Picking up the Slacker

The folks at Slacker are anything but slackers, but last month’s announcement that Slacker would phase out its G2 player leaves a hole in its portable player portfolio.

One of the main differentiators of the Slacker service is its ability for it to cache radio stations using Wi-Fi. Slacker’s first player was a rather unsatisfying effort that, for example, had a hard time remembering WPA passwords. The G2 was much improved, although hardly competitive with the best experiences from Apple and Microsoft in terms of portable music players.

Dropping its own branded player makes a lot of sense for Slacker. Helped by Verizon Wireless’s distribution, the company has had great success with its BlackBerry client, but which only now can cache over Wi-Fi with the BlackBerry Storm 2. Slacker is also able to cache stations on Sony’s X-series Walkman, but hat’s a $300 device. So for the short-term, anyway, the end of the Slacker G2 will leave a price-functionality hole for those wanting to listen to the Slacker service offline and on the go. Perhaps dropping support for the G2 will free up some engineering resources to finally implement caching on the iPhone and iPod touch as the Rhapsody team intends to do.

Regardless, Slacker is clearing out the G2 for $129 and throwing in a free dock.

Once upon a time before 4G

MsnlogosunIT’s been a few weeks since news broke that Microsoft would be winding down the MSN Direct service in 2012, ending an eight-year run for the technology that used FM radio sideband to deliver snippets of information to low-power devices. I remember attending the CES keynote at which MSN Direct was unveiled and receiving a flyer from competitor Ambient Devices. That bit of guerilla marketing occurred as Ambient’s product line was more objects d’arte than consumer products, but Ambient Devices is still plugging away at products that use such little power they often don’t need a plug. One of its latest to incorporate its paging network receiver is a hybrid alarm clock/weather station that has long been an obvious opportunity to me. Best Buy apparently thinks so, too.

MSN Direct delivered worthwhile functionality. Its two main forays were smart watches (Switched On discussed one of the last smart watches for which Microsoft licensed the Abacus brand from Fossil.) and portable navigation devices. Alas, the service’s demise has been announced comes just as we are seeing Microsoft’s rival Google decide to front the cost of two-way turn-by-turn direction with the Droid. Another Microsoft competitor RIM (it of the Nokia alliance motivation) lend the BlackBerry brand to a smart watch that tips the fashion scales back toward geek chic with he InPulse smartwatch. Surely there will be more of these wrist-mounted cellphone companions as the low-power Bluetooth spec formerly known as WiBree enters the market.

It’s disappointing to see MSN Direct go because I appreciate clever hacks and because it tantalized us with connecting devices that had no other practical means to receive information. Indeed, Microsoft clearly continues to look for alternative means to affordable wireless bandwidth via the White Spaces Coalition, and has teamed up with some powerful allies toward making it a reality.

Regardless, though, the superior price-capacity ratios of 4G wireless networks will open up many new devices to wireless connectivity. Ironically, economically servicing devices that may have modest bandwidth needs becomes practical for the carriers as they deploy their fastest networks. The power requirements may not accommodate a smart watch, but it will clearly have a big impact eventually. As for Ambient Devices, it looks like a case where David managed to outlive Goliath.

How the Kindle and Nook reflect their retailers

I’m no industrial designer, but as someone who is immersed in retail market research, I have noticed a contrast between the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook that seem to reflect their retail philosophy.

Let’s think about Amazon, an online retail pioneer. When I think about online selling, I think about efficiency, value, purpose and focus. Get out of the way of the transaction. This is reflected in the Kindle which, despite its name, is an icy cold, colorless device. Jeff Bezos has said several times that a guiding principle behind the Kindle is to have it “disappear in your hands.” “Just give me the content and minimize the fuss.”

Now let’s consider Barnes & Noble – a multichannel retailer that seeks to at least match Amazon’s clean, expedient online experience, but which also  evokes a warm library or reading room in its stores and wants a rich experience with books there. That multichannel approach is reflected in the design’s dual screens. The paper display is the cold, online part that blends into the white border like the Kindle. The bottom screen, though, shows color cover art and its touch capabilities allow you to browse as one would a bookshelf and get “hands on” with a book at a store. Warmth is also reflected in the “Nook” name and the choice of pastel backs.

And of course, the integration of the Nook with Barnes & Noble stores is more than just skin-deep, with the retailer taking advantage of the product’s integrated Wi-Fi to do in-store reading and promotion, and Barnes & Noble’s physical stores will be a good place to showcase the lineup of designer accessories that have high profitability potential.

For Nook, neither a borrower nor a lender glee

One of the most noteworthy innovations of the Barnes & noble Nook had little to do with the device itself and more to do with Barnes & Noble’s goodwill and bargaining power with the publishers it cited at its launch event. The e-reader has the ability to lend books for a period of two weeks.

It’s not the first time a device has had the ability to allow friends to sample content. Microsoft’s Zune famously allowed “three plays or three days” for songs that were shared from another Zune using peer-to-peer Wi-Fi in a process Microsoft unfortunately called “squirting.” While the ability to sample viral music likely had some appeal for the Zune owner, there were siimply not enough Zunes to make the feature worthwhile and Microsoft dropped the feature with the Zune HD.

