Analog TVs are obsolete. Yet, shockingly, most major retailers still carry them. Some folks in Congress would like to see archaic displays labeled this way: "This TV has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after Feb. 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts." If that seems reasonable, then you're in agreement with Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX), Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and Fred Upton (R-MI), who are brewing up legislation to require the warning. I would add something along the lines of "Aren't you a little embarrassed even to be looking at this thing?" but hey, I'm not an elected official. According to TV Week: "Besides the warning, the legislation would require cable and satellite service providers include information in bills notifying customers about the upcoming digital transition, would require broadcasters to file regular reports detailing their consumer education efforts and would require the Federal Communications Commission to create a consumer outreach effort and also file regular updates about how many consumers had redeemed coupons for converter boxes."
The first review of LG's BH100 Blu-ray and HD DVD combi player is in--from Gizmodo. They paid for the thing! That's not fair! Highlights: The interactive menus on HD DVDs didn't work (as rumored). The interactive video features worked only with difficulty. Load times were 30-40 seconds, better than some, and editor/reviewer Brian Lam loved the chassis though he felt "weird" about saying it out loud. Really, that's perfectly OK. I wish someone would say the same about my chassis. More here. I'm a big Gizmodo fan, read it twice a day.
How much of your download dollar goes to the record companies? They have finally been forced to reveal this "trade secret" to a federal court. And it was their own ongoing litigation against consumers that triggered the confession. The Recording Industry Antichrist of America sued Marie Lindor, as it has done with hundreds of other people, based on information seized via another lawsuit from her Internet access provider. The RIAA demanded $750 per song, but Lindor's attorney argued that damages should be capped lower, and linked to the wholesale price per song. RIAA lawyers begged the judge not to make them divulge the magic number--but finally were forced to admit that the rumored 70 cents per track was "in the correct range." The information will no doubt prove useful to other attorneys, like the ones defending other RIAA-lawsuit victims, not to mention those representing recording artists.
In any other industry, news that sales doubled the previous year would cause dusty bottles of fine champagne to be summoned and quaffed. Not so in the music industry, whose digital download sales doubled in 2006, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. For one thing, the doubling of downloads in 2006 is not as good as the tripling of them 2006. And the growth does not keep pace with the decline in CD sales, at three percent in 2006. Even so, in major markets such as the U.S., U.K., and Japan, legal downloads are just starting to equal the damage done by P2P, piracy, and competition from new media. Driving much of the growth is mobile downloading, which already dominates download sales in Japan, South Korea, India, Italy, and Spain.
YouTube's success has nudged Netflix into video streaming. Install the Windows-only software, browse, hit add, and play. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Initial movie and TV titles from several major studios number only 1000, compared to the 70,000 in Netflix's conventional rental inventory. Subscribers with the most common plan get 18 hours of free viewing per month. Those with cheaper/costlier plans will get less/more. The service will roll out over the next six months.
Coming soon to a computer monitor near you is Joost. Formerly known as the Venice Project, this new mode of video delivery was invented by the founders of Skype and Kazaa. No, it's not a video download service. Nor is it a file-sharing application. Instead, it delivers video in the form of P2P streaming. Among the components of the system are powerful data compression, a global index to coordinate the flow of data, and 40TB of server capacity to augment users' hard-drive cacheing, making this what the inventors describe as a "hybrid" system. Thousands of beta users in several countries are already having fun with it and the service will launch officially in June. The Joosties seem willing to make nice with content producers, with Warner Music in the fold, and you'll even see ads for T-Mobile and Wrigley chewing gum. Eventually the service may move from the Internet to set-top boxes. Official site, Wired feature.
The first pirated material from an HD DVD has been posted on BitTorrent. This latest battle in the digital rights management war began a month ago when a blogger told the world he'd hacked AACS, the DRM that protects both HD DVD and Blu-ray, as a means of getting the player to work with his DVI-in TV. Because AACS involves both firmware in the player and an encryption key in each disc, his BackupHDDVD utility was worthless without the keys. But now people are posting the encryption keys on the net and HD DVD is officially insecure. Blu-ray is not as badly affected, because it adds a second layer of protection called BD+. The news overshadows other recent HD DVD gains, including its first triple-layer 51GB disc and its embrace by the adult video industry.
The battle over the broadcast flag resumes, with the reintroduction of S.256 (the Perform Act) by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Joseph Biden (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Last year it died in committee. Apparently, however, this is going to be an annual occurrence until the entertainment industry and its proxies in Congress get their way. The ostensible aim is to prevent cherrypick recording of satellite, cable, or Internet broadcasts. You could still record by time slot or station, but the bill is widely viewed as a Trojan horse for digital rights management and more draconian future restrictions. As before, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Consumer Electronics Association are leading the loyal opposition. Also up in arms is Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) who has introduced legislation of his own to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from hoisting the flag without even a figleaf of legislation.
