With so many new brandnames entering the flat-panel TV business, it's hard to keep track of them all. Would you know a Proton from a Protron? That's what seems to be worrying the Proton Electrical Industrial Co. of Taiwan, which has just filed a trademark-infringement suit against the Prosonic Consumer Group for marketing sets under the similar-sounding Protron brand. Proton has a 23-year pedigree as a high-end TV maker, is just re-entering the North American market with a line of LCD DTVs, and wants to avoid "confusion in the marketplace," says a press release. The name Proton is also used by numerous other companies, though not to sell TVs. The name Protron is also used by a computer-software company.
As someone whose job involves filtering massive amounts of hype to isolate the tiny tidbits of information readers may care about, I must admit that at times my filter gets clogged. So I got a kick out of reading Mark Schubin's essay "Headphones, History, & Hysteria" as he doggedly pursued a seemingly simple question: Who invented headphones?
Well, one website says it was John C. Koss in 1958. And if it's on the internet, you know it must be true. But wait! The Beyer website says it was that company in 1937. And if it's on the internet.... But wait!
Do these Sharp MP3/WMA/FM players look ugly to you? That's what the good folks at Engadget said when they picked up this new product announcement from Akihabara News. For my own part, I think the Sharps look pretty spiffy. And where can you find an iPod all in shiny red, huh, huh, huh? Well, all right then. It's clear the Sharp folks were determined to avoid looking like another iPod-wannabe and I'd say they succeeded handsomely. The player is available in three colors and two capacities (512 for the MP-B200 and 1GB for the MP-B300) but only in Japan. Come on, Sharp, let us have 'em.
"Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD," said Kurt Gerecke, a storage expert at IBM's German outpost, in an interview with Computerworld. Closer to two for off-brand cheapies, he added. Other estimates vary. I regularly use a CD-R of test tracks burned in 1999. Whatever their validity may be, these warnings apply only to dye-based recordable CDs. Prerecorded CDs are more durable (if they weren't there'd be riots) though no one really knows how long they will last. More bad news: Hard drives are also vulnerable. Their Achilles heel is the disc bearing, a mechanical part that wears out over time. Magnetic tape can last 30 to 100 years, according to Gerecke, though I recall some audiocassettes that didn't last a decade. Fortunately there's a hot new medium that freezes music forever in unchanging grooves of black plastic. The disc is read with a diamond stylus suspended in a web of magnets and can last a lifetime (or more) if treated carefully. It plays on all devices in the format, completely free of DRM. This format of the future is called VINYL. See tomorrow's blog for more details!
Contrary to an earlier report, it looks as though France won't become the first nation to demand interoperability in music downloads and portable devices. A laudable copyright law revision has been not only watered down but totally negated. Among the key changes, the words translatable as "open standard" have been changed to "protected copy." If you're an attorney fluent in French, take a look at the proposed amendments from the Commission des Affaires culturelles. The committee's handiwork is already being cited as a victory for Apple, which had bitterly condemned the bill's original wording as "state-sponsored piracy" and a mortal threat to iTunes. The resistance is still resisting—see eucd.info and stopdrm.info—but the prospects for consumer-friendly legislation have deteriorated. The French senate is expected to vote by mid-month.
If you want to predict the future of the music industry, don't just talk like a pirate. Think like a billionaire. According to Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet and the Dallas Mavericks, the music download business may be in for a major consolidation. Forget about iTunes and the Zune Marketplace, he says. Instead look at what Google has just done in the video file sharing realm: Pay $1.65 billion for YouTube and offer the television networks an estimated $100 million for the right to use portions (as opposed to all) of their programming. Cuban likens it to the moment when Microsoft took over the desktop by selling Office as a $99 upgrade back when word processors, spreadsheets, etc. sold for $500 each. Then he crunches the numbers: If Apple sells a billion tracks a year for 99 cents each, and pays 70 cents per song to the music labels, the music industry gets $700 million, and the biggest labels get $575 million of it. But what if deep-pocketed Google offered that same $575 million to the major labels for the right to use just some of their content free--not their whole catalogues, just hot songs and clips? After all, music executives are already openly rebelling against Apple's rigid pricing. Cuban finishes with an intoxicating rush of speculative questions: "Would it be worth it to Google to pay $575 million and up per year to completely turn Apple upside down? To completely pre-empt their ability to sell iPods? To potentially introduce a new hardware device, or partner with someone who has one? To sell advertising around the music rather than the music itself? Is there a traditional Google arb here of 70 cents per song vs. 70 cents of advertising around the song? Could it sell that much advertising online to justify giving the music away?... Could [Microsoft] position the Zune as the de facto winner by spending $575 million per year with the music labels and giving the first billion songs away to Zune owners?"
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+.
Reading patent applications provides happy bloggers with ample fodder for blue-sky speculation. I rarely report these what-ifs for the same reason that I avoid Japanese new-product introductions: it may not happen, or it may not happen here. But the San Jose Mercury News uncovered an especially interesting what-if in an Apple patent application several months back, one that may affect the user interface of the iPod—revered by many as the Michelangelo's David of industrial design. Reporter Troy Wolverton explains: "The company had previously explored replacing the click wheel with a virtual one as part of a touch-sensitive display." As it has with the iPhone, touching off speculation. "But now," Wolverton continues, "Apple appears to be looking at a third option: a touch-sensitive frame surrounding the display. Rather than click a physical button or press a virtual one on the screen, users would touch an area on the frame to operate their iPod." Needless to say, Apple didn't return the reporter's calls, and this cataclysmic ergonomic shift may never happen.
