Thursday, May 31, 2007

MLB Goes After Slingbox

Here we go again. In the ever-continuing copyright debate, MLB is now frowning upon a nifty little device called the Slingbox, which allows users to “place-shift” video content from a connected source (like a set-top box) to their PC anywhere in the world where there’s a high-speed Internet connection. The organization is saying the Slingbox constitutes the “redistribution of content without MLB’s express written consent.”

So let me get this straight: providers of content fight for ways to increase the consumption of said content. In the case of sports, it might be via ticket sales to games, or through fans watching at home on TV. Enter the Slingbox. Here’s a way to provide your faithful fans with access to the World Series games while they’re stuck in Japan on business. And this is a bad thing?

Coincidentally, I was chatting with a few industry members about the Slingbox earlier today. We’re in New York City for a conference, and a few die-hard hockey fans raced to their hotel rooms after dinner to catch the play-off game (some routing for Anaheim, but many faithful Canucks crossing their fingers for Ottawa!) There's no access on the hotel’s cable. Darn. OK, let’s stream it online. Ironically, up comes a mocking notification that the streaming broadcast is only available in Canada. Argh. If I had only connected my Slingbox at home…

Imagine the horror: there likely would have been a group of Canadian guys hovered around my notebook in the hotel lobby actually (*gulp*) enjoying the game that they ended up not being able to watch at all.

I feel passionate about the fact that consumers need to access content when they want, and how they want. It’s completely understood that revenue is the essential part in any business model, whether it’s a broadcast network or a hot dog stand. It’s not time to stop the progression of technology; it’s time to change the business model.

No legal action has been taken by MLB, and, for the sake of continuing technological innovation, I hope it remains that way.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

RIP Sam The Record Man

It’s no secret that sales of pysical CDs have been suffering at the expense of digital tracks from online services like iTunes, Puretrack, and, dare I say it, illegal peer-to-peer sites. We saw the iconic Tower Records close, and now downtown Toronto’s long-standing music retail store Sam The Record Man has seen its last days. As tough as it is to admit, we saw it coming.

The store will close next month. The CBC quoted Bob Sniderman, son of Founder Sam Sniderman, as saying: “Culture and society are changing. Our decision is a reflection on the state of the industry. We can't compete with what's happening in technology."

Other music retailers have taken steps to help offset the decline in CD purchases: Future Shop launched its own online music download service called Bonfire (powered by Puretracks) in 2004; while traditional music/DVD retailer HMV added video games, consoles, and accessories to its product mix last summer. The reality is, however, that digital will only continue to rise: with sites like iTunes, downloading a digital album will sometimes even provide you with the full CD jacket, including artist bios and song lyrics. Those who used the absence of these things as an argument against digital are certainly tight-lipped now.

If a music retailer wants to compete in cyber-world, here are a few suggestions. Cater to a specific niche market: offer tracks that haven’t yet found their way into the online arena. For example, a couple of my colleagues are hard-core classical music fans, and can’t find specific symphonies and performances through a music download site. These audiophile customers will remain faithful to the traditional retail model until they find a comparable alternative.

Another idea is to convert into a music café. I visited a Starbucks in South Beach, Miami last year, which was outfitted with really neat music listening stations that let you preview songs, and create your own custom-made CDs while sipping your latte. Speaking of Starbucks, I wouldn't be surprised to see one of those erected in the Yonge St. spot Sam currently occupies.

RIP, downtown T.O. Sam. Us Torontonians will miss ya.

Note: Two Sam franchise locations still exist: one in Belleville and another in Sarnia. I can hear the clock ticking…

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

SIMS: The Movie?

The Sims, a virtual reality PC game by popular video game creator Electronic Arts Inc., might see its way to the big screen. According to Variety, 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights for the popular game, which has been labeled the “best-selling PC game in history”. For those who aren't familiar with the game, Sims lets players build their own virtual world, acquiring things like jobs and friends, just like they would in real life.

Rod Humble, Studio Head at SIMS, summed it up best: “The Sims has done an interactive version of an old story, which is what it’s like to have infinite power and how do you deal with it.”

How Fox plans to approach a Sims movie adaptation is still yet to be announced. If the movie lives up to the game’s stellar reputation, this could mean another successful notch in the belt of Mr. Murdoch (head of media conglomerate News Corp.), who probably knows something or two about having near infinite power. In addition to several film, TV, and cable assets, News Corp. also counts popular social networking Website MySpace among its many properties.

