Wi-Fi card reader a cross between Eye-Fi and MiFi

imageIf you’ve never heard of Applied Micro Circuits Corporation, the slogan of which is “Connecting the Technology that Connects Us All”, then  the small gadget that the company showed off at Sneak Peek at PMA may not do much to turn the semiconductor company into a household brand, but AMCC, unlike many component manufacturers that create “reference designs” that OEMs may or may not pick up, is giving it a go.

The device, which doesn’t have a name and for which no photos are yet available, is due to ship by this holiday season. It’s a small battery-powered SD card reader that connects to Wi-Fi. I think of it either as a poor man’s Novatel Wireless MiFi or as an external Eye-if card. AMCC sees the device being used by cell phone users who want to send photos to a photofinisher It will be sold with the retailer’s photo service as the default service provider but consumes will be able to choose their own.

A proposal for resolving the audiobook conflict on Kindle 2

image Something curious about the spat between the Authors’ Guild and Amazon regarding the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2 – which may be based on overestimating text-to-speech — is that Amazon, as the owner of Audible, has a directly vested interest in the sales of audiobooks. A more forward-looking advocacy organization would realize that this is an excellent way of building awareness for the convenience of audiobooks, an unprecedented opportunity to cross-sell audiobooks to buyers of the electronic print edition, and an enabling alternative for titles for which there are no audiobooks, including most short-form and Web content.

All Amazon needs to implement is the equivalent of the 30-second sound sample in iTunes – not loved by consumers but an alternative to having nothing. Let’s say text-to-speech allows the consumer to have up to five pages read of a book. At that point, a dialog pops up asking the consumer if he’d like to buy the audiobook. Future Kindles should have the capability to synchronize audiobooks with their textual counterparts.

This should work pretty well on the connected, vertically integrated Kindle 2 device, but what if Amazon supports other platforms as it says it intends to do? The iPhone is certainly a prime candidate for deploying the Kindle content, and there Amazon, like all other iPhone developers, would need to send the sales to iTunes (even though it is still Audible content so Amazon benefits anyway).

The thorniest scenario is how do we keep the boon of text-to-speech for sight-impaired users in the event that there is no audiobook version available. For this, I would recommend a licensing scheme be worked out that would allow the purchase of a “spoken text” version of a book in the absence of an official audiobook (and one that could be purchased in lieu of electronic print). Regardless, it would be in the interest of the publishing industry to offer a discount on the audiobook when a consumer has already purchased the electronic print.

Danger and the Internet sponge that could have been

In researching my next Switched On column, I came across this excerpted video of a talk at Stanford almost exactly five years ago by Danger co-founders Andy Rubin, Joe Britt and Matt Hershensen. Looking back on the looking back, I found some interesting tidbits.

Danger’s first product concept was called the “Internet sponge”, It was to be a keychain device that would bring down information from a portal (Yahoo, Excite, etc.) and be so inexpensive ($6) that portals could give it away as a loyalty play. One cool feature was that two people who had these devices could touch them to exchange contact and perhaps other information.

Five years later, the portal wars have been replaced by search wars between Google and Microsoft. We also have well-accepted push technology (RSS) and inexpensive options for broadcasting data from Ambient and MSN Direct, but clearly old Palm-style PC syncing is no longer good enough. No company has successfully implemented peer-to-peer information exchange via devices on a large scale, however, and such functionality might be a good fit for a social networking Web site such as Facebook or LinkedIn. I would have rather that Palm had implemented information exchange based on physical device contact rather than charging. This would have been a worthy successor to a platform that allowed users to exchange contact information via infrared. (Wouldn’t it be cool if digital cameras could exchange photos by letting via simple physical contact?)

There are many other fun points for mobile industry followers, including an admission about how voice on the Sidekick was an afterthought (and incredibly hasn’t improved much since its inception) and how Danger fought against being too closely aligned with T-Mobile (which happened, at least in the U.S.). The segment about delighting your customers’ customers in creating consumer products, complete with Blackberry references, reminded me of Peek (even though the Peek device is not distributed through carriers and dispenses with the Sidekick’s signature opening mechanism).

iTunes iPhone app management is a digital hub throwback

Gizmodo highlights an interesting demo video of how Apple could use iTunes to do a far more efficient and effective job of app management than is resident on the iPhone itself using the richer object manipulation capabilities of the PC. Some capabilities I’ve been hoping for that are demoed include reordering screens and selecting multiple icons. I’m not sure I need the “space locking feature.” But on the other hand, it doesn’t include the screen-naming feature I’d like to see.

