Pocket digital photo albums attract interest

Nestled among the cheap GPS devices and novelty small-screened digital photo frames Nextar was showing at Showstoppers this week was a portable digital picture frame that resembled the pictured  My Life Digital Photo Album sold by Brookstone for about $100.  (Brookstone previously sold a 20 GB hard drive-based version that cost $300.) While the Nextar device will also feature a 3.5″ screen, it will cost only about $50.

It looks as though QVC has been making a small push with this (sub-)category. It features three battery-powered digital picture viewers with 3.5″ frames, including the recently released classy HP model that seems more intended for desktop use but has a rechargeable battery and carrying case.

I’ve always thought this product had some potential for the less technical  crowd hat had cell phones with small screens or couldn’t figure out how to get photos onto their cell phones. I’m sure Kodak must be considering getting back in after struggling with a well-executed but relatively pricey model a few years back. It was smaller and thinner than any of these models, but had only a 2.5″ screen, which is very common on digital cameras these days.

Nothing but Blu-skies for the next 10 years?

I agree with almost all the points that Rick Clancy makes as he places his bet that Blu-ray discs will be around for far greater than five years. That said, I actually think few in the industry would disagree with that. The question I’ve been asked more often is how long will Blu-ray grow, especially compared to the decade or so of growth that DVD saw, and how deep will its penetration reach, at least in the U.S..

Compared to the near monopoly that DVD had as a format for selling movies, Blu-ray will face more competition, including stronger legacy competition in the DVD. However, barring any breakthroughs such as DECE changing the nature of downloads, Blu-ray will continue to offer a superior convenience factor for movie buying.. (As for rentals, digital distribution may make inroads there more quickly.) Therefore, I think that Blu-ray will grow for more than the next five years, and see it starting to peter out in about seven or eight years.

Fonolo would be a great wireless app

imageVery often, people post ad hoc directions on how to reach customer service lines while circumventing  what an be daunting, time-consuming interactive voice response or menuing systems used by large companies. Fonolo plans to turn that into a scence wit a Web site that will list various departments at institutions such as banks, airlines and telcos. Better yet, it will call those companies, navigate the phone system menuingstructure and call you back just as the system needs your unique input.

It could be a great time-saver and, what’s more, doesn’t disrupt the systems that companies have in place. It simply automates using them. One limitation is that, in the case of long queues, Fonolo can’t “wait on line” for you, but the company says they’re working toward that.

Fonolo is a Web site, but it would be much handier as a mobile application.because most people have the least patience for such systems when they’re on their cellphones, burning up their talk time.

Sticky Tiki Taggy

image It says something about the promise of Tikitag that its champions were able to convince telecom equipment behemoth Alcatel-Lucent to spin out the initiative into a separate venture. Aiming to create an Internet of things that have little to no intrinsic intelligence (and clearly oblivious that many a commenter has beaten it to the punch), Tikitag’s first product is a kit that includes an RFID reader and a number of tag stickers that can be encoded with, say, a URL. Move the tagged object to the encoded reader and the PC takes some action such as displaying a Web site that provides more information about the object.

NFC in general obviously has huge potential, but I’m less sure about the launch product. Perhaps it will become one of those products that geeks buy for less technical friends and relatives, joining the ranks of MSNTV, Presto and Ceiva. At the Showstoppers tech media event last night, Tikitag PR representative Ann Revell-Pechar said that she had  put a tag on a picture of her daughter so that when her mother held it against the reader, she could call her granddaughter via Skype.

It would surely be helpful if the reader didn’t need to be tethered to the PC, but over time I’m sure that most phones will include RFID reading capabilities. In any case, Tikitag insists it’s trying to launch a platform here, and welcomes others to expand on the technology.

Fitbit could be the first mainstream wearable computer

image Tikitag wasn’t the only batch of atoms to come out of the week that saw scores of startups launch at DEMOfall and the TechCrunch50. One I particularly liked was Fitbit, a clothespin-like device that includes an accelerometer and an OLED display that I hope you will be able to turn off. It essentially measures all your activity throughout the day (and night) and reports it.

With its Web component, it can be compared to he Nike+ system, but there’s an even older predecessor called SportBrain that started out using a dial-up connection. It’s recharged in a little dock and sends updates to the Internet whenever it gets within range of a PC.

At $99, the device is affordable and will likely be snapped up by fitness enthusiasts. It also looks like the developers have gotten the product small and convenient enough where it can have a good run before its functionality is integrated into advanced smartphones like the T-Mobile G1 that are increasingly sporting accelerometers.

RealDVD legality still a bit speculative, but defensible

imageReal looks like it will have a big hit on its hands with RealDVD if consumer interest matches the media interest I saw in the product at Pepcom’s Holiday Spectacular (PDF link) show last night. The table was so crowded that it wasn’t until the booths were being torn down that I had a chance to catch up with Real corporate communications VP Bill Hankes, who  kindly took a few minutes to talk about the software with me after we both explained that we weren’t lawyers.

As Dave Zatz has reported, Real has a license from the DVD Copy Control Association, but I’ve countered that simply having the license, as Kaleidescape did, is not a guarantee of the legality. Bill said that Real believes RealDVD is legal because it preserves CSS and layers more encryption on top of it (that said, I seem to recall Kaleidescape employs some pretty serious encryption as well and of course its solution is a closed box) and that the usage that RealDVD allows falls under fair use. Although, again, the scenarios that Real envisions for RealDVD (streaming around the house, etc.) sound very similar to what Kaleidescape allows. .

Regardless of the letter of the law, the key question is whether Real can avoid a legal challenge by the studios. Bill admits that the studios are concerned about the product, but says that Real is having productive discussions with them about some of the opportunities it affords them (such as introducing fresh trailers a la BD-Live) in an age where DVD sales are flat.

“I’m a PC” ads evoke old Microsoft, Apple advertising

imageNow that I’ve used a bit of parody to point out how some of Microsoft’s challenges with Vista aren’t really its fault, I’m again addressing Microsoft’s Vista commercials. I didn’t find the second Gates-Seinfeld spot to have as pronounced a latent message as the first, although I defended both ads’ general direction in a podcast discussion with Gene Steinberg this week (iTunes link here, MP3 file here).

The new “I’m a PC” commercial, Web presence, and what Michael Gartenberg points out to be the social aspects, though, take things in a different direction and is doing unto Apple what Apple did to Vista, mischaracterize it. As I said early on in the Get a Mac campaign, one reason the commercials worked was that they avoided the bad taste that the Switcher campaign left in many PC users’ mouths. The “Get a Mac” ads don’t really stereotype PC users, they stereotype the PC (although Hodgman’s behavior has become more bizarre as the campaign has progressed.). Reassociating the person and the platform again portrays Apple as the snide PC user-mocking company of yore. However, with Apple’s surge over the past few years and Apple stores opening their doors to millions of PC users, can that label stick? And are even satisfied PC users offended by the “Get a Mac” campaign?

The ad also evokes recent Microsoft advertising history as this notion of the PC as an empowering tool sounds very similar to Microsoft’s messaging in the “Wow starts now” ads that ran at he launch of Vista, with the new twist that acknowledges Windows’ ubiquity (which Get a Mac has also done in an ad in which PC says, “I’m still the king.”) . But that’s not necessarily bad. It reinforces that — while there may be more cause to grumble than on a Mac — the vast majority of the vast array of Vista users are being productive on the platform.

Slacker G2 is an impressive redo

imageIf the recent announcement that the excellent Slacker service would soon be available on Blackberry devices got you thinking Slacker was abandoning its own hardware, it’s time to hit Pause. I’ve been trying out Slacker’s sequel to its original innovative but flawed portable device. The Slacker G2 is dramatically better in just about every respect — user interface, controls, build quality, materials and portability, to name a few. Slacker has also traded in the original player’s large canvas case for a slick silicone shell that includes an integrated belt clip.

Gone is the troublesome touch strip. The scroll wheel (which no longer feels mushy like the original player’s) brings up the menu system simply by scrolling to the bottom of the screen. Also, while I continued to encounter problems with the original player such as forgetting Wi-Fi passwords and intermittent stuttering at the beginning of a song, those problems have not appeared with the Slacker G2.

There are, of course, a few trade-offs. The title bar overlays a bit of the album art while the bottom of the screen with track information feels a bit cramped; such are some of the sacrifices of moving to a smaller screen. Also, the battery is no longer user-serviceable. Still, while I am looking forward to the Blackberry version of Slacker (Slackberry?) and still want an iPhone/iPod touch version, the Slacker G2 looks like it will take the prize for the most improved consumer electronics product of the year. Slacker’s claim that it has developed the best portable Internet radio experience on the market rings true.

The flying tube is now one in a series

image I’m en route to the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference, blogging this at 35,000 feet thanks to Gogo, the incredible in-flight Wi-Fi service from Aircell. American Airlines has done a good job promoting the service including lots of signage in its JFK terminal, an info card in the back seat pocket, and a short video played just after takeoff (which I couldn’t see due to a technical malfunction. It seems to be the “How It Works” video on Gogo’s site.

The service has been rock-solid since I logged on nearly five hours ago — very responsive and with seamless bridging of cells. While it hasn’t been quite fast enough to handle video (at least Hulu) consistently, I got through a couple of stuttering SNL sketches. One needs access to a browser in order to connect. (Also, ironically, I can’t use the “connected” Kindle since wireless WANs are still verboten on US aircraft. Sony, add Wi-Fi to the Reader!) Regardless, transforming one of the last bastions of digital solitude will have transforming implications for frequent travelers and in-flight entertainment. A $12,99 for a cross-country flight, it’s a no-brainer.

Gogo’s domestic partners include American Airlines, Virgin America and Delta Airlines while competitor Row 44 has been testing with Southwest and Alaska Airlines. JetBlue has been offering limited Wi-Fi. I hope, though, that JetBlue steps it up. I like the airline, but it will be hard to go back.

RealDVD allows questionably legal DVD transfer to PCs

image A grail that may not be among the most holy will soon be attained by consumers as Real Networks will today unveil RealDVD. It’s premise is simple — provide a simple and legal way for consumers to copy or rip their commercial DVDs to their hard drive. Upon loading up a DVD with RealDVD installed, you’re given the option to play or save the DVD along with the gentle reminder that you should not save the DVD if you do not own it, digitally reminiscent of the “Don’t steal music.” sticker that came with iPods. Indeed, for personal movie pirates, RealDVD will be a Netflix subscription’s best friend.

The good news is that RealDVD faithfully replicates the DVD experience — all the menus and extras are there. And you can even pick up movies where you left off. I had feared that there might be some pretty unsavory catches such as a limit to the amount of time in which you could watch the DVD or the number of DVDs the program could store. However, DVDs are confined to an authorized PC or portable hard drive and there is no compression beyond that of the original DVD so a dual-layer disc could consume nearly 9 GB of disc space. Portable hard drives are inexpensive these days, but one benefit to RealDVD would be eliminating a second device in terms of the portable DVD player. There also doesn’t appear to be any portable media player support lined up at launch.

Still, RealDVD is a nice option for the business traveler looking for an alternative to buying (or repurchasing) movies online. It will have an introductory price of $29 (regularly $39) and consumer swill be able to authorize four other PCs at $19 per license. It will be available later this month. We’ll see  whether Microsoft, Apple, or other companies will follow suit in offering similar capabilities.

Update: A cNet story leads me to wonder whether RealNetworks obtained authorization from the DVD Copy Control Association in producing RealDVD. (The New York Times story essentially confirms that Real has not done such licensing.) The legitimacy of such a license was what was at the heart of the Kaleidescape lawsuit as far as I know. I expect this product to get challenged by the MPAA.

Here’s some footage of RealDVD: