eMusic is still a tough sell

With all the focus on the Napster glasnost and Urge as part of the revamped Wndows Media troika, there's been a lot of discussion on the "closed" nature of iTunes Music Store and how it is the only online iPod-compatible store for music. This has never been the case. Long before the iTunes Music Store and even the iPod were launched, eMusic.com was selling DRM-free music in the nearly universally supported MP3 format. The downside has been that it hasn't been able to attract content from major — or even, it seems, many independent — labels.

I checked out the site for the first time in a while tonight. The layout is clean and easy to navigate, but I had a hard time finding much music I like and the site isn't helping itself posting AMG reviews that say things like this regarding Todd Rundgren And His Friends:

As well-intentioned as this was meant to be, it really doesn't add much to his catalog and essentially just gives session players like Steve Lukather and Kulick's brother, Bruce, a showcase for their talents. But they have already proven their worth on their own recordings, making this a non-essential item for all but dedicated Rundgren collectors.

Editorial integrity is one thing, but you'd never see such a damning review on Amazon.com. Worse, eMusic combines some of the worst of both worlds in charging a subscription fee for a limited number of downloads! In eMusic's defense, those downloads can be used practically anywhere digital music can be played, with no limits on the number of machines on which they can be used. Furthermore, unlike with services such as Napster, the songs won't expire if you cancel your subscription. Still, there's no way I could find enough content on the service to justify a subscription (although I admit I'm not a big fan of live music which is featured heavily), and that would certainly be true for more discriminating consumers.

As usual, some of the gems seem to be among unsigned artists but, if that's your bag, you're better off surfing garageband.com or cdbaby.com.

The new wearables

Depicting cell phones and digital cameras small enough to be worn like overgrown pendants have long been a marketing ploy by technology vendors even though consumers rarely carry them that way. Perhaps they have all striven to escape the "pocket prison" — that valuable real estate that can accommodate only one or two mobile devices. As exercise accessories, we've certainly seen many armbands that can accommodate bantam devices like the lightweight iPod Shuffle or iPod nano (or even their less bantam CD and portable tape playing forebears), but again it is pretty rare to see people wearing these devices outside of a gym or running track.

However, two new technology advances showcased this week show that we are indeed on the precipice of infiltrating technology into the everday. The Nike+Apple Sport Kit is an inexpensive accessory for athletic shoes that sell for as little as $85 while the Abacus 2006 watch appears to be the first one with Microsoft's SPOT technology that isn't conspicuously thick. MSN Direct has other obstacles, such as competing with increasingly savvy cell phones and building a subscription business, but both products represent fresh approaches to data-enabling formerly dumb devices.

Urge’s media is the message

Now that MTV Networks' Urge service is available, consumers will decide whether all of MTV's programming and context will drive them to a subscription model. Because of the editorial intelligence embedded into the service, Urge does an excellent job of enabling music exploration, an area where the iTunes Music Store continues to lag badly. One thing is certain: Windows Media Player 11 is a huge improvement over the previous version and presents music more graphically than iTunes. However, the iRiver clix, while one of the better digital media players from the WMA camp, is no iPod nano killer.

If you're among those who believe that Apple's success in the digital music space has bee due to aggressive advertising and promotion, Urge should certainly give Apple cause for concern as MTV Networks can promote its service around the clock on television for practically nothing.

Mac back in black

Apple yesterday rounded out its portable lineup with the 13" widescreen MacBook, replacing both previous iBooks and the 12" PowerBook, Apple would have benefitted on the low end from a Core Solo procesor in the $799 range. Still, going widescreen will be a huge boon for the most portable of MacBooks and the black exterior — which will be the first for a Mac since the PowerBook G3s — should attract Mac businesspeople concerned that white is a bit too "consumerish." There was simply too little separating the iBook from the PowerBook in the 12" size. iSight and MagSafe will also be welcome additions.

Now the only thing Apple really needs in its portable lineup is wide-area wireless.

Making Wii appeal to us

With Sony's pricing the focus of so much debate at E3, relatively little attention has been paid to the pricing of Nintendo's Wii and its unique (yes, even in spite of Sony's motion-sensing PS3 controller) controller. Some have speculated that Nintendo may sell Wii for under $250 — well below popular configurations of its next-generation rivals — but Nintendo is still mum on the price, for now saying only that it will deliver "more fun for less money."

Assuming that Nintendo could sell Wii for $250 profitably, I'd suggest a $299 bundle that included the casual Wii Sports game shown at its media event and a second Wii Remote controller. Part of the appeal of early consoles was how easily they facilitated family play by including a second controller. Wii Sports nicely highlights the controller's versatility and interaction model and would not cannibalize any league-licensed sports offerings from, say, EA.

Discussing this idea with friends at E3 led to the trivia question of which US console was first to ship with only one controller. I now think it was NEC's ill-fated Turbo Grafx 16. The system lacked a second bundled controller partially because it had only one controller port. For even two to play, one needed to purchase the five-player TurboTap accessory.

