As Rhapsody streams, Apple’s cash flows

Rhapsody iPhone App: PlaylistThere was much rejoicing as Apple approved two applications that enable on-demand song streaming to the iPod. Following the approval of the Spotify app, a companion to the European music service that provides free on-demand listening on PCs but requires a subscription on the iPhone, Apple approved the Rhapsody app, which also requires a subscription to deliver tracks on demand.

The latter approval was especially meaningful since subscription services in general have historically berated the a la carte model (even as they warm to it) and there was that unpleasantness a while back regarding Real’s now moot attempts to get its rights-managed tracks onto the iPod. It’s a good thing Real learned its lesson about not trying to circumvent DRM.

But that’s all old news, and now some are heralding Rhapsody’s arrival on the iPhone as a fresh beginning tor subscription services. I disagree. Like Michael Gartenberg, I believe in the potential  of streaming music to connected devices, but see services such as Rhapsody stuck between the rock of well-crafted Internet radio offerings such as Slacker and Pandora, and the hard place of a la carte purchases. Yes, sometimes we all want to hear a specific song, but there are even cloud-based options for that that don’t require a subscription. And if Real Networks is waiting for the carriers to figure it out, good luck.

Having Rhapsody on the iPhone, like having it on Sonos, is a great value-add for Rhapsody subscribers — an even better value-add than having the Sirius XM iPhone app is for those subscribers. I’s a good retention play.  But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problems these services have and I doubt it will signficantly help expand the subscriber base (On the other hand, at least it won’t lock subscribers in to one portable device.)

Meanwhile, the iPhone and iPod touch gain more sway as the most flexible pocketable digital music consumption devices, with their integrated and third-party apps bringing together local music, network music, Internet radio, Slacker, Pandora, Deezer, YouTube music videos, Sirius XM, and now Rhapsody (among others). If you’re a Rhapsody subscriber, you’re going to pay your monthly fee for bits anyway, but now you also get to fork over a couple of hundred to Apple for its atoms whereas before an Apple music player was probably out of your consideration set.

I’m sure Real Networks wishes it hadn’t gone this way as Rhapsody has to adhere to several limitatoins on the iPhone such as lack of background playback and an inability to sell a la carte tunes through Rhapsody, but the popularity of the iPhone probably forced its hand.

And so the rich get richer.

3D at IFA: Duels, Distribution and Data

Watching the camp Second City Television show in my youth, I laughed at the show’s Monster Chiller Horror Theatre segments, in which John Candy, as the evil Dr. Tongue, would create “3D” by swaying a cat cradled in his arms toward and away from the camera — a high technological bar indeed.

Nevertheless, at the IFA conference in Berlin last week, Sony and Panasonic emerged as leading advocates for the adoption of 3D television based on a more modern approach; each had its own spin. Sony relied on its knowledge of movie making via Sony Pictures (now integrated into its “make.believe” corporate branding along with Sony Ericsson) whereas Panasonic noted that it had a production facility in Hollywood for mastering Blu-ray.

Sony also won showmanship points by distributing RealD glasses and showing 3D clips during its press conference. That’s fair game in my book even though the technology it plans to introduce in the home is actually the same as Panasonic’s, which uses active shutter glasses that Panasonic was showing behind closed doors on its 150″ plasma. Passing through those doors, I noticed the impact of the 3D effect when there is high contrast between foreground and background, lending credibility to its claim that plasma is well-suited to 3D. (It also bodes well for OLED, which both Sony and Panasonic are pursuing.) While the Avatar clip actually fell a bit flat (pun unintended), there was a confetti scene so realistic that I felt I could reach out and grab it. Panasonic also answered Sony’s eye-popping Gran Turismo cockpit scene from its press conference with its own impressive driver’s-eye footage.

Sony and Panasonic are also driving forces behind Blu-ray, and another piece of the puzzle to roll out at IFA was that the Blu-ray 3D spec is coming soon. Indeed, 3D will absolutely need content, and as was noted during the Blu-ray Disc Association press conference, 3D content will be distributed in many ways. But even that may not be enough to overcome some of the hurdles such as wearing glasses. That is why Philips has decided to sit back and sell 21:9 TVs that I can’t believe wouldn’t find an audience in at least the custom installer market in the U.S.