I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like to have infinite power. I’d probably go insane. It reminds me of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, where Malcolm becomes obsessed with a SIMS parody game called “The Virts”. He re-creates every member of his family following a “rating” system to define their characteristics (intelligence, and so forth). Naturally, he makes himself the picture of perfection. I think it ended with him depressed in a corner soemwhere because no one liked him. 'Nuff said.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Anime Invades T.O.

I attended a trade show last week that was taking place in the same venue as an Anime convention, and I must say, I got a little freaked out when I drove up to see swarms of people in colourful and strange costumes. Did I enter the Twilight Zone? I swore I took the right highway exit. Has October 31st come already?

I must admit I’m only vaguely familiar with what Anime actually is: according to Wikipedia, it’s an abbreviation of the word “animation” and involves cartoon-like characters from Japan. Several sources say the exact definition is debatable, but if you think Sailor Moon, you’re on the right track.

It was obvious a lot of work went into their elaborate costumes, as each person dressed as their favourite, er, character. Watching them prance around the venue, up and down the streets, and flood the lobby of a local hotel, I couldn’t help but wonder what their convention was all about.

Naturally, I “Googled” it to find out that it was called Anime North, and drew 14,000 attendees for a number of activities and events, including a panel discussion, screening of the 2006 anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and, I should have guessed, a party complete with costume contest.

Is this a case of life imitating art? Or are these kids stuck in a virtual reality that has made life become nothing more than a fantasy? Who am I to judge, I guess. Either way, it was interesting to observe, and it was a humorous contradiction to the eye-glass wearing, notebook clutching, custom A/V guys that were there for the CE show. Come to think of it, maybe the two groups aren't so different after all...
But as a sidenote, if security inquired which conference you were there to attend, I'd take another look at your wardrobe choices.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Canon Postpones SED… Again

As reported on our sister news and information Website, Canon and Toshiba have postponed the launch of flat-panel SED TVs…again. This is, to my knowledge, the third delay thus far.

I’m starting to wonder if this technology really exists, or if it's just a figment of my imagination. Had it not been for the fact that the editors of our two publications both got a sneak peek at SED during the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show, I’d have stuck to my guns on the latter. For what it’s worth, they both described it as being “flat-out beautiful, with blacker blacks, great shadow detail, and more brilliant whites.” (Take into consideration, of course, that both plasma and LCD technology have improved tremendously over the past two years, so the differences might not be so pronounced today as they were back then).

Why the holdup? Canon cites prolonged litigation as one of the reasons. In January 2007, the firm that licensed SED technology to Canon (Nano-Proprietary Inc.) filed suit against the company, crying breach of contract, stating that Canon’s partnership with Toshiba was not part of the original agreement. As a result, Canon set forth to purchase all the outstanding share of SED Inc., and shifted around some employees to accommodate the change.

A second reason cited for the delay is “efforts to establish mass-production technology aimed at realizing further cost reductions.” Translation: the prices of flat-panel TVs are dropping so much, so fast, that now the company has to find a better, cheaper way to mass produce the sets.

Will we ever see this technology come to fruition? Who knows. But we’ve been on the edge of our seats for SED for so long, it would be nice to see something come of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Are Canadian Cell Phone Users Getting Hosed?

An interesting study conducted by Canadian research firm The Seaboard Group discovered that, of the developed countries, Canadians pay the most for their cell phones services. According to the study, the average cell phone user forks over 33 per cent more dough a month than even our neighbours to the south. This number rises to 56 per cent for those considered to be “heavy” users (1,200 min./mth.) This is due to high per/minute rates and long distance charges, as well as hidden (or not so hidden) additional feels, like 9-1-1 access, and that pesky service charge for which no one can really explain the purpose (really, what the heck does that cover?)

Because of this, Canadians are reluctant to jump on board the cellular wagon. Seaboard says that even though 58 per cent of Canadians own a mobile phone, we’re way behind other countries: America is at 75 per cent, while 86 per cent of Germans are chatting it up on-the-go.

How do we change this? Well, more competition would help.

We have, ultimately, four main wireless carriers in Ontario: Rogers Wireless, Fido Wireless, Telus Mobility, and Bell Mobility. Virgin Mobile uses Bell’s network; while youth-oriented newcomer Amp’d Mobile piggybacks with Telus’ EVDO network. GSM, the international standard for wireless technology, is only available through Rogers Wireless and Fido, the latter of which Rogers owns. It’s like choosing between apple pie made with granny smith or mcintosh apples. In the end, it’s just apple pie. Why don't we have some cherry, lemon meringue, and key lime? (getting hungry, yet?)