Kinder, gentler Macintosh commercials

Apple's come a long way from the insecure militant definsiveness that characterized the days of Guy Kawasaki's EvangeList mailing list. It's switcher campaign of several years ago was generally viewed as having mixed results. Apple put a human face on the Mac vs. PC debate, but the implication that those who hadn't made the switch were somehow still putting up with inferior technology left a bad taste in many PC users' mouths.

Apple's new commercials now personify the computers themselves. The "PC" (which looks a bit like a Bill Gates who's let himself go) is generally dressed in a suit or sport jacket while the "Mac" is an unapologetic, slightly scruffy hipster. The two generally seem to get along and even hold hands in one ad. Most derision of the PC is done as the kind of playful teasing that would occur between two friends. An iLife ad shows that iPods and iTunes can work with Windows, but doesn't make the case that they work better on a Mac (and they do, due to AppleScript and iLife integration).

In any case, the friendly ribbing approach works well for Apple to take in these days when its computers can run Windows and of course is well-timed as the company takes advantage of Windows Vista's delay. Vista would address several of the PC deficiencies addressed in the commercials.

Why more important than “Wii”

There's been much negative reaction to Nintendo's name for the console formerly code-named Revolution. It may be the company's highest-concept name ever. Apart from a fair amount of mispronunciation that Nintendo concedes that the console will receive, though, the literal name of this game is not the figurative one.

Nintendo has been hammering home that the name is consistent with the console's backward compatibility and controller design that will broaden its appeal beyond the core console "fanboy." After all, "GameCube," while perhaps not inspiring, could not have been more descriptive, and that didn't help Nintendo escape a distant third place in the home console market.

The problem has been that, far too often, Nintendo's definition of inclusion often reverts to the lowest common denominator of its kiddie core audience and those nostalgic to relive their days in it. Nintendo has proven adept at furthering its platforms' agendas with its first-party titles, such has been the case with the varied input methods of the Nintendo DS. But it also tends to fall back to the easy money of its franchises, and it will need to move beyond that to become truly inclusive.

Now you can spell it “Napstr”

Napster today announced a free tier of service that enables consumers to listen to a song five times before asking them to pony up for the subscription service. This will go a long way to boosting Napster's mindshare. Indeed, while much attention has been focused on which company will be the Flickr of video, Napster now has an opportunity to become a sort of Flickr for music, that is, a blog-friendly (if not yet tag-friendly) resource that enables consumers to share music in a legal way that embraces the spirit of its original namesake; this has groundbreaking promotional value.

Its new free service not only steals much of the thunder from Yahoo! Music as a source for sampling, but one-ups that service with easy Web accessibility and even Mac support. Alas, though, Napster needs to close the gap between its limited free service and its full service. Creating even one middle tier of service that lacked downloads to portable devices — useless to most of the market at this point anyway — would help reinforce the psychological groundwork that Napster is now laying with its advertising and free access, that you can enjoy access to on-demand music without having to own it.

Yahoo!’s fourth screen is Google’s radar

Earlier this week, Yahoo! acquired most of the assets of Meedio, one of a handful of Windows Media Center-like software products that had its roots in open-source. The other major Windows-based products are from SageTV and Media Center predecessor SnapStream, with Linux offerings MythTV and Freevo still options for the open source crowd. Whereas Medio had become a commercial product, Yahoo! will give away its rebranded version Yahoo Go!.

Following last year's acquisition of Konfabulator technology — now called Yahoo! Widgets, Yahoo! now has platforms in place for each of the major "three screens" of TV, PC and mobile phone. However, even though Yahoo!'s acquisition strategy has created a predictably disjointed family of products, the diversity of the products demonstrates the tremendous differences in context that media companies will face developing a three-screen strategy.

In these times when Google has been aggressively adding many sites that rival Yahoo!'s, Meedio's acquisition provides fresh fuel for the old rumor that Google would acquire TiVo. Unlike Meedio, which is still simply Windows software, TiVo has actual eyeballs in front of the glass it commands, and Google could afford the kind of generosity that would eliminate its odious monthly fee, boosting TiVo's popularity. EPIC may not be far away.

And then there were less than Digital 5

Mediabolic acquired Digital 5 today, bringing inevitable consolidation of the home networking middleware market. Digital 5 had actually powered many of the early "connected DVD" players as well as the NetGear networked music player, but such products were beyond the home networking state of too many consumers' homes. Competitors remain, however, including Fabrik, the software behind the recently released Maxtor Fusion NAS drive from Seagate, and Implicit Networks, which developed the server software for the Acoustic Research MediaBridge digital media receiver.

Mediabolic has made good inroads with Intel and some of the networked storage vendors. It now needs to make more inroads with mainstream consumer electronics companies. At CES, DLNA was encouraging these giants to look more seriously at home networking than they ever have. That's a good climate for Mediabolic business development.