As my colleague Paul Gray at DisplaySearch (whom I ran into on the show floor) notes, 3D  may not close the gap in TV pricing declines, but I still see the question of Blu-ray’s arrival is more of a when (and certainly within the time frame of seeing the effect without the glasses) than if. 3D has particular value for movies and sports, two TV genres that helped drive HD adoption.

But one area that 3D could enhance that hasn’t seen much attention but where it could provide much value is in the oft-neglected user interface, where it could help in swimming through the overwhelming flood of metadata that consumers will need to navigate. Hillcrest Labs has already shown a quasi-3D user interface using its Loop remote dubbed HoME, but it strikes me as the tip of the iceberg as to what companies could do with real 3D capabiliies. Without significant redesign, the prospects of finding personal relevant video in the age of broadband video are frightening, even more so than Count Floyd.

The best kitchen computer ever

image It hasn’t been the most elusive of computing’s holy grails, but there have been a few attempts toward optimizing a computing device for kitchen use. Two of them, the Macintosh Color Classic-like Icebox (now in an under-the cabinet configuration courtesy Salton) and the apparently madness-inducing 3Com Audrey, bombed. Another, the HP TouchSmart, has done well, but more generally than as a kitchen PC per se. We’ve also seen some content recently aimed at usage in the kitchen, such as the family of digital cooking video programs for the miBook and Nintendo’s Personal Trainer Cooking for the DS.

While the expansive TouchSmart might be a natural addition to, say, Kitchen Stadium, it’s a bit overwhelming for many an urban countertop.  Enter the iPod touch. It plays music from local storage, a home network, or streaming from Pandora, Slacker or other sources, and maintains its minimal footprint with the JBL OnStage micro , it can act as a digital photo frame or display a clock, including a countdown timer. It can access weather forecasts when getting ready in the morning or check traffic on the route, and has a Yellow Pages app for looking up businesses and Safari for much more. Oh, it also has the AllRecipes app for connected cooks.

Verbatim wants to have a word with your hard drive

081709verbatiminsight.jpgLast week, Verbatim announced its InSight external hard drives that have a small text window that can display a label and the amount of free space available. It’s a literary fit for Verbatim, which is Latin for “word for word”, to have a few words on its storage line. The sleek, shiny, humped design of the InsSight makes it one of the best-looking portable hard drives on the market, and there’s some marginal utility to having a display on a hard drive. Indeed, to Verbatim’s advantage and in a modest example of Reed’s Law, the utility of the display goes up as you have multiple InSights as you can use the text to distinguish their contents.

imageStill, when i saw it, I knew the InSight wasn’t the first  external hard drive with an LCD that stays on even when the device isn’t receiving power. SmartDisk offered the FireLite XPress hard drive with a 3” display that could display free space as well as much more text several years ago (I remember seeing them at CompUSA). The SmartDisk drive certainly didn’t look as good as the InSight, but the company produced some of the smallest external hard drives in its day, including the bantam FireFly that used the same kind of 1.8” hard drive used in iPods even today (though maybe not for long).

Whatever happened to SmartDisk? Surprise, it was acquired by Verbatim back in 2007. Perhaps the new owners will also take a fresh stab at SmartDisk’s Flash Trax, which had a unique clamshell form factor in the niche market of external storage designed for field backup and display of photos for advanced amateur and professional photographers.

More waxing on wireless widgets

This week’s Switched On column delves into Apple’s strength in desktop widgets and progressively declining widget strength as one looks across its product line to the iPhone and Apple TV. As I mentioned in the column, no company has implemented widgets effectively across the three platforms, and even gadget-happy Microsoft has encountered the same challenges in the living room with Xbox that Apple has with Apple TV despite the former’s much larger installed base. It’s hard to see anyone but Apple and Microsoft owning widgets on the desktop, but Samsung looks uniquely positioned to offer them across cell phones and televisions, where they are a more strategic play anyway.

In the comments, one person suggested that iPhone widgets could be activated by double-press of the Home button, but I would see it as either an extended button press option or a gesture. (If Apple allowed third parties to modify the iPhone system’s behavior, you can bet that someone would have come up with extended gesture options for the iPhone. Apple has barely scratched their surface. Indeed, the Mac trackpad’s gestures are more developed than the iPhone’s.)

