Chumby One becomes a hard-edged clock stalker

imagePioneering gadget site-turned-blog The Gadgeteer reports that — following in the footsteps of such tech products as the TomTom One, the Gateway One, and the Acer Aspire One — Chumby Industries will release the second generation of its hacker toy-turned-widget playback device, the Chumby One. Selling for about $100, the revamped device has a far more modern appearance, albeit one that says more “kitchen” to me than bedroom.” In fact, I had been thinking of duplicating my iPod touch kitchen setup on my nightstand.

It will be interesting to see what changes Chumby makes in the name of role optimization. For example, the protuberance on its right side may be some kind of knob, and perhaps the top can be outfitted with a proper snooze button. As a long-time Chumby user, the main change I’d make is an easier way to manually move among a few multiple widgets (a la Exposé or HTC Sense) versus continuously cycling through hem slide show-style. The quest for a proper MP3 alarm clock may be at its end.

First impressions of the Avaak Vue

Regular readers here and elsewhere and elsewhere know that I had high expectations of the Avaak Vue following in the tradition of products such as the Flip, Eee, Sonos, Peek and PogoPlug in simplifying and expanding the market for what has been a challenged category. It must be noted off the bat that the Vue is not intended to replace a full-scale monitoring system installed by a monitoring company such as ADT or even a DIY system strung together with IP cameras (such as the recently debuted Viaas system shown off at DEMO Fall ‘09). Rather, like so many other of these products, it is focused on secondary functionality, in this case, “checking in” on a property, people or pets for a few minutes at a time.

Previous whole-home video systems have been expensive, unwieldy and complex, partly because of the need to supply power to the batteries, but not the Avaak. Simply plug the base into your router, press the Sync button, and attach the AAAA battery-powered, golf ball-sized camera to one of the amazing tiny magnetic mounts. Then go to the Web site and enter a unique ID for your base station and you’re ready to view and record video from a browser.

It all works brilliantly. I would of course be nice of the Vue could perform the kind of self-identification magic that the PogoPlug can, but Avaak appears on its way to creating the first multi-room video streaming system that can be used by ordinary consumers. I’ll certainly have more to say about the Vue system soon.

Logitech, Ooma get down with “a-p-p”

image The adoption of the “app store concept” has now begun to reach far beyond the smartphone. Recently,, both Oooma and Logitech made some terminology changes to capitalize on the app phenomenon. Ooma renamed its Ooma Lounge device management portal “my.ooma.com” and is referring to new functions as apps. Similarly,Logitech renamed its SqueezeNetwork to mysqueezebox.com and is now featuring an “app gallery” on that page in place of what it used to call xxx. Those changes are effective in Version 7.4 of what it now calls its Squeezebox Server, formerly SqueezeCenter. Most of the Logitech “apps” are merely audio content sources but, then again, so are a number of iPhone apps. Even Peek, which has crusaded against the smartphone, has recently rolled out apps for its e-mail device.

Of course, not every device with app ambitions makes it, and Verizon’s recent withdrawal of the Verizon Hub shows that apps can blossom only if a company is committed to continuing and advancing a platform. A value proposition must be established before it can be augmented. But the rewards can be great. Were it not for the iPod touch’s vast app library, Microsoft’s Zune HD would be a stronger competitor.

As Rhapsody streams, Apple’s cash flows

Rhapsody iPhone App: PlaylistThere was much rejoicing as Apple approved two applications that enable on-demand song streaming to the iPod. Following the approval of the Spotify app, a companion to the European music service that provides free on-demand listening on PCs but requires a subscription on the iPhone, Apple approved the Rhapsody app, which also requires a subscription to deliver tracks on demand.

The latter approval was especially meaningful since subscription services in general have historically berated the a la carte model (even as they warm to it) and there was that unpleasantness a while back regarding Real’s now moot attempts to get its rights-managed tracks onto the iPod. It’s a good thing Real learned its lesson about not trying to circumvent DRM.

