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?
Consumers junk millions of remote controls each year. But 20 percent of remotes deemed defective can be returned to service with a simple reset routine, according to MrRemoteControls.com. Here are the instructions verbatim:
A good idea has gone slightly awry with the recall of 11,800 Philips Ambilight plasma HDTVs. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, nine users have reported arcing in capacitors on the back of the enclosure. Arcing is a prolonged and visible electric discharge—not the sort of thing you like to see when you're kicking back to watch American Idol. Affected models include the 42-inch 42PF9630A/37 and three 50-inchers: 50PF9630A/37, 50PF9630A/37, and 50PF9830A/37. All sets are from the 2005 model year. For more information see the USPC warning or call Philips at 888-744-5477. Despite all this, Ambilight is a very cool feature that builds backlighting into the set, easing strain on the optic nerve. An x-treem optimist might even point out that Philips has reinvented the fireplace.
It's Apple vs. Apple! Apple Corps, the record label owned by the Beatles, is suing Apple Computer over trademark infringement. Don't you love it when rich people get into a fistfight? I can just visualize Steve Jobs giving Paul McCartney the evil eye.
If you thought your PC security problems began and ended with those Sony rootkit CDs, think again. The watchdog organization stopbadware.org has issued a warning about the file-sharing service Kazaa: "We find that Kazaa is badware because it misleadingly advertises itself as spywarefree, does not completely remove all components during the uninstall process, interferes with computer use, and makes undisclosed modifications to other software." The group issued similar warnings about MediaPipe, a movie download program; Waterfalls 3, a screen saver; and even SpyAxe, which ironically enough bills itself as an anti-spyware program. Stopbadware.org is led by heavy hitters from the Harvard Law School and the Oxford Internet Institute with support from Google, Lenovo, and Sun Microsystems.
Complaints about scratched iPod nanos are giving way to solutions from Apple and other parties. First there are those three Apple-branded iPod cases in Italian leather. Tug a little ribbon and your iPod slides out gracefully. Cases are available for the 60GB, 30GB, and nano. The $99 pricetag may raise an eyebrow among the hoi i-polloi but clearly Apple is lunging for the carriage trade here. Meanwhile NYC retailer J&R is selling iPod nanos that have been put through a custom hardening procedure described this way: "Each custom colored iPod goes through a thorough process of cleaning, painting, protection and curing before it is ready for use. The protection comprises of the unique X2 scratch resistant liquid plastic coating. It's applied right after the painting process and cured with ultraviolet light, to achieve superior scratch resistance and clarity. The final product has a finish that won't fade or crack!" The price for a treated 2GB nano is $265 or $66 more than list.
Downloads for movie collectors—as opposed to renters—are finally happening in a big way. Warner-owned Movielink, until now just a download-rental service, now offers 300 titles for download-ownership from six major studios. CinemaNow offers another 75 titles worth of ownable bits from three studios. Pricing, unfortunately, is actually higher than Amazon disc purchases, but hey, it's a start. The coolest permutation—alas, for Brits only—is Download to Own from Universal Pictures and Lovefilm. For one price you get two downloads, one for a PC and one for a portable media player—plus a hard-copy disc—all for one admittedly stratospheric price. Even if none of these schemes appeals to you now, it's clear that movie downloads are now a viable option for library builders, and it's only a matter of time before they go high-def. Blu-what?
The maker of the world's most deliriously successful music player offers these words of advice: "If you expose your ears to excessive sound pressure, you can harm those small hair cells in your ears." Whether this has anything to do with the class-action lawsuit filed in Louisiana alleging hearing damage from iPods is, of course, just so much irresponsible speculation. According to my colleagues at Stereophile, a recent poll indicates hearing loss among the young is a real problem. What is certain is that Apple has announced a firmware upgrade that sets a top volume level deemed safe with Apple's supplied iPod earbuds and other products with similar sensitivity ratings.
Why are component audio sales lagging portables? "More than 56 percent of potential audio buyers say they have never even heard what they'd consider a great sounding audio system," says a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. For those of us who have both heard and felt soul-stirring sound, that is nothing short of horrific. "The good news for retailers is that many consumers are leaving the door of opportunity cracked open through their willingness to interact with a sales person and to receive a demonstration of better audio equipment," says Sean Wargo, CEA's director of industry analysis. CEA recently released a training DVD for dealers, "The Specialty Audio/Video Difference," showing how to conduct effective demos and supply good customer service. If you're a consumer, as opposed to a dealer, maybe it's time to walk into an a/v specialty store and say "play me something good!" It just might change your life. To find a store in your area with some real class, click here. (Today's poster boy is Tycho the Wonder Dog, courtesy of www.nomoon.org.)
High-performance audio's long, slow decline is officially a crisis. The latest figures from the Consumer Electronics Association say that portable audio devices now outsell components—"for the first time in history," as This Week In Consumer Electronics reported. Put portable, home, and car audio together and the audio industry grew a total of 29 percent in 2005. But that includes an 85 percent hike in sales of portables, four percent growth in car audio, and a decline of 16 percent in the good-sounding stuff that sits on your rack, if you still have a rack. You can blame paradigm shifts, generational changes, i-everything, blabbity blabbity blah, but there's a smoking gun here, and I'll talk about it tomorrow.
Read the fine print on some DVD and CD releases and you'll see the phrase CarbonNeutral. What's that? CarbonNeutral, formerly known as Future Forests, has convinced a variety of manufacturers to offset the CO2 emissions caused in the making of plastics by paying landowners to plant trees. Celebrity enthusiasts include Atomic Kitten, Beth Orton, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones—not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, critics of the scheme say that the company is just selling the carbon rights for trees that would have been planted anyway. Still worse, Mike Mason of Climate Care told The Times of London: "When Mick Jagger's trees die in 50 years' time, they will release the CO2 they have been storing at a time when the situation is likely to be more critical." You know what the road to hell is paved with. Bit of a heartbreaker, isn't it?
Apple Computer doesn't like France's pending copyright reform. Though widely viewed as a blow against the binding of iTunes purchases to iPods—horreur!—the law actually would require all downloads to be compatible with all devices. An Apple spokesperson equated this with "state-sponsored piracy," and your federal government has chimed in with cabinet-level agreement: "Any time that we believe that intellectual property rights are being violated, we need to speak up and in this case, the company is taking the initiative," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told CNBC. What makes the situation so ironic is that just a few years ago, the same federal government (well, almost the same) was energetically litigating against Microsoft for binding Internet Explorer to Windows. In similar spirit, the European Union is about to hit Microsoft with a big fine for binding the Windows Media Player to the OS. Since no one else is asking the question, I will: Why should there be one antitrust standard for Microsoft and a totally different one for Apple? The French, at least, are proposing to level the playing field in an increasingly lucrative download market.
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.
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.