Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday Spending in Canada on the Rise?

The Canadian Press reports that, although final numbers aren't yet in, holiday spending in Canada looks to be up about 5% in comparison to last year. Fueled mainly by the baby boomer community, this means that sales in the consumer electronics category has been favourable. In fact, The Canadian Press cites certain Best Buy store locations as having topped $1 million in sales on just Boxing Day (December 26)!

Having walked into a Best Buy store on Boxing Day, I can attest to the pandemonium: there were line-ups a mile long at every cash register around the store, while customers were fighting one another to snag the best deals. By the weekend, line-ups to return or exchange merchandise (gifts that didn't quite fit the bill, perhaps?) were just as long.

It's great news that retail appears to be live and well in Canada, despite issues of cross-border shopping for perceived "better deals" in wake of the strong Canadian dollar. It's also encouraging given the increasing popularity of online shopping. It appears that, although many consumers are turning to the web to get their shopping done, it complements rather than replaces the in-store retail experience, with many still appreciating the face-to-face sale. When it comes to the holidays, even though you might have to wait in line for hours, bump shoulders with a hundred people on your way out the door, and endure the cold weather, snagging that great deal was probably worth it.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Fox Movies Come to iTunes; DRM-Free Warner Music Tunes to Amazon

More and more content is becoming available "on-demand" through things like specialty cable channels or PVRs. But one of the biggest ways of obtaining content "when you want it" is via the Web. Two big announcements were made this week that bring additional content to the online arena.

The first is from Twentieth Century Fox, which reportedly will soon offer its movies for "rent" through Apple's popular iTunes digital download service. This is great if you want to catch the latest DVD release on your iPod Video while flying or taking a train out of town; or even if you just want to view the content on your computer screen at home (which, surprisingly, many people are quite happy doing). How will the traditional movie rental business feel about this? With movies available on-demand through cable services like Rogers, and more and more movies purchasable via the Web, are movie rental retailers on the way to becoming obsolete? Or will they continue to serve a different market that appreciates the physical format, or who prefers the high-definition DVD formats, perhaps?

The second announcement hails from Warner Music, which will begin to offer its artist's tunes for download without DRM restrictions through Amazon's online digital music service. This means that, once a track has been downloaded, the consumer can do with it as he pleases: burn it to a CD for listening in the car, transfer it to an iPod or other digital music player, or just catalogue it on his PC.

As announcements like these slowly come down the pike, we're seeing a major shift in the way content is not only consumed, but also produced. With the Hollywood Writer's Guild strike still in effect, new TV programming has been scarce, yet online content continues to thrive. CD sales have also been dropping as consumers become more and more inclined to download songs via the web.

The Internet certainly can't serve as the main hub for everything entertainment: it simply isn't logical to put every egg in this one, delicate basket. But it certainly needs to be on every entertainment company's radar as an important, and potentially lucrative part, of their future business.

Text in the New Year

Virgin Mobile predicts that over 50 million text messages will be sent in Canada on New Year's Eve, which is double the number sent last year. On average, Canadians send about 31.5 million text messages per day.

"There's no doubt about it, we're becoming complete text maniacs and we get right into it on big occasions," said Nathan Rosenberg, Chief Marketing Officer at Virgin Mobile. "Whenever we celebrate, people love to express how they feel with a text message. New Year's Eve is the climax of that frenzy."

There are obvious times where text messaging is extremely convenient: if you're in a meeting, for one, or a quiet place where you can't accept phone calls (like a movie theatre or a library). Of course, if you're somewhere that's blaringly loud, as anywhere on New Year's Eve is likely to be, text messaging becomes equally as convenient. Although a quick "Happy New Yr" would likely suffice, Virgin Mobile predicts text messages of a naughtier ilk as well.

With that said, don't be surprised if a Guiness Book of World Records rep is hanging out at your party to log the record for most simultaneous finger-punching. 3, 2, 1, pull out your Blackberry, and text! Oh yeah, and Happy New Year!

Boxing Day: What's Hot?

True to my word, I headed out to busy Yonge St. in downtown Toronto for some Boxing Day shopping. One thing's for sure: shopping still remains a very popular pasttime in Canada! Despite my earlier skepticism about the quality of "deals", there were in fact tons of great ones, and plenty of people out and about to take advantage of them.

Among the most noteworthy in the consumer electronics sector: selected DVDs for $5 and high-definition DVDs (both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats) for $20; and a whopping 1 TB external hard drive (from a reputable brand) for $200! Like we recently saw in the U.S., Toshiba's older version HD DVD player was available for $99 (they were all gone by the time I made it out to the stores). However, the HD DVD add-on player for the Xbox 360 was also available for $150 - $50 less than it's regular price, and it came bundled with a free HD DVD.
Of course, flat-panels were available for excellent prices, with many retailers advertising 42" models for just $1,000. Portable GPS devices were also "hot" items on holiday shoppers' wish lists.

The online arena was just as flooded with consumer traffic. In fact, Amazon.ca reported experiencing its busiest holiday season in five years! In DVD, the online retailer's best seller was Planet Earth: The Complete Series (no surprise, given that it was an Oprah pick); while Josh Groban's Christmas album Noel topped the music sales (kudos to Mr. Groban for managing to out-sell all other artists with a seasonal album!) Super Mario Galaxy for the Nintendo Wii topped gamer purchases; while Adobe Photoshop Elements 6.0 was the best-selling software.

Amazon's "most wished for" list echoed the purchases, although the Nintendo Wii console itself was the most coveted video gaming item; and Apple's Mac OS X Version 10.5 Leopard was the most desired piece of software.

As earlier predicted, most retailers will continue deals through to the end of the week. Enjoy!

[Photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/].

Friday, December 21, 2007

Boxing Day: Is it all a Ploy?

I have become increasingly skeptical of Boxing Day "deals". Yet, for some odd reason, I still feel obligated to join the millions of others stampeding into the shopping mall on the 26th, waiting in line to get into a store they'd normally never shop at to save a few bucks on something they probably never would have purchased otherwise. Is it all worth it?

What about the so-called "deals"? The truth is that it really comes down to the specific store. Of course some will have real, cost-saving door-crasher specials that are worth trudging to the mall and fighting for a parking spot in three feet of snow to snag. But there are others who draw you in with huge signage and big promises only to offer a measly 10% off; and this is only after having first jacked the price tag up by 15%!

Even after purchasing an item at a fantastic deal, 'll often head over to the mall on the 27th or 28th and find the exact same deal still in effect. Why did I wait in line for 15 minutes to get this deal a few days ago, when I could have just come back?

Many retailers are honest about this, promoting the sale as "Boxing Week" rather than Boxing Day, if not for the customer's benefit, for their own. It pretty much says in a subtle, yet direct way, "Hey, you don't need to bombard me today - come back tomorrow...please!"

Nevertheless, I, like many others, feel the need to pop over to the mall on the 26th and make sure I'm not missing out on anything. Even though deep down I know the same deals will exist two days later, there's an air of tradition that requires that I put myself through torture, and support one of the biggest days in consumer culture.

Before you head out shopping, do your research (even if just anecdotal) and find out where the worthwhile savings are before you waste your time. Many retailers, like Future Shop and Best Buy, will not only hold in-store sales, but will also begin online sales as early as December 24, offering significant savings in limited quantities. And if you don't make it out on December 26, rest assured that, if history repeats itself, there will be "deals" of all kinds all week long.

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays (should you celebrate another holiday) to you all!

[Photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/].

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Apple Shuts Down Site That Outed its Secrets

Apple has succeeded in forcing the popular Website ThinkSecret.com to shut down. The Website reported rumours about Apple products, and many times, outed a "secret" technology before it was actually revealed to the public. For example, back in 2004, the Website talked about a smaller version of the Mac, called the mini, before it was officially announced.

What should be more cause for concern than the Website's existence is how its publisher, a college student (who actually started the site when he was just 13!), was getting his information.

According to a press release, the agreement reached did not require the site owner, Nick Ciarelli, to reveal his source(s). Does this mean the "mole" (or moles!) will just move on to another medium to out Apple's secrets?

This lawsuit is important on a larger scale when it comes to overall Web blogs, and exactly what rights a "blogger" has to disclose information. Although ThinkSecret might have been revealing products before they came out, isn't it a good thing to have people anticipating, and even guessing, what you might have coming down the pike? The more people talk about your company, the better, right? Then again, when it comes to competition, the last thing you want is for your competitors to know what you're concocting behind closed doors.

Nevertheless, the site will no longer operate, and Ciarelli says that he's "pleased to have reached this amicable settlement. [I] will now be able to move forward with my college studies and broader journalistic pursuits." Investigative reporting, perhaps?