Let me call upon my user interface design expertise, which consists of my having sent an idea via AppleLink to Don Norrman about a way that Automator-style macros could be built in the Finder that wasn’t dismissed as completely nonsensical. Another option would be a mashup of the HTC Sense user interface and Microsoft’s Windows 6.5 lock screen. Enable an app to run active as a lock screen. When you turn on the iPhone, instead of just having the one lock screen, you could swipe to multiple screens that would display Sense-style applications without turning on the device.

This would not be as flexible as Dashboard, but would be better than what we have today, fit well with the phone usage model,  and require only minimal, closed Apple-controlled basic multitasking since widgets aren’t much different than Web pages. When you unlock the device, the HTML rendering engine part of mobile Safari quits and you’re presented with the last app you had open or the home screen..

This approach could also maintain Apple’s blurring of apps and widgets, which might be a good distinction to dissolve on the iPhone, at least judging from the confusing way it’s handled in Android’s application market.

The real reason Mac OS needs Blu-ray support

image Despite being a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association since 2005, Apple has lagged on integrating Blu-ray into Macs, pinning the blame on licensing issues and not being coy about iTunes’ competition with physical media. But if Toshiba has come to the point that it feels it needs Blu-ray to be competitive, than those licensing issues must be more like a landfill full of hurt than just a bag for Apple to continue abstaining.

True, Toshiba plays in the traditional CE deck business, something Apple’s not going to do, and Blu-ray becomes much more interesting in the PC market as a data archiving medium offering greater capacity than rewriteable DVD. Media prices will need to come down considerably for that to happen.. But even until then, many Mac users would probably benefit from Apple supporting Blu-ray even if they had no interest in the latest high-definition discs from Hollywood.

This is because Mac OS X (even, unfortunately, Snow Leopard, as I’ve learned) cannot natively handle AVCHD, in particular the MPEG Transport Stream (.MTS) file format. This is a significant disappointment given that it is used by major camcorder manufacturers such as Sony, Canon and Panasonic as the way video is stored on hard drives and flash memory. It is also surprising given that Apple is touting how QuickTime X is built on such a modern foundation and the role that Apple and QuickTime had in the development of H.264. And, finally, it puts Apple at a competitive disadvantage versus Windows 7, which includes native file format support for MTS.

MTS has been a headache for many users frustrated by its lack of support. Just (Disclosure: this verb sponsored by Microsoft) Bing it and you’ll see that many of the references to it are pleas for file format converters. Frankly, I don’t know how someone without an Elgato Turbo H.264 deals with a modern camcorder on a Mac (but Elgato, please add support for AVCHD Lite)..

So what’s the bugaboo around MTS? It comes down to companies being unwilling to spend the dollars to license officially or use some of the open source options. While I’m not familiar with all the details, it seems that to support MTS you need to license at least some portion of the technology needed to play back Blu-ray. Ergo, if Apple supported Blu-ray, it would probably have the IP needed to support MTS natively. If rumors about future versions of iTunes supporting Blu-ray turn out to be false, any Mac users hoping to deal with files from their modern camcorders as naturally as they do JPEGs should hope for Blu-ray Macs.

Snow Leopard teaches an old dock new tricks

Exposé has been one of my favorite Mac OS features since its debut. After spending some time with the Snow Leopard team yesterday, I’m excited about the improvements Apple is making to it in Snow Leopard. Among them, window previews are now arranged in a grid, making them easier to track down, and you can even sort windows alphabetically as well as by app within Exposé. You can also zoom in on windows in Exposé Quick Look-style.

But the biggest change marries Exposé to the Dock to produce Dock Exposé, Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s Aero Peek feature in Windows 7, Dock Exposé. has a number of advantages versus Aero Peek such as using the entire screen for window preview.

However, one important feature where Aero Peek beats Dock Exposé is being able to show previews of multiple tabs in a Web browser. This is a serious omission since my browsers tend to accumulate a lot of tabs spread across multiple windows. It’s a mess and something like Exposé could really help with it. And so, browser tab support in Dock Exposé moves high on Ross’s Quite Reasonable List of Windows Features Apple Could Implement Without Compromising Usability.

Web tablets: When will ViewSonic jump in?

I welcome a tweeting representative at ViewSonic Corp. as one my most recent Twitter followers; I am following him or her as well.. ViewSonic has always been a progressive display company, which I suppose it has had to be as one of the few independent brands in the PC monitor marketplace. Seeing ViewSonic in my followers’ list got me thinking about the company’s various forays to market intelligent displays.