Like the Zune at its debut, the Nook will also be starting from an installed base of zero. However, Barnes & Noble has circumvented the chicken and egg by by allowing consumers to share its e-books with any compatible device running B&N client software, such as a PC, iPhone or BlackBerry. A Windows M9obile client in the works was confirmed by the company

The question, though, is how does the ability to lend e-books enhance one’s experience as a Nook owner? Clearly if one is in the middle of reading a b9ooik, lending it out for two weeks (which makes it unavailable to the owner) is simply a nuisance. There could be some gratification in lending a completed book to a friend, though. Hopefully, publishers, which control how long a book can be lent for, won’t start calculating how long it takes someone tor read a book and deny lending rigts to shorter titles based on that.

The tie to the Nook is also tenuous for the borrower, who doesn’t have to buy a Nook to enjoy a lent book. Barnes & Noble, though, may really be looking down the road if it supposes that simply exposing more consumers to digital books will grow the market eventually.

Whatever happened to Samsung’s Luxia brand?

imageOne of the most brash moves at CES 2009 came from Samsung, which not only asserted its consumer electronics ascent by launching one of its first sub-brands outside of mobile phones, but by designating it for a high-end luxury product in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in memory. While many TV manufacturers distinguish between their main brand (Sharp, Toshiba) and luxury brands (Aquos, Regza), Luxia was clearly aimed at answering Sony’s XBR series to designate the top of the line. The main technological differentiator of Luxia was LED backlighting, which facilitated its slim profile, wide color gamut, and associated slim mounts.

Curiously, though, while Samsung has seen great success with its LED televisions, and has done extensive advertising around “LED TV” (including TV spots), the Luxia name has been largely missing in action. Even on Samsung’s own LED TV site, there is no way to search for Luxia televisions or clue as to the existence of a Luxia designation. I’m sure Samsung is pretty nappy to be dominating the LED-backlit landscape. A $4,500 television by any other name is still mighty profitable. But the difference between Samsung’s marketing of “LED TV” and “Luxia” provides very high contrast indeed.

The information appliance, 2009 edition

image How niche can you get? The iPhone, which will surely attract more than 100,000 applications by the end of next year, can assume the functionality of a slew of devices – MP3 players, portable navigation devices, digital cameras and camcorders, language translators, electronic dictionaries, remote controls, stopwatches, voice recorders, flashlights and more.

Nonetheless, two products came to light this week that specialize in snippets of functionality – information appliances of sorts to use the mid-’90s terminology. The $199 pictured Red Light Camera Detector, available exclusively from New York specialty retailer  Hammacher ("We were here before The Sharper Image was a blurry idea.") Schlemmer uses a database of red light cameras and GPS to alert drivers when they are approaching such a monitored intersection.

While I can’t remember the last Hammacher product to attract so much attention online, much of it has been negative, surrounding its duplication of functionality and requirement of manual updating. Indeed, this seems more like a $99 or less product, particularly given the plummeting prices of portable navigation devices that cold easily replicate its functionality. Still, many ignore or don’t realize, though, that Hammacher and Brookstone customers are driven more by novelty and design and usually aren’t concerned about purchase optimization.

OpenMoko launches WikiReaderThe second and decidedly plainer looking device is the WikiReader, a gadget from open source wireless developers OpenMoko. Yet, the WikiReader is not wireless. It too relies on regular updates that are delivered via microSD card. Sure, it’s functionality is also replicated by a number of iPhone applications or even any handset with a decent Web browser. Still, the notion of a reasonable $99 encyclopedia that can be toted nearly everywhere has a certain downmarket appeal. While it is no substitute for a real Internet connection, it would be nice to see it patch a few open spaces in the digital divide.

Market potential aside, both of these products would be greatly added by some level of free wireless Internet access; neither would consume much bandwidth. The infrequency with which they’d need to be updated might even be an opportunity to revisit the old paging networks. (Don’t laugh. Remember the BlackBerry started there.) But  I see their ilk as more likely candidates for that elusive white-space network. One thing’s for sure. We’ve not seen the last of service-specific devices.

Who cares what it is? It’s in HD.

Ever since I received positive feedback on the guest column for Technologizer I wrote about the “pro” label, I’ve been wanting to write about products that slap the “HD” label onto their name to take advantage of the high-resolution trend that came into vogue about five years ago

imageKodak High-Definition film was one of the early products to get flack for usurping the “HD” nomenclature. In its defense, the ASA 400 film does seem to produce less grain than other films and has been widely seen as a replacement for the Royal Gold film from Rochester. Rather than increasing absolute resolution, though, it simply seems to produce higher contrast. Perhaps Kodak should have simply come up with some arbitrary contrast ratio number, like everybody else does.