But that’s all old news, and now some are heralding Rhapsody’s arrival on the iPhone as a fresh beginning tor subscription services. I disagree. Like Michael Gartenberg, I believe in the potential  of streaming music to connected devices, but see services such as Rhapsody stuck between the rock of well-crafted Internet radio offerings such as Slacker and Pandora, and the hard place of a la carte purchases. Yes, sometimes we all want to hear a specific song, but there are even cloud-based options for that that don’t require a subscription. And if Real Networks is waiting for the carriers to figure it out, good luck.

Having Rhapsody on the iPhone, like having it on Sonos, is a great value-add for Rhapsody subscribers — an even better value-add than having the Sirius XM iPhone app is for those subscribers. I’s a good retention play.  But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problems these services have and I doubt it will signficantly help expand the subscriber base (On the other hand, at least it won’t lock subscribers in to one portable device.)

Meanwhile, the iPhone and iPod touch gain more sway as the most flexible pocketable digital music consumption devices, with their integrated and third-party apps bringing together local music, network music, Internet radio, Slacker, Pandora, Deezer, YouTube music videos, Sirius XM, and now Rhapsody (among others). If you’re a Rhapsody subscriber, you’re going to pay your monthly fee for bits anyway, but now you also get to fork over a couple of hundred to Apple for its atoms whereas before an Apple music player was probably out of your consideration set.

I’m sure Real Networks wishes it hadn’t gone this way as Rhapsody has to adhere to several limitatoins on the iPhone such as lack of background playback and an inability to sell a la carte tunes through Rhapsody, but the popularity of the iPhone probably forced its hand.

And so the rich get richer.

3D at IFA: Duels, Distribution and Data

Watching the camp Second City Television show in my youth, I laughed at the show’s Monster Chiller Horror Theatre segments, in which John Candy, as the evil Dr. Tongue, would create “3D” by swaying a cat cradled in his arms toward and away from the camera — a high technological bar indeed.

Nevertheless, at the IFA conference in Berlin last week, Sony and Panasonic emerged as leading advocates for the adoption of 3D television based on a more modern approach; each had its own spin. Sony relied on its knowledge of movie making via Sony Pictures (now integrated into its “make.believe” corporate branding along with Sony Ericsson) whereas Panasonic noted that it had a production facility in Hollywood for mastering Blu-ray.

Sony also won showmanship points by distributing RealD glasses and showing 3D clips during its press conference. That’s fair game in my book even though the technology it plans to introduce in the home is actually the same as Panasonic’s, which uses active shutter glasses that Panasonic was showing behind closed doors on its 150″ plasma. Passing through those doors, I noticed the impact of the 3D effect when there is high contrast between foreground and background, lending credibility to its claim that plasma is well-suited to 3D. (It also bodes well for OLED, which both Sony and Panasonic are pursuing.) While the Avatar clip actually fell a bit flat (pun unintended), there was a confetti scene so realistic that I felt I could reach out and grab it. Panasonic also answered Sony’s eye-popping Gran Turismo cockpit scene from its press conference with its own impressive driver’s-eye footage.

Sony and Panasonic are also driving forces behind Blu-ray, and another piece of the puzzle to roll out at IFA was that the Blu-ray 3D spec is coming soon. Indeed, 3D will absolutely need content, and as was noted during the Blu-ray Disc Association press conference, 3D content will be distributed in many ways. But even that may not be enough to overcome some of the hurdles such as wearing glasses. That is why Philips has decided to sit back and sell 21:9 TVs that I can’t believe wouldn’t find an audience in at least the custom installer market in the U.S.

As my colleague Paul Gray at DisplaySearch (whom I ran into on the show floor) notes, 3D  may not close the gap in TV pricing declines, but I still see the question of Blu-ray’s arrival is more of a when (and certainly within the time frame of seeing the effect without the glasses) than if. 3D has particular value for movies and sports, two TV genres that helped drive HD adoption.

