We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. And we control the DVR, says Verizon. If you're a multi-zone kind of consumer, and interested in Verizon's FiOS TV service, check out the Verizon Home Media DVR. In a multi-zone DVR configuration, the Motorola QIP6416—shown here—acts as the media hub, recording and streaming video. It has a 160GB hard drive and dual QAM tuners. Operating as remote terminal is the Motorola QIP2500 set-top box. The remote terminal operates in standard-def only, though you can watch high-def on the hub DVR. Media Manager software pulls photos and music from a PC and routes them to connected TVs. The Home Media DVR costs $19.95 per month ($7 more than a regular Verizon DVR) plus $3.95 for each remote-terminal STB. The relatively new concept of place-shifting has not come without controversy among content producers. Cablevision's network DVR has become the first casualty and the Slingbox may follow.
"My editor recently queried me about my TV set," wrote Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. Shock, horror: This professional TV critic does his work with a 20-inch screen! And judging from the size, probably analog. Now, before you all pile on, be advised that Gilbert's decision to use a small screen is carefully considered: "Without a lot of sophisticated sensory overload, I think, a show's writing, acting, and editing stand out more clearly. I can stay in touch with the true marks of good storytelling, without having to parse them out from a dazzling barrage." More shock, more horror: I downsize a lot of my own viewing, though for different reasons. I watch movies on a 72-inch-wide Stewart Firehawk, but when I watch TV, I retreat to a less intense 32-inch LCD. Why? The reduction in scale eases both the headache-inducing quick cuts of advertising and the sorrows of real-life suicide bombings. Still, I think "the marks of good storytelling" are as perceptible on a big screen as on a small one—more, in fact, if you consider camerawork and other aspects of visual style as storytelling tools—and now that shows are being produced in (1) widescreen (2) HDTV and (3) surround, the Boston Globe's TV critic may be missing the boat.
It had to happen eventually. Paramount announced today that Mission Impossible III will be the first title to receive simultaneous release in three disc formats: high-definition Blu-ray and HD DVD, and standard-definition DVD-Video. Each release will be a two-disc collector's edition with five deleted scenes, four documentaries, theatrical trailers, and other features. Blu-ray and HD DVD releases will have soundtracks in next-generation Dolby Digital Plus. The special-edition sets will have commentaries by Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams—but only the HD DVD release will show them talking in a corner of the screen during the movie. A single-disc DVD-Video release will include the deleted scenes, commentary, and the "Making of the Mission" documentary but will omit the other documentaries and features.
The Japanese government is asking broadcasters and DVR manufacturers to relax the "copy once" rule, according to Nihon Keizai Shimbun. It allows programming to be copied from DVR to DVD, but the program is then erased from the DVR, and the DVD cannot be copied. News and educational programs will be the first to allow relatively unfettered copying. Other kinds may take longer, depending on the preferences of copyright holders, and it's hard to imagine budging (say) the movie industry from its existing anti-copying vigilance. Why this, why now? The government is looking ahead to Japan's transition from analog to digital broadcasting, currently scheduled for 2011, and wants to salvage at least some of the viewer conveniences associated with analog. A panel of broadcasters, manufacturers, copyright holders, and consumers will begin studying the matter and the first copy-once exceptions may take effect before year-end.
"DVD album" is what Warner is calling a new DVD-based music format that will be sold alongside CDs, according to The Wall Street Journal. Though it is neither a DVD-Audio nor a DualDisc, the five-inch disc will include both surround and stereo soundtracks as well as video footage. What form these soundtracks will take remains undisclosed. However, if the disc is to play on a standard DVD player as advertised, then the surround track might be Dolby Digital or DTS. It would not be the DSD signal format used in SACDs. The stereo track will be some form of compressed file that can be copied to a PC or converted for burning to CD-R. Rumor has it that the file format may be AAC with Apple FairPlay DRM, and that negotiations are ongoing between Warner and Apple. If they don't come to an agreement, Microsoft's WMA would be the obvious second choice. There will be no CD audio on the disc, so it will not play on standard CD players. The format will shortly become available to Warner subsidiaries for product-planning purposes and may hit the shelves next year. Warner is the world's fourth-largest record company.
Ford, General Motors, and Mazda will add iPod capability to their fall lineups. That will bring the iPod's automotive penetration to a mind-boggling 70 percent according to Apple. GM is adding the iPod link to all 56 models of car and truck. That doesn't mean it'll be free, though. GM will charge $160 plus installation. Even so, it's easy to imagine carmakers in a hypercompetitive "zero percent financing, cash back" environment offering free iPods as well as the link. The player will live in the glove compartment, where it will both play and charge. In other iPod news, regarding the hardware/software interoperability issue that's been simmering in Europe, Apple has responded to a challenge from Norway's consumer protection agency, whose spokesperson said: "Apple has shown a willingness for change and dialogue.... We remain at odds over the most important things." The freshest Apple news, which emerged just yesterday, is a new Mac Pro workstation. It's still not the killer HTPC Mac admirers (and others) have long awaited but who knows what Jobs may have on his to-do list.