Nearly all digital cameras have been capable of “HD”, that is, more than 720 lines of resolution, for years. Consumer camcorders are now pretty far along that transition.

imageHD Radio, the digital radio standard developed by iBiquity, has become the technological destiny of AM and FM radio stations as far as broadcast technology is concerned. When it comes to audio, it seems “HD” is the new “CD-quality.” HD Radio offers a greater content selection (albeit one that isn’t nearly as broad as the Internet’s) and better sound quality (which is often better than what is found on the Internet, at least outside of managed services such as Slacker). Because it has lacked the receiver subsidization that helped fuel the early growth of satellite radio, HD Radio has been slow to get off the ground. However, it recently got a shot in the arm by being incorporated into the Zune HD, which is in part a true HD product in that it can output HD video with the aid of a separate dock.

Incidentally, ibiquity is far from the only company to associate “high definition” with audio. Intel led the charge in the PC space and a wide range of headphone brands have offered “high definition” headphones and earbuds, including AKG, Monster Cable, Philips, Sony and XtremeMac.

image From the sublime to the ridiculous, a stroll through your local drug store may put you eye-level with the as-seen-on-TV HD Vision sunglasses direct from direct marketing land. The wraparound variety will fit over existing sunglasses so even those in need of prescriptions can get in on some HD vision, making you “look brighter and more alive.” These appear to be the latest in a line of polarized tinted anti-glare shades, a more modern incarnation of Ambervision. Believe it or not, they will not upconvert standard-definition videos, even if you watch them while squinting into the sun. Now how much would you pay?

imageAnd if your HD Vision shades don’t do much for staring at your old Trinitron., how about staring at your nails? You’re sure to revel in your high-definition hands with Sally Hansen HD Hi-Definition Nail Color. And what a spectrum of colors it is. HD Nail Color comes in eight different hues, twice the number that could be produced at one time by the standard-definition Atari 2600 (but only half the number that could be produced at one time by Intellivision). The thematically on-point shades include Cyber (purple) BLU (as in –”ray”), Pixel Pretty (turquoise, pictured), Hi-Def (green), Lite (yellow), Digital (pink), Three D (orange), and Hi-Res (red). I suppose using the “Hi-Def” shade of the HD nail polish will produce that holy grail of fingertip colorization, quad-HD nails.

Chumby One becomes a hard-edged clock stalker

imagePioneering gadget site-turned-blog The Gadgeteer reports that — following in the footsteps of such tech products as the TomTom One, the Gateway One, and the Acer Aspire One — Chumby Industries will release the second generation of its hacker toy-turned-widget playback device, the Chumby One. Selling for about $100, the revamped device has a far more modern appearance, albeit one that says more “kitchen” to me than bedroom.” In fact, I had been thinking of duplicating my iPod touch kitchen setup on my nightstand.

It will be interesting to see what changes Chumby makes in the name of role optimization. For example, the protuberance on its right side may be some kind of knob, and perhaps the top can be outfitted with a proper snooze button. As a long-time Chumby user, the main change I’d make is an easier way to manually move among a few multiple widgets (a la Exposé or HTC Sense) versus continuously cycling through hem slide show-style. The quest for a proper MP3 alarm clock may be at its end.

First impressions of the Avaak Vue

Regular readers here and elsewhere and elsewhere know that I had high expectations of the Avaak Vue following in the tradition of products such as the Flip, Eee, Sonos, Peek and PogoPlug in simplifying and expanding the market for what has been a challenged category. It must be noted off the bat that the Vue is not intended to replace a full-scale monitoring system installed by a monitoring company such as ADT or even a DIY system strung together with IP cameras (such as the recently debuted Viaas system shown off at DEMO Fall ‘09). Rather, like so many other of these products, it is focused on secondary functionality, in this case, “checking in” on a property, people or pets for a few minutes at a time.

Previous whole-home video systems have been expensive, unwieldy and complex, partly because of the need to supply power to the batteries, but not the Avaak. Simply plug the base into your router, press the Sync button, and attach the AAAA battery-powered, golf ball-sized camera to one of the amazing tiny magnetic mounts. Then go to the Web site and enter a unique ID for your base station and you’re ready to view and record video from a browser.

It all works brilliantly. I would of course be nice of the Vue could perform the kind of self-identification magic that the PogoPlug can, but Avaak appears on its way to creating the first multi-room video streaming system that can be used by ordinary consumers. I’ll certainly have more to say about the Vue system soon.

Logitech, Ooma get down with “a-p-p”

image The adoption of the “app store concept” has now begun to reach far beyond the smartphone. Recently,, both Oooma and Logitech made some terminology changes to capitalize on the app phenomenon. Ooma renamed its Ooma Lounge device management portal “my.ooma.com” and is referring to new functions as apps. Similarly,Logitech renamed its SqueezeNetwork to mysqueezebox.com and is now featuring an “app gallery” on that page in place of what it used to call xxx. Those changes are effective in Version 7.4 of what it now calls its Squeezebox Server, formerly SqueezeCenter. Most of the Logitech “apps” are merely audio content sources but, then again, so are a number of iPhone apps. Even Peek, which has crusaded against the smartphone, has recently rolled out apps for its e-mail device.

Of course, not every device with app ambitions makes it, and Verizon’s recent withdrawal of the Verizon Hub shows that apps can blossom only if a company is committed to continuing and advancing a platform. A value proposition must be established before it can be augmented. But the rewards can be great. Were it not for the iPod touch’s vast app library, Microsoft’s Zune HD would be a stronger competitor.