Netflix is eyeing the movie-download market, according to Variety. Eric Besner, VP for original programming, told a movie- and TV-production conference in LA that a new service would download movies overnight into a proprietary set-top box. Pricing may be the same as existing subscription fees for hard copies by post. Though scrapping with Blockbuster to shore up its existing business, Netflix sees the writing on the wall (and the profits in the rack). Various services are already bidding to replace videodisc rental. One of them, Movielink, is reportedly up for sale. The 800-pound gorillas are Verizon and AT&T, whose set-top boxes may ultimately become ubiquitous for movie downloads and dozens of other uses—but only if they cut the right deals with Hollywood. If Netflix wants a piece of the movie-download pie, it'll have to move fast. Besner said the service may begin before year-end.
Implementation of the CableCARD may have taken another babystep forward with a court ruling last week. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the FCC's long-delayed "integration ban." By prying encryption apart from the cable box, as required by a 1996 act of Congress, the FCC wants to speed adoption of CableCARD technology, which enables consumers to plug their cable feeds directly into sets with a card slot. However, although the major TV makers and the major cable operators put their John Hancocks on an FCC-brokered CableCARD adoption agreement as long ago as December 2002, the integration-ban deadline has slipped from January 2005 to July 2006 to July 2007. And the many consumers who have already bought CableCARD-compatible sets have been frustrated to find the standard not supported by their local cable ops. Enough already, said the appeals court. Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association hailed the ruling: "Consumers are entitled to a broad array of products that can connect to cable systems featuring innovative new features for competitive prices. In the wake of the court's decision, we are hopeful that cable will stop its foot-dragging and comply with the law for the benefit of consumers." In their defense, cable operators say they've got their eye on a new technology that supplants the card with a chip, not to mention new multi-streaming and IP-based solutions. And they hate the existing CableCARD because it's unidirectional, meaning one-way, meaning no video-on-demand, meaning less lucre. But consumers might wait years for implementation of these new technologies, whereas the CableCARD is here now and waitin' at the church.
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."
The lack of community-buildout requirements in a pending federal law has raised concerns that new TV services from AT&T and Verizon won't reach low-income households. Verizon defends its record: "We are already deploying our fiber-to-the-premises network and FiOS TV in many communities such as Irving, Texas, that have a mix of demographics or are simply not affluent," says spokesperson Sharon Cohen-Hagar. Shifting focus from income to ethnicity, figures from a variety of sources helpfully supplied by Verizon suggest that minorities are already lucrative customers for cable providers and are therefore equally attractive to nascent telco TV providers. One study cited is FOCUS: African-America from Horowitz Associates. It says African-American urban households buy $58.17 worth of cable services vs. the urban average of $54. Figures for digital cable and satellite services tell the same story. So if providers go where the money is, you just might see FiOS TV in the 'hood.
To speed the entry of the telephone companies into the video-delivery business, Congress is in the midst of rewriting the franchising rules, substituting national for local authority. Conspicuously absent from the national franchise legislation soon to hit the Senate floor is any mention of "buildout"—that is, an explicit requirement that new video providers serve all homes in a locale. Instead the bill would require the FCC to gather information on patterns of deployment and make an annual report to Congress, flagging any patterns of discrimination. Would that relatively relaxed regulatory approach make it easy for telcos to ignore poor folk? Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg flatly denies it: "We have never engaged in redlining or cherry-picking, and we never will. It is a violation of federal law, and it runs counter to our 100-year legacy of great service to customers. Our deployment strategy speaks for itself. We are serving diverse communities in every state where we are building our FTTP network, and the cable industry's claim is yet another red herring aimed at stifling choice and competition." Media activists will be watching closely. To be continued tomorrow.
Seeking to lure back declining audiences, theater owners may be about to silence blabbering cell phone users by jamming their phones. "I don't know what's going on with consumers that they have to talk on phones in the middle of theaters," the president of the National Association of Theater Owners told a conference, and really, don't desperate times call for desperate measures? Churches in Mexico already jam phones, albeit in defiance of Mexican law. Our own feckless feds also forbid it, and if the subject came up, regulators would probably cock an ear for valuable advice from the wireless industry. But cutting the inane chatter just might increase the quality of the moviegoing experience—along with digitizing projection, easing off on abusive volume levels, and banning Tom Cruise from the screen forever.
I was dozing through a commercial break in the 10 o'clock news when I heard something that woke me right up. It was the "Prelude No. 1 in C Major" from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the Rosetta Stone of western music. The experience was akin to finding a fifty dollar bill in the street, which incidentally also happened to me recently. What advertiser would be brilliant enough to feed Johann Sebastian Bach to an unsuspecting TV audience? None other than McDonald's, promoting its Angus Third-Pounder. This über-burger can be purchased in three varieties: with lettuce and tomato, with bacon and cheese, or with Swiss and mushrooms. The ad--which I swear I've seen before, but with a less elevating soundtrack--shows an average guy who takes his
first bite of a Third-Pounder and is
so transported that he
tries to push his chair back from the table, to savor the golden (-arched) moment, only to find the chair's bolted to the floor, so he settles for a sip from his
giant drink. I'd have run out into the street and bought an Angus Third-Pounder immediately, just this once, were it not for the seeded bun. I don't eat whole sesame seeds. Anyway, there you have it, an odd alliance between the nation's most notorious gristle pusher and a composer who had a direct line to God. And I have no complaints about this. Far from it. Will wonders never cease.