But one area that 3D could enhance that hasn’t seen much attention but where it could provide much value is in the oft-neglected user interface, where it could help in swimming through the overwhelming flood of metadata that consumers will need to navigate. Hillcrest Labs has already shown a quasi-3D user interface using its Loop remote dubbed HoME, but it strikes me as the tip of the iceberg as to what companies could do with real 3D capabiliies. Without significant redesign, the prospects of finding personal relevant video in the age of broadband video are frightening, even more so than Count Floyd.

The best kitchen computer ever

image It hasn’t been the most elusive of computing’s holy grails, but there have been a few attempts toward optimizing a computing device for kitchen use. Two of them, the Macintosh Color Classic-like Icebox (now in an under-the cabinet configuration courtesy Salton) and the apparently madness-inducing 3Com Audrey, bombed. Another, the HP TouchSmart, has done well, but more generally than as a kitchen PC per se. We’ve also seen some content recently aimed at usage in the kitchen, such as the family of digital cooking video programs for the miBook and Nintendo’s Personal Trainer Cooking for the DS.

While the expansive TouchSmart might be a natural addition to, say, Kitchen Stadium, it’s a bit overwhelming for many an urban countertop.  Enter the iPod touch. It plays music from local storage, a home network, or streaming from Pandora, Slacker or other sources, and maintains its minimal footprint with the JBL OnStage micro , it can act as a digital photo frame or display a clock, including a countdown timer. It can access weather forecasts when getting ready in the morning or check traffic on the route, and has a Yellow Pages app for looking up businesses and Safari for much more. Oh, it also has the AllRecipes app for connected cooks.

Verbatim wants to have a word with your hard drive

081709verbatiminsight.jpgLast week, Verbatim announced its InSight external hard drives that have a small text window that can display a label and the amount of free space available. It’s a literary fit for Verbatim, which is Latin for “word for word”, to have a few words on its storage line. The sleek, shiny, humped design of the InsSight makes it one of the best-looking portable hard drives on the market, and there’s some marginal utility to having a display on a hard drive. Indeed, to Verbatim’s advantage and in a modest example of Reed’s Law, the utility of the display goes up as you have multiple InSights as you can use the text to distinguish their contents.

imageStill, when i saw it, I knew the InSight wasn’t the first  external hard drive with an LCD that stays on even when the device isn’t receiving power. SmartDisk offered the FireLite XPress hard drive with a 3” display that could display free space as well as much more text several years ago (I remember seeing them at CompUSA). The SmartDisk drive certainly didn’t look as good as the InSight, but the company produced some of the smallest external hard drives in its day, including the bantam FireFly that used the same kind of 1.8” hard drive used in iPods even today (though maybe not for long).

Whatever happened to SmartDisk? Surprise, it was acquired by Verbatim back in 2007. Perhaps the new owners will also take a fresh stab at SmartDisk’s Flash Trax, which had a unique clamshell form factor in the niche market of external storage designed for field backup and display of photos for advanced amateur and professional photographers.

More waxing on wireless widgets

This week’s Switched On column delves into Apple’s strength in desktop widgets and progressively declining widget strength as one looks across its product line to the iPhone and Apple TV. As I mentioned in the column, no company has implemented widgets effectively across the three platforms, and even gadget-happy Microsoft has encountered the same challenges in the living room with Xbox that Apple has with Apple TV despite the former’s much larger installed base. It’s hard to see anyone but Apple and Microsoft owning widgets on the desktop, but Samsung looks uniquely positioned to offer them across cell phones and televisions, where they are a more strategic play anyway.

In the comments, one person suggested that iPhone widgets could be activated by double-press of the Home button, but I would see it as either an extended button press option or a gesture. (If Apple allowed third parties to modify the iPhone system’s behavior, you can bet that someone would have come up with extended gesture options for the iPhone. Apple has barely scratched their surface. Indeed, the Mac trackpad’s gestures are more developed than the iPhone’s.)

Let me call upon my user interface design expertise, which consists of my having sent an idea via AppleLink to Don Norrman about a way that Automator-style macros could be built in the Finder that wasn’t dismissed as completely nonsensical. Another option would be a mashup of the HTC Sense user interface and Microsoft’s Windows 6.5 lock screen. Enable an app to run active as a lock screen. When you turn on the iPhone, instead of just having the one lock screen, you could swipe to multiple screens that would display Sense-style applications without turning on the device.

This would not be as flexible as Dashboard, but would be better than what we have today, fit well with the phone usage model,  and require only minimal, closed Apple-controlled basic multitasking since widgets aren’t much different than Web pages. When you unlock the device, the HTML rendering engine part of mobile Safari quits and you’re presented with the last app you had open or the home screen..

This approach could also maintain Apple’s blurring of apps and widgets, which might be a good distinction to dissolve on the iPhone, at least judging from the confusing way it’s handled in Android’s application market.

The real reason Mac OS needs Blu-ray support

image Despite being a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association since 2005, Apple has lagged on integrating Blu-ray into Macs, pinning the blame on licensing issues and not being coy about iTunes’ competition with physical media. But if Toshiba has come to the point that it feels it needs Blu-ray to be competitive, than those licensing issues must be more like a landfill full of hurt than just a bag for Apple to continue abstaining.

True, Toshiba plays in the traditional CE deck business, something Apple’s not going to do, and Blu-ray becomes much more interesting in the PC market as a data archiving medium offering greater capacity than rewriteable DVD. Media prices will need to come down considerably for that to happen.. But even until then, many Mac users would probably benefit from Apple supporting Blu-ray even if they had no interest in the latest high-definition discs from Hollywood.

This is because Mac OS X (even, unfortunately, Snow Leopard, as I’ve learned) cannot natively handle AVCHD, in particular the MPEG Transport Stream (.MTS) file format. This is a significant disappointment given that it is used by major camcorder manufacturers such as Sony, Canon and Panasonic as the way video is stored on hard drives and flash memory. It is also surprising given that Apple is touting how QuickTime X is built on such a modern foundation and the role that Apple and QuickTime had in the development of H.264. And, finally, it puts Apple at a competitive disadvantage versus Windows 7, which includes native file format support for MTS.

MTS has been a headache for many users frustrated by its lack of support. Just (Disclosure: this verb sponsored by Microsoft) Bing it and you’ll see that many of the references to it are pleas for file format converters. Frankly, I don’t know how someone without an Elgato Turbo H.264 deals with a modern camcorder on a Mac (but Elgato, please add support for AVCHD Lite)..

So what’s the bugaboo around MTS? It comes down to companies being unwilling to spend the dollars to license officially or use some of the open source options. While I’m not familiar with all the details, it seems that to support MTS you need to license at least some portion of the technology needed to play back Blu-ray. Ergo, if Apple supported Blu-ray, it would probably have the IP needed to support MTS natively. If rumors about future versions of iTunes supporting Blu-ray turn out to be false, any Mac users hoping to deal with files from their modern camcorders as naturally as they do JPEGs should hope for Blu-ray Macs.

Snow Leopard teaches an old dock new tricks

Exposé has been one of my favorite Mac OS features since its debut. After spending some time with the Snow Leopard team yesterday, I’m excited about the improvements Apple is making to it in Snow Leopard. Among them, window previews are now arranged in a grid, making them easier to track down, and you can even sort windows alphabetically as well as by app within Exposé. You can also zoom in on windows in Exposé Quick Look-style.

But the biggest change marries Exposé to the Dock to produce Dock Exposé, Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s Aero Peek feature in Windows 7, Dock Exposé. has a number of advantages versus Aero Peek such as using the entire screen for window preview.

However, one important feature where Aero Peek beats Dock Exposé is being able to show previews of multiple tabs in a Web browser. This is a serious omission since my browsers tend to accumulate a lot of tabs spread across multiple windows. It’s a mess and something like Exposé could really help with it. And so, browser tab support in Dock Exposé moves high on Ross’s Quite Reasonable List of Windows Features Apple Could Implement Without Compromising Usability.