Piracy Bust in Montreal

The last thing we need when the government is looking at new Canadian copyright legislation is a piracy ring bust, but it looks like that's just what we've received. The RCMP has raided a total of 200 DVD burners and thousands of counterfeit DVDs in Montreal, the latter of which were sold illegally through various Websites.

In February of this year, The International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) pegged Canada as a leading manufacturer and exporter of bootlegged movies, stating that nearly 20-25% of all pirated DVDs can be sourced back to Canada. The irony is that, although the counterfeit DVDs in this case were being produced in Canada, the majority of customers were located in the U.S. This isn't meant to lay blame elsewhere, but if there isn't a market for something, there's no reason for it to be produced. In simpler terms: without buyers, there can be no sellers. With that said, there certainly are plenty of buyers north of the border as well.

If you ask me, it is these sorts of people - those who are mass producing illegal merchandise and selling it for profit - who we should concentrate on when it comes to changing the current Canadian copyright laws. Individuals who use technology across several platforms in their own homes, vehicles, computers, etc. are not the problem. The problem is the guy with 200 DVD burners and a million bucks in his back pocket that belongs to someone else.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ahh, the Irony. Fraudster Poses as Protector Against Identity Theft

Ahh, the irony. A fraudster in Ontario is reportedly taking advantage of his victims by posing as a government official that's, you guessed it, offering his protective services against identity theft.
The Ontario Consumer Protection Branch says that those who have already received a call report that it's an automated telephone message that warns they might be victims of identity theft, and advises the person to press "9" for help. Someone then comes on the line, asking the person to provide their banking information so their funds can be transferred to a "secure" account (i.e. the fraudster's pocket). The fraudsters claim to be part of the Consumer Protection Bureau of Canada; an institution that actually does not exist!

I must admit: fraudsters are getting clever, now preying on the very fear that has driven people away from being duped by them. Although I have faith that most people should already know this, the Ontario Consumer Protection Branch reiterates that it would never, under any circumstances, transfer someone's money from one account to another; nor request someone's personal banking information.

The Ontario Consumer Protection Branch says that anyone who's received such a call should contact their local police, or Phonebusters at 1-888-495-8501. For more information on this, and other scams, call 1-800-889-9768 or locally, 416-326-8800.

[Photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/]

Samsung Bundles Blu-ray with HTiB

Samsung Canada says that, in March 2008, the company will offer a Blu-ray player bundled with a home theatre in-a-box (HTiB) system for an MSRP of $1,499.99. Samsung's latest BD-P1400 Blu-ray disc player currently sells for about $500 in Canada.

This offering will add fuel to the fire of a high-definition DVD format war that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. Research company DisplaySearch says that we'll likely see a lot of bundles and add-ons in the consumer electronics sector in 2008, and it looks like the high-def DVD arena won't be a stranger to this trend. The HD DVD camp has already been offering bundled deals fore some time, with things like five bonus HD DVDs with the purchase of a Toshiba HD DVD player, and even with select notebook PCs that have an HD DVD drive. This new Blu-ray HTiB offer from Samsung will add another notch in the belt of the Blu-ray camp, and create even more competition on the value side of the fence.

When it comes to which format is actually "winning" the war, various reports state different figures. The latest information from the U.S. National Retail Federation claims that, during the first week of the holiday shopping season (Black Friday), HD DVD players led in unit sales, but Blu-ray led in revenue.

I’m not sure which business model will work: you can sell all the units you like, but if you’re losing money on each, what’s the point? Conversely, you can sell fewer, but more expensive units, which might create a healthy niche market, but could it lead to mass market adoption of your product?

Samsung’s move to bundle a Blu-ray player with an HTiB might just be the answer to the latter question. The 7.1-channel HT-BD2T system will include four tower speakers, three satellites, and a sub, and offer 1,100 watts of power, combined with Dolby Digital +, TrueHD, and DTS-HD. And, of course, a built-in Blu-ray player. A more affordable system, named the HT-AS720ST, will also be available for $599.99. Although it will not come with a Blu-ray player built-in, it will be promoted as being “fully compatible” with a standalone Blu-ray player. This system, available in late March 2008, will offer a 7.1-channel AV receiver with HDMI v1.3 switching, 5.1 speaker package, and a 150 watt sub.

For those who thought a clear winner (regardless of which side) would be in place by 2008, it looks like the battle might just be getting started.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Did Dad Go Too Far By Selling Kid's Guitar Hero 3 on eBay?

By now, I'm sure you've heard about the father who put what was to be his son's Christmas present -a copy of the highly-coveted video game Guitar Hero III - up for sale on eBay after he caught the boy smoking marijuana. It has been all over the 'net as people debate whether the punishment fits the crime, or the father went too far.

The sale has reached a bid price of over $9,000, although there's no way to tell whether it was actually sold, or the listing was removed (the father did say that if anyone could give him a compelling reason why he shouldn't sell it, he'd take it off the market). After spending weeks trying to find the game, the father, who's reportedly an elementary school teacher, feels that he's teaching his son a lesson by not giving him the game.

Will this work? Truthfully, I doubt it. His son will probably just spend more hours at his friend's house, playing the game there, and probably smoking more pot while feeling bitter towards his dad (who may have just made $8,900 by punishing him!) I could be wrong, but somehow I don't think that causing resentment will result in a lesson learned. And judging from the sarcastic tone used in dad's listing, he's obviously looking to rub things in the boy's face. (Here are some excerpts from his listing: I will show him the auction once it is posted and we can watch it finish together. Sort of a “Father-Son bonding experience"...I am still considering getting him a game for his Nintendo. Maybe something like Barbie as the Island Princess or Dancing With the Stars. These games are in stock everywhere I go, and I know he will just love them." If this isn't a snarky, rubbing-it-in-your-face-tone, I don't know what is!

Then again, this man is a father and a school teacher, so perhaps he knows what he's doing. As he claims in the auction: "I know that rewarding bad behaviour is just asking for more of the same". True enough. However, if he did take the game off eBay, there will certainly be some pretty peeved bidders out there!

In the spirit of Christmas, hopefully dad takes the game off eBay and surprises his son with it on Christmas Day. As for the father's students, I'd think twice before attempting to pull a fast one past this guy - he's a force to be reckoned with, and certainly means business!

(Here's a link to the original listing for those who are interested in taking a peek!)

UPDATE: According to lengthy notes that "dad" wrote on this listing, he has inked a deal with his son whereby if the purchasing bidder is someone just playing a prank (which it likely is, because who in their right mind would pay nine-grand?) then he'll give him the game. If it's a legitimaate bidder, they'll discuss a philanthropic way to spend the earned cash. If nothing else, hopefully the incident wil bring father and son closer. (And so many think that technology spreads people further apart!)

2008 International CES Fast Approaching; E-Mail Pitches Arrive in Droves

The 2008 International CES is fast approaching, and anyone in the consumer electronics industry knows that it's a must-attend event, serving as the launchpad for some of the biggest technologies of the year.

Occupying an impressive 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space in Las Vegas, NV, it's no wonder that manufacturers have a difficult time rounding up members of the media and potential retailers to come see their wares. Weeding through my e-mail inbox over the past few weeks, I've noticed some interesting ways that companies and PR reps go about trying to get our attention, and thought I'd share some of them with you.

Most will get straight to the point with a subject line that reads: "meeting request at CES" or "CES briefing" or "can we set up an appointment?". Clear, concise, makes sense. Sometimes I'll get an e-mail that says "You're Invited": now who wouldn't open an e-mail that was clearly extending an invitation? Upon opening, it simply says you're invited to "come see our booth." OK, so it's not really some sort of cool, exclusive invite. But it did pique my interest (and likely the interest of other recipients), so congrats to them.

Others, however, use more creative methods to get a reader's attention. My favourite e-mail of the lot carried the subject line: "Attack of the CES PR People, Run For Your Life". The body of the e-mail simply went on to discuss the major announcements and booth locations of each of the PR firm's clients. But hey, at least they got my attention, right? Another one succinctly stated "CES Invitation: 7 Companies, 1 E-mail". In the matter of a subject line, this sender was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for looking at his message: I would get information on not only one company, but seven companies for the price of one! Kudos to these guys for thinking outside of the box.

I don't sympathize with exhibitors at this time of year. It can't be easy to try to convince people to come to your booth out of a choice of 2,699 others. To be honest, I really don't know that there is a tried and true method to get someone's attention with an e-mail pitch; especially when they're being flooded with hundreds of e-mail, phone call, and even snail mail pitches. My best advice to anyone attending, either in the media, investor, retail community, or otherwise, is 1)divide and conquer. You can cover more ground by splitting your resources among key areas. 2) take note of a few "must-see" booths based on what you know is coming down the pike and pitches you received ahead of time; 3) make time to walk the floor freely so you can search for some hidden gems; and finally, 4) wear comfortable shoes!

