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.
Stepping up its anti-obscenity campaign, the Federal Communications Commission is asking broadcasters for tapes of live sporting events. Government employees are going to sift through them just to make sure an athlete, coach, or spectator hasn't spoken the f-word or some other weapon of mass corruption. This does not sit well with broadcasters who have added on-field mics and in-car cameras to give viewers more of a you-are-there feeling. "It looks like they want to end live broadcast TV," one anonymous TV executive told The Hollywood Reporter. The latest federal obscenity law imposes fines of as much as $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase from the former law. It remains unclear how this would affect President Bush, who signed the anti-pottymouth law and then went off to a summit full of world leaders and uttered the s-word into an open mic.
Some speakers start communicating immediately. Ten seconds after I got these JBLs started, I was engrossed. Before I set them up, I'd just gotten halfway through the first disc of Vladimir Feltsman's hard-to-find four-disc set of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Having just rearranged my reference system to better visual and sonic advantage, I was loath to pull it apart again, but duty called. The Cinema Sound speakers simply picked up where my reference speakers left off. They sounded neutral, substantial, and well able to keep up with both the recording's shifting dynamics and its liquid beauty.
Gracenote, the leading music metadata provider—for the iPod, no less—has cut a deal with music publishers to deliver lyrics in digital form. The company says possible applications include digital music retailers, mobile providers, search engines, music portals, and of course music players and servers. The prospect of seeing the words to a song scrolling down your MP3 player screen is an appealing and timely one. Once listeners could read lyrics in giant LP gatefolds or CD booklets. But even in the heyday of those formats, that wasn't always a given, and in the age of downloads, lyrics have been relegated to unauthorized websites (which may soon see a crackdown). So Gracenote's move is progress. But in a music industry where artists don't always get their fair share, how much can a songwriter expect to get paid if her lyrics are licensed as a new product? Emails on this subject to Gracenote and Gracenote's publicist went unanswered.