Have the big telcos brought next-generation IPTV to your household yet? They haven't? Well, don't worry. Market research firm iSuppli says IPTV will increase from 2.4 million subscribers in 2005 to 63 million in 2010. But if you can't wait till 2010, move to Monroe, Oregon, where the Monroe Telephone Co. is delivering Internet-protocol television to 50 homes in its 950-home service area. A planned marketing push may raise the total to 200. The price is about the same as a satellite subscription. "The rural areas have surpassed the cities largely because of nimbler local telecom companies that have taken matters into their own hands," says a story in The Wall Street Journal. Among other advantages, they can get loans from the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Division. Monroe Telephone was founded in 1912 and acquired by John Dillard in 1956 for $5000. When growing up, John Jr. dug holes for telephone poles and manually punched through calls on a patch bay. His words of consolation for you IPTV-less folks in the big cities: "It won't be too long before the bigger markets follow."
Time Warner Cable of Raleigh, North Carolina will not supply CableCARDs for the forthcoming TiVo Series 3 HD DVR, according to ConsumerFury.com. A consumer emailed the company asking about the card and received this response: "Time Warner Cable of Raleigh does not provide support for or allow TIVO devices on our cable network. Time Warner Cable provides DVR service and equipment for customers that would like to record programs and watch them later. Cable Cards will only be installed on Cable ready, Cable Card slot available television sets. This policy is subject to change at the discretion of Time Warner Cable of Raleigh." Of course, as the response points out, TWC would rather have you rent TWC's DVR, no matter how bad it is. Presumably that's why the 1394 output of my own TWC-NYC cable box is disabled, preventing me from hooking up any form of HD-capable recorder. Nice logo.
Will France beat America in the download race? A France Télécom project wiring 100 Parisian homes with fiber optics will reach blazing-fast speeds of 2.5 gigabits per second downstream and 1.2gbps upstream. That beats our best contender, Verizon FiOS, which is being marketed at a maximum of 50 megabits per second. However, there's a catch. Verizon FiOS is a real-world product rolling out in the field, whereas the France Télécom project is merely experimental. Also, France is using GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) technology. Verizon will eventually add GPON to its own system, raising download (and upload) speeds into the same range as the French. But there remains one area where the French may remain way out front: price. The experimental service costs €70, or about $88, per month for combined TV, phone, and net access—less than American cable and telcos are charging for their triple-play packages.
In response to anecdotal evidence of iPod longevity problems, an Apple spokesperson recently insisted the popular music player is designed to last "four years." No...wait...stop the presses! She actually meant to say "for years"! Well, that's much clearer, isn't it? In other iPod-related news, the French Constitutional Council has struck down parts of an already loophole-ridden law that would have kinda sorta required all music downloads to operate on all devices. The council's job is to examine laws passed by both houses of the French paraliament and assess their constitutionality, like a preemptive Supreme Court. According to the council, parts of the law interfere with property protections under France's 1789 Declaration of Human Rights. Stop the presses again: DRM is a human right. Interesting. However, the law was already so toothless as to be useless, so I consider this a non-story.
To whet consumer interest in music downloads, and celebrate the release of the LG chocolate phone, Verizon has eliminated the monthly fee previously levied for its Vcast Music store. When the service made its debut last year, users had to pay a $15/month charge in addition to per-track charges. Now you can buy the hip chocolate phone and pay for songs by the track, period. The chocolate phone costs $150 and another $100 will buy you a 2GB mini-SD memory card to store music and photos. Music costs $1.99 per track, but you're allowed to download each one twice, once on the phone and once on your PC. The $1.99 may seem a little steep compared to iTunes, but Sprint Nextel charges an even stiffer $2.50 per track. Vcast downloads come in the Windows Media Player format, with DRM, of course. Bumping unfettered MP3 files from PC to phone was impossible when V Cast made its debut in January, but Verizon insisted that this was purely a software hurdle, and you're now free to load the phone with MP3s.
Live music broadcasts go all the way back to the golden age of radio—to the very first broadcast, in fact, when the first broadcaster played his fiddle. And concert halls are again becoming studios. Live Nation, the world's largest operator of concert venues, has already wired 36 major venues and festival sites and plans to bring the number up to 120 by year-end. The result, for viewers, will be sizzling live music delivered to your TV, PC, cellphone, FM or satellite radio—any program provider willing to do business with Live Nation, a new company spun off from Clear Channel. The project is already pretty busy, having broadcast 250 shows from 50 artists in 2005. Given that LN stages 29,000 events per year, there's plenty of room for growth. What I'm hoping is that LN will discover how dull stadium performances can be, visually and sonically, and concentrate instead on bringing home music from the sweaty little clubs, where the real excitement is. Like, say, the House of Blues, which LN recently acquired. Oh, and please, record in 5.1. (PS: Readers have the right to know that I am a Live Nation stockholder.)
The weeks of carefully orchestrated of leaks and rumors surrounding Microsoft's iPod-like Zune have approached the viral intensity of an Apple product launch. Confirmation finally came in Billboard with the announcement of "a family of hardware and software products" by Chris Stephenson, general manager of marketing for MSN Entertainment Business. As rumored, the product will ape Apple by integrating a music player with software downloads. But it will also one-up the iPod by offering wi-fi for functions that will include downloading, purchasing, and exchanging songs with a limited number of other users. Not an original idea, but maybe a powerful one. Stephenson raised several other possibilities without confirming any of them: "The ability to connect the different devices is a key part of the strategy. Whether it's a portable media device, or a phone, or the Xbox or Media Center PC, the idea is you can access your entertainment from anywhere." The music industry, eager for "flexible" pricing, will be happy to release its foie-gras-engorged gut from the 99-cent corset imposed by Steve Jobs and iTunes. Not so pleased are the manufacturers and download services who have licensed Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. They are effectively frozen out of the new integrated Zune hardware/software environment. Prospects for Zune's survival? Send me one and I'll get back to you.