I look forward to checking out the latest and greatest in technology at next year's event. And for those in the consumer electronics industry, don't forget to attend Canada Night 2008 in the Roman Ballroom in Caesar's Palace on Tuesday, January 8 starting at 6 p.m. We hope to see you there!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Uproar About Possible Canadian Copyright Changes

There has been an uproar in Canada as of late regarding potential new Canadian copyright legislation that could mean major changes to the way we consume digital content. Many feel that we could be plagued with laws that mirror the American DMCA (Digital Milennium Copyright Act) which strictly forbids the copying of any media that’s locked or “protected” (like music protected by DRM restrictions). Remember a slew of lawsuits against college students and little kids back in 2003 when the U.S. began its rampage against illegal music downloaders? Well, this is what a change in copyright legislation could lead to here in Canada: illegal copying being deemed punishable by law.

Don't get me wrong: I don't condone illegal behaviour, and I think this could help when it comes to busting large piracy rings. But where we need to draw the line is at individual, personal use. A ruling like this could result in innocent Holly homemakers and Little Billies being deemed criminals because they want to use content they've purchased in a certain way. For example, if you make a copy of a CD or DVD to listen to in the car; or transfer a movie from a physical DVD to your nifty, new media server.

The Sling Media Slingbox is a perfect example of this. If you aren’t familiar with the Slingbox, it's a device that can be connected to a video source, like your cable set-top box, and a high-speed Internet connection at home, then allows you to watch your cable from your notebook PC (or compatible PDA) anywhere in the world where there’s a high-speed Internet connection. The key word here is your cable service on your notebook. This is great if, say, you’re in Hong Kong on business, but don’t want to miss the Leafs play-off games. Why is this so wrong? You’ve already paid for the cable, and you’ve paid for the notebook. Even if you have a friend join you to watch the game on your tiny notebook screen, how is this any different than having him over to your home to watch it on your big-screen TV? Yet copyright laws could indeed make this act a criminal offense!

There are even more shady areas, like recording programs onto a TiVo, loading up an iPod with ripped tunes, and even watching a TV program that you saved to a flash memory card in your PC. What's next? An officer waiting outside the bathroom to write me a ticket for infringing on artist copyrights because i was singing his song in the shower?

The problem with things like the DMCA is that they attempt to limit what one customer can do with things he’s already purchased, and this simply isn’t fair. I have made analogies before, like giving a friend a pair of jeans or jewelry. Technically, doing so means she isn’t going to go out and purchase the item herself, and I’m using the clothing or jewelry for means other than for what I purchased them. Should this be considered illegal? Of course not. The very thought is ludicrous. Yet if I purchase digital tunes and give a copy of them to my friend, that’s considered illegal.

I’m not na├»ve to think that people could, and would, take advantage of illegal copying. And these are the people that the law needs to go after: those who are producing items in mass quantities and selling them at a profit. But to consider the everyday Holly Homemaker or suburban family with a media server as criminals is quite simply, nonsense. Not to mention that it wouldn't solve anything; it would more likely cause an even bigger backlash against the broadcast industry than we’ve already seen.

The new copyright legislation was to be announced this past week, but the decision has been postponed until the end of the year, likely due to the amount of consumer attention that has arisen over the rumoured changes. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we won't be restricted any further in how we enjoy our own digital content.

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Black Friday/Holiday Shopping Results

Just when you thought you'd heard the last of Black Friday, the results are in! The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that retail industry sales were up 5.1% during the month of November, and total retail sales were up 6.9% year-over-year. Topping the list was sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores (11.3%), as well as electronics (6.1%), and clothing and accessories (8.2%).

DisplaySearch, a division of NPD Group, claims that, in the technology sector, LCD TVs, GPS systems, digital photo frames, camera accessories, and digital SLRs sold well during the first week of the holiday shopping season. LCD TVs outsold plasmas, while HD DVD players outsold Blu-ray (although Blu-ray led in terms of revenue share). Notebook sales also increased by 29% compared to last year.

"Consumers started the holiday shopping season with a bang," enthused Rosalind Wells, the NRF's Chief Economist.

And December is also looking up, as Wells adds that consumers reported only having completed, on average, 36.4% of their total holiday shopping.

Looking even further forward to 2008, DisplaySearch V.P. of Industry Analysis Stephen Baker says that we'll see a stronger emphasis on bundles, add-ons, and accessories as retailers hustle to make profit rather than sell volume. This makes sense, given the rapid price drops we've seen in many product categories as of late, for reasons ranging from price erosion, to the strength of the Canadian dollar. Baker also says that more attention will be paid to added-value services, like customer support, and an overall positive in-store experience. We already see an emphasis on this, through retailers like Lowe's, which just entered the Canadian market with a major focus on offering an improved customer experience.

In addition to the "hot" tech items listed above, see a few other good gift ideas in a previous blog entry. Tech gifts overall are certainly in abundance - happy holiday shopping!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Have you Ever Received an $85K Phone Bill? This Guy Did.

Canadian data plans are said to be high-priced in comparison to other developed countries, but I never thought this could result in an $85,000 bill! For one unlucky Bell Mobility customer, this was unfortunately the case. Piotr Staniaszek, 22, was shocked by an $85,000 cell phone bill after he unknowingly connected his mobile phone to his PC to download high-def movies and tons of other goodies. According to reports, he had an unlimited mobile browser plan, and he thought that using the phone as a modem would be included in this package.

On the one hand, Staniaszek should have double checked with Bell to ensure that he fully understood the terms of his service package. Bell's Mark Langton points out that Staniaszek would have received some sort of warning that indicated additional charges would apply. But on the other hand, shouldn't a company flag such strange activity and notify the customer right away? I'd think that when a customer's cell phone bill gets to a couple grand, you should probably start getting suspicious. What if Staniaszek's phone had been stolen and he wasn't aware of it?

Companies like VISA certainly make a concerted effort to contact you should any major purchase, or strange behaviour be apparent on your account. Why don't cell phone companies do the same? Of course, it's difficult to keep up with all of your clients all of the time, but then again, it should be a company's responsibility to protect its customers. Many companies are quick to contact you if a bill is even less than 24 hours overdue, so why isn't the same courtesy offered when the issue relates to the customer's interests?

However, many might argue that it's actually the customer's responsibility to monitor his own activity, and contact the company himself if he's not sure of something. I do agree, to an extent, that there needs to be a level of personal accountability; otherwise, there would be plenty of times where people take advantage of situations like this one, and the company ends up paying out of their own pocket.

In the end, Bell dropped the huge bill, and asked Mr. Staniaszek to pay just under $5,000 to match the best data plan the company has to offer when using your mobile phone as a modem. This is a relatively good compromise, but the young fella is still left with a five-thousand-dollar debt. Merry Christmas.

This leads to the bigger question: should large companies like Bell invest in systems that can immediately red-flag an account when it reaches a certain dollar amount, then contact the customer to verify that everything is OK? Or should customers simply take responsibility for their own accounts, and pay the price, as Staniaszek will have to, when they make mistakes?

TV Comes to iTunes Canada, But are we Happy with What's Being Offered?

I was going to refrain from commenting on the news that iTunes is now offering TV downloads in Canada, but, in the end, I just couldn't help myself. Being one of the few people left on the planet who isn't an iPod user (and thus, not an iTunes user), I could care less what TV programming is offered for download via the site. However, I wonder if offering only a small amount of mainly Canadian content (including NHL games) is more insulting to Canadians than it is a step in the right direction.

I don't mean to insult Canadian TV broadcasters, because some really good shows are produced and created in Canada. Degrassi, for instance, is a show that, even in its original, 1980s version, attracted a huge U.S. fan following. Rick Mercer could be considered our own, Canuck version of Jon Stewart, and lots of people love him. And of course, as stereotypes would have it, the majority of Canadians love their hockey. So the content on iTunes.ca, which includes shows like Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, plus NHL hockey games, will likely appeal to some viewers. But there aren't any cool primetime offerings, like Desperate Housewives, House, or Grey's Anatomy...the kinds of programming that people would want to watch on-the-go, and, more importantly, the kinds of programming that people in the U.S. get through iTunes. Let's face it: of the few people who actually watch our homegrown programming, will they really be so inclined as to want to download a copy to watch on their iPod?

Perhaps it's the media's fault (myself included) for hyping the news that TV downloads are now available at iTunes Canada so much that it appears to be more groundbreaking than it actually is. But then again, Steve Jobs can pretty much say he just launched the same iPod in a lighter shade of white and the media would go bananas about this "revolutionary" new spin on the traditional iPod.

This is all, of course, a matter of opinion. Just because I don't watch these programs doesn't mean there aren't people who just might be jumping for joy at the chance to watch Robson Arms on their iPods. But if the TV viewing consensus is any indication, it's the primetime TV shows that we covet, not the stuff that we barely watch on a large-screen TV, much less a tiny iPod screen for an additional $1.99 per episode.

If you ask me, it might have been a better idea to wait until deals could be inked with all the necessary Canadian networks, U.S. affiliates, and governmental regulators so that we could get the "good" stuff. But with that said, it would be petty not to applaud Apple for making the move toward offering downloadable TV to Canadian viewers, especially strategically just before the biggest buying season of the year. At least we get something, right? And as they say, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What's Hot in 2007


As the year slowly comes to a close (yes, I know we still have a few weeks left!), it's worth a look back at some of the biggest trends in '07. Of course, as with any other year, there have been tons of major product and technology announcements. But there are a few that stick out (in my mind, at least) as some of the most dominant.

In the A/V category, one of the biggest trends this year has been thin bezel designs. Toshiba is one of the leaders in this area, with its new Super Narrow Bezel REGZA HDTVs that measure just 1" wide! Sharp has also slimmed down its cabinet designs with the D64U AQUOS series that are 25% thinner than previous-generation models. I won't bore you with a pun on the words "thin is in", but the point is that slimmer TVs are becoming all the rage, and this is a trend that will likely continue into 2008.

The high-definition DVD format war continued to drag on through 2007, and will likely not come to an end any time soon. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, which is a topic I've covered many times over the course of the year in this blog. As we continue to wait it out, manufacturers keep pumping out new players in both formats; and some are even cranking out dual-format players in hopes of finding an all-in-one solution. The latest Blu-ray model to hit the market hails from Panasonic; while new brands are coming to market with low-priced HD DVD players, like one from Venturer Electronics. In April, Samsung announced plans to introduce a dual-format player, although its Canadian availability hadn't yet been confirmed at that time. Hopefully 2008 will bring forth a winner in this race.

Another hot topic in A/V has been media servers, and the act of streaming music (not to mention other kinds of content) throughout the home via devices like the Sonos Music System, Sling Media Slingbox, and Slim Devices Transporter and Squeezebox. But dedicated media servers are also finding their way more and more into homes, as evidenced by Microsoft's latest Home Server; and several products that were on display at CEDIA EXPO in September. As we roll into 2008, customers will continue to request content at their fingertips through these such devices, as well as things like portable players and PVRs (especially with TiVo now available in Canada).

In the mobile arena, the iPhone is without doubt, the biggest news of 2007. Although we haven't yet seen the device in Canada, there have been rumblings that it might arrive in early 2008. In the meantime, new players, like HTC, have entered the Canadian cellular market; while providers and devices are ramping up offerings as new features like video calling and 3G networks are coming into play. With the wireless airwaves opening up for potential competition in 2008, it seems like next year will be an even more exciting year in wireless.

When it comes to music, Apple takes the cake again with its new iPod incarnations, like the iPod Touch, which boasts a similar user interface to the iPhone, along with WiFi capability. But other players have been offering some really enticing features, like Samsung's neat YP-S5, which has fold out speakers, and can double as a Bluetooth speakerphone. Video capability on portable devices also gained plenty of steam in 2007; and will likely gain more importance in the eye of the consumer as more video content becomes available north of the border.

Of course we can't look back at 2007 without looking at the popular social networking Website Facebook.com. The company came out of nowhere to take social networking to a whole new level, involving more than just the younger generation, and adding voyeuristic capabilities that have become oddly appealing to its members. In October, Microsoft spent US$240M for a stake in the company, which brought it to a whole new level of influence in the marketplace, and had many questioning how social networking could be used as a valuable, and profitable, business tool. Given the recent horrors Facebook has endured because of its sketchy ad program, however, it will be interesting to see how things pan out in '08.

Speaking of the 'net, 2007 saw the amount of content available online ramp up to phenomenal proportions. As more content, from text to images, music, and video, finds its way online as another means of distribution, we'll likely see more controversy surrounding the subject. One of the big stories of 2007, aside from the ongoing disputes about unauthorized distribution, was the Hollywood Writer's Guild strike, which was fueled predominantly by their alleged lack of compensation for content that was distributed online. Meanwhile, just today, Apple announced that Canadians would finally be able to download TV programming via iTunes.ca (albeit a much smaller selection than in the U.S., but it's a start). Potential new Canadian copyright laws could also affect the way content is available online in the new year.

In imaging, some of the biggest trends included more megapixels (despite the fact that many thought the megapixel race was finally over); and advanced features like Face Detection and image stabilization techniques. But we also saw advances in multifunctionality, like WiFi capability, more advanced video capture, and neat, personalization and aesthetic features. Although some thought that, with mobile phone cameras getting better and better, it would spell the demise of the entry-level digicam market, a just-released In-Stat study shows we have a long way to go before this happens. With that said, we can likely expecta slew of cooler and fancier digicams to hit the market in 2008.

All of this, believe it or not, merely scratches the surface of what was "hot" in 2007. Stay tuned for further blog entries about 2007 trends; and make sure to check out Gordon Brockhouse's 2007 trends article in the December issue of Marketnews Magazine.

[Photo: Media servers were a hot topic in 2007, and will likely remain so in 2008. As one example, using the MediaMax HD and its MediaServer, customers can instantly play back all of their stored media, including HD and SD DVD movies, CD, MP3 and WAV music, photos and downloaded movies, and music (via the new Axonix NetPlay service). Any media can be played simultaneously in any room.]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Camera Phones Won't Take Over Entry-Level Digicams Just Yet

A few months ago, I talked about how camera phones are continually getting better, and could eventually take over the entry-level digital camera market. According to a new study by market research firm In-Stat, digital camera manufacturers need not worry just yet, as we're far from this actually happening.

The study found that mobile phone digicams are most popular among - no surprise here - the GenZ consumer, which represents those aged 13-24. Overall, only 15% of consumers of all ages say they use their camera phone as a primary means of taking photos; while 65% say they prefer a dedicated digital camera. (I have no idea what the other 20% use, but that's a different issue altogether).

Why aren't camera phones up to the task just yet? Although customers are quite satisfied with their operation and features (heck, many go so far as to include things like flash, zoom, and even white balance!), they aren't too happy about print quality and "the cost of sharing/receiving photos." I agree with the first reason and, if anything, it's a good indication that people are in fact still interested in printing images. I can only assume that the pricing concerns are in relation to sharing and receiving the images from mobile-to-mobile which, indeed, is oddly expensive.

For example, it costs $0.50 to send a picture message through Rogers Wireless; and if the recipient needs to log onto his mobile browser to view it, he'll incur charges of about $0.05/kb. (Of course this depends on the specific plan, but these are the pay-per-use rates).

However, there are other, more cost-effective ways to share camera phones images, albeit not instantaneously. Most camera phones use flash memory cards, or can connect to a PC via USB cable. Once an image is on your computer, you can do with it as you like: e-mail it to a friend, upload it to a photo-sharing site, and even post it to a social networking site. Once a more advanced Bluetooth standard comes into play, we might even be able to send high-res images from phone-to-phone by simply putting the two devices in close proximity to one another. And, after all, there's no way to "instantly" share images from a dedicated digital camera either, so this shouldn't be considered a "disadvantage" with camera phones.

Personally, I still use a dedicated digital camera, and use my cell phone camera (which boasts an impressive 3.2 MP of resolution!) for "emergencies only". I can, however, foresee a time when the two devices merge into one. Heck, Mio Technologies just launched a portable GPS unit that doubles as a media player and triples as a 2 MP digital camera. The possibilities of convergence are simply limitless.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lowe's Brings More Competition to Canadian Retail Sector


Lowe's official entrance into the Canadian market today spells more competition for the Canadian retail sector: not only in the home improvement category, but also with products like appliances, for which many CE and big box stores are involved.

Three stores opened today in Brampton, Hamilton, and Brantford, ON; and there are plans to open a Toronto store in late January. Lowe's says it hopes to open 100 stores in Canada in the near future.

In an effort to up the ante when it comes to customer service, Lowe's Canada plans to do things like open additional cash registers the instant there are more than three people in line, says National Post. If you happen to have caught one of the retailer's latest TV commercials, you'll also see that it plans to position "call" buttons throughout the store. Press one, and a salesperson will immediately come to your rescue. (Yah right - I'll believe it when I see it!) Other efforts Lowe's is undertaking in order to entice customers include having more employees on the floor, and having more products and special order items.

Lowe's not only poses additional competition to big box, home improvement, and appliance retailers. But because the company also offers installation services, custom A/V specialists might find themselves crossing paths with a Lowe's installer every now and then.

The important thing to note is that, even though Lowe's isn't specifically in the consumer electronics marketplace, the retailer will pose new competition for the consumer's disposable bucks. Am I going to buy and install a new plasma TV, or get that kitchen renovation I've been dying for? Not to mention that, should the retailer follow through with its customer service promises, there will be a new level of shopping satisfaction to live up to.

Meanwhile, direct competitors like Home Depot are likely revising strategies to more effectively compete against this new entrant in the Canadian market.

Retail Nightmares

Have you ever had a bad retail experience? It's unfortunate, but I'll bet that most everyone has, albeit some worse than others. Just look back to any old copy of Marketnews magazine, when the Secret Shopper was a regular column, and you'll see that the occasional bad retail experience is nothing new.

I had my own retail nightmare this weekend while holiday shopping, and thought I'd share it with you.

I proceeded to the checkout at a retailer (who shall remain un-named) with a few items that I was ready to purchase. There were two young teenage guys working the counter, and although the experience was a tad odd, I didn't really think much of it...until I got home and noticed that one item was missing. Coincidentally, an item that a young, teenage boy might covet. In hindsight, I realized what I believe to have happened:

When I arrived at check-out, one guy asked the other if he could ring this purchase in. That sounded a bit odd: why would you ask your co-worker to let you ring in a transaction? Especially when they both looked like they really weren't keen on working . In fact, one said something in small talk to the effect that it was "one of those days". I smirked, and told him I knew what he meant.

After I had paid, I heard something drop to the floor behind the counter. He looked down, then looked in my bag and said "let me make sure everything's in here", then said "yep", and handed it over with the obligatory "have a nice day". When I analyze the less than two-minute experience, I realize that I should have been more suspicious and re-checked my bags. Needless to say, it was very upsetting to find out, once I arrived home, that one particular item was missing.

Normally, although frustrated, I would have understood that accidents happen, especially during the busy holiday season. But given the circumstances and my suspicisions, I was livid. This was very likely no accident. I called the store and spoke with the manager, reciting to him what I believe went down. He was very nice about it, and said if I returned to the store, they'd gladly give me a fresh, new copy of the item in question. There was one problem: the mall I went to was very much out of my way: I had made the trek because I needed to visit a specific store, and wasn't prepared to trek back there for an item that I already paid for. He said there was no way I could pick it up at another location. After some discussion, he finally agreed to courier the product to me. I commend the way my complaint was handled; but I won't be writing any letters of thanks until the courier package actually arrives.

Meanwhile, I told the manager that, aside from the retrieval of my item, I thought it was also important to notify him of my suspicisions. After all, I'd want it to be brought to my attention if I could have thieves on my team! Innocent until proven guilty, as they say; but you won't know for sure unless you do something about it.

The moral of the story: if you ever have a feeling that something just isn't right, like you've been over-charged, or might be missing an item, don't hesitate to investigate before leaving the store. It isn't necessary to hold up a line while going over your receipt with a fine-tooth comb; but at least step to the side and run a quick check. This way, you can pop back in line if you spot a discrepancy and have it dealt with immediately.

As for me, I'm awaiting my courier package, and have faith that the manager will not go back on his word. If he doesn't, I'll certainly be giving him a call to thank him; and to find out whether he was able to track down the missing item in question. If he does go back on his word, well, I might just find myself on this particular retailer's customer nightmare story list!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Is Technology Becoming too Invasive?

A string of stories that relate to Internet security have been hitting the newswires as of late: from Facebook's ad program that was tracking people's Web activity, to Passport Canada's Web glitch that momentarily revealed personal information about applicants. This has me thinking: have some forms of technology become too invasive?

We all know about things like cookies that Websites plant onto your PC to then track your online behaviour. In fact, some people are OK with this, and even join Web panels that use their surfing information to determine the most popular Websites, or to help create targeted marketing campaigns. But what about other areas of technology?

Take GPS systems and software that can track where someone is at all times during the day, for example. Sure, this is a great method for companies who pay workers to go out on the road: how else can you ensure that they aren't making two-hour stops to a buddy's house; or that they did in fact travel as far as claimed in an expense report? Here's an idea: trust your employees to begin with, or don't hire them!

Here's another example. I just received an e-mail pitch about software that would notify parents via a cell phone message whenever their child makes a cell phone call or sends a text message to an unknown phone number. Not only does the parent receive a notification, but if it's a text message, he/she will receive an entire copy! In theory, this is great; especially with kids these days becoming increasingly active on the 'net, and conversing with people that could very well be Internet predators. But if I were a teenager and found out my parents were doing such a thing, I'd be livid. What's worse, I'd probably want to rebel at that point, feeling that my parent's simply didn't trust me.

Although it's great to discover how sophisticated tracking and monitoring features can be today, should such products be available for the consumer market? If you ask me, we're just asking for a society that is un-trusting and skeptical.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Canadian TV Viewing Habits

Ever wonder who watches what kind of TV programming, where in their home, and how much of it? A new survey of 1,266 adult Canadians conducted by Angus Reid Strategies on behalf of Samsung Canada sheds some light on Canadians' TV viewing habits, as well as regional differences among watchers.

Who are the biggest couch potatoes? Supposedly those in BC, where 15% of the respondents watch more than 29 hours a week; more than twice the national average! The majority of reality TV fans are in Alberta (11%), while 18% of Quebecers prefer soaps.

In terms of where they watch, Quebecers like to engage while they cook or eat in the kitchen (15%), while those in Atlantic Canada are more likely to opt for bedroom viewing (64%).

The Prairies could be a potentially lucrative market for flat-panel TV: 8% of residents admit to owning a TV that's more than 20 years old! On the flip side, Albertans appear to be on the cutting-edge of TV technology, with 40% reporting that they've purchased a brand spanking new panel in the last 5 years.

The result that surprised me most was that Ontarians watch the least amount of TV: 34% take in less than seven hours a week.

Overall, almost every Canadian (98%) has at least one working TV in his home; and 80% have up to three. In addition to the living room, bedroom, and kitchen being popular TV placement rooms, the survey notes that TVs can also often be found in a child's room and a home office. The majority of Canadians (34%) watch anywhere from 8 to 14 hours of TV a week.
"I think it's fair to say that television remains a mainstay of the average Canadian household," said Andrew Dorcas, Director of Marketing for Samsung Electronic Canada's Consumer Electronics Division. I'd have to agree with Dorcas: whether "watching" entails paying full attention to a HD movie, or listening to a soap or talk show through your periphery while making dinner, consumers are still very much interested in TV. And with things like flat-panels, PVRs, on-demand TV, and, of course, compelling (and high-definition!) programming, TV viewing has become a much more exciting experience than it has ever been.

Passport Canada Website Glitch Lets Man Access the Personal Information of Others

Passport Canada's Website reportedly had a security flaw that could allow applicants to change one character in the Web address to view other people's application forms, including private information like social insurance numbers and home addresses. It was a man in Ontario who made the discovery.

According to Reuters, Passport Canada has since fixed the discrepancy, and says it only revealed a "portion of the application", and only showed the information of others who were also filling out the application online at the same time. This wouldn't be such a big deal if there weren't tons of people filling out passport applications all the time in Canada. Just walk into any Passport Canada office and you'll see what I mean.

If this doesn't express the importance of Web security, I don't know what will. There are many large corporations that store tons of personal information about customers, yet don't invest in the proper security measures to ensure that this information can't be easily hacked. The old WEP security standard simply doesn't cut it anymore, with any old 13-year-old computer geek able to hack into networks supposedly "protected" by this standard. WPA is the much more secure method. Businesses that haven't yet switched over should seriously consider doing so; especially if you tend to store private, customer information in your computer databases. The other solution: don't store personal information about your customers. Why is this relevant anyway?

As for Passport Canada, the Canadian government insists that the Website's security system has now been enhanced to prevent any type of unauthorized entry; and claims that the situation with the Ontario man was an "isolated anomaly". And here I was thinking that you needed to be some sort of Web genuis to hack into personal information online. Apparently it's possible to be one keystroke away from stealing someone's life. And we wonder why identity theft is so rampant in our country...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nokia Could Shake up Music Industry

The music industry must feel like a maraca as of late, because every company under the sun is doing what it can to shake things up. From online digital music distribution sites (authorized or otherwise), to artists offering their tracks for free download, to retailers dropping CD prices. Now, popular cell phone manufacturer Nokia could shake things up yet again by offering a mobile phone that not only comes with the ability to access an unlimited number of music downloads for a year, but also lets the customer keep the tracks once the year is over!

