The “When?” ends now

What’s left to say about an operating system that’s been hyped about, griped about, embraced, embattled, and beta tested by what Microsoft claims is five million people? Apparently not a lot. At last night’s official launch of Windows Vista and Office 2007, even Michael Sievert, Microsoft corporate vice president of Windows Client Marketing, admitted that most of those in the audience had probably seen most of Vista’s highlight reel before.

Probably the most interesting part for me from a research perspective was more detail than I had heard on the “Windows Vista families” and the “Burn to CD” button that some mom had insisted appear in Vista’s photo gallery application. Ethnographic research is all the rage but you rarely hear much insight into it as it’s usually done on a custom basis. Having kids launch the Times Square signage was a cute touch.

It was quite a contrast from Apple’s iPhone unveiling in January. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there but all accounts described the crowd reaction as if they were  watching the Beatles reunite — yes, with John and George back from the hereafter — and win the World Cup for their country. In contrast, despite the synchronized light show from nearly every large-screen display in Times Square, the Vista launch was very anticlimactic. As someone I’ve known a good while in the industry spun it, “Another year, another Windows.” He works in PR.

Apple strays from the beat

For years, Apple resisted adding video features to the iPod, noting that the device was primarily about the music. Even when it introduced a video-capable iPod, it did so in the context of a better music device, offering higher capacity, greater battery life and a larger screen “for free.” With its recent rush to complete its three-screen strategy, though, it seems like music has become a bit lost in the Shuffle, so to speak.

Take AppleTV, for example. As I note in this week’s Switched On, its business model is practically the reverse of the iPod’s as digital video purchases from the iTunes store drives digital media adapter sales. If Apple were more focused on extending its music franchise, it would follow to release an audio-only device more along the lines of Slim Devices’ Squeezebox, now owned by Logitech. Of course, the Squeezebox is but one of the several remote audio devices that can interoperate with the iPod or unprotected tracks in iTunes.

AppleTV’s user interface looks good and polished as one might expect, but also a bit stark when compared to Windows Media Center’s, and who wants to turn on their television just to listen to some music?

It could be that Apple now feels that its lead is so far ahead in the digital music space that it can devote more attention to video.

Seeing eye to eye on webcams

Last year I got to try one of Worldgate’s pricey Ojo phones (marketed by Motorola). One of the few advantages it had over a PC running Skype or Windows Live Messenger was that it enabled better eye contact, or at least the illusion of it, as the camera was closer to the screen.

Now Bodelin has released a clever laptop/flat panel accessory called the “SeeEye2Eye.” Essentially, it’s done with mirrors. The video window is moved near the top of the screen and is positioned under one mirror, which reflects the image up to another mirror that moves it into the correct position and orientation. It’s really just a miniature periscope, but the results look impressive and address what’s one of the biggest downsides of video chat and videoconferencing today.

Unfortunately, the unit itself looks a little bulky, especially for travel use. Their must be a way to slim it down or make it foldable. I continue to hold out hope for that Apple patent of embedding cameras within the display itself.

From The Raw Feed via Gizmodo

iPhone ‘indsight

I didn’t get to post on the unabashed flamebait from generally more even-handed CNet editor at large  Michael Kanellos on why the Apple Phone will flop and Playlist senior editor Dan Frakes’s dutiful reverse peristalsis. (Dan saw eye to eye with me on why Zune shouldn’t be “the anti-iPod.”). Both were blind men before the elephant, though. Michael saw Apple trying to turn the industry upside-down with a converged do-all device while Dan saw something more focused on media. I’d say overall that Dan’s perspective was more on target.

I must come clean that I was on the record essentially saying that Apple would never do a cell phone, so as the tidal wave of rumors came crashing down in San Francisco next week, I had to eat some humble apple pie. Oh well, my rationales held for three and a half years and some of my arguments were similar to why Michael says the Apple phone will flop.

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Windows Live Spaces invaders

Windows Live for TV The media center capabilities of Windows Vista included in Vista Home Premium and Windows Ultimate represent a step-up in high-definition optimization. If Microsoft can live up to its claims of improved system stability, it should improve the appeal of PCs in the living room. However, CableCARD integration is not even necessary for its main competitors — inexpensive (at least to acquire) cable and satellite TV set-top boxes.

Microsoft has thus far focused on content integration, UI quality, consistency  and responsiveness, and appeal to a digital generation used to managing content via PCs. However, Microsoft would really give its media center capabilities a boost in the arm if they could provide functionality that overshadows the now commodified DVR that has been its centerpiece.

The Grand Convocation Chamber.It’s now offering a TV-based user interface to Windows Live (above) that includes support for voice and text chats and VoIP calls using Verizon Web Calling. But the navigation of Spaces shown above, while certainly visual, seems designed to terrorize the agoraphobic. It reminds me of the intimidating layout of the Grand Convocation Chamber in the Star Wars prequels (left).

From PVRWire

Kodak’s promising picture short a few pixels

I’ve long asserted that the charge around Kodak’s “blowing” the digital transition has been far exaggerated. It’s one thing if you’re a financial analyst grumpy about replacing film revenue. But in terns of the digital still camera market, Kodak has done about as well as could be expected. It’s a consistent market share leader, and it has carried forward its everyman legacy. Meanwhile, Konica, Minolta and Pentax’s camera lines were all absorbed by other companies, and Olympus has been struggling.

In any case, I’d never argue that Kodak or any company should rest on its laurels or not seek to expand its market base. But how? The thin thing has been done, we don’t need more megapixels, and DSLRs will be hard-pressed to move past the enthusiast base of their analog predecessors.