As they say, variety is the spice of life. Let’s get some in the wireless arena.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Kodak To Leave Entry-Level Digicam Market

Rumour has it that Kodak will leave the entry-level digital camera market: an odd decision given that this is the market for which the firm is probably most popular. This leads to the question: where will they go from here? The high-end digital SLR market is dominated by some very strong players like Canon and Olympus; while the mid-end is chocked-full of competition: everyone and their uncle is making a digital camera these days.

According to engadget, Kodak is developing its own five-megapixel CMOS sensor for use in a new digital camera model (of its own brand), as well as in upcoming Motorola mobile phones. Huh?! 5MP in phones??

This actually isn’t as surprising as it sounds. I discussed a few weeks back how cell phones are on their way to becoming the new entry-level digital cameras. This happening is likely far off in the horizon: there are still people who would rather use a phone as a phone, and a camera as a camera. Not to mention that built-in cell phone cameras are just beginning to scratch the surface of acceptable picture quality. But it looks like Kodak sees the writing on the wall, and is jumping out while it still can. It’s not a bad idea to start partnering with the cell phone guys now in an effort to be ahead of the game.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

People Still Read Books

It’s nice to know that even in the age of rapid technological innovation, people still long to curl up on the sofa with a good book. Indigo Books & Music Inc., which operates the Indigo, Chapters, The World's Biggest Bookstore, and Coles stores throughout Canada (as well as the Website), reported record numbers for its fiscal year ended March 31, 2007.

Net earnings were up 18.4 per cent over the previous year, reaching a whopping $30 million. Total revenue was $201.9 million, up $11.8 million (6.2 per cent) over the same quarter last year. That’s a lot of Harry Potter and Shopaholic Series books!

This just goes to show that technology doesn't always replace the traditional way of doing things: it simply helps to enhance activities that we’ve always loved engaging in. I don’t see myself reading an electronic book any time soon; but when I’m relaxing on a flight with the latest paperback novel, I’ve definitely got my noise-canceling headphones on, and my MP3 player geared up and ready to go once I've finished a few chapters.

Kudos to Indigo for keeping us entertained the old-fashioned way while we jump on the tech bandwagon to enhance our experiences.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dude! Dell is Being Sued

According to, Dell is being sued by the New York State Attorney General’s office for “deceptive business practices”, including, among other things, duping customers into falling for misleading promotions (an old tactic called bait-and-switch); not following through with technical support service promises; and even harassing customers with canceled accounts.

It sounds like they’ve got a pretty solid case, too, which could spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for Dell, which has already been overtaken by HP for the top spot in notebook shipments worldwide; not to mention had to recall of 4.1 defective notebook batteries last summer.

If the allegations (which also include things like discouraging customers from calling tech support, and pressuring them to open the computers and fix things themselves) are true, it makes you wonder why the firm would stoop to such a low level. You'd think a company like Dell, who focuses on the Internet model over the retail bricks-and-mortar one, would pay much more attention to its level of telephone customer service; not to mention tech support.

Looks like dude might be getting screwed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ready for a Full Meal, or Just a Media Snack?

I’ve heard the term “media snacking” several times over the past month. So what is it? Media snacking is the act of grabbing quick “bites” of content. This can include things like short video clips, text messages, tunes, or even blogs like this one. If you're reading this right now, you're snacking!

Most would think that media snacking on mobile devices in particular is just for kids: after all, what working adult has time to engage in such activity? Think again. According to a survey conducted by Leger Marketing on behalf of Palm Canada, 60 per cent of adults are active in mobile entertainment, nibbling on bits of media more often than they even have time to do.

Ironically, the reason adults are raiding the mobile ‘fridge is because of lack of time, and being so overloaded. Most professionals do not work a typical 9-5 day (27 per cent say they work at least 10 hours!), and are finding themselves more often than not on-the-go. Snacking on media is a way to help unwind during the day.

What are mobile adults snacking on? Survey says: tunes and text messages (44 per cent); video clips (19 per cent); and radio (33 per cent). Social networking Websites like Facebook and MySpace are also being visited from portable devices, which is something I can personally attest to, having logged in many times during lunch or while on the road (only as a passenger, I swear!)
Once they’re at home, it appears that many people still can’t manage to put away the BlackBerry until the morning: the temptation to check and respond to e-mail is far too great for any road warrior to fend off. Almost a third of the people even admitted to responding to e-mails while eating dinner; and close to 40 per cent confess to working while attending social or family gatherings (remember Ari during Yom Kippur on the latest episode of Entourage?).

Media snacking is great. But it’s important to ensure all this techno-wizardry doesn’t consume our lives: 24/7 is too much, 9-to-5 is too limiting. I feel it all boils down to balance. If you know when to shut down your connection, you’ll value the nature of mobile technology much more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Update: Wal-Mart Steps Up CE Presence

We've been told by spokesperson Christi Gallagher at Wal-Mart Canada that the announcement mentioned below is specific to U.S. Wal-Mart stores. However, Wal-Mart Canada has been remodeling its existing stores and opening new Super Centres over the past year, all of which employ a new format for the electronics department. In the case of new stores, this represents about 7,000 sq. ft. of space dedicated to consumer electronics: about double what was previously offered! All stores also feature a new, more open-concept design that allows customers to walk freely through the aisles instead of entering a dedicated CE area.

Gallagher says the changes were made based on research conducted with its Super Centre stores. Not surprisingly, she says iPods and HDTVs are two of Wal-Mart's "hottest selling items right now". The retailer has even added a Connection Centre kiosk in new stores that features things like mobile phones, satellite radio receivers, and GPS devices. Although Wal-Mart Canada hasn't taken on the Skype products like its counterpart in the U.S., the retail giant has been offering Vonage VoIP service since January of this year.

In a way, this is also good news for other CE retailers: if the biggest retailer in the world is ramping up its technology offerings, this means that interest in CE products is as healthy as ever.

Wal-Mart Steps Up CE Presence

According to several reports, U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart is stepping up its consumer electronics offerings, adding more flat-panel TVs from brands like Philips, Sony, and Samsung; and bringing on VoIP products from Skype, including calling cards. I was unable to confirm just yet if the additional SKUs will be available north of the border as well (stay tuned). Either way, this is big news for fellow CE giants, not to mention independents, both of which have been finding it hard to compete with Wal-Mart’s massive price cuts.

Let’s put things in perspective: right now at Future Shop, a brand-name 32-inch widescreen, high-definition LCD can be purchased for just shy of about $1,200. A no-name model is available for $700. A year ago, the same product would have been about double that!

Last month, Wal-Mart Canada added the Prive brand of LCD TVs to its roster: budget-conscious consumers can grab a 32-inch model for a measly $470. The CEO of Prive’s parent company, SOYO, commented at that time that the company was “happy” to be part of Wal-Mart’s “aggressive plan to build its consumer electronics division.” Aggressive is an understatement.

At this rate, we’re bound to see a “buy one, get one free” sale on HDTVs by Christmas. The mere thought deserves a chuckle, but this is a serious issue. A breaking point is going to be reached at some point in the near future. It’s already begun to happen: Circuit City announced a massive restructuring plan in February, closing a whole whack of stores in both the U.S. and Canada. And the retailer wasn’t shy about the reason, citing “intensified gross margin pressures” experienced with flat-panels TVs in the third quarter.

Of course it can be argued that customers won’t get the same level of product knowledge and customer service through Wal-Mart than they would a specialized, independent retailer; or even a CE-targeted big-box one. But it appears that Wal-Mart is ramping up its staff product knowledge as well: reports online claim that U.S. employees have been put through extensive product and customer service training within the consumer electronics department.

Wal-Mart obviously means business in this area. How will this bode for traditional CE retailers, not to mention the rapidly dropping prices of product like HDTVs? We’d love to hear your comments.

Monday, May 14, 2007

MySpace Targets Canada; Again, Canadians Get the Short End of the Stick

Even if you haven’t visited MySpace before, you would have had to be living under a rock for the past few years to not know what it is. Now, the creators of this widely popular social networking Website have officially launched a dedicated Canadian MySpace site at

The site, offered in both official languages, promotes Canadian music and artists, like Billy Talent. Advertising is also targeted to Canadians; and, according to the Globe & Mail, there are pending deals with Canadian mobile carriers to deliver MySpace to cell phones.

MySpace isn’t just targeting Canada: the company, which is owned by media behemoth News Corp., plans to roll out dedicated sites with local content all over the world, and has already made moves in China, Latin America, and South America.

This is a great idea, providing users in each country and region with a bit of local flavour while we communicate and surf. However, it also poses the same issues that arise with sites like iTunes, and major U.S. TV networks: when it comes to some really cool content, those outside of the U.S. end up getting the short end of the stick.

News Corp. and NBC are offering TV programming which can be viewed via MySpace. Great! But Canadian users can’t view it due to licensing rights. Not so great. This isn’t MySpace’s fault, but it really ticks me off. Why can’t Canada step up and realize that offering such content won’t damage our own culture?

I missed an episode of Ugly Betty a few months back, and stupidly forgot to PVR it, so I logged on to and noticed a link that read “watch Ugly Betty online.” Alright! I clicked on it, and up came a notice: “Only viewers within the United States can watch these full-length episodes.” What?? Another fav show of mine is Showcase’s Dexter. Upon trying to access the Showcase Website, the following message popped up on-screen: SORRY! We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. Argh. So not only am I unable to view the TV episodes online, but now I can’t even see the Website! On the bright side, at least they were polite about it.

I can’t comprehend why I can watch an American TV show on my television via my Canadian cable or satellite provider; yet I am unable to watch this same show online? The same issue occurs across all types of technology. I am required to have access to special Canadian channels on my Sirius satellite radio that I never tune into at the expense of U.S. channels that I might have actually listened to?

And we wonder why the piracy rates are so high in Canada!

My point: we need to move ahead in the digital content arena, or offerings like MySpace’s dedicated Canadian site will continue to turn the meaning of “targeted” into “restrictive”.

Friday, May 11, 2007

High School Kid Says iPods Stop Heart

A high school student in Michigan conducted a study that claims the use of an iPod can interfere with pacemakers when held two inches, and in some cases even 18-inches, from the person’s chest. Whether this claim can be substantiated on a larger scale remains to be seen.

In the student’s test sample, which consisted of 100 patients with a pacemaker (mean age of 77), the iPod interfered with the electromagnetic equipment that monitors the heart 50 per cent of time when held two-inches from the subject’s chest for anywhere from five to 10 seconds. When held 18-inches away, the portable player caused it to misread the heart’s pacing, and apparently in one case, even caused the pacemaker to stop functioning! His conclusion? iPod interference can cause doctors to misdiagnose heart function.

This super-smart student isn’t just creating a cool science project for 9th grade biology - he means business: in addition to an assistant professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Michigan serving as the senior author of the study, the boy’s father is an electrophysiologist, and his mother a rheumatologist. (Talk about a brainy family!)

A Reuters report cites the professor posing the same question we’re all likely asking ourselves: how many 77 year olds do you know own an iPod? I’m no doctor, but I do know it’s possible for people who are much younger to require the medical device. It will be interesting to see if the kid continues his studies. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see iPod packaging labeled with “do not use if you have a heart condition”.

Since the student only used iPods in his studies, it's not made clear whether it’s something in the internal mechanics of the iPod; or just portable gadgets in general, that could cause the malfunction. Either way, if you have a pacemaker, I’d stick to the radio until further notice.

Rogers Lets You Talk For Free

OK, not exactly, but the wireless carrier is running a promotion whereby you can choose five friends to put on a special calling list, then make unlimited, local calls and text messages to them for free. Well, not entirely for free: the plan, called MY5, will cost $25/mth, or can be added to select existing plans for another $10. Although MY5 is open to any Rogers Wireless subscriber, judging from the press release I received this morning, Rogers is targeting the promotion primarily to youths.

This is surely a great way to help parents save money, especially with Chatty Cathy kids that can’t go one hour without talking it up with their “BFF”. But this promotion poses a few questions. For one, do parents really want to encourage their kids to blab on the phone for hours on end? With per-minute plans, parents can easily argue that once the kid has reached his minutes for the month, he’s not allowed to use the phone until next month (unless he gets a j-o-b to pay for it!). With this particular plan, kids can pull the “but mom, it’s free!” card. The parent is, of course, the authority figure here either way, and has the final say. But if I were a kid, I’d be asking why you signed me up for this plan if you don’t let me use it?

Second: although the plan affords unlimited calling and texting to your five favourite friends, regardless of which carrier the friend is on, what happens if these five people aren’t on the same plan? Uh-oh. When it comes to kids, this means angry neighboring parents banging down your door insisting why your daughter told little Billy it was free to talk on the phone. If you are a parent signing your kid up for this promotion, make sure that the parents of the five friends chosen are aware of the details, so they can either sign their kid up for the same deal, or instruct them that their standