Widget fonder

From TechBlog via Gizmodo comes news of what was apparently once called the “Widget Clock Infobot” but is now the Emtrace WidgetStation, a “Station” that may be even harder to find than another this holiday season. It joins the embryonic category of the push-based Internet appliance, joining products such as those from Ambient, such as the Google Calendar clock concept, and Chumby. I suspect we’ll see major names drop into this space in 2008. While the product doesn’t seem far beyond the concept stage at this point, one thing I already like about it is that it can retrieve information from a PC over a home network. That said, I’m not necessarily sold on the need for two screens, particularly a monochrome one.

My Today show appearance

Thanks to a great effort by Sarah Bogaty of NPD’s PR team, I appeared on the Today show earlier this week talking about Microsoft as the “tenacious” competitor to Apple in the digital audio player market.

It was a different experience from the cable news that I’ve done in the past. But while I didn’t get to meet Matt, Meredith or Al, I was interviewed by Peter Alexander and did learn a lot about lighting. My sound bite was about eight seconds, and I’ve been amazed at the number of folks that I’ve met only once or knew long, long ago who contacted me to confirm that it was really me. (It was.)

What can brown do for you?

My weekly Switched On column at Engadget discusses whether Microsoft sought elegance in developing its answer to the iPod. One point I take Microsoft to task on is continuing to push the subscription model. Sure, Zune Marketplace offers a la carte downloads as well, but so do practically every other subscription site. The downloads are there to placate would be iTunes store downloaders, but the companies really want consumers to sign up. Regardless of their value, and there is some, I think that even mentioning music subscriptions is a big turnoff for a lot of consumers.

On the other hand, perhaps Microsoft is building its own service suite. Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live for $25/month could appeal to a younger digital entertainment addict.

No Universal generosity on Zune sales

Today Microsoft and Universal announced that Microsoft will offer a share of portion of Zune hardware sales with Universal Music Group, which will in turn presumably share a portion of this revenue with its artists. Microsoft has also openly extended the offer to other labels and, considering it already has the majors lined up for launch, it sounds like an offer that they can’t refuse.

No terms of the deal are disclosed, of course, but unless the labels are eager to change practices that have earned the outrage of artists, consumers have good reason to question how much of their Wi-Fi-enabling wampum will end up on the arms of artists, especially emerging artists who could use it most.

If consumers want to boost their conscience by buying a digital music player this holiday season, there’s a far more direct route.

Packing your Mac

MacCentral has a useful tutorial on using portable applications on a Mac, a process complicated a bit by the Intel transition. To maximize the chances of your applications working with another OS X-based Mac at full speed, you’ll want the universal version of the program if it’s avaiable. In general, there’s a decent suite of Internet-friendly open source programs, including VLC as the media player. The piece also includes some helpful hints and cautionary advice about the dangers of keeping personal data on an easily lost flash drive; some of these are quite tiny these days.

I can see how this kind of functionality might be useful in, say, a lab or campus environment and perhaps even more generally for Windows-based solutions such as the slick MojoPac where you have a better shot of encountering such a PC in the wild. However, how often does the average person who wants to, say, access the Internet with a portable version of Firefox come across a connected computer with a free, accessible USB port and which allows the running of unauthorized applications?

Unplug and play videogames

Plug and play videogames — starting with the Atari 2600 game pack in a facsimile controller popularized by Jakks Pacific a few years back — have become a phenomenon. Games integrated into controllers have resurrected many classic game collections from Activision, Konami, Sega, Intellivision and Namco to name a few. The controllers have also progressed far beyond retro to highlight primarily kids’ media properties such as Marvel and DC Comics heroes as well as Spongebob Squarepants.

As an Intellviision fan, I was a bit disappointed with the plug-and-play units despite their strong sales, although the second generation offering includes a decent edition of Deadly Discs, one of my favorite games for the original console. At last year’s E3, I spoke with Blue Sky Ranger Keith Robinson about doing an Intellivision version of something like the Atari Flashback 2. Keith told me that he would love to do it and that an engineer has it ready to go, but it’s all about making the business case.