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The Mac with two brains

John Rizzo, former MacUser editor and publisher of the excellent Web site MacWindows has written an informative piece at MacCentral regarding some of the options for running Windows programs on a Mac. After writing a book in the early ’90s about Mac telecom that included a chapter on working with PCs, I actually started a more reference-oriented cross-platform site back in the mid-’90s with the domain I probably could have fetched something decent for that goofy domain name at an auction. Easy come…

In his article, unlike on his site, John doesn’t discuss Win32 API products such as CodeWeavers’ CrossOver. These don’t run Windows on a Mac, but do what most users would probably prefer, which is to run Windows programs on a Mac. However, he does mention an interesting option that will be offered with the VMWare technology for the Mac that will enable “appliances” — preinstalled Windows apps ready to run at nearly native speeds on Mac OS.

Apple has accurately juxtaposed the tradeoff among Boot Camp, virtualization products, and API-compatibility products as one that progressively sacrifice compatibility for convenience. It continues to stick with the most compatible approach in Boot Camp and must tread carefully in terms of supporting its native developers. However, I still think that, for most Mac users, virtualization technology is a better tradeoff than Boot Camp, and Apple would benefit by selling Macs with more RAM to accommodate two simultaneous operating systems.

Regardless, I don’t agree with the point that, “at some point in the not-too-distant future, most Macs—especially those in business and educational environments —will be running multiple operating systems.” Many? Sure. But not most unless Microsoft offers some aggressive pricing to Mac users

MP3 is not home audio’s enemy

I just accepted an invitation to attend a session at CES about high-performance or, as the invitation puts it, “HD” audio. The invitation notes:

While MP3s offer convenience, the quality of the audio experience is greatly diminished. High-resolution audio — or HD Audio — heightens that experience and demonstrates that consumers need not sacrifice quality for convenience.

And so continues the home audio crowd’s self-defeating crusade against MP3. Instead of embracing this popular format that can produce very good audio at high bitrates and expanding its market, the high-end continues to cling to the compact disc and lament the failure of SACD and DVD-Audio.

Lossy audio compression is here for the foreseeable future; it’s part of the ATSC broadcast specification and it sounds fantastic. I’ve seen only one company that truly is combining “no compromise” digital audio with most of the flexibility of media-independence; Unfortunately, I doubt that more than five percent of consumers woud appreciate the quality advantage that uncompressed audio has over, say, WMA encoded at 256 KBit/sec.

Can you imagine if video vendors acted like this? “Oh, sure, MPEG-2 lets us put a whole movie on a DVD, but you don’t want the compromise of compressed video, do you?” To the contrary, DVD manufacturers are embracing new codecs like DiVX and Windows Media, while the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps are moving to even more efficient encoding schemes such as VC-1 and MPEG-4.

This strikes at the heart of a theme that I have turned to again and again in the past year — the need for consumer technology providers to strike a better balance between quality improvements that have traditionally driven industry growth and flexibility. Show me the benefit of these marginal (in terms of customer perception) quality improvements achieved with the same level of convenience that especially unprotected MP3 offers.

How Zune can be doomed

In ComputerWorld, my message board sparring partner of Windows Magazine days Mike Elgan argues that Zune can kill the iPod by being the anti-iPod, much like Windows is (or was during its rise) the anti-Mac. I wrote last year that Microsoft wasn’t going to succeed with a Windows-like strategy in reference to Playsforsure, which was a more Windows-like strategy than Microsoft will ever be able to execute with Zune.

About the only points I agree with Mike on are that the initial execution of Zune has significant flaws and limitations, that Apple nevertheless has good reason to be concerned, and that cell phones from Apple and Microsoft would change the dynamics of the market. Beyond that, I can’t conceive how a hackable MP3 player would ever seriously challenge the iPod, much less lead the market. In fact, such a product has been on the market for years and hasn’t seen much market penetration. These are consumer electronics products; as simple as the iPod is for the functionality it offers, it’s still incredibly complex compared to, say, a portable cassette or CD player. Mike exhorts:

Let people transform the Zune into an Xbox game controller, a TV remote control, a portable presentation device, a wireless PC hard drive or a Vista gadget emulator. Give me a wireless keyboard and a Zune version of Pocket Outlook, and I’ll never buy another iPod. Build ClearType into Zune and make it the ultimate eBook reader (and sell eBooks on Zune Marketplace).

EBooks, eh? By this logic, Palm has built a real iPod-killer.

The CD is not dead yet

One of the sad things about format changes is that there is inevitably music left behind. Ripping provided an escape clause for the current generation of music. However, if DVD and its successors  as well as the various DRM schemes are any indication, , it will be a lot harder to do format-shifting should any future sanctioned music format come to dominate, particularly given current legislation.

Incredibly enough, though, we are still seeing albums re-released as CDs. During a brief liaison with country music in junior high school, a friend introduced me to a Canadian group called The Irish Rovers; their career has spanned 40 years. Most of their fare is Irish folk music, but they did put out a self-titled album with a more pop country sound and song choice. Probably the most popular song from it was the track, “Wasn’t That a Party?,” a funny piece about a soiree that gets far enough out of control to include a drag race.

in any case, after not being satisfied with the results of various attempts to digitally record a copy of the LP bought off eBay, I was shocked to find out a few months ago that it had finally been reissued on CD some 30 years later. Even so, the new CD was backordered for a month. I’m pleased to share that I received an email from a Canadian store today and it is on its way! This CD thing could really catch on!