DRM versus distribution

On BoingBoing, tireless DRM foe Cory Doctorow, who has convinced my old friend Aram Sinnreich to switch to Ubuntu (I’m trying it, too.), reacts to the news that Amazon will offer DRM-free with quintessential blog snark, expressing hope that Amazon will fall in line with its “wretched” video store Amazon Unbox. But we all know that audio is different than video because whereas consumers want unencumbered flexibility and choice with their music, when it comes to video they… um, they…. Well, the studios were smart enough to copy-protect their discs so we should reward that, darn it.

Amazon played its card differently than Apple, which expressed hope that its agreement with EMI would yield a domino effect for the other three major labels. In contrast, Amazon emphasized the 12,000 labels, all independent of course, that would offer DRM-free MP3 downloads. Most discussion in this area has focused on the “will they or won’t they?” decision at Universal, Sony BMG and Warner Music, but what if they don’t? That could lead to a situation where indie music is DRM-free and now has digital distribution as good as the big guys, which could grease the path to discovering new artists and shift (albeit slightly) the balance of power.

Motorola has RAZRs rising and logos near loos

At today’s unveiling of the RAZR 2, Motorola used its bat-wings logo to designate not only is corporate name, but the entrance for the men’s restroom. For the women’s restroom, they simply turned the bat wings upside down — how very versatile.

Motorola has finally outdone its best-selling handset on nearly all counts. This reminds me of when Apple unveiled the fifth-generation iPod; it was a no-lose situation for consumers. However, Motorola will certainly look to the RAZR 2 to boost its margins and the product will likely command a premium. I’ll throw my hat in for $299 with a two-year contract.

Will consumers bite? I think back to the StarTAC and how Motorola tried to succeed it with the V that never became as much of a phenomenom. The V was to the StarTAC as the KRZR was to the RAZR. Maybe history won’t repeat itself, though, as consumers are still snapping up RAZRs faster than, say, Katanas or other thin clamshells.

While today’s media event included a lot of review for those familiar with Motorola’s announcements from 3GSM or even CTIA booth, the RAZR 2 made good on the extended messaging to focus more on the digital DNA of handsets in addition to their form factors. Some of its legacy spinoffs from the RAZR (like the ROKR or even Z8) may not be so inspiring, but if Motorola can execute this well on a feature phone that will ultimately be available for under $50, its high-end should become more energized.

That said, Motorola needs to rethink its convergence marketing. “Your next television won’t be a television.” That’s pithy, but beyond the state of most consumers’ acceptance of mobile video and not up to their understanding of television.

Small Wonder attacks a big problem

I’ve had my say on Pure Digital and its newest flash-based camcorder. Thomson licensed the basic design of its first Point and Shoot camcorder, adding a switch to choose between higher quality and longer recording times. With the second-generation Small Wonder, though, its upped the ante, adding SD card expansion capabilities and flip-out screen for recording oneself. I took a chance and got one for my mom for Mother’s Day and was delighted at how she took to its its simplicity, at least for recording. For while playback of what’s on the camcorder is a simple matter of connecting the included composite video cables to a standard television, backing up those videos will require delving into software that, however well-designed and easy to use, will intimidate her.

And this is actually another reason why I chose the RCA version for her as Thomson plans to bring out a plug-and-play DVD recorder accessory for the Small Wonder later this year. Dock the Small Wonder into the drive and it should spit out a DVD. DVD recorders designed to be connected to camcorders aren’t new. Both Sony and JVC offer them. But I’m taking a small leap of faith that Thomson will stay true to the Small Wonder’s philosophy of simplicity to close the loop on mom-friendly video capture.

Those who should not throw Zen Stones

In this week’s Switched On, I wrote about Apple’s challenge with model diversification as the company’s line expands. It offers three main famlies of iPods. That’s a lot if you consider its pro desktop line to have one model, its consumer desktop line to have two. and its notebook line as arguably straddling both with the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

This week, though, Creative unveiled its iPod shuffle-like Zen Stone, which its Web site classifies as its 11th MP3 model line in the Zen family! Even trying to reduce that to branded families, you’re left with six — Vision, Neeon, V, Micro, Nano and now Stone. Creative even has its older MuVo line up there although the Nano is very similar in terms of form factor.

The Zen Stone may be Creative’s best-looking player in a while (maybe ever)  and at a great price point — with some nice accessories, too (I like the keychain) — that brings style into the portable CD player market price bracket, but this is from the company that criticized the first-generation iPod shuffle back in 2005 as follows:

We’re expecting a good fight but they’re coming out with something that’s five generations older. It’s our first generation MuVo One product feature, without display, just have a (shuffle feature). We had that — that’s a four-year-old product. So I think the whole industry will just laugh at it, because the flash people — it’s worse than the cheapest Chinese player. Even the cheap, cheap Chinese brand today has display and has FM. They don’t have this kind of thing, and they expect to come out with a fight; I think it’s a non-starter to begin with.

