MP3 is not home audio’s enemy

I just accepted an invitation to attend a session at CES about high-performance or, as the invitation puts it, “HD” audio. The invitation notes:

While MP3s offer convenience, the quality of the audio experience is greatly diminished. High-resolution audio — or HD Audio — heightens that experience and demonstrates that consumers need not sacrifice quality for convenience.

And so continues the home audio crowd’s self-defeating crusade against MP3. Instead of embracing this popular format that can produce very good audio at high bitrates and expanding its market, the high-end continues to cling to the compact disc and lament the failure of SACD and DVD-Audio.

Lossy audio compression is here for the foreseeable future; it’s part of the ATSC broadcast specification and it sounds fantastic. I’ve seen only one company that truly is combining “no compromise” digital audio with most of the flexibility of media-independence; Unfortunately, I doubt that more than five percent of consumers woud appreciate the quality advantage that uncompressed audio has over, say, WMA encoded at 256 KBit/sec.

Can you imagine if video vendors acted like this? “Oh, sure, MPEG-2 lets us put a whole movie on a DVD, but you don’t want the compromise of compressed video, do you?” To the contrary, DVD manufacturers are embracing new codecs like DiVX and Windows Media, while the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps are moving to even more efficient encoding schemes such as VC-1 and MPEG-4.

This strikes at the heart of a theme that I have turned to again and again in the past year — the need for consumer technology providers to strike a better balance between quality improvements that have traditionally driven industry growth and flexibility. Show me the benefit of these marginal (in terms of customer perception) quality improvements achieved with the same level of convenience that especially unprotected MP3 offers.

How Zune can be doomed

In ComputerWorld, my message board sparring partner of Windows Magazine days Mike Elgan argues that Zune can kill the iPod by being the anti-iPod, much like Windows is (or was during its rise) the anti-Mac. I wrote last year that Microsoft wasn’t going to succeed with a Windows-like strategy in reference to Playsforsure, which was a more Windows-like strategy than Microsoft will ever be able to execute with Zune.

About the only points I agree with Mike on are that the initial execution of Zune has significant flaws and limitations, that Apple nevertheless has good reason to be concerned, and that cell phones from Apple and Microsoft would change the dynamics of the market. Beyond that, I can’t conceive how a hackable MP3 player would ever seriously challenge the iPod, much less lead the market. In fact, such a product has been on the market for years and hasn’t seen much market penetration. These are consumer electronics products; as simple as the iPod is for the functionality it offers, it’s still incredibly complex compared to, say, a portable cassette or CD player. Mike exhorts:

Let people transform the Zune into an Xbox game controller, a TV remote control, a portable presentation device, a wireless PC hard drive or a Vista gadget emulator. Give me a wireless keyboard and a Zune version of Pocket Outlook, and I’ll never buy another iPod. Build ClearType into Zune and make it the ultimate eBook reader (and sell eBooks on Zune Marketplace).

EBooks, eh? By this logic, Palm has built a real iPod-killer.

The CD is not dead yet

One of the sad things about format changes is that there is inevitably music left behind. Ripping provided an escape clause for the current generation of music. However, if DVD and its successors  as well as the various DRM schemes are any indication, , it will be a lot harder to do format-shifting should any future sanctioned music format come to dominate, particularly given current legislation.

Incredibly enough, though, we are still seeing albums re-released as CDs. During a brief liaison with country music in junior high school, a friend introduced me to a Canadian group called The Irish Rovers; their career has spanned 40 years. Most of their fare is Irish folk music, but they did put out a self-titled album with a more pop country sound and song choice. Probably the most popular song from it was the track, “Wasn’t That a Party?,” a funny piece about a soiree that gets far enough out of control to include a drag race.

in any case, after not being satisfied with the results of various attempts to digitally record a copy of the LP bought off eBay, I was shocked to find out a few months ago that it had finally been reissued on CD some 30 years later. Even so, the new CD was backordered for a month. I’m pleased to share that I received an email from a Canadian store today and it is on its way! This CD thing could really catch on!

Ears of war

Last year, the Xbox 360 had the limelight all to itself as the first “next-generation” console to hit the market. This year, though, the console has fought to stay in the zeitgeist, crammed between the novelty of play driven by the Wii and the hard-to-find horsepower of the PlayStation 3.

Microsoft’s promise that it had a lot of tricks up its sleeve for this holiday season held true enough. Most of the news out of the Xbox group this fall has been aimed more directly at competing with Sony — the graphically rich grit of Gears of War, the enhanced network play of the wireless headset, the downloading of movies via Xbox Live. support of 1080p, and the availability of the external HD-DVD drive And yet, the whole doesn’t seem more than the sum of its parts.

Microsoft may simply be falling victim to the attention around the PlayStation shortages, a phenomenon that it experienced firsthand last holiday season. Such shortages drive a lot of PR in the short term, but hurt a brand if they go on too long. In contrast, while there has been some scarcity associated with the Wii, most of the attention on the product itself and even the launch titles has been positive. It seems like anyone who wants a Wii by a tree will be able to get one without resorting to desperate measures.

