Video: it’s not just for cable anymore

Moving video — particularly high-quality video — around remains a difficult problem complicated by large file sizes, incompatible file formats, diverse sources and rights management issues. Last week at the DigitalLife Press Preview and other events, I met with several companies that see a bright future for more fluid exchange of this emotionally powerful content type.

  • Seagate sees video as a key medium to drive storage, from the big racks of hard drives used to store it on Internet servers to microdrives inside portable video players and the relatively untapped area of mobile digital video. Rights management issues will need to be worked out for this dream to become a reality.
  • Vongo. One of the favored competitors in the PC space, it offers a Netflix-like subscription without the queue as well as pay-per-view movies. Movies can be played on up to three PCs and the service is working on compatibility with Portable Media Center.
  • ITVN. This company offers set-top boxes somewhat similar to Akimbo and offers a number of packages, including adult content. It's still putting the pieces together in terms of how different video packages might work. It offers the Starz feed as Vongo does, but displays it on a television without any Media Center machinations.

So, there are signs of progress, but it's still early. While ITVN and Vongo charge for their content, Apple faces a tougher battle here that it has with music because it's carrying a lot of content that people really do expect to be free.

When past isn’t prelude

The paradox in this Next Generation reference to a Dean Takahashi blogged interview with SCE’s Kaz Hirai is to hear representatives of two titans focusing on such a forward-looking industry look so far into the past. Hirai defends his E3 comments that the next generation begins when Sony says it does by noting that the PlayStation 2 beat the Dreamcast even though the latter launched first. Contrasted with that is a Steve Ballmer comment that the first console to reach 10 million units has wound up becoming the volume leader “in every other generation.”

There are doubtless still several tricks up the PlayStation 3’s sleeve, but recounting the Dreamcast victory shouldn’t be of much comfort. Sega had been trying to come back from the poor showing of the Saturn and simply lacked the war chest that Microsoft has; furthermore, price stratification in previous generations was not as pronounced as it is today. Besides, before the launch of the PlayStation 2, no company had ever dominated successive generations of consoles, so Sony should understand that precedents have their limitations.

On the other hand, the power of market share is more of an economic constant, and there’s no disputing that both Nintendo and Sony will have much catching up to do this fall; both have discussed selling 6 million consoles by 2007, but Microsoft will have some polished titles of their own in the channel this holiday season.

Booking business

Despite the advantages of electronic ink, eBooks have a long road ahead of them. Engadget reports that iRex, a Philips spinoff, has announced that it will soon start rolling out its iLiad eBook to B2B customers in Europe, which seems like a smoother launch strategy than what Sony has planned for the Sony Reader. Businesses have millions of documents well-suited for distribution with electronic books. This kind of utility argument is much more difficult to make to consumers, and, as CNet notes, Sony still has shown no signs of getting its Connect act together.

Less jive in AMD Live

AMD may have been late to RSVP to Microsoft's Media Center party, but its AMD Live initiative is easy to pronounce and easy to understand. Like Intel's VIIV, AMD Live! specifies requirements for processor horsepower and power consumption. It also focuses on personal content, an underutilized asset by PC manufacturers. PCMag,com lays out the software suite, which includes several excellent free Web services from Orb Networks and Streamload, but also some that, while useful, have little to do with multimedia or entertainment, such as Pure Networks' Network Magic and LogMeIn, a competitor to the better-known GoToMyPC from Citrix Online.

Speaking of Orb, Avvenu announced that it can now stream music files from your PC (like Orb) and mirror your files on its servers (like Google Desktop). The latter service will have a $30/year subscription fee. I've been a fan of Avvenu's simplicity, but I'll be interested to see how it handles MP3 files as its organization scheme is not the best.

Maybe it's playing a bit of catch-up, but AMD seems to be keeping pace with Intel on power consumption, the golden criterion cited by Apple in embracing Intel exclusivity. The Mac product line isn't broad enough to leave a lot of room for multiple chip suppliers, but switches aren't unprecedented. Ask IBM.

The bigger they come

Here are more eye-opening juxtapositions between the last round of consoles and this one. Aeorpause has created a size comparison of major consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Among the surprises are that the PS3 is larger in every dimension than the original Xbox, which was widely criticized for its size, particularly in Japan. Even before seeing this chart, I thought that Wii’s diminutive size would be an advantage in kids’ smaller bedrooms. While the Wii is a bit thicker than Sony’s revised PS2 design, it’s still by far the smallest of the bunch.

Of course, the GameCube was the smallest and least expensive home console of its day and that didn’t translate into market leadership, but the differences seem far more profound in this round, not only in physical size but in Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” approach. Furthermore, it’s a bit premature to criticize Sony too much; let’s see how the PS3’s power supply compares to the Xbox 360’s.

Samsung Q1 microsite marketing

Samsung's Q1 microsite marks the first time that the rubber has hit the road in terms of UMPC marketing — no vague concept videos here. On a macro level, the phrase "digital freedom" has a solid ring. The site does the best job to date of articulating the form factor's benefits including functionality such as "instant entertainment" (being able to watch videos and photos without having to boot XP) and a microphone that should enable VoIP with appropriate Wi-Fi availability.

On the other hand, "convergence" as a marketing term doesn't represent real benefit to consumers per se and the demonstration of the Q1's ability to switch orientations to accept notes like a Tablet PC features the drawing of a funny face. That doesn't make a strong case for plunking down $1100 and may be the most blatant demonstration of frivolous technology functionality since the tongue-in-cheek Saturday Night Live Macintosh Post-It Note parody.

Windows Me-too Photo

This may be the most difficult sell to come out of Redmond in ages. JPEG works. Its quality is excellent. Flash memory is ludicrously cheap; many consumers will run out of battery life before they run out of storage capacity. And pros are not going to use compressed files. Forget it.

I suppose this team will next move on to tackle Microsoft Wheel.

Nailing a niche

The $4,995 Fortuna's Maestro appears to be an inspired, well thought-out attempt to crack the future of the home theater, at least for the affluent classical music audiophile. It leverages great metacontent to create excellent value-added organization. I also like how the hardware comes free if you buy a collection of 5,000 classical works called The Cornerstone Collection. I have a modest classical music collection (about 50 CDs), but this system is the kind of thing that would entice me to explore the genre more deeply.

Maestro also opens the way for value-added services and, although I understand the rationale for Fortuna wanting to rip consumers' CDs, I don't think it's a very convenient system, even for customers who could easily afford a few dollars per month. I'm also a bit surprised that the company isn't supporting other lossless formats such as FLAC and Apple Lossless. Still, I think this will be a big hit for the custom installer market.

Pulling photos out of a hat

It will be interesting to see where pricing for the Presto photo printing service comes in. I think annual subscriptions are easier to swallow than monthly ones, particularly if a device is going to need consumables like the inkjet "photo mailbox" that Presto is planning. Presto is reminiscent of several previous attempts to entertain the lightly connected elderly or technophobes — WebTV, Cidco's MailStation and Ceiva, which still seems to be kicking around. Presto, though, seems like a product that is more attuned to its target demographic than Ceiva.

Presto's solution doesn't use the Internet, though, which leads me to believe that's using some kind of wireless network, which would be challenging to implement cost-effectively.

Stretching the Web 2.0 bubble

This is a great example of the kind of fringe site with an incomprehensible name that was the beginning of the end for the dotcom boom.