I think Apple would have been more open to this back at the debut of the iPhone where the device was more dependent on the computer for tasks such as activation and sideloading. Gradually, though, as the iPhone becomes a more robust platform in its own right, the notion of the computer as the digital hub – at least for peripherals – seems to be fading. What replaces it? Perhaps the PC is disintegrating into fragment computing – notebooks and netbooks depending on the mobile usage model, MIDs to rival consumer electronics, and a home server for housekeeping and personal media distribution around the home.

In related iPhone wish list news, CrunchGear reports that someone has hacked Apple’s handset to accept input from an external keyboard via Bluetooth.

Hulu’s gurus and the Boxee blues

imageIt looks like Hulu distribution has been tightened up over the past few days. Maybe NBC and Fox are rethinking the power of the destination now that they have spent big for a SuperBowl ad featuring closeted alien Alec Baldwin.

Dave Zatz adroitly points out that this is likely to have a chilling effect on other solutions that deliver Internet video to the television and I would argue that it may also cause the major TV manufacturers who were all aflutter about Internet video on their wares to temper their embrace.somewhat.  However, as seems to be made clear by the apologetic Hulu blog entry regarding the removal from Boxee, Hulu has a limited voice in what their content players do. Have patience, little Hulu. One day you may grow up to be the next Comcast and will get to enjoy the same kind of tortured negotiations as the regulated aggregators sharing the coax ride into the home.

This ties into another theory I have as to part of the motivation behind the Boxee move and it doesn’t have to do with a blind desire to keep broadband TV shows off the television. Unfortunately, I can’t share much about it now but, as they say, stay tuned.

In another example of out-of-the-Boxee thinking, Sling Media is embracing social media in its own way with its recent initiative that lets you share what you’re watching with your Facebook friends, another baby step in the leveraging of personal relationships to drive exposure to TV programming.

Blu-ray has no Sirius problems

In her debut post at TechCrunch, Sarah Lacey talks about some of the challenges being faced by Sirius and Blu-ray. Her two points can be boiled down to a misaken assumption by the two technologies’ backers that that the past will repeat, especially in the Web era. Many of the commenters have pointed out some flaws in her arguments (Diggnation vs. Dark Knight?), but I offer these points in response.

It may be the case that Blu-ray disc revenues (or even players) are not growing fast enough to offset the decline in their DVD counterparts, but we are currently in a transition time between the two technologies.

About the only things that Sirius and Blu-ray have in common is a focus on content quality and appeal to an older demographic. While Sarah Lacey uses a “focus group of two” (doubling the n from the usual cliche) in her and her husband to discuss the myriad alternatives available to watch movies today, these are currently niche alternatives and, as I’ve often said, while Netflix streaming may be fine for renting, digital distribution has not provided a convenient alternative to discs for ownership.

Ironically, one of the products that has the best chance of broadening the audience for movie streaming services is Blu-ray players. Blu-ray’s biggest competitor – the DVD – is at an inherent disadvantage as the -price gap narrows for hardware. Sirius and XM, on the other hand, could not effectively follow where consumers went for their music – to PCs and portable players. MP3 and Internet radio options for the vehicle aren’t great, either, but consumers have coped or done without.

Satellite radio may have had a loose precedent in the success of cable and satellite TV, but the usage scenario was very different. A majority of US consumers spend enough time at home consuming quality entertainment to justify the investment in paid television service; not so for satellite radio. In fact, outside of capital expenditures, Sirius and XM ran up huge debt on subscriber costs and acquiring exclusive content. While Blu-ray certainly has entailed marketing costs, its battle with HD-DVD was one that was much more lopsided than Sirius vs. XM. Yes, Blu-ray, like Sirius XM, faces competition from Internet sources, but the mainstream of the market is its to lose over at least the next five years.