"You want this ... don't you?" asked Geoff in our fab CES coverage. Of course you want LG's BH100 Blu-ray and HD DVD combi player--unless you've already bought into one format or the other, you poor sap. Even at $1199, who wouldn't want it after reading this description on the Best Buy site: "With the ability to play both Blu-ray Discs and HD DVDs, in addition to upconverting standard DVDs, this versatile system delivers crisp and clear images with rich layers of sound that will leave you on the edge of your seat." The site says the unit is sold out and mumbles something about in-store pickup though actually the product is not available yet. But judging from the detailed spec list and photos, it looks as though the product development process was well along before news started to leak out just prior to CES.
Are you a fan of Norah Jones? If so, you may be looking to download "Thinking About You," her new single. Best place to go is Yahoo, where you can buy it in the latest, coolest codec ever: MP3! Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can buy the track from iTunes. But if you do, it will be wrapped in FairPlay, Apple's brand of digital rights management (yuck, tooey). Wouldn't you rather pay the same to Yahoo, and enjoy the following advantages of DRM-free downloads, so helpfully enumerated by Yahoo? Oooh, talk DRM-less to me:
What was the number one item on holiday wish lists in the just-concluded 2006 holiday shopping rush? LCD TVs were the big winner, according to the NPD Group, with $925 million in sales. The flat wonders beat digital cameras ($825 million) and notebook PCs ($810 million). Surprisingly, iPods and other digital media players were relatively distant fourth-place finishers at just $720 million. So it's official: Americans prefer big screens to small ones. NPD declined to comment on how plasmas and other displays figure into their calculations.
The Consumer Electronics Show doesn't start till next week but news is already leaking out. The first dual-format DVD player, handling both Blu-ray and HD DVD, will be announced by LG. Solving the same problem from another angle, Warner will announce a hybrid disc covering both formats, so you early adopters with single-format players needn't fall on your swords (if other studios fall in line). Perhaps the best news of all is that non-portable audio sales may be recovering after a long period of sitting in their room and moping. November figures from the Consumer Electronics Association show home component sales rising a whopping 54.9 percent, beating the 27.2 percent increase of iPods and other portables.
Lost amid the year-end fuss was a long-expected development that will have profound effects for viewers on the west coast, in the midwest, and in the southeastern United States. The Federal Communications Commission quietly approved a merger between AT&T (as the combined company will be known) and Bell South. How will this affect nascent telco TV service? Just look at the Wiki map: Three companies now control the bulk of the traditional telecom business (not counting cable or VOIP, of course). See those two gigantic swatches in blue? That is AT&T's newly expanded territory. While Verizon's geographic territory is far smaller than that of Qwest, it includes many more subscribers. That leaves AT&T and Verizon as the most influential players. And they don't plan to compete in video services outside their defined territories. They will compete only with cable and satellite outfits within their territories. Despite rumors that the two Democratic commissioners would vote nay, the FCC vote was unanimous, 4-0, with one absention due to conflict of interest. That the surprise compromise will guarantee net neutrality is being cited as a victory for media watchdogs. Unfortunately, the promise comes with a two-year time limit, and does not apply to video-over-IP services.
The third generation of HD DVD players is likely to break through the $399 list-price barrier, the second generation already having done so at the street-price level. List prices may even hit $299 a little farther down the road, according to a Toshiba executive quoted in PC World. Look for details at CES next week. Unless the Blu-ray camp matches the deal, HD DVD will continue to retain the advantage in price. Another breakthrough came last week in the first HD DVD hack. This could be bad news for HD DVD. While the format uses the same AACS content-security system as Blu-ray, Sony's format adds an additional layer of BD+.
The CEO of Philips Electronics North America seems to be having a midlife crisis. Or at least, his company is. Asks Paul Zeven: "Have we gone too far? Are we in step with the needs of today's American consumer?" Philips research suggests that manufacturers have gone astray. "My company has studied the relationship between technology's complexity and consumers' attitudes and found that two out of three Americans have lost interest in a technology product because it seemed too complex to set up or operate. We also found that only 13 percent of Americans believe technology products in general are easy to use. The study concluded that only one in four consumers reports using the full range of features on most new technology products. If these findings aren't enough of a wake-up call, the study also found that more than half of Americans believe manufacturers are trying to satisfy perceived consumer needs that may not be real." It's telling that Zeven looks not to the hardware sector for a new role model, but to the likes of Google and Craigslist. The solution, he says, is "design, manageability and functionality."