Back when Microsoft launched Smart Displays, tablet terminals that used Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol to access a PC from around the home, it positioned the devices as the future of the monitor. Smart Displays were contrasted against Tablet PCs, which were positioned as the future of the laptop. Clearly, the latter had greater longevity although neither initiative became the future of anything.

Still, I liked the Smart Display concept. If netbooks indicate that price was the main obstacle presenting consumers from buying ultraportables with 11” and smaller screens, perhaps a lower-cost tablet could vindicate the Smart Display form factor (if not its design goals). Certainly that’s what the CrunchPad is setting out to do. In any case, VviewSonic was the leading brand in the doomed category, offering AirPanel Smart Displays in both 10” (pictured) and 15” screen sizes with a USB keyboard.

More recently at this year’s CES, ViewSonic jumped on the netbook/nettop bandwagon, showing a number of PCs such as a backpack PC intended to affix to the back of a monitor, an all-in-one, and a netbook. The challenge, though, is that while the netbook market has raised Asus’ profile, consumers are increasingly thinking about netbooks as little Windows PCs, and in turn are looking to big Windows PC brands, On the other hand, maybe a big “PC” brand like Apple can open up the tablet category.

I don’t know if ViewSonic has it in them, so to speak, but if Archos as well as the CrunchPad and Touch Book teams were able to do it, I’m sure ViewSonic could as well. Maybe it could embed Android (which would probably be the way to go despite large-screen Android misgivings), or one of the “instant on” operating systems such as SplashTop or HyperSpace. In any case, ad at the risk of damning it with faint praise, the Web tablet is probably the best opportunity since Smart Display for a monitor manufacturer to really differentiate itself technologically.

Imagine there’s no iPad. It’s easy if you try.

Since my last Switched On column postulating that the rumored Apple tablet could be more of an Apple TV successor than an iPod touch with a glandular problem, I’ve heard some fantastic unpublished rumors about the device from a pretty credible source — at least one of which I believe. It’s easy to say that at $599 or more that the Apple tablet is a nonstarter but let’s remember that the iPod started at $399 and the iPhone launched at $599. But the Apple tablet could be… could be…

…just a rumor. Of it could well exist in prototype form and for whatever reason Apple could decide not to ship it. It’s happened before.

The CrunchPad, which I predicted could not be sold for $200 and has now seen its predicted price swell to netbook range, had received a lot of attention as an Apple tablet alternative, but if you’re primarily interested in surfing the Web and are willing to shell out that much, it may be worth looking into Always innovating’s Touch Book, which I’ve written about previously.

Its screen is smaller than the CrunchPad’s. But with its add-on keyboard, open source operating system, and unorthodox hardware, it’s the Chumby of netbooks, and I like its “convertible” approach more than those of Tablet PCs where the screen twists and folds over the keyboard, leaving a fat tablet. Since it must house a battery in its screen for independent tablet operation, the Touch Book’s lid is a bit thick as well, but I think it could be the stronger niche offering if its software can carry the day.

What Eye-Fi has its eye on

imageSwitched reports that KDDI is showing microSD cards that have embedded Wi-Fi, a natural evolution of a long-running trend in network-enabled memory cards. SanDisk had Wi-Fi-enabled Compact Flash cards back in the Pocket PC era and, of course, Eye-Fi has marketed a variety of Secure Digital cards with embedded Wi-Fi. Since digital cameras have a particular purpose and don’t use a standard operating system, Eye-Fi has focused the cards’ functionality on uploading photos to PCs and various photo and video services. While its prices have always been uncompetitive with the rapid dips in flash memory price-performance Eye-Fi now faces more difficult challenges as both units and average prices shrink for digital still cameras. Eye-Fi’s “Pro” 4 GB card with Wi-Fi costs $150, $30 more than an entry-level Canon A480 at MSRP.

So, Wi-Fi-enabled microSD certainly would have appeal to Eye-Fi, which could use it to expose the company to a much larger market of cell phones. Software would be more of a challenge as Eye-Fi would likely want to create client applications on multiple operating systems. Software, though, could enable new applications beyond uploading to one of my long-running bugaboos, in-the-field sharing of photos (and other media).

But while the Switched piece points out that some smartphones don’t support Wi-Fi, that’s becoming the exception these days with even Verizon Wireless warming to the LAN technology somewhat. Eye-Fi might be left to recreate its current wireless photo transfer service on feature phones  that can connect wirelessly, but relatively expensively and slowly.