The new generation of these devices, though, have integrated LCDs so you can play them on the go without the television. Retro brand Coleco currently has several of these at Target, and Performance Designed Products is expanding its VGPocket line to include a few products downmarket from the VGPocket Max that’s recently been price-reduced at Radio Shack. In addition to two Disney-themed products, the Tablet ($29.99) and Caplet ($39.99) will include 25 and 35 games respectively and both can connect to a TV for big-screen viewing Each also has some classic arcade games included. I’m looking forward to trying

Even low-end products eventually go mobile, and these products are good enough to give a Game Boy Micro a run for its money. It will be very interesting to see what Nintendo has up its sleeve for that franchise after the Wii dust settles next year.

What’s part of the smart?

While at least some of its coverage seems to urge “smartphones later,” CrunchGear’s Smartphones Now series recently posted a tabletastic first-time buyers’ guide. While the site admits that there’s “no official definition” for smartphones, it notes that these handsets are, generally speaking, “a combination of a cellphone and PDA.”

Yet, in its guide, the site notes that it’s omitting Blackberries and Sidekicks as they are “communicators” even though two posts earlier it includes the Blackberry Pearl in the “Smartphones Now” series. How can the industry resolve all this? It may not be perfect, but I like the idea of defining a smartphone as one that has an operating system that enables users to install their own applications outside of those offered by the carrier in the case of proprietary OSes such as the one the Sidekick uses. Under that definition, the Blackberry would be a smartphone. 

Portable GPS form vs. function

While pricey, Garmin’s nuvi portable navigation devices have been a big hit for the company, so much so that it’s attracting interest from other Mio-Tech with products such as the H610, another “crossover” device that combines pocket-sized portability with turn-by-turn directions. It’s usually hard to say no to smaller and the H610 looks like a nice blend.

However, are turn-by-turn directions really the right target for a handheld product that better addresses the urban jungle than a forest trail? Wouldn’t it be great to have a product that let you know about shortcuts through parks and other places where no vehicle (at least one with a sober driver) would dare tread? Alas, I doubt the city navigator market will be large enough for many years to create a whole new navigation system designed for pedestrians. However, I’d settle for an integrated version of HopStop.

UMPC ’07: Practical and tactical

Via Handtops.com, which seems to have transitioned to a user-generated blog (nice work if you can avoid it) comes a post about some of the next-generation UMPCs they showed a while back at IDF. The model pictured to the right feels like a cross between a messenger bag and a One Laptop Per Child prototype. Yes, the keyboard is a welcome addition for actually getting something done with a UMPC (note to Intel and Microsoft: don’t forget that even small PCs can be productive and not just glorified portable video players). However, how is this different from an utraportable such as Fujitsu’s LifeBook series? Because it has a removable screen? Well, if I can get this thing for $500 and it has more than five hours of battery life, I really won’t care.

 On the other hand, this little guy with the 5″ screen captured by TGDaily could be the big brother of one of those Samsung DMB handsets from Korea, but its family tree is even stranger, being a collaboration between Intel and Yahoo! as a platform for its Go! strategy. I’ve written before about how Yahoo! should embrace native client platforms better with Go! instead of embracing niche platforms such as this one and the Meedio platform that it picked up last year. Even Yahoo! can’t help the Web drive device categories before they are ready.

Cozying up to Cozi

The last time I saw a company attempt a “family organizer,” it was a sub-$150 bulky hardware device that didn’t make many inroads. Now a startup called Cozi is attacking the same problem. Using the power of the Web and wireless connections, though, its free software, called Cozi Central, has potential. Essentially, different family members sign up (or are signed up) under a single account and can check shared resources such as calendars and grocery lists. Family members can also leave notes for each other.

The software’s user interface is approachable without being simplistic, and its collage screensaver, while far from visually stunning, is also nicely presented. One must-have missing feature that I expect we’ll see soon, though, is contacts. This is critical for tracking kids’ friends, emergency numbers, restaurants and so forth.