Vonage: the new AOL?

A few days before Jason Calacanis confirmed that he’s leaving AOL (the company that owns Engadget, where I write my weekly Switched On column) — and after trumpeting the “samurai” revolution he helped Jonathan Miller foment changing the online giant from a subscriptions-based service to an advertising-driven one – CNet’s Crave called the subsidization of  Circuit City’s impending $99 Black Friday Compaq notebook by a Vonage subscription a “novel twist.” Crave notes that such offers came from AOL years ago. It is a bit of an interesting ploy for a company that doesn’t have many (ok, at least one) direct ties to the PC.

It’s no wonder that Wall Street continues to have concerns about Vonage’s marketing expenditures. As AOL (of the dial-up subscription business model) and TiVo know, it is difficult to move the needle when you’re competing with entrenched service providers. At least TiVo had a significant head start and a great brand with customers who loved the product and AOL had a huge ease-of-use advantage in its best growth years.

Continue reading

No small change for smallest cars

A bit off-topic, but when I last blogged about Smart USA, I asserted that the two-seat successor to the ForTwo wouldn’t be among the cheapest cars in the market. I’m not sure when it was posted, but Smart USA’s site now says that its debut automobile will now start for “under $15,000.”

According to CarsDirect, that’s significantly less than the Mini Cooper’s base MSRP of $18,000, but could be a bit over the Scion xA’s MSRP of $13,360 for the manual transmission model. (add $700 for automatic). It’s also way above the Toyota Yaris hatchback MSRP of $11,670 with manual transmission (add $900 for automatic). Want to favor Detroit with your entry-level purchase? Chevy’s ’07 Aveo sedan has an MSRP of 13,590, but stays under $14,000 with automatic transmission.

So, it seems Smart is going more for lifestyle marketing than value. Perhaps Toyota’s competitor will offer different tradeoffs.

Chaos in controls

In the days before Internet ubiquity, I remember a conversation with a friend of mine and an executive from one of the major consumer online services of the day about interoperability and musing how wonderful it would be if there were just one network. There was only one network, he huffed, and that was his. Well, unfortunately for those of us not using CompuServe, there’s no way for us to send e-mail or obtain online information these days.

The latest “One-Net” hails from semiconductor concern Threshold. It’s a low-cost, low-power, medium-range control scheme that will compete with ZigBee and Insteon, but for some reason ignores Z-Wave, which seems to be the market leader in terms of vendor support. Even though these standards are wireless and therefore by definition require less of an installation burden than some competing technologies, the home controls market remains something that requires way too much consumer navigation. The cost of infrastructure components — especially for basics such as lighting — is negligible compared to the cost of labor, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around that.

How long has this market been on the cusp of the mainstream? Well, at a dinner event around DigitalLife that included Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of PC Magazine, he noted that the first article he ever wrote was on home automation. That was in 1979!

From EETimes via Engadget

Widget fonder

From TechBlog via Gizmodo comes news of what was apparently once called the “Widget Clock Infobot” but is now the Emtrace WidgetStation, a “Station” that may be even harder to find than another this holiday season. It joins the embryonic category of the push-based Internet appliance, joining products such as those from Ambient, such as the Google Calendar clock concept, and Chumby. I suspect we’ll see major names drop into this space in 2008. While the product doesn’t seem far beyond the concept stage at this point, one thing I already like about it is that it can retrieve information from a PC over a home network. That said, I’m not necessarily sold on the need for two screens, particularly a monochrome one.

My Today show appearance

Thanks to a great effort by Sarah Bogaty of NPD’s PR team, I appeared on the Today show earlier this week talking about Microsoft as the “tenacious” competitor to Apple in the digital audio player market.

It was a different experience from the cable news that I’ve done in the past. But while I didn’t get to meet Matt, Meredith or Al, I was interviewed by Peter Alexander and did learn a lot about lighting. My sound bite was about eight seconds, and I’ve been amazed at the number of folks that I’ve met only once or knew long, long ago who contacted me to confirm that it was really me. (It was.)

What can brown do for you?