One way the Xbox group could steal a little bit of thunder back would be to release a hard drive upgrade for the 360. Of course, this wouldn’t do much for gaming, but it would enable Microsoft to position the 360 as both a hub and a great Media Center extender client.

The best of both widget worlds

DashboardSince my post last week on the new breed of widget appliances and some hands-on time with the RTM edition of Windows Vista, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the tradeoffs between Microsoft’s and Apple’s implementations of functionality at your fingertips.. Both approaches make assumptions about how users will — or won’t — interact with these applets.

Vista’s gadgets are kept in a vertical sidebar that can be docked to either side of the screen. They can also be dragged onto the desktop. One of the best features of gadgets is that they can also exist off the screen — as in the case of Vista’s SideShow feature — or even outside of the PC itself, also via SideShow.

Mac OS X Tiger’s widgets appear in a separate layer that appears at the touch of a keystroke. There’s more planned for widgets in Mac OS X Leopard, but the fundamental tradeoff is that Vista’s gadgets are always in view, making them handier for tracking information at a glance, whereas Tiger’s implementation enables access to more of them at a time by utilizing the entire screen.

Overall, I prefer Apple’s implementation, which places fewer constraints on the design of these programs, but there’s merit to the “Sidebar” approach for organization that I’d like to see Apple adopt. Instead of having all widgets in a layer, Apple could support a Sidebar that could, with a hotkey or control, expand to overlay the entire screen.

Zune zigs, Zen zags

z600.jpgNo sooner does the Zune promise to marginalize Creative’s Zen Vision: M than the company finally appears to bring together some of its core assets from audio processing to its Cambridge Soundworks speaker group to support its flagship hard drive-based player.

The piano-black speakers on the X-Fi Sound System Z600 remind me a bit of the Z-10s that were recently released by Logitech, but the $400 system includes a subwoofer and the Creative’s X-Fi “sound restoration” technology that has been favorably reviewed. The system may be a bit pricey, and the most successful iPod docks from Bose, Apple, Altec Lansing and Logitech  have all had integrated speakers, but accessory support will go much further toward helping the Zen Vision than disparaging Microsoft would.

From Fareastgizmos via Engadget


It looks like the clock is ticking on what many have said is digital music sales done right (wherein “right” is music for ten cents on the dollar and no DRM) — Russian Web site and its client-side software allTunes. Apparently, MasterCard has joined Visa in blocking payment to ChronoPay, the intermediary that handled credit card transactions for the controversial site.

So, unless would-be customers can get their hands on a Diners Club card right quick, the loophole site will have much of its revenue base cut off. Then again, it might be able to survive just on Russian revenue. Without reimbursing labels or artists, one might call its overhead low.

Kevin Maney nails it by noting that it looks like Visa and MasterCard are deciding copyright law.

My first column

My first column for ran today. This will be a monthly feature that is more focused on NPD’s data than some of my other writing. The first piece is on Black Friday, where I’ve laid out the three rough classifications of different kinds of Black Friday promotions — big ticket, high demand items such as flat-panel televisions and notebook PCs, more mature, mid-priced categories such as camcorders and digital cameras, and clearance products such as low-capacity MP3 players, flash drives and thumb drives. It’s been a while since I’ve written for a newspaper-style column so I’m going to have to get readjusted to subheads (which I like) and really short paragraphs.

The story is featured as one of the rotating leads in the Technology and Science section, but can’t, of course, compete with the main section story about a Brazilian mayor who is giving his constituents free Viagra.

Thanks for for moving ahead with this project and, again, Sarah Bogaty at NPD for making it happen.

Some RAZR cut-ups

Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief at LAPTOP where I write the Portable Pundit column, gave me a heads-up today on a fun little RAZR spoof they’ve put on their site. My favorite is the “Electrick (sic) RAZR” because, after all, what guy couldn’t use a little touch-up just about the time free evening calling begins?

I had my own, less graphically interesting, fun with the pioneering sleek handset back in early 2005

What’s up Palm’s sleeve?

The “third business” that Palm has been working on was confirmed this week by CEO Ed Colligan in response to a question from its former VP of product planning Michael Mace. Several sites reporting on it keep bringing up this clue co-founder Jeff Hawkins left during an interview with the Portland Business Journal in 2005:

I always think of mobile computing as personal computing. This long-term vision has led us through everything — first the organizers and now through the smart phone space. It’s like everything a personal computer is. Continue down that path. What are the implications of a world where everyone has a super high-speed Internet connection in their pocket and many gigabytes of storage, super-fast processors, audio, visual and multimedia? What are the consequences of that? How will that change computing when you have all that stuff available to you all the time? I try to think into the future. That’s how we come up with new products. So I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it’s following the consequences of mobile computing.

Continue reading