Ears of war

Last year, the Xbox 360 had the limelight all to itself as the first “next-generation” console to hit the market. This year, though, the console has fought to stay in the zeitgeist, crammed between the novelty of play driven by the Wii and the hard-to-find horsepower of the PlayStation 3.

Microsoft’s promise that it had a lot of tricks up its sleeve for this holiday season held true enough. Most of the news out of the Xbox group this fall has been aimed more directly at competing with Sony — the graphically rich grit of Gears of War, the enhanced network play of the wireless headset, the downloading of movies via Xbox Live. support of 1080p, and the availability of the external HD-DVD drive And yet, the whole doesn’t seem more than the sum of its parts.

Microsoft may simply be falling victim to the attention around the PlayStation shortages, a phenomenon that it experienced firsthand last holiday season. Such shortages drive a lot of PR in the short term, but hurt a brand if they go on too long. In contrast, while there has been some scarcity associated with the Wii, most of the attention on the product itself and even the launch titles has been positive. It seems like anyone who wants a Wii by a tree will be able to get one without resorting to desperate measures.

One way the Xbox group could steal a little bit of thunder back would be to release a hard drive upgrade for the 360. Of course, this wouldn’t do much for gaming, but it would enable Microsoft to position the 360 as both a hub and a great Media Center extender client.

The best of both widget worlds

DashboardSince my post last week on the new breed of widget appliances and some hands-on time with the RTM edition of Windows Vista, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the tradeoffs between Microsoft’s and Apple’s implementations of functionality at your fingertips.. Both approaches make assumptions about how users will — or won’t — interact with these applets.

Vista’s gadgets are kept in a vertical sidebar that can be docked to either side of the screen. They can also be dragged onto the desktop. One of the best features of gadgets is that they can also exist off the screen — as in the case of Vista’s SideShow feature — or even outside of the PC itself, also via SideShow.

Mac OS X Tiger’s widgets appear in a separate layer that appears at the touch of a keystroke. There’s more planned for widgets in Mac OS X Leopard, but the fundamental tradeoff is that Vista’s gadgets are always in view, making them handier for tracking information at a glance, whereas Tiger’s implementation enables access to more of them at a time by utilizing the entire screen.

Overall, I prefer Apple’s implementation, which places fewer constraints on the design of these programs, but there’s merit to the “Sidebar” approach for organization that I’d like to see Apple adopt. Instead of having all widgets in a layer, Apple could support a Sidebar that could, with a hotkey or control, expand to overlay the entire screen.

Zune zigs, Zen zags

z600.jpgNo sooner does the Zune promise to marginalize Creative’s Zen Vision: M than the company finally appears to bring together some of its core assets from audio processing to its Cambridge Soundworks speaker group to support its flagship hard drive-based player.

The piano-black speakers on the X-Fi Sound System Z600 remind me a bit of the Z-10s that were recently released by Logitech, but the $400 system includes a subwoofer and the Creative’s X-Fi “sound restoration” technology that has been favorably reviewed. The system may be a bit pricey, and the most successful iPod docks from Bose, Apple, Altec Lansing and Logitech  have all had integrated speakers, but accessory support will go much further toward helping the Zen Vision than disparaging Microsoft would.

From Fareastgizmos via Engadget

Resistance: FallofMP3.com

It looks like the clock is ticking on what many have said is digital music sales done right (wherein “right” is music for ten cents on the dollar and no DRM) — Russian Web site allofmp3.com and its client-side software allTunes. Apparently, MasterCard has joined Visa in blocking payment to ChronoPay, the intermediary that handled credit card transactions for the controversial site.

So, unless would-be customers can get their hands on a Diners Club card right quick, the loophole site will have much of its revenue base cut off. Then again, it might be able to survive just on Russian revenue. Without reimbursing labels or artists, one might call its overhead low.

Kevin Maney nails it by noting that it looks like Visa and MasterCard are deciding copyright law.

My first ABCNews.com column

My first column for ABCNews.com ran today. This will be a monthly feature that is more focused on NPD’s data than some of my other writing. The first piece is on Black Friday, where I’ve laid out the three rough classifications of different kinds of Black Friday promotions — big ticket, high demand items such as flat-panel televisions and notebook PCs, more mature, mid-priced categories such as camcorders and digital cameras, and clearance products such as low-capacity MP3 players, flash drives and thumb drives. It’s been a while since I’ve written for a newspaper-style column so I’m going to have to get readjusted to subheads (which I like) and really short paragraphs.

The story is featured as one of the rotating leads in the Technology and Science section, but can’t, of course, compete with the main section story about a Brazilian mayor who is giving his constituents free Viagra.

Thanks for ABCNews.com for moving ahead with this project and, again, Sarah Bogaty at NPD for making it happen.

Some RAZR cut-ups

Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief at LAPTOP where I write the Portable Pundit column, gave me a heads-up today on a fun little RAZR spoof they’ve put on their site. My favorite is the “Electrick (sic) RAZR” because, after all, what guy couldn’t use a little touch-up just about the time free evening calling begins?

I had my own, less graphically interesting, fun with the pioneering sleek handset back in early 2005

What’s up Palm’s sleeve?

The “third business” that Palm has been working on was confirmed this week by CEO Ed Colligan in response to a question from its former VP of product planning Michael Mace. Several sites reporting on it keep bringing up this clue co-founder Jeff Hawkins left during an interview with the Portland Business Journal in 2005:

I always think of mobile computing as personal computing. This long-term vision has led us through everything — first the organizers and now through the smart phone space. It’s like everything a personal computer is. Continue down that path. What are the implications of a world where everyone has a super high-speed Internet connection in their pocket and many gigabytes of storage, super-fast processors, audio, visual and multimedia? What are the consequences of that? How will that change computing when you have all that stuff available to you all the time? I try to think into the future. That’s how we come up with new products. So I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it’s following the consequences of mobile computing.

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Vonage: the new AOL?

A few days before Jason Calacanis confirmed that he’s leaving AOL (the company that owns Engadget, where I write my weekly Switched On column) — and after trumpeting the “samurai” revolution he helped Jonathan Miller foment changing the online giant from a subscriptions-based service to an advertising-driven one – CNet’s Crave called the subsidization of  Circuit City’s impending $99 Black Friday Compaq notebook by a Vonage subscription a “novel twist.” Crave notes that such offers came from AOL years ago. It is a bit of an interesting ploy for a company that doesn’t have many (ok, at least one) direct ties to the PC.

It’s no wonder that Wall Street continues to have concerns about Vonage’s marketing expenditures. As AOL (of the dial-up subscription business model) and TiVo know, it is difficult to move the needle when you’re competing with entrenched service providers. At least TiVo had a significant head start and a great brand with customers who loved the product and AOL had a huge ease-of-use advantage in its best growth years.

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No small change for smallest cars

A bit off-topic, but when I last blogged about Smart USA, I asserted that the two-seat successor to the ForTwo wouldn’t be among the cheapest cars in the market. I’m not sure when it was posted, but Smart USA’s site now says that its debut automobile will now start for “under $15,000.”

According to CarsDirect, that’s significantly less than the Mini Cooper’s base MSRP of $18,000, but could be a bit over the Scion xA’s MSRP of $13,360 for the manual transmission model. (add $700 for automatic). It’s also way above the Toyota Yaris hatchback MSRP of $11,670 with manual transmission (add $900 for automatic). Want to favor Detroit with your entry-level purchase? Chevy’s ’07 Aveo sedan has an MSRP of 13,590, but stays under $14,000 with automatic transmission.

So, it seems Smart is going more for lifestyle marketing than value. Perhaps Toyota’s competitor will offer different tradeoffs.

Chaos in controls

In the days before Internet ubiquity, I remember a conversation with a friend of mine and an executive from one of the major consumer online services of the day about interoperability and musing how wonderful it would be if there were just one network. There was only one network, he huffed, and that was his. Well, unfortunately for those of us not using CompuServe, there’s no way for us to send e-mail or obtain online information these days.

The latest “One-Net” hails from semiconductor concern Threshold. It’s a low-cost, low-power, medium-range control scheme that will compete with ZigBee and Insteon, but for some reason ignores Z-Wave, which seems to be the market leader in terms of vendor support. Even though these standards are wireless and therefore by definition require less of an installation burden than some competing technologies, the home controls market remains something that requires way too much consumer navigation. The cost of infrastructure components — especially for basics such as lighting — is negligible compared to the cost of labor, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around that.

How long has this market been on the cusp of the mainstream? Well, at a dinner event around DigitalLife that included Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of PC Magazine, he noted that the first article he ever wrote was on home automation. That was in 1979!

From EETimes via Engadget