What’s in store for smartphone applications

imageAt Mobile World Congress, Nokia and Microsoft joined  Apple, RIM, Google and Palm in announcing that they’ll be supporting application stores or marketplaces for their operating systems or handsets. This should result in easier discoverabiliy of functionality for consumers and could further reward developers who have been lured by development funds. While the verdict is still out on whether the horse will pay to drink, Apple has brought the water to it..

However, there’s also an opportunity to build upon what Apple has done with its iPhone-based App Store, which started as a clean experience and still provides good exposure for popular and highlighted software. But many applications have gotten lost in the crowd.

To be fair, Apple has done a better job of providing exposure for these other programs in the iTunes software, but there’s also more that Apple could be doing with personalization. This isn’t like the iTunes music store which was hampered in its “Just For You” recommendation by relying only on paid downloads. Also, several of these new stores provided by RIM, Nokia and Microsoft could hit the ground running with an existing library of hundreds or thousands of applications and the fewer restrictions placed upon applications for many of these other operating systems should open the doors to a wider array of application types.

Congratulations, you’ve won a Switchie. What is it?

image Since 2005, I’ve written a year-end column called The Switchies in which I’ve highlighted some of the most significant, innovative, or best products of the year. The recognition is real. However, the criteria and even categories, in which there are never other nominees but sometimes runners-up, are completely arbitrary. Call it my “best of the year” if you will.

On occasion, representatives from companies that have had products mentioned in the column have sent me a note thanking me, understanding that the column is simply a bit of a tongue-in-cheek shout-out and not a formal award. I even created a hokey contrived expansion to fit the acronym Switchie — the Saluting Wares Improving Technology’s Contribution to Humanity awards. And this time, I even joked that the awards were hastily distributed behind the Engadget trailer at CES, evoking an image of a fence operation, and that the rise in gold prices had forced a cutback in statuettes. And, of course, as it says at the end of every Switched On column, views expressed in the column are my own (and by extension not those of Engadget’s editors).

But for 2008, the Switches hit prime time for some reason. One PR representative asked me (and Engadget apparently) whether there was a logo that her client could use for winning a Switchie. I explained the deal to her. And then another company put out a press release promoting that it had won a Switchie, awarded by “the experts at Engadget.com” and quoting “the judges” yet making no mention of me or the Switched On column. Engadget, in fact, does have its own awards, which are Reader’s Choice awards.

I notified the company that the Switchie is not a formal award and is certainly not awarded by Engadget’s editors but is simply a reflection of my opinion. However, the press release is still out there. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to promote that you’ve “won” a Switchie (or just noting that you were mentioned in the column would be even better), but it’s misleading to characterize it as an Engadget award. I suppose I’ll have to take stronger measures next year to avoid any confusion.

Windows 7 gets SKU(were)d

image I finally installed the Windows 7 beta on a (low-end) PC this week and so far the improvements look promising. I also became aware of a new feature in the ATA architecture that Microsoft will support in the OS called TRIM that should help with performance of SSDs. But, as I’ve often said, it isn’t the feature set that has been responsible for Windows Vista’s criticism. it’s been performance and compatibility.

Or maybe it’s simply a curse. Since the watershed that was Windows 95, every other consumer operating system that Microsoft has released in the past 10 years has been received poorly:

  • Windows 98: positive reaction
  • Windows ME: negative reaction
  • Windows XP: positive reaction
  • Windows Vista: negative reaction

In any case, Microsoft was raked over the coals this week for announcing that Windows 7 will be available in six different flavors, ranging from Starter to Ultimate. This will certainly leave the company open to the barbs that Apple has slung at it, including the “wheel of operating systems” commercial that is part of the Long-Hodgman “Get a Mac” ads as well as the joke at WWDC that Mac OS “standard version” and “professional version” are the same price (because they are, of course, one and the same).

But, despite the longstanding rivalry and multiple points of competition, Microsoft’s business is very different than Apple’s, and Microsoft has major consistencies that Apple does not have to focus on as much or at all, including PC manufacturers, enterprises, and retailers. Therefore, Windows 7 Enterprise, for example, shuld be available only to customers only on Microosft’s enterprise license plans. Starter wlll have hardware constraints so that it runs only on netbooks (and, as I mentioned to Gene Steinberg yesterday in his Mac Night Owl podcast, allowing users to run three apps at once is two apps more than the iPhone allows).

Continue reading