Switched On turns two

Today, Engadget posted my 102nd Switched On column on how Microsoft would benefit from its own retail showcase, which arrived on the second anniversary of my writing for the phenomenally successful gadget blog. Ryan Block was kind enough to write a congratulatory post listing all my previous columns. I think the experiment we tried has worked really well, and working with Peter Rojas and Ryan has been a great experience. I’m also grateful to NPD for allowing me the flexibility to contribute to Engadget.

The network is the disputer

I just moderated my panel at Digital Hollywood on entertainment in the digital home and was struck by how different the tenor of the mood was than on the panel with the same title that I moderated a few months ago at Building Blocks in San Jose. Whereas that event was starry-eyed over the promise of 802.11n — an optimism that carried through to DigitalLife — at least one panelist today asserted that consumers will not create home networks to move media around the home. There was also discussion of the pain vs. the gain of home networking and the level of technical knowledge stil required.

This led me to pose to the panel what the need is for the networked home, the future of which we often take for granted. If service providers can get you all the video and music you need, the missing link is only your own content. And many consumers would be satisfied with a simple wireless link from their digital cameras for that. This all runs counter to the conventional wisdom that photos — without any DRM — are the “easy” stuff, and music and Hollywood video content is the “hard” stuff.

After my panel, I caught up with a charming friend and former colleague who wondered aloud whether we have finally reached “convergence” as defined as a marriage of the PC and television (not the definition I’m using these days, incidentally). For the most part, I think we have. Certainly from a hardware perspective, devices such as TiVo, HD-DVD players and advanced set-top boxes are essentially PCs inside. We’re also seeing TV shows streamed or sold to the PC. Television programming itself has not become interactive (yet), but modern-day EPG and input-switching interfaces — to say nothing of network interfaces such as those in HP’s MediaSmart televisions — exemplify computing.

A Web PIM that’s not dim

In the early ’90s, I wrote reviews for MacWEEK magazine; it was the tail end of what I’d consider the golden age of Mac software; there were lots of fresh approaches to tasks. I reviewed many interesting personal information managers. In addition to the staples of the day — Now Up-to-Date and Now Contact — I evaluated organizational tools such as Rae Assist, Chena Software’s InfoDepot, Common Knowledge’s Arrange, and Attain’s In Control, the latter two of which were among my favorites — really useful products.

Unfortunately, none of those companies made it. Perhaps they would have done better in this age of Internet distribution and Apple stores. I still miss In Control, which elegantly combined an outliner with a spreadsheet. The Omni Group’s OmniOutliner looks like a terrific, and perhaps even superior, modern-day implementation for Mac OS X that even has a free (as in beer) version available. I haven’t seen anything like it for Windows.

So, I don’t get too excited when I see AJAX applications come close to approximating the functionality of desktop software but not demonstrate much rethinking of personal organization. It seems that’s all about to change with Scrybe, which, from its first video preview, blows the banners off other online calendars and seems more fluid than any desktop calendar I’ve ever seen. It also has a terrific approach to Web information gathering.

Going far beyond their self-proclaimed holy grail of offline browser-based access, Scrybe’s developers have thought through information management so well that they’ve incorporated specialized paper printouts for on-the-go pocket information. Indeed, this was an early key feature of DynoDEX, an early Mac address book that printed out pages compatible with popular paper-based organizers years before Palm Computing introduced its first digital one. It will be interesting to see how far they take unstructured data. Here’s a tip for them, though: add columns to Scrybe’s lists, like In Control did. It expands their usefulness exponentially.

Scrybe’s next video will focus on its collaboration features; this could get viral very quickly. I can’t believe I’m excited about a Web calendar.

IE7 released

Microsoft has finally graced Windows XP users with Internet Explorer 7. While it’s redesign isn’t as severe as the one planned for Office 2007, it’s certainly a taste I haven’t acquired yet, even after playing around with it in Vista. At least the XP version doesn’t break some implementations of Outlook Web Access.

The positive additions include a tabbed interface and a good one. I particularly like how you can add a new tab by clicking a blank one and the “Expose-like” “Quick Tabs” button (although it shouldn’t be a tab itself). There’s also an integrated feed reader with auto-discovery and an integrated search bar that has arrived too late for me to dump the Google Toolbar.

Overall, a lot of these features are playing catch-up to Firefox and Safari. For newbies, there’s a host of security improvements designed to overcome the design flaws of the popular ActiveX and anti-phishing technology, but the former often gets in the way and the latter to slows down browsing. Wouldst that Microsoft would see the error of ActiveX’s ways and find a way to retire its support gracefully.

In terms of questionable UI changes, Microsoft now hides the menu bar by default, and activating it puts it below the unmoveable address bar; I seem to remember someone mentioning that Microsoft wanted the address bar to be long to provide more clues as to a site’s authenticity; URLs are now displayed atop popup wndows. In any case, there doesn’t seem to be a way to put it under the window title bar where it “belongs.” Alas, as someone who uses Outlook Web Access a lot and depends on IE’s Search feature that isn’t supported in other browsers, I will have to get used to it.

Look out, Sonos

Today’s announcement that Logitech has acquired Slim Devices (about which I’ve written a post and column) serves as a reminder of how well the PC peripherals giant with the eclectic product portfolio has done at conquering markets from the high end (mice, speakers and remote controls) and staving off Microsoft, which, in addition to its raw market power, produces excellent keyboards and mice.

In my talks with Sonos, which today produces the gold standard for wirelessly networked digital music systems, the company has dismissed competition from traditional consumer electronics companies, but Logitech is not a company that rests on its laurels (or even its keyboards’ wrist rests). The portfolio of home media ingredients it now has is impressive, including its sleek DRM-sidestepping Wireless DJ Music System, its premium PC speaker line, Harmony remote controls, and now Slim Devices product. The top two portable digital players are produced by companies that no one would have speculated would lead the category; Logitech is looking like a stronger bet to bring multi-room digital music to the (moderately affluent, PC-savvy) masses.

CableCard: The ready vs. the willing

Long in development, CableCard was the great compromise between the consumer electronics and cable industries that would provide higher picture quality and easier setup. However, the initial standard supported only unidirectional transmissions. That took away the ability for customers to order video-on-demand or DVR services from cable operators, which not surprisingly did little to promote the interface. An expensive addition, TV makers have abandoned it in droves, and now typically feature it only on their most expensive or highest-margin sets.

Next year, though, CableCard will see renewed interest from a host of companies gunning to be the next set-top, continuing the steps that TiVo has taken with Series 3. Microsoft will support CableCard via an add-on for Media Center PCs, and Digeo plans to bring them to retail with its Moxi Media Center. The downside is that, for a while out of the gate anyway, video captured via CableCard will have all the flexibility of video captured via a DVR, that is, none. You won’t be able to stream it to another room or sideload it to a portable video player as Dish Network can with its PocketDish system.

CableCard may be imperfect, but it sure beats stringing infrared blasters everywhere, captures great video quality, and will be with us for at least a few years before it is superseded by DCAS, the software-based system for conditional access.

Bits vs. the box

Today Intel announced that it will offer a $1 million bounty for coming up with a sexy box to drive living room acceptance of the PC. The chip developer should save its money. Are cable set-top boxes sexy? Are most DVD players? They’ve found acceptance because they have compelling functionality, something that living room PCs currently lack. Intel would do better to use its prize money for a developer that can come up with a killer application for home theater PCs. If consumers want that functionality, the likes of Sony are up to the task of putting it in a good-looking case. Shuttle is already creating some nice form factors for the living room.

This misplaced focus on hardware reminds me of the sharing functionality Microsoft is pushing with Zune. If you think its system of trial sharing has any merit, hardware is the wrong place to do it It will take a long time before the Zune installed base is large enough so that such sharing is commonplace (think of kids playing Game Boy games against each other). Why not do this with software? Software is so much easier to distribute virally and Napster.com has shown that the labels will agree to a couple of free listens online. Once the songs were zipping among copies of the Zune companion program, then Microsoft could use the hardware to extend that sharing.

DEMOlicious

The DEMO Fall conference lineup looks like one of the strongest I have seen in a long time for consumer technology, especially for hardware. Dash Navigation is bringing innovation to the portable navigation device segment while RingCube’s Mojopac is taking the “virtual PC on a flash drive” (they actually favor hard drives) segment beyond what we’ve seen from U3, Ceedo and Migo. I can’t wait to see the Headplay display. Mvox brings the Bluetooth headset even more independence. Presto is looking to do for photo printing what Ceiva has tried for photo display, although the company really needs a smaller 4″ X 6″ printer offering. Even nComputing has a long-term consumer play.

JaJah, Pinger and GrandCentral are debuting some interesting voice applications (ah, so that’s what you can use a cell phone for?), the latter has the potential to be the first mass-market “universal messaging” service. And Scrapblog and Cozi are targeting the memory and appointment keepers.

Re-VIIV-al

With much discussion regarding Intel’s continued downsizing potentially affecting the VIIV initiative, it’s becoming increasingly important for the chip manufacturer to articulate what VIIV’s value is. With today’s announcement of Netgear’s VIIV-certified Digital Entertainer, it’s a bit more clear that VIIV is a certification somewhat akin to THX. However, VIIV does not guarantee quality of experience, so perhaps a better analogy is the Wi-Fi Alliance certificaiton, but more concerned with what happens within the PC. If that’s the case, VIIV may compete for consumer mindshare with DLNA.

No terms of endearment

Via Scobleizer comes this Uninnovate indictment of Amazon Unbox. The author’s first two points highlight obvious deficiencies of Amazon’s offerings; his last point spells out the service’s unusually restrictive (in terms of what you can’t opt out of) terms of service. Most of these terms are often developed so that companies reserve the right to do things they may never do, but agreement to them still seems onerous for the convenience of digital downloading.