To date, any company (to my knowledge) that offers digital music downloads will either permit access to tunes on only the device from which it was downloaded; or, in the case of unlimited downloading, will prevent access to the tunes once a subscription or contract has expired. In many cases, even if a customer can transfer or rip downloaded tunes to an MP3 player or recordable CD, they might be limited to a specific number of them (like up to 3 devices). Sure, we've just started to see DRM-free tunes hit the wire, which are 100% free from these such restrictions; but they're only available on a pay-per-use or pay-per-album basis.

With this new service from Nokia, aptly named Comes With Music, once a tune is downloaded, it's yours to keep and do with it as you like: burn to a CD, transfer to an MP3 player, or just store it on the PC. If you decide you don't want to continue downloading tunes once the year has completed, those tracks are still yours to keep, whether you downloaded 10 of them, or 10,000. The program currently includes Universal Music tracks, but Nokia says it's "in talks" with other major international labels to add their titles to the roster.

"We set out to create the music experience that people are telling us they are looking for: all the music they want in the form of unlimited downloads to their mobile device and PC," said the company's Executive V.P. and G.M., Multimedia, Anssi Vanjoki. "Comes With Music fulfills our dream to give consumers all the music they want, wherever they want it, while rewarding the artists who create it."

No specific information was provided as to how (or how much) the music labels will be compensated for the service, nor how much a subscription would cost after the one-year period (if you wanted to continue downloading tunes, for instance). However, the very existence of this program provides a good idea as to what we can expect with regards to the future of digital music.

What I find most interesting about this program is that, of all the companies offering digital music and portable music devices, it was a cell phone manufacturer that stepped up to the plate with the most appealing offer. Mobile phones could really give dedicated portable music players an unexpected run for their money: take one look at the iPhone, and you'll know what I mean.

Unfortunately, a spokesperson tells me that the Comes With Music service is not available in Canada (what else is new); but perhaps if we get more competition in the wireless arena, there will be more opportunity for such services to sneak into Canadia-land as well.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

HMV Says If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em!

I reported yesterday on our news Website, that "music" retailer HMV has decided to carry iPods and related accessories in many of its stores across Canada. I say (or rather, type) "music" in quotations because, although historically known as a store that sells CDs, DVDs, and the odd audio accessory, like CD cases and cheap-y headphones, the company has managed to evolve alongside the changing face of the music industry. And this is a good thing.

Rather than cry the blues that digital is taking over, or sit tight hoping that this digital music craze will eventually blow over, HMV has simply adjusted its business plan to fit in line with new consumer wants. CD sales are down? HMV added other entertainment products to offset the loss in sales, including video game consoles and game titles. And now, rather than admitting defeat in the music category compliments of the mighty iPod and its partner-in-crime iTunes, the retailer has jumped on board. They're sending out a loud and powerful message: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Good on HMV.

Advancements in technology do not have to translate to a battle between the old and new. People will record music onto the hard drives of their portable devices...just like many of us used to record radio or TV onto blank cassette and VHS tapes (come on, admit it. You know you did!) People will download music from the 'net instead of purchasing a physical CD. Instead of trying to tell customers what they want, why not listen to what they're telling you they want? This seems to be a large part of HMV's focus, and I've gained a new-found respect for the retailer because of it. It explains why HMV has survived in a game where many have fallen flat.

As for the adjusted strategy, it's also possible that, as each HMV customer pops in to buy the new iPod touch, he might just be enticed to pick up a few impulse CD buys...hey, you never know.

Facebook Gets Big Slap on the Wrist for New Ad Program

Popular social networking Website Facebook.com (for which Microsoft now owns a $240M equity stake) has been in the news lately, but not for good reason. It was recently revealed that, when a member purchased an item from one of Facebook's new advertising partner Websites, the information was automatically posted in the "news feeds" section of the site without the person's permission...sort of.

Here's how it supposedly worked: I buy something from a Website that's part of Facebook's new Beacon ad program (there are 44). A pop-up appears asking if I'd like the information to appear in my news feed on Facebook, a page that summarizes the most recent activity on of the site. If I click "no thanks" the information doesn't appear. However, if I quickly close that pop-up (which, let's face it, many of us do) then it's automatically assumed that I want everyone to know what I just bought online.

This, as you can imagine, is extremely intrusive, not to mention that it could have detrimental effects. The biggest example of such an effect is of one Facebook member who bought his wife a diamond ring from overstock.com (a Beacon partner Website), only to find out that the purchase appeared in the news feed for all his Facebook "friends" to see...including his wife.

Facebook has reportedly fixed the issue, requiring that a member now opt-in if he wants the informaiton published, rather than opt-out if they don't. Too little, too late for the aforementioned guy; and likely many others.

This brings us to an even bigger issue, which is how best to handle advertising in the social networking arena. The concept of Beacon is indeed a good one: if I just got a fantastic deal on a pair of designer shoes from some Website, of course I'd love for all my friends to know about it; and that partner Website would certainly love for me to tell them. It's like virtual word-of-mouth, so to speak. But it goes without saying that I, and no one else but me, should be in control of what gets published and what doesn't.

The situation can, in a way, be likened to spam mail, telemarketers, and even text messaged ads from cellular phone providers (yes, I've received a few of those!) In most cases, the companies obtained your information through legitimate means, but are using it to serve a purpose that benefits them, whether it be sending you targeted flyers in the mail, calling you about products for which they know you use, or sending you information about deals from stores you like. Facebook added a new variable: using your interests to generate interest from those who are like you (i.e. your "friends").

I'm not sure what Facebook was thinking: the company couldn't possibily have assumed that the 44 Beacon member companies would actually appreciate pissing off its customers for the sake of forced advertising. Nevertheless, the site appears to be cleaning up the situation, and making the appropriate adjustments to the Beacon system. In fact, eBay is reportedly set to sign up with the Beacon program in 2008: however, it will only publish information from sellers of products, not buyers. Smart move on eBay's part.

On another note, the bad press obviously hasn't hurt Facebook too much: according to the Associated Press, a billionaire in Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing, just paid $60 million for a 0.4% stake in the company. Ka-shing? Sounds more like Ka-ching for Facebook to me.

[Photo: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.]

Monday, December 3, 2007

More Gifts for the Holidays

As I'm sure you can imagine, the magazine world lends itself to very timely deadlines, not to mention limited space within each issue. This means that, when it comes to a holiday gift guide, although I could fill an entire issue of here's how! magazine with the items I think would make great gadget gifts, I'm relegated to just a few pages (as is each other writer). Not to mention that, as Murphy's Law would have it, a cool new item always hits the market as soon as an issue goes to press.

We included a very extensive holiday gift guide in the just-released (literally hot off the press!) December Holiday issue of here's how! magazine. I covered the hot Gadget gifts, while editor Gordon Brockhouse wrote about his fav entertainment gifts; photo expert Peter Burian discussed his top picks in the digital imaging category; and self-professed PC geek, Frank Lenk, provided the latest and greatest in PCs, related accessories, and video gaming. Of course I'm not going ruin the surprise by revealing here what products were chosen. (If you're interested, pick up a copy at one of our participating retail partners; visit http://www.hereshow.ca/ for a list). However, as with jello, there's always room for more...

With that said, here's an appendage, if you will, to my here's how! gift guide: cool gadgets that would make great gifts for anyone (but especially the tech-savvy!) on your list:

TiVo: The company just entered the Canadian market, and many people want one just for the sake of getting one; even though they might already have a PVR from their cable or satellite TV provider. Why? 'Cause it's TiVo and it's supposed to be "cool". Although you can't record high-definition content with the Series2 model that will be selling in Canadian retail stores in time for this holiday season (bummer), you can still record up to 80 hours of standard-def content. If you don't mind that setback, along with the $200 price tag, go for it.

Blackberry 8800: I reviewed this phone a few months back, and loved it. Although I haven't yet jumped on the messaging phone bandwagon, this would be one of the models on my radar. It incorporates all of the standard Blackberry features, plus a media player, and the neat trackball for navigating menus. (Click Here, then click on the image to download the full issue of here's how! that contains a review of this smartphone on Pg. 89)

HTC Touch: Although I haven't yet played around with this phone (much less any phone from this relatively new handset manufacturer), there seems to be a lot of buzz about this model, in particular. Operating on the new Windows Mobile 6 platform, it serves as a smartphone with a neat, touch-screen interface. And, of course, it has some additional multimedia features that would appeal to the most tech-savvy friends and family members on your list.

Nintendo Wii: If you can get your hands on one this holiday season, Nintendo's family-friendly Wii gaming console will likely be an appreciated gift for kids, and even adults. It's great for fun parties (think of it as a modern-day Twister!); or even for those looking for a new, more motivating way to get in shape at home during the cold winter months. I tried my hand at the bowling game during the Wii's Canadian launch event last year, and it required just as much effort to play this virtual version as it does to actually bowl; but for the fact that the controller is much lighter than a 14-lb. bowling ball!

HD DVD Player for Microsoft Xbox 360: Speaking of gaming, like many other men in their 30s, my partner owns an Xbox 360 gaming console. To get these guys into the spirit of high-definition DVD, the HD DVD player attachment for the console is pretty much one of the most affordable options. However, you might want to wait it out and see which way this format war goes!

Sirius Stiletto 2: I'm a big fan of satellite radio, and the music fan on your list might appreciate a receiver and subscription to the service. Sure, he'll have to take care of installation in his vehicle (or simply use the FM transmitter option); but if you buy one with a home dock kit, he can instantly connect it to a home stereo and enjoy tunes around the house. The Stiletto 2 can also be used as an on-the-go, portable player, which makes it the most versatile of Sirius' current offerings.

Panasonic Globarange phone: These phones are neat because they operate as standard landline phones, but can also serve as VoIP phones, using Panasonic's own technology. If two people have a Globarange phone, which connects to a phone jack and/or Internet router via Ethernet, you can chat for free using your already active high-speed Internet connection. The service is currently available in 8 countries, including Canada and the U.S. Imagine buying one for you, and one for an overseas family member, or even someone in another province or across the border. The great part is that an account doesn't even need to be set up: just connect the phone system, and an ID number will pop up on screen. (Stay tuned to the upcoming December issue of Marketnews Magazine for more on Globarange technology).

Rubik's Revolution: This high-tech version of the 1980s phenomenon called the Rubik's Cube would make a great "fun" stocking stuffer for anyone on your list that's old enough to remember the original. It's designed the same way as the original model, with checkered squares all around, but houses several electronic games that test your speed and smarts.

Gift cards: When all else fails, gift cards are always a "safe" option. Sure, some complain that they aren't personal nor thoughtful enough, but as long as you know the mindset of your gift recipient, you'll know if it's a good idea to head straight to the cash register and pick one of these up; or spend hours in the store looking for that special something. According to a recent Ipsos Redi study, 72% of people said they'd rather a gift card than an actual gift.

Canadian Retailers, Manufacturers Continue to Drop Prices

By now, you're probably tired of reading story after story about the Canadian/U.S. dollar, but after weeding through my inbox this morning, I couldn't help but report on the topic.

Retailers like Sears, Wal-Mart, and Future Shop, have all made announcements that they have reduced prices in wake of the Canadian dollar. Wal-Mart is running radio commercials that discuss the rising Canadian dollar and the subsequent reduced store prices. Sears Canada even has a name for its marketing strategy: Stronger Dollar - Lower Prices.

I've done some comparisons myself, and I can attest to the fact that it isn't all B-S: some of the prices have indeed been cut such that they are in line with what the same product is selling for in the U.S. However, I can understand how consumers could be skeptical, judging each move as a mere marketing ploy.

My advice: do your research. With the existence of the Internet, it's pretty darned easy to see if a product is in fact being offered at the same value in Canada then it is in the U.S. Also, even if the price is a bit higher in Canada, don't automatically assume that you're getting hosed. Read the fine print to find out if there are added incentives to the purchase. Is there a longer warranty? Olympus Canada, for instance, just announced that it would be adding an extended warranty to the purchase of any of its digital SLRs (and lenses) in Canada at no additional charge. In fact, this announcement was made in conjunction with the company's announcement that it would be dropping Canadian prices! Another question to ask: are there favourable delivery options that would make purchasing in Canada a better deal? Sears Canada just announced that it would be offering free shipping on soft goods to any location in Canada. The bottom line: dig deeper before making a rash judgment call.

Meanwhile, retailers aren't the only ones taking steps to slash prices. When it comes to discrepancies in pricing between Canada and the U.S., digital cameras are one category of product that often experiences an unusually wide gap. Two manufacturers, Nikon and Olympus, have already made announcements that they would drop prices in Canada. Although Nikon said it could not offer price parity, the company said that the lower prices would still be "competitive". (Keep in mind, however, that, when it comes to the manufacturers, they are reducing their own suggested retail pricing: the actual sale price you'd see in the store is ultimately up to the retailers).

As for the Canadian dollar, it remains relatively on par with the U.S.: at last check, it was worth $0.99 U.S.

Friday, November 30, 2007

PS3 Gains Steam: Back in the Race

I'll give credit where it's due, and Sony deserves some for taking its struggling PlayStation 3 gaming console, and injecting new life into it by dropping prices. Since the company chopped the price of the 80 GB unit to $499 and introduced the $399 40 GB version, demand for the PS3 has magically increased. According to PC World, combined sales at the top 10 retailers in North America have increased by a whopping 192%, and have more than doubled overall. Reports also indicate that the PS3 outsold the Wii in Japan during the month of November.

Kudos to Sony for biting the bullet, and making a move to help remind gamers that the PlayStation 3 is still out there. However, as PC World points out, these drastic measures mean Sony will be losing money from every PS3 sold. The report says that Sony hopes to offset these losses by increasing market share and adding new game titles. However, just recently, the company slashed the price of its developer kit to help attract more third-party titles for the console. Can a healthy profit still be made by games offered at half the development cost?

The PS3 won't appeal to the same, growing "family" market that is eating up the Nintendo Wii. The "serious" gamers were enjoying Microsoft's Xbox 360 a whole year before the PS3 even saw the light of day. Those who really wanted the PS3 sat in line for hours, and even days, to be one of the first to snag it. Obviously cutting the price by about $150 opened up a new group of customers that were just waiting for more affordability. But can the PS3 keep it up? The holiday shopping season will be a prime indicator of its likely market position for 2008.

Nevertheless, congrats to Sony for managing to generate new interest in the PS3. The three-way console race just got a lot hotter!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Huge Leaps Made in Fostering New Competition in the Wireless Arena

I've been saying for some time now that we need more competition in the Canadian wireless industry, and now it finally looks like we might get it. On May 27, 2008, an auction will be held for the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum, which is essentially the airwaves required for cellular service to operate. The Canadian government's Ministry of Industry, the Honourable Jim Prentice, said yesterday that 105 MHz of radio spectrum would be made available: 65 MHz will be offered to the existing players so they can build upon advanced features and services. But the big news is that 40 MHz will be set aside exclusively for new players. Needless to say, it's a happy day for any company trying to get its foot into the door of the Canadian wireless arena.

Of course the current wireless players, Bell, Rogers, and Telus, aren't too happy about the decision.

"Telus is deeply disappointed with the Government's decision on the rules for the upcoming AWS auction," said the company's Executive V.P. or Corporate Affairs, Janet Yale. "It is inconsistent with this Government's stated policy of relying on market forces to deliver benefits to Canadian consumers. It also rewards companies that have both the resources and the motivation to bid openly for new available spectrum. As a consequence, Canadian taxpayers will receive less than full market value for the new spectrum."

The current players feel that the fair method of auction would have been to give the open spectrum to the highest bidder. Hmm...who would such a decision favour? Oh yeah - the guys with the big bucks! It would be like putting a gun into Tony Soprano's hand, then asking a bunch of wanna-be gangsters to fight him. Of course you have a chance guys...just try your best! Is this fair? I'd say not, as does Mr. Prentice.

"We want to ensure that new entrants have the same opportunities and the same access to networks and infrastructure as existing providers have had in the past and have today: no more, and no less," he said. Prentice added that the three current providers control a whopping 95% of the market right now!

Prentice also pointed out something that I, and many studies, have noted in the past: that Canadians pay more for our wireless service than most other countries; especially when it comes to data like Internet and e-mail access. If new carriers are added to the mix, pricing could consequently come down as each carrier is forced to fight much more aggressively for consumer's bucks. And with number portability available in full force in Canada (the ability to switch from one carrier to another, but keep your current telephone number), new players entering the market could mean a major shake-up in the industry.

"The introduction of new service providers will help make Canada's wireless market more dynamic, more competitive, and more innovative to meet the growing needs of Canadians," Minister Prentice added.

I commend the Canadian government on this decision: it's about time! Let's keep our fingers crossed that we see a new, rejuvenated wireless industry in 2008 and beyond. Perhaps then, Canadian customer's level of satisfaction with their wireless service will be a little less abysmal than it is today.

[Photo: Industry Minister Jim Prentice announces details of the upcoming AWS spectrum auction to be held on May 27, 2008.]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cyber Monday Shoppers Go Wild

Cyber Monday is the Monday after the U.S. Thanksgiving long weekend, and is named as such because of shoppers' tendencies to head to their computers for some post-turkey online shopping. This year was no different, with a total of 72 million shoppers expected to have made online purchases that day (according to a study conducted on behalf of Shop.org, the Website that named the day "Cyber Monday"). This is up from 60.7 million in 2006, and 59 million in 2005. What I infer from these figures is one of two things: more people are shopping online, or more people are shopping period. Either way, the point is that more people are shopping.

Although "official" figures for Cyber Monday haven't yet been released, the National Retail Federation (NRF) says that CyberMonday.com, a Website that compiles promotions and deals from more than 550 online retailers, tracked three times more traffic by 1 p.m. in the afternoon on that day than it had in the previous year. That equated to more than one-million visitors in just the first 13 hours of the day!

Cyber Monday is such a hit in the U.S. that the NRF holds a Shop@Lunch event in Washington, DC, where workers can surf for the best deals while munching on some mid-day grub. This is probably a good idea, since the Shop.org survey (which was conducted by BIGresearch) discovered that 54.5% of workers with Internet access planned to shop from work. So hey, why not encourage them to do so on their lunch hour rather than using up valuable company time to find the latest Tickle Me Elmo for their nieces and nephews? Surprisingly, men were dubbed more likely to shop while at work than women (57.3% vs. 51.7%). Not surprisingly, young adults, aged 18-24, were the most likely to do so at 72.9%. This year, more than 200 people attended the Shop@Lunch event in Washington.

In addition to offering neat promotions and deals, 24.7% of online sites offered free shipping for orders placed on Cyber Monday. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, 72.2% of online retailers planned some sort of promotion for the day, up from just 42.7% in 2005.

When shopping becomes an organized event at work, you know that the industry is on to something big.

[Photo: A few office workers attempt to snag the best online deals while attending the Shop@Lunch event that took place in Washington, DC on Cyber Monday: November 26.]

Keeping Track of the High-Definition DVD Format War

Trying to keep track of the high-definition DVD format war is like trying to keep tabs on the invisible man: it's a constantly moving target, and I have no idea where each format is at any given time. Sales of hardware and software, market penetration, movie studio and retailer support, all of which will help determine a "winner", are all consistently shifting. Not to mention that, depending on the source, different numbers are reported everywhere.

Hardware sales in one country are higher for X format; but if you look at numbers from a specific region, Y format is actually doing better. Meanwhile, software sales for one format in a particular store are triple that of the other format; but sales in a much larger retail outlet are double, which equates to much more when you look at the bottom line. It's like high school math problems all over again!

With that said, I thought I'd add some fuel to the fire, and increase the complexity of this math problem. The latest numbers I've received (from the RetailBRIDGE) say that the North American HD DVD Promotional Group is reporting that 750,000+ HD DVD players were sold in the U.S. this past Black Friday weekend. This includes both standalone players (like the one that was selling in Wal-Mart stores for US$99!) as well as the add-on drive for the Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console.

I haven't heard any comparable figures about Blu-ray player sales throughout the weekend, but I'm sure they're similar in some fashion. It will be interesting to see how HD DVD and Blu-ray software titles sold during the weekend, especially since the National Retail Federation claims that books, CDs, DVDs, videos, and video games accounted for 41.7% of purchases that weekend.

As for the format war itself, if this busy, holiday shopping season doesn't put an end to the fight come early 2008, I don't know what will. But I might just have to track down my old math teacher for some help in figuring out which format is actually in the lead.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Should Sirius & XM Merge?

Should satellite radio providers Sirius and XM merge in the U.S.? This has been the question on many minds over the past few months, as the companies, their investors, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), go back and forth on the issue.

On the one hand, a merger would unify the two competing brands, allowing them to more effectively compete against other forms of music entertainment, which range from standard, terrestrial radio, to streaming Internet radio, digitally downloaded tunes, store-bought CDs, and even the relatively new HD Radio format. On the other hand, Sirius and XM are technically the only two providers of satellite radio technology in the U.S. (not to mention Canada), so a merger would see them effectively competing against, well, no one. Without competition, one really has zero incentive for providing attractive promotions and pricing.

According to SkyREPORT, several groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and Free Press, are urging the FCC to reject the proposed merger. I often find myself in opposition of large lobbying groups (like those that wish to impose a levy on hard drive-based music players or pretty much those in favour of stifling technological innovation in any way), but I'm actually on the side of these groups this time. Competition is good for the consumer and good for business. The satellite radio arena needs it in order to remain fresh, and work toward giving consumers a valuable reason to switch from standard radio to a paid, commercial-free service.

I do understand that, although Sirius and XM are the only two satellite radio providers in the race, they are technically competing with other services: terrestrial radio in the car, streaming Internet radio in the home, for example. In that case, they would indeed have to offer some sort of incentive in order to get customers to pay for their radio service, whether there was only one provider, two, or 20. But then we can take it one step further and say they're also competing with iPods, because these nifty players can easily dock in a car to playback tunes through the vehicle's audio system; and manufacturers like Sonos and Squeezebox, which provide hardware that makes streaming tunes throughout the home just as easy as docking your satellite radio receive with your stereo system. Where do we draw the line? More important, if a significant chunk of consumers get hooked on satellite radio, where, then, is the incentive to offer better deals that go beyond "commercial-free music"? Even though the companies would likely operate independently from one another, the bottom line is that, if there's only one provider, why bother with great promos that we might have otherwise seen in the market?

The situation can be likened to GSM phones in Ontario, which I've mentioned before in previous blog entries. If a customer wants to move to a new GSM carrier, his choice is limited to Rogers or Fido, the latter of which is owned by the former. Sure, a customer could always just opt for CDMA and go with another carrier altogether; but if he wants GSM for its world-roaming capability, or perceived better reliability, he has one option.

The groups cited above claim that a merger would "reduce the number of channels and formats available, and result in fewer cost-saving incentives." They add that without competition, the industry would see a "dramatic drop in spending on talent and retail". Here, here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

TiVo is Here!

I've always wanted TiVo, and to be honest, I'm not quite sure why. I have a set-top box at home with a built-in PVR that lets me record TV programming on the fly, set future recordings, and pause, rewind, and fast forward live TV. But yet I've always wanted one of those "cool" TiVo's that they talk about on American TV all the time. Maybe it's sort of like the iPod vs. every other portable audio player on the market. They all essentially do the same thing: let you listen to digital tunes (and sometimes video) while on-the-go, or through a home audio system or separate speakers. But the iPod arguably does it best, with an easy-to-use, and quite sexy interface. Is that what TiVo promises?

To be honest, I don't know because I've never had the chance to play around with one. Well now, I just might. The company has confirmed its entrance into the Canadian market, and now I feel like an anxious Mac-addict that salivates every time he sees the iPhone commercial. We've waited so long for this device to come to Canada, I was beginning to think that Canadian broadcasters might have to bleep out the word "TiVo" every time it was mentioned and voice-over "PVR" just so we wouldn't feel left out.

In the U.S., "TiVo" has become much like the terms "Kleenex" for tissues and "Xerox" for photocopies, both of which are actually brand names, not products. The same thing happened with the Sony Walkman in the '80s, where virtually every portable player, whether made by Sony or not, was simply lumped into the "Walkman" category. When it comes to TiVo, I, in Canada, will say I missed Dexter last night, but no worries: IPVR'd it; while U.S. TV watchers are more likely to say I missed Dexter last night, but no worries, I TiVo'd it! Do you catch my drift?

Back to TiVo in Canada: although the box that will be available in early December ($199) does not support high-definition signals, up to 80-hours of standard definition content can still be recorded for later viewing. A reader to our news Website http://www.marketnews.ca/ commented that the move is "a day late and a dollar short", stating that, since so many people have already converted to HD, they won't bother with standard definition recording. Au contraire, I say. There are tons of consumers out there that haven't yet bought into the HD craze: in fact, the penetration in Canada is projected to be just about 48% by the end of this year, according to the CEMC. Even so, I'm an HD viewer, but I'd rather record a program in SD than not record it at all (of course I'd prefer HD if given the option).

A subscription will cost $12.95/mo. (in U.S. dollars, not that it makes much of a difference), or less depending on how many years you sign up. As for compatibility, a press release issued by TiVo says that it's "optimized for cable households". A TiVo spokesperson tells me that it will also be compatible with satellite boxes; and dial-up Internet connections (albeit with the turtle speeds that dial-up users have become accustom to).

Maybe it's marketing. Maybe it's U.S., pop culture TV. Maybe it's the same juice iPod-fanatics are drinking. But I'm happy to see Canada added to the TiVo culture. Better late than never, as they say. Next up: the iPhone. We're waiting....