Beam me up… to the highest price

Much like digital cameras have, in the opinion of some, now reached beyond the quality of their forebears, Slim Devices — a pioneer of the audio-focused digital media receiver — is attempting to surpass the finest of compact disc players with the Transporter. At nearly $2,000, the “no compromises” receiver is the first component rack form factor since Turtle Beach’s once best-in-class but now discontinued AudioTron. (Slim Devices has bought the Google AdWord “AudioTron.”) My favorite feature, at least on paper, is its “clever knob,” which sounds a bit like a British schoolboy insult.

It’s good to see nimble Slim Devices continuing to innovate now that the category has attracted the likes of Sony and its CPF-IX001 2.1 wireless streaming system. The Wi-Fi streamer lacks the expansive display of the Squeezebox, but integrates some powerful compact speakers. There’s also low-end competition from Philips’ SLA 5520, its’ $99 digital audio adapter.

Portable Xbox could be media-free

With the Zune announcement today came much speculation that the company that used to be known for powering other company’s devices is working on a portable game system. This would likely be somethng at least as robust as the PSP, the weakest link of which is the UMD distribution system. With Bill Gates having decried physical distribution, now would be an ideal opportunity to distribute games the way Zune would distribute other forms of media. Such a radical move would cause retailer revolt, but it could also pave the way for a much sleeker portable gaming system that offered a great user experience in terms of the flexibility to carry along a wide variety of games in flash or a an entire catalog on a hard disk.

Zune exploits the iPod’s weaknesses

Microsoft officially announced Zune today and, despite some assurance that Playsforsure will continue — the message to its hardware partners couldn’t be more negative: do as I do, not as I say. I can only imagine what implications this may have on other Microsoft platforms. What if Microsoft isn’t satisfied with its smart phone market share? Will it provide its own? And Napster and the like won’t be the only ones feeling the heat of competition. What about MSN Music? Does it support the home team or the new castoffs?

In any case, in addition to the dubious headline-grabbing strategy of buying out the music purchases of iTMS customers, Microsoft is going after two areas where Apple has not pushed forward -Wi-Fi and recommendations. Yes, the iTunes Music Store has a variety of ways to discover music, such as iMixes and it’s “Just for you” recommendation engine, but the sum of it isn’t as effective as the recommendation engine on even, say, Yahoo! Music. I’m a bit skeptical of community recommendations like the kind Microsoft is promising, but they’re more effective if they’re explicit rather than implicit.

As a way of transferring music, Wi-Fi has some convenience advantages, but the intereting application comes from music sharing. The nut here is that the users will have to have music subscriptions — still a tough sell — for this to be effective.

Clean Flicks vs. ClearPlay

ClearPlay CEO Bill Aho has written an informative open letter on why his company survived copyright infringement scrutiny for cleaning up the naughty bits of DVDs while DVD redistributors Clean Flicks and Clear Pictures did not. I am not a copyright attorney, but while I’m generally aligned with most CEA initiatives in terms of protecting innovation at the risk of copyright infringement, the argument that the DVD distributors produced derivative works gels with common sense.

Microsoft musical musings

Make no mistake. Microsoft can do hardware right, and its list of PC hardware innovations and successes is long if imperfect. (CNet has a surface-skimming retrospective that includes the fictional iLoo, a subject of some elaborate toilet humor. It should be noted, though, that MSN TV actually uses RCA-branded hardware.)

There’s also no disputing that there’s room for innovation in the portable media player market, but it sure doesn’t sound as if the company has anything up its sleeve dramatically more compelling than what its partners have developed, or the iPod for that matter. Count me among those who think this will do more to hurt Microsoft’s hardware partners than Apple. And Microsoft would have to cap the alleged reimbursement on songs purchased through iTunes. For heavy iTunes users, such compensation could certainly exceed the price of the player. My colleague is more sanguine.

The best thing Microsoft could do with its player would be to introduce a slew of accessories that no other Playsforsure device has been able to muster because none have reached critical mass — speaker docks, car chargers and integration kits and the like. Microsoft’s hardware partners have been talking about the need for a dock connector to compete with Apple’s for a long time and are apparently working with CEA to make it happen, but such a standard has still not surfaced. Microsoft could jump start that with its own player.

There’s anothing thing it could do that might make a difference — advertise it on television a lot.

NV7 targets the fundamentals

Samsung’s new NV line is easily the most serious attempt by the consumer electronics giant to crack the crowded space atop the digital camera market share heap, but it may be “too much too late.” The NV7, at roughly $450, is a technology tour de force, featuring 7 MP resolution, 7x optical zoom, requisite German optical partner lens and multiple image stabilization techniques all in a package well under an inch thick. It also has a new user interface.

The NV3 seems less interesting with a more standard 3x optical zoon and a more gimmicky integrated media player.

It will be very interesting to see how the digital photography review sites rate these.

Chumming up the ‘Works

A recent Gamasutra feature discusses how GameWorks, the arcade chain that Sega acquired from Vulcan Ventures, will be developed by its new owner Sega. Arcades have been hit hard as each successive generation of home consoles has surpassed the graphics of most of the machines in these once hallowed halls. Among Sega’s remedies are adding sports bars and grills, which sounds similar to the Dave & Buster’s concept, and group sales.

At least the former seems to have potential, although it’s no guarantee. Dave & Buster’s purchased its rival Jillian’s mall assets out of bankruptcy in late 2004. Arcade games make more sense these days as a differentiator; they’re not the star attraction and won’t be until they are rethought. The whole notion of what an arcade is really needs to change to survive, with far more of a focus on social gaming that goes beyond anonymous rows of linked racing games. My ATM does more to customize the experience for me than any arcade game I’ve ever played.

One quote illustrates the challenge that the high-definition home theater poses:

[I]t’s now starting to be back to having an appeal, starting to see some of that impact back on the arcade-side where you can’t play in front of a 52-inch screen and have all of the very vibrant color and animation that’s part of it – you can’t just do that at home.

I’d say that the folks at Texas Instruments developing DLP chips would beg to differ.

Checkout the hype

CNet continues to devour news about Google Checkout — the search juggernaut’s entry into the electronic wallet craze that fizzled during the (first) bubble — the way Takeru Kobayashi devours hot dogs. Originally considered so much of a threat to eBay’s PayPal that it sent the auction giant running into the embrace of its vanquished auction rival Yahoo!, it turns out that Google Checkout is another attempt to launch a service like Microsoft’s Passport.

CNet blogger and veteran technology journalist Rafe Needleman calls Google Checkout “Amazon’s worst nightmare,” but I think Rafe may be indulging in a bit of hyperbole, to say the least. Let’s see Google line up more than a handful of vendors before we lay the tombstone on Amazon’s grave. Amazon has won customers through great customer service, not by accepting unknown payment schemes.

While the CNet piece offers several explanations as to why Passport (and the reactionary yet equally ineffective Liberty Alliance that it spawned) failed, it overlooks the major competition with far more trust than any technology brand — credit cards. These continue to be the dominant way people pay for things online. No, they aren’t hassle-free, but they’re nearly universal and most consumers already have them.

Out of the Box is now three months old

Since I didn’t post last week, I neglected to notice that this blog is now three months old, with 52 posts in that time, an average of roughly one every other day.

You can’t keep a questionable idea down

Even after the passing of Prismiq, companies continue the quest to get audio from heyah to theyah inside the home. Philips, the most aggressive mainstream consumer electronics company in producing actual home networking products (as opposed to grand visions) is releasing the $99 Streamium digital media adapter, based on 802.11g.

The price point for the compact unit is a fraction of what previous DMAs have sold for, but consider that many consumers would want to connect this to some inexpensive boombox or shelf system in a bedroom. In addition, the perceived lack of need and complexity of home networking looms larger in keeping this market in a niche than price.

SoundCast is rolling out its iCast product, which uses low-bandwidth network-sniffing technology to avoid interference and is such interoperable with Wi-Fi. It actually sounds similar to the PlayLink cubes introduced by Logitech last year, which more flexibly served as an Ethernet bridge. The iCast’s Achilles heel is that, like AirPort Express, there’s no local control of the source audio.