Speaking of new kids on the rock, RCA — which places itself as number three in the MP3 market behind Apple and SanDisk — released most of its new Gem line yesterday. I agree with Engadget’s Paul Miller that the Jet is the best-looking of the bunch.

Flipping over the package

It’s a bit of odd timing that Pure Digital decided to rebadge its Point and Shoot camcorder Flip Video when a next-generation offering from RCA that supports a flip-out screen and memory card expansion will be available soon. However, I saw the (blister, grrr) packaging today and it’s pretty clever. Not only does the bulbous design imitate that of the camcorder itself., but the back enables you to power it on and play a short promotional video after which you can see what its like to use the small LCD. I would have suggested that the badge on the front alerting buyers to the interactive back be larger and that the buttons be labelled or accompanies by a sticker on the back to make it easier for unfamiliar buyers to find the power and play buttons (as play looks similar to delete).

The big guys are focused on HD, but Flip Video is a very fun product. Casual users love it. As I mentioned briefly when I posted about the Canon PowerShot TX, ther are a lot of places Pure Digital can take the product. It would be great to see two hours of HD, a larger LCD and maybe 5x optical zoon at a $500 price point rounding out the top-end.

Update: Turns out that Flip Video is not just a rebranding. According to Pure Digital, the video quality has been improved and there have been some other improvements. The 30-minute version in white s $119 and the 60-minute version, available in white and now black, is $149. There’s some cool stuff up these guys’ sleeves.

That bud has a nice ring to it

Hey, aren’t those things supposed to go in the ear? I guess this is what happens what art imitates iLife.

Letter-imperfect icons

I was taken aback when I saw the minimalist, alphabetic icons in Adobe’s Creative Suite 3, which take the old Macromedia cop-out letter-bound application icons and add a heaping serving of boredom. Here’s a great post explaining the, um, design decisions behind them. Much of the blame goes to the Macromedia merger and the overwhelming number of applications now on Adobe’s palette and, perhaps more practically, the Mac OS X dock to which I assign most of the blame. Regardless, we shouldn’t have to give up beauty for functionality in our digital workspaces. This sets a bad precedent.

The funniest comment asks if Adobe is “trying to create its own version of the periodic table” while the one that best expresses the head-scratching bottom line is, “I can’t believe these icons are from a market leader in design applications.”

WinMo’ Better

My recent column on Windows Mobile spurred a great e-mail exchange with a member of the WinMo team. In response to my raising the anti-trust spectre, he noted that carriers can and in some cases will easily turn off Windows Live Messenger and Live Search. Fair enough, but the abysmal state of most third-party multi-network IM implementations combined with WinMo’s general awkwardness makes alternatives unappealing to the consumer while the price of third-party offerings probably reduce their appeal to carriers.

Sharing that I believe basic, text-based IM to be as much of a utility as SMS, I suggested that Microsoft create an extensible IM architecture similar to that of Trillian and pre-load it with Live Messenger. Assuming the other IM providers or third parties supported that, you’d have the prospect of better OS integration that could be pursued by carriers or consumers. Search choice is even easier. Microsoft could simply provide a way to change the default search provider (probably no more than rewriting a URL) as it does in IE7.

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Who will do Vudu?

When I first met with LaLa.com, CEO Bill Nguyen spoke about the importance of selection at online CD stores such as Amazon.com (which Apple had claimed during last September that the iTunes store was on the verge of passing). A recent meeting with LaLa’s John Kuch again touched on that theme. Apple’s selection in music, however, is not as rich as its selection in movies, and that’s the target of suddenly high-profile Vudu. After all, if instant access to a limited selection of movies had been so compelling, MovieBeam would have likely found a greater audience, and it was cheaper than the $300 being bandied about for its box, particularly after discounts. (I “overpaid” for mine at about $60 as I recall.)

So, armed with content from all of the majors save for Sony Pictures Entertainment, which may be facing corporate pressure to distribute to the PS3 (or not to further other strategic corporate interests), selection will likely be the trump card that Vudu plays as other solutions seem like they could probably circumvent any IP that the company may have with its in-house peer-to-peer content delivery network. Interestingly enough, the Times’ story quotes Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, the nearly 7 million members of which have to be considered low-hanging fruit for Vudu.

When I wrote about Apple TV versus TiVo and versus cable/satellite, I pegged programming depth and value as two areas where the digital media adapter was far behind. Vudu probably falls short too for now, but that could change fast if the company is really serious about competing with DVD and goes after the already aired TV show market. I’ll definitely have more to say about Vudu soon.

The how of now

I agree with Rhonda Wickman of Wireless Week insofar as SMS would have been a better — or at least complementary — way of warning students during the nightmarish Virginia Tech massacre. However, she is wrong to characterize e-mail as “far better than systems used when I was in college – a public safety siren.” Sirens may not be very high-tech but they are real-time and even harder to ignore than an SMS delivered to what could be a handset that is silenced or turned off. You don’t see ambulance drivers sending text messages to the cars in front of them. The clear danger at the university more than warranted similarly intrusive notification.