Blockbuster's online DVD rentals have attracted a patent-infringement lawsuit from Netflix. At issue are two patents. The first one, granted in 2003, concerns the method of letting users choose and return titles. The second relates to the waiving of late fees, obtaining new discs at no extra charge, and prioritizing want lists. For Netflix, the timing is interesting—that second patent was granted just last week! For Blockbuster, it's disastrous. The company is a billion bucks in the red, spent $300 million to set up Blockbuster Online, and has only one million subscribers, versus four million for Netflix. Compulsive letter writers, here's a hot question for your senators and congressthings: Why is the federal government granting business-methodology patents that squelch competition and raise prices for consumers?
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.
Cablevision's digital video recorder has the movie studios and television networks up in arms. ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Disney, Paramount, and Universal have sued over the nDVR, or network DVR, claiming copyright infringement. The nDVR stores up to 80 hours of programming on a remote server. Program it to record your favorite stuff in perpetuity and you have, in effect, a limited version of video on demand. Since the disc drive is not in your rack, you can operate it just using an dDVR-enabled cable box. Cablevision says the suit is "without merit." Analysts say the suit was expected, and if Cablevision prevails, cable ops will be able to deploy the dDVR on a larger scale and save big bucks in the process, both for consumers and themselves.
ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC are challenging the Federal Communications Commission's "indecency" enforcement in federal court. They state: “We are seeking to overturn the FCC decisions that the broadcast of fleeting, isolated—and in some cases unintentional—words rendered these programs indecent. The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the First Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content is indecent. Furthermore, the FCC rulings underscore the inherent problem in growing government control over what viewers should and shouldn’t see on television. Parents currently have the ability to control and block programming they deem inappropriate...." The Parents Television Council fired back, calling the suit "utterly shameless." Programs involved include ABC's N.Y.P.D. Blue, CBS's The Early Show, and Fox's telecast of the Billboard Music Awards. Under new-ish chairman Kevin Martin the FCC has recently levied $4 million in new fines and revamped its website to encourage more, uh, public participation.
Initial Blu-ray and HD DVD titles won't support the managed-copy feature, according to a report from PC World. The interim agreement on content-security features that will allow hardware and software to hit the street this spring won't support the flag that would let users make a legit backup copy, transfer content to a media player, or move it around a home network. This temporary lack of functionality may not be a dealbreaker for early adopters. In fact, managed copy is just a future option that would allow the studios to give users some flexibility. Even when it eventually does become available, that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be used. But I thought you'd like to know.
At least two German-language DVDs have a DRM-related security flaw reminiscent of the XCP CD rootkits that have recently shaken U.S. consumers. According to Heise Security, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Edison contain Alpha-DVD, developed by Settec, a Korean company spun off from LG. The rootkit program announces itself in a user agreement. When installed, it redirects DVD-burning functions to itself to prevent illegal copying. However, it also "manages to affect the operation of CD/DVD burning applications with some DVD writers, regardless of whether the copy-protected disc was present or not," says Heise. Settec now offers both an update and an uninstaller. Alpha-DVD is not quite as insidious as the infamous XCP rootkit—it hides from the Task Manager but not from the OS. Even so, it still poses a hazard to consumers. "Our message to software companies producing any software (not just copy protection products) is clear," says Finnish security firm F-Secure, whose rootkit sniffer is pic of the day. "You should always avoid hiding anything from the user, especially the administrator. It rarely serves the needs of the user, and in many cases it's very easy to create a security vulnerability this way."
The New York Philharmonic will soon offer newly recorded live material for downloading. A three-year deal with Deutsche Grammophon will bring four concerts per year to download services including iTunes (probably) and others (possibly). To see the significance of this, go to iTunes now and search New York Philharmonic. Nearly everything that comes up is an old CD title with Leonard Bernstein. Classical music has always had a modest slice of the market for recorded music, but it's tougher today, even for major orchestras, when they have to compete with their own recorded past. So they're off in search of new business models. The move into online distribution is a logical next step for the New York Philharmonic, already selling CDs under its own label. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra launched its own MSO Classics label last year to sell downloads through iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, and other services. At least one orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, is also releasing its own multichannel SACDs.
Affectionately known as the "Moo," the NHT M-00 has been around since the late nineties. Originally it was a pro product that also appealed to savvy consumers seeking higher quality in desktop audio. Nowadays that secondary mission is more explicit, as the M-00 struts its double zeroes on two different parts of the NHT website: Pro Audio and PC Hi-Fi. And now that everyone and her sister is plugged into an iPod, a third mission beckons. What will this thing do for nearly everyone's favorite portable signal source?
Some of my happiest childhood memories involve a supermarket shopping cart and my mother (who has just turned 80). When I was still small enough, she'd place me in the shopping cart, roll me around the aisles, and occasionally give in to my pleading for animal crackers, though her own cookies were the best. When I got too big to sit in the steel cart, I started pushing it for her. That early consumer experience is about to change with the advent of the TV Kart. It's a colorful object that resembles a car equipped with a color liquid crystal display showing Barney and the Wiggles. The TV Kart is already deployed in 17 supermarket chains in the manufacturer's native New Zealand as well as in Australia and the United States. Within the U.S. it's hit 175 Meijer stores in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. And it's about to roll into Wal-Marts in three states, according to National Public Radio. There is an upside here. If kids are distracted by TV, they might be less likely to beg for snacks loaded with sugar and toxic oils. The downside, as a disturbingly ecstatic mother told NPR: "Now Mom shops alone."
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.
"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.
Freedb, a key player in open-source CD databases, has succumbed to tensions among its founders. The site is still up but its future is uncertain. If you didn't already know, CD databases provide metadata lookup services to the likes of iTunes and the Windows Media Player, enabling them to display artist, song, album, genre, etc. Without them your iPod would not be nearly as versatile at organizing music. The grandpappy of them all was CDDB, founded in 1993 as a volunteer-driven project. When CDDB went commercial in 2000 as Gracenote, Freedb and other groups split off to maintain their own open-source databases on a nonprofit basis. The open-source services appear most often in PC-based software including rippers, taggers, and players other than iTunes and WMP. Freedb is also used by AudioReQuest, a consumer-level high-end server product. Freedb is survived by Musicbrainz, another open-source database. The biggest commercial databases are All Music Guide's LASSO (used by Windows Media Player and MusicMatch) and the category-leading Gracenote (used by iTunes).
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.
This sleek spherical satellite/subwoofer set has actually been reviewed in the print counterpart of this website. But Kevin Hunt's review is not on the site itself. So here are my impressions of the Mod1, Orb Audio's lowest-priced speaker package.