My weekly Switched On column at Engadget discusses whether Microsoft sought elegance in developing its answer to the iPod. One point I take Microsoft to task on is continuing to push the subscription model. Sure, Zune Marketplace offers a la carte downloads as well, but so do practically every other subscription site. The downloads are there to placate would be iTunes store downloaders, but the companies really want consumers to sign up. Regardless of their value, and there is some, I think that even mentioning music subscriptions is a big turnoff for a lot of consumers.

On the other hand, perhaps Microsoft is building its own service suite. Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live for $25/month could appeal to a younger digital entertainment addict.

No Universal generosity on Zune sales

Today Microsoft and Universal announced that Microsoft will offer a share of portion of Zune hardware sales with Universal Music Group, which will in turn presumably share a portion of this revenue with its artists. Microsoft has also openly extended the offer to other labels and, considering it already has the majors lined up for launch, it sounds like an offer that they can’t refuse.

No terms of the deal are disclosed, of course, but unless the labels are eager to change practices that have earned the outrage of artists, consumers have good reason to question how much of their Wi-Fi-enabling wampum will end up on the arms of artists, especially emerging artists who could use it most.

If consumers want to boost their conscience by buying a digital music player this holiday season, there’s a far more direct route.

Packing your Mac

MacCentral has a useful tutorial on using portable applications on a Mac, a process complicated a bit by the Intel transition. To maximize the chances of your applications working with another OS X-based Mac at full speed, you’ll want the universal version of the program if it’s avaiable. In general, there’s a decent suite of Internet-friendly open source programs, including VLC as the media player. The piece also includes some helpful hints and cautionary advice about the dangers of keeping personal data on an easily lost flash drive; some of these are quite tiny these days.

I can see how this kind of functionality might be useful in, say, a lab or campus environment and perhaps even more generally for Windows-based solutions such as the slick MojoPac where you have a better shot of encountering such a PC in the wild. However, how often does the average person who wants to, say, access the Internet with a portable version of Firefox come across a connected computer with a free, accessible USB port and which allows the running of unauthorized applications?

Unplug and play videogames

Plug and play videogames — starting with the Atari 2600 game pack in a facsimile controller popularized by Jakks Pacific a few years back — have become a phenomenon. Games integrated into controllers have resurrected many classic game collections from Activision, Konami, Sega, Intellivision and Namco to name a few. The controllers have also progressed far beyond retro to highlight primarily kids’ media properties such as Marvel and DC Comics heroes as well as Spongebob Squarepants.

As an Intellviision fan, I was a bit disappointed with the plug-and-play units despite their strong sales, although the second generation offering includes a decent edition of Deadly Discs, one of my favorite games for the original console. At last year’s E3, I spoke with Blue Sky Ranger Keith Robinson about doing an Intellivision version of something like the Atari Flashback 2. Keith told me that he would love to do it and that an engineer has it ready to go, but it’s all about making the business case.

The new generation of these devices, though, have integrated LCDs so you can play them on the go without the television. Retro brand Coleco currently has several of these at Target, and Performance Designed Products is expanding its VGPocket line to include a few products downmarket from the VGPocket Max that’s recently been price-reduced at Radio Shack. In addition to two Disney-themed products, the Tablet ($29.99) and Caplet ($39.99) will include 25 and 35 games respectively and both can connect to a TV for big-screen viewing Each also has some classic arcade games included. I’m looking forward to trying

Even low-end products eventually go mobile, and these products are good enough to give a Game Boy Micro a run for its money. It will be very interesting to see what Nintendo has up its sleeve for that franchise after the Wii dust settles next year.

What’s part of the smart?

While at least some of its coverage seems to urge “smartphones later,” CrunchGear’s Smartphones Now series recently posted a tabletastic first-time buyers’ guide. While the site admits that there’s “no official definition” for smartphones, it notes that these handsets are, generally speaking, “a combination of a cellphone and PDA.”

Yet, in its guide, the site notes that it’s omitting Blackberries and Sidekicks as they are “communicators” even though two posts earlier it includes the Blackberry Pearl in the “Smartphones Now” series. How can the industry resolve all this? It may not be perfect, but I like the idea of defining a smartphone as one that has an operating system that enables users to install their own applications outside of those offered by the carrier in the case of proprietary OSes such as the one the Sidekick uses. Under that definition, the Blackberry would be a smartphone.