Car talk

After much on-again, off-again debate, CNNMoney cites a Detroit News story that DaimlerChrysler will bring its compact Smart cars over to the U.S. in 2007. We’ll be getting the “real” Smart car popular in Europe and Canada, the ForTwo, as the larger ForFour has been a financial disaster for the automaker.

I have mixed feelings about the Smart. Oh sure, it’s possibly even cuter than the Beetle or Mini and gets 60 mpg, but I’m not a fan of the two-tone swipe and — like ultracompact notebook PCs — it’s not inexpensive; Smart’s European configuration sites even offer leather interiors. Sure, it has great youth appeal for the hip urbanite, but most entry-level car buyers would likely gravitate to an offering like the Toyota Yaris, Chevy Aveo, or maybe even the better proportioned Scion xA.

In terms of iPod integration, two approaches recently surfaced that bring us back to the days of the CD or cassette player, allowing car owners to insert their iPods directly into their car stereos. Macsimumnews reports on DashJack, which is apparently developing an aftermarket head unit that can accommodate any dockable iPod. The company has filed a patent for its approach. Mitsubishi has also shown an in-dash slot (pictured) that would be able to accommodate an iPod nano in its funky Japan-only iCar (which actually resembles an elongated Smart).

caliberipod.gifOther manufacturers are offering alternatives. One of the most simple yet clever responses to portable MP3 players (and cell phones) I saw at the New York Auto Show a few months ago was inside the machismo-exuding Dodge Caliber. A panel on the adjustable center console flips forward to secure such a portable device in a rubber-lined compartment.

(Dis)Connexion

I thought we had gotten past the point where all Wi-Fi business models seemed doomed, but I find it odd that Boeing did not have more success with Connexion, its technology for delivering Wi-Fi in-flight. In particular, no US airline signed up for the service, which has reportedly lost a billion dollars in its six years of operation, and so may be grounded. I thought I had long ago won an argument with a former colleague about the availability of Internet access in planes, but perhaps he will have the last laugh.

One would think that a more creative approach to the service could have used it as a business class perk or frequent-flyer reward, allowing the proletariat in coach to purchase it a la carte. Well, at least being on a plane provides a closeup view of a cloud’s silver lining, and expected relaxation of clell phone usage on planes could open up the market for at least selective high-speed data. Hmmm, 3G clobbering Wi-Fi; maybe things aren’t so different at 30,000 feet.

Remix. The Ladies love it.

There aren't many bands about which I can say, "I knew them when…" even though I'm told that 10,000 Maniacs used to play a lot of local clubs when I was in college. In any case, I was a fan of Barenaked Ladies long before they hit it big and have remained impressed with their technology savvy. "BNL" offer MP3 downloads of their concert performances on their site, from which they also offered a flash drive album that sold out. Here's a great quote from band co-founder Steven Page's blog:

As I’ve said to friends, we can’t expect to tell our fans “see you in court” and then “see you at Massey Hall next fall” – we have to choose one, and I choose the latter.

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Apple sounds off on Boot Camp

Apple today expanded its "Get a Mac" campaign with three more amusing ads in which the Mac character gently jibes his anthropomorphized plaform rival."Work vs. Home" and especially "Out of the Box" (we're flattered) include great punch lines, although Macs now come with some heavyweight trialware of their own from Apple (iWork) and Microsoft (Office).

The weakest of the ads, though ("Touché"), is the most revealing. Apple is now advertising nationally that Macs can run Windows, elevating Boot Camp to more than just a technological curiosity and virtually assuring that it will address Vista compatibility in a timely fashion. Well, at least something about Vista stands to be timely.

In addition, greater numbers of Mac users using Windows means that one of the principal companies involved needs to step forward to support this configuration. Apple won't. Microsoft should.

Prismiq passes on

It looks like the big "clueless" consumer technology companies weren't the only ones who couldn't make the digital media receiver market work. Pioneer Prismiq, which PC Mag editor Bill Howard considered to have one of the best such products, is discontinuing all of its products, including the media player that won it Best of CES accolades in 2003. I'd always found its interface to be a bit raw and geeky, but such products were really ahead of their time and their functionality wasn't enticing enough to drive sales of standalone devices.

Furthermore, while the Prismiq media player may have been capable, many products in the category had simply abysmal interfaces, bringing down the whole category. The work going on now with DLNA should prove more useful to consumers in traditional consumer electronics categories.

eBook subsidization has limited potential

I'm quoted today in an MSNBC story regarding electronic books. I recently blogged that the iRex approach of targeting B2B applications was a better market introduction strategy than offering products such as the Sony Reader at retail, but this article raises the possibility of subsidizing the device's through the established subscription model for newspapers and magazines. That has more potential than, say, subsidizing MP3 players through subscription services such as Napster or Audible.

Still, while the electronic ink in this generation may offer a leap forward, it's a poor fit for colorful magazines or even newspapers, the static editions of which compare poorly in timeliness to the constantly updated Web. We'll need more mainstream wireless data usage before we see the dynamically changing stories in electronic newspapers such as those in the movie Minority Report.

Chaperone foils stupid kidnappers

It looks like Verizon Wireless will take the high road and not market Chaperone to paranoid parents as protection for children and instead focus more on monitoring and communication. Indeed, much of the child-location service focuses on even more high-minded purposes, such as increasing a comfort level so that kids get more exercise. However, while services like Chaperone have the edge over pioneers such as Whereify in reaching the mass market and the phone is clearly a device that is starting to become more popular among the "tween" set, Whereify service offers more protection, such as automatically sounding an alarm when its watch-like device's band is broken.

Ideally, it would be great to see something as small as the shoe receiver used in the Nike+iPod system be tied to a locator, but then again the last thing we want to encourage in those who prey upon kids is strip searches.

Video: it’s not just for cable anymore

Moving video — particularly high-quality video — around remains a difficult problem complicated by large file sizes, incompatible file formats, diverse sources and rights management issues. Last week at the DigitalLife Press Preview and other events, I met with several companies that see a bright future for more fluid exchange of this emotionally powerful content type.

  • Seagate sees video as a key medium to drive storage, from the big racks of hard drives used to store it on Internet servers to microdrives inside portable video players and the relatively untapped area of mobile digital video. Rights management issues will need to be worked out for this dream to become a reality.
  • Vongo. One of the favored competitors in the PC space, it offers a Netflix-like subscription without the queue as well as pay-per-view movies. Movies can be played on up to three PCs and the service is working on compatibility with Portable Media Center.
  • ITVN. This company offers set-top boxes somewhat similar to Akimbo and offers a number of packages, including adult content. It's still putting the pieces together in terms of how different video packages might work. It offers the Starz feed as Vongo does, but displays it on a television without any Media Center machinations.

So, there are signs of progress, but it's still early. While ITVN and Vongo charge for their content, Apple faces a tougher battle here that it has with music because it's carrying a lot of content that people really do expect to be free.

When past isn’t prelude

The paradox in this Next Generation reference to a Dean Takahashi blogged interview with SCE’s Kaz Hirai is to hear representatives of two titans focusing on such a forward-looking industry look so far into the past. Hirai defends his E3 comments that the next generation begins when Sony says it does by noting that the PlayStation 2 beat the Dreamcast even though the latter launched first. Contrasted with that is a Steve Ballmer comment that the first console to reach 10 million units has wound up becoming the volume leader “in every other generation.”

There are doubtless still several tricks up the PlayStation 3’s sleeve, but recounting the Dreamcast victory shouldn’t be of much comfort. Sega had been trying to come back from the poor showing of the Saturn and simply lacked the war chest that Microsoft has; furthermore, price stratification in previous generations was not as pronounced as it is today. Besides, before the launch of the PlayStation 2, no company had ever dominated successive generations of consoles, so Sony should understand that precedents have their limitations.

On the other hand, the power of market share is more of an economic constant, and there’s no disputing that both Nintendo and Sony will have much catching up to do this fall; both have discussed selling 6 million consoles by 2007, but Microsoft will have some polished titles of their own in the channel this holiday season.

Booking business

Despite the advantages of electronic ink, eBooks have a long road ahead of them. Engadget reports that iRex, a Philips spinoff, has announced that it will soon start rolling out its iLiad eBook to B2B customers in Europe, which seems like a smoother launch strategy than what Sony has planned for the Sony Reader. Businesses have millions of documents well-suited for distribution with electronic books. This kind of utility argument is much more difficult to make to consumers, and, as CNet notes, Sony still has shown no signs of getting its Connect act together.