Broken Jawbone

Ah, some headlines write themselves.

Industrial designers talk about “honest” materials. Alas, I felt deceived when I first felt the Bluetooth Aliph Jawbone. From the glamour shot on Aliph’s Web site, I thought its modern grated surface was metal, but it is plastic, and not especially smooth around the talk button.

Nonetheless, I’d been using it for the past few weeks and throughout CTIA where it performed really well. Today, though, I took it out of my pocket to discover the earpiece had separated from the rest of the unit. The cable is still attached, though, so maybe the folks at Aliph can help me out. I can’t blindly fault them for this as, when I first opened the product, I didn’t read the instructions on how to remove the rubber earpiece covering and heard a cracking sound as I did so I may have well loosened the connection. Otherwise, a Bluetooth headset — particularly one as pricey as the Jawbone — should be able to withstand living in a front pocket.

Update: I now see on Engadget Mobile’s hands-on review (with which I agree) that a commenter has had the same problem.

Banging on the DRM

I’ll have more to say on the Apple-EMI DRM announcement in an upcoming Portable Pundit column in LAPTOP (and perhaps elsewhere), but for now I’ve been a bit taken aback at the many jumps to conclusion I’ve seen around EMI “ditching” DRM. It has done no such thing. It has merely offered a non-DRM option, one that still penalizes consumers in terms of making them pay more for extra quality for which they may have no desire. Ryan has framed many of the variables in providing a realistic assessment of the announcement, breaking a bit from Engadget’s typically consumerist anti-DRM crusade.

Sure, EMI’s decision has been accurately touted as a significant first step. But what if it remains the only step? It’s far from a foregone conclusion that other majors will step in line, and so the value of having only some tracks available DRM-free diminsihes the value of having one’s music library DRM-free. In fact, I could argue that — for iPod users — it is easier to stay within the DRM usage constraints than try to keep track of what’s DRM-free and what’s not, particularly when accepting DRM is cheaper , works with what they have, and offers a gateway to the living room. Apple will be challenged in terms of how it presents the choice to consumers because it has, up to now, rightly hid DRM until it has reared its annoying head.

Apple and EMI could have made this a clear victory if they removed the DRM option, but it appears as if profits got ahead of promise. Consumers, not labels, will determine the success of DRM-free music.

Thrown off the DEC

This week’s Switched On, which should be posted later today, discusses HP’s discontinuation of its Digital Entertainment Center living room form factor PCs and Microsoft’s struggles to advance PC form factors. As far as I know, CEPro broke the story. Those who follow the convergence or PC retail space should read Julie Jacobson’s excellent series of articles about HP’s experience with the DEC in the custom installer channel. Part II looks at HP’s experience with the custom install channel earlier in the article, but the third part of the article, which I believe was posted today, delves deeper into why HP is leaning toward its MediaSmart TVs.

I akso had to chuckle as Julie found this way to sidestep an “off the record” comment:

Although HP spokesperson Pat Kinley did not want me to quote her as saying that the HP product and interface is simpler to use than the MCE solution, PC World did quote her: “We have other products on the market now and future products that I can’t talk about that perform essentially the same function in a way that’s easier for the consumer [to use].”

The article concludes with HP trying to position more as competition for AppleTV vs. Media Center Extenders, but you can’t compete with one without competing against the other, as Microsoft has been driving home with its comparisons between the Xbox 360 and AppleTV. In any case, building well-implemented DMR capabilities into the TV is a good differentiator for now, and most consumers would likely prefer no external box to even a small one like AppleTV, but with Pioneer, Sharp and surely others to follow, how long will it be before this falls too far below the consumer purchase criteria list to matter?

Mobile TV, hold the phone

I spoke with a reporter yesterday about the changes we’ve seen in television over the past few years. I described it as fundamentally a destructon of the integrated programming supply chain. We’ve gone from three major broadcasat networks to scores of cable and satellite networks, video games, Internet content, networked PC content, even user interfaces for things like DVD players. I touched on the advent of “cellivision” offerings like MediaFLO, but didn’t focus too much on the transport.

But that may be opening up as well. At CES, Samsung announced work on A-VSB (Advanced Vestigal Side Band), a broadcast technology that will deliver over-the-air channels to mobile devices, but which isn’t a cellular offering like FLO or DVB-H. Now its homeland rival LG is set to match Samsung’s awkward acronym-forming prowess. LG will take the stage at NAB to debut MPHT (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld Technology), an in-band broadcasting technology with what sounds like a similar application.

Looks like there may be salvation for the handheld television market yet. Vive la Watchman!

Smartphones and media like PB & pickles

In case you were wondering why there was no posting last week, I took a working vacation around CTIA Wireless 2007 in Orlando. I really like spring CTIA as far as large trade shows go. It’s big enough to command a position as an industry focal point while not being so big that taking it in within the alotted days becomes physically impossible without an elite team of ninja bloggers or at least a Segway. Unfortunately, I have neither.

This year I moderated a panel at the Smartphone Summit on smartphones and media with panelists from Nokia, Microsoft, WiderThan, Sling Media and MediaFLO. The panel consensus seemed to be that, while both smartphones and wireless media are gaining consumer momentum, they’re not moving toward each other, at least not yet. Why?

  • the relative newfound popularity of smartphones, particularly the QWERTY Windows Mobile variety, which are starting to move well under the $100 price tag
  • the fractured state of smartphone operating systems, which make native development less profitable
  • the focus on the mass market by carrier initiatives such as VCast and easy to use quick access features such as the “TV” button used by MediaFLO-enabled handsets.

Why develop media optimized for smartphones? For traditional broadcast media, there isn’t much financial incentive, but there’s surely an opportunity for one of the Web 2.0 companies out there to bring some aspects of community and interactivity to a wireless media experience

Will the iPhone goose this market? Well, depending on how you define “smartphone” — and my personal view of the term is liberal — it’s the first high-end device to focus on a consumer media experience, However, much like the WinMo phones, the experience is still based on sideloading, which carriers are at best tolerating and which fail to capture the true flexibility that wireless is supposed to bring us.

Incidentally, this is the 150th post that I referenced in the Out of the Box birthday post.

Gauging the Ocean’s tide

Katie Fehrenbacher nicely packages an optimistic analysis of Helio’s forthcoming Ocean phone at GigaOm after linking to some doom and gloom regarding the MVNO’s prospects. While the AP story in particular details how Helio’s expensive growth is testing EarthLink investor patience, I can’t agree that the Ocean could be an “unlikely saviour.”

Devices aren’t and never have been king in the cellular business (Hear that, AT&T and Apple?). Devices have been closer to the heart of Helio than even other MVNOs, but they are still merely enablers, and it seems as though Helio has done quite well driving SMS volumes even without a QWERTY device. Its marketing formula is still probably only about 30 percent device, 70 percent image.

Helio has courted a high-end consumer but, as Katie notes, competition is stiff for the Ocean with the likes of the imminent iPhone and LG Prada, for which Engadget posted an enticing UI video walkthrough yesterday. As for Exchange integration, I suspect that many who have outgrown the Sidekick or grown weary of its incremental upgrades will take to one of the svelte trio of smartphones (the Q, BlackJack and Dash) running Windows Mobile, particularly as they are now starting to be heavily discounted and primed for Windows Mobile 6 upgrades. They still may not be as pretty on the inside as they are on the outside, but they’re gimmick-free and good enough to sustain inertia.

Write your own Telecoms Korea headline

Hang around enough media mailing lists long enough and you will find yourself mysteriously added to some that border on your areas of focus, but are just valuable enough for some reason to justify the inertia of failing to unsubscribe. An example for me is Telecoms Korea, which requires a subscription for news on arguably the world’s most advanced wireless country.

Every so often, Telecoms Korea will throw out an inflammatory headline. Unfortunately, my coding skillz aren’t up to creating the picklists, so I’ll just list the ingredients here for making your own:

Column 1:
Samsung, LG, Pantech, KT, SK Telecom, The Korean government

says

Column 2:
CDMA, GSM, WiBro, GPS

is

Column 3:
losing, dead, dying, dead in five years

AppleTV: the ultimate… shelf system?

AppleTV adopts something I’ve been calling for for a long time in the digital media adapter market — a “sync and store” architecture. Yet,  it also supports streaming, which is particularly good for ad hoc content sharing. When I wrote about Brookstone’s SongCube for Engadget last September, the same month in which AppleTV (then iTV) was announced, I noted “The inclusion of networking capability so that the SongCube could be loaded and ideally synchronized over a home network would greatly benefit the product.” (Even though the column was posted after the Apple event, it was written before it and certainly before I knew that AppleTV would have a hard drive.) I also was relativley lenient on the product’s user interface — advanced for a stereo but primitive compared to most modern portable digital audio players.

AppleTV, which costs the same  as the SongCube but lacks speakers, addresses both of these issues. However, there’s another catch — you need a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. So, I’m thinking there’s room in the market for one of those companies that did the add-on flip-up LCD screens for the GameCube and Xbox like Pelican Accessories (or perhaps a Mac peripherals maker like Griffin?) to do a similar product for the AppleTV. Add a pair of powered multimedia speakers and — voila — you have the slickest shelf system ever.

Years ago, I tried matching up Apple’s PowerCD with Apple’s old gray powered speakers for a different-looking bedroom CD player, but could never get it to work for some reason.

Happy Birthday, Out of the Box

A year ago, I wrote my first Out of the Box post on Sony’s HDRadio-free, XM-Sirius-free, and stereo-free table radio — a simple device befitting a simple medium. Now I’m close to my 150th post here. That works out to about one post every two and a half days in the blog’s first year (although it didn’t really go public until about January). I’m a bit surprised by that since I didn’t think there was that much I wanted to comment on publicly outside of my two columns.

In fact, my affinity for the column format is so deeply rooted from my college newspaper daysthat I wasn’t even sure I would like writing shorter posts. Even though I’m also approaching my 150th Switched On column for Engadget, I’ve written only one “typical” post. Yet, writing OOTB, as it’s known here around OOTB HQ (see?) has indeed been a lot of fun and has even proven useful for developing a few longer pieces that became columns.

Because it had an intentionally under-the-radar start, Out of the Box was never treated the chorus of welcomes to the blogosphere that sometimes greet new bloggers, so if any of you loyal readers with traffic wouldn’t mind passing along the kinds of presents measured by Google Analytics, the birthday blog would be most appreciative.

I’ve tried to stay on-topic in terms of consumer technology, not chiming in on every juicy bit of comment-bait out there in the blogosphere, yet I really admire how some bloggers, such as Jeremy and Scoble, have mastered the art of seamlessly and often humorously blending original content, archival references, blogosphere retort and personal updates. One habit that would certainly help would be becoming a more diligent and efficient feed reader.

Special thanks go to Eileen for helping me with hosting and technical configuration. So, what will the second year bring? A redesign? (I hope at some point.) Funnier tag line? Burnt feeds? Futile ads? Guest bloggers? Podcasts? A companion blog? Pimping out with every blotchke covered by TechCrunch? Acquisiiton by Federated Media? Late presidential bid on a national free Wi-Fi platform? My being mistaken for some other Ross? Who can say?

You can. After all, comments are on.

Try that, e-paper

Over at meeblog, the reverse chronological organ of the exceptional Web-based IM app meebo, Seth confesses to a few bloopers during a recent series of meetups in Boston and Toronto that in part demonstrate some limits of technology. In Toronto, he used Google Maps to find a Starbucks for the gathering, only to discover later that it was one of those mini-Starbucks inside an office building that had already closed for the day. However, one of the attendees had a piece of good ol’ fashioned analog paper, that he marked with a writing implement to inform attendees of the new venue. It will be a long time before e-paper becomes so disposable.

On Windows Mobile, Google Maps has the ability to link to venue phone numbers that you can call with a button press. Had Seth taken advantage of it, he could have confirmed the suitability of the locale.