, and ends up being pirated or file-shared, it will bear an individual watermark leading the copyright holder back to you. Should you worry? Said a Thomson executive: "The idea is to slow down piracy without limiting the use of the consumer. They should not be upset about this unless they are widely redistributing content." Of course, if you loan an archival video to someone who does file sharing, the copyright holder might become upset, and the copyright holder's attorney might make you very upset.
The fight over new Internet-radio royalties heated up Friday when National Public Radio took a stand against against them. In advance of a petition for reconsideration, filed with the federal Copyright Royalty Board, came this statement from NPR's Andi Sporkin: "This is a stunning, damaging decision.... Public radio's agreements on royalties with all such organizations, including the RIAA, have always taken into account our public service mission and non-profit status. These new rates, at least 20 times more than what stations have paid in the past, treat us as if we were commercial radio--although by its nature, public radio cannot increase revenue from more listeners or more content, the factors that set this new rate. Also, we are being required to pay an internet royalty fee that is vastly more expensive than what we pay for over-the-air use of music, although for a fraction of the over-the-air audience. This decision penalizes public radio stations for fulfilling their mandate, it penalizes emerging and non-mainstream musical artists who have always relied on public radio for visibility and ultimately it penalizes the American public...." Like NPR itself, many local public radio stations now have active websites with audio feeds, podcasts, and other content that doesn't make it on the air. NPR's audience hit an all-time high of 26.5 million in fall 2006 and has been adding a million listeners a year for the past five years.
Like Poe's purloined letter, some stories lay in plain sight, unnoticed. On rooftops, no less. I'm talking about the return of the humble TV antenna in the age of HDTV. As Newsweek's Johnnie L. Roberts says so eloquently: "The irony is marvelous. Pushed into obsolescence by the technological advances of cable and satellite, antennas are re-emerging thanks to one of the most promising high-tech services of the digital age. High-def channels can be plucked out of thin air by antennas just like regular broadcast signals--no cable, no satellite dish, no monthly bill, no waiting for the cable man." OK, if you've got a Jon Stewart addiction, the dear old antenna will do nothing to help. But how many such addictions do you really have? If the answer is just one or two, try this exercise: Get your cable or satellite bill. Multiply what you're paying for television by 12. That's what you're spending every year for Jon Stewart. Still think it's worth it? Then multiply the figure by 10--that's the amount of cash you could have put in your retirement fund over a decade. And what with cable's constant rate hikes, the final figure will be considerably larger than this simple calculation. If free TV seems like a good idea after all, the Consumer Electronics Association maintains an antennaweb site expressly to help people like you save money every month. Consumer hints: All HDTV channels live in the UHF band, so make sure your antenna works well at those frequencies (like the Terk indoor model shown here). You'll need a TV, set-top box, or DVR with an ATSC (meaning digital) tuner. But the results are worth it. Broadcast HDTV operates at a higher data rate than cable or (especially) satellite. So over-the-air HD picture quality is more than competitive. Salut!
Will Slacker do for Internet radio what Napster did for file sharing? Check out the beta version. At the heart of the multifaceted scheme is an Internet radio service that will build out to 10,000 streaming channels. There are Slacker-programmed channels, but you can skip songs you don't like, program your own channels, and even publish them on your website. Ads support the free version; or you can pay $7.50/month to ditch the ads and expand your skipping privilege beyond the free six-song maximum. Slacker works with any web browser. Then there's the Slacker Jukebox software, which integrates the music on your hard drive into the Slacker experience. The plot thickens this summer with the Slacker Portable Player, with capacity between 2-120 gigs and pricing from $150-350. A touch-sensitive side strip navigates what's happening on the four-inch color screen. The player syncs with the Slacker site via USB or wi-fi. Also on the way is the Slacker Satellite Car Kit. Slacker is shrewdly leasing unused satellite capacity rather than launching its own birds. I haven't tried Slacker yet but Gizmodo has. Since Internet radio is likely an endangered species, it's reasonable to question Slacker's prospects for survival. Best-case scenario: Slacker will dazzle users with its multifarious approach, build a large base of free users, and slowly turn them into paying customers as a lower-cost alternative to the potentially monopolistic Sirius and XM.
Philips has decided to say goodbye to the initial version of its Aptura TV-backlighting technology. As Philips explained, it used "high-output fluorescent lamps, operated in scanning mode." In effect, the backlight blinked rapidly. This, Philips said, would "cancel out the sample-and-hold effect, which is characteristic of LCD technology," thus reducing motion smear. Better contrast was another benefit, as the backlight dimmed for dark scenes, and worked in tandem with video processing to reduce light leakage. The "deep dynamic dimming" also increased viewing angle. Philips has long been selling non-switching backlit TVs in its Ambilight line, and plans to explore a new and little-used backlighting scheme using LED technology. Philips already markets LED products through its lighting division. (Thanks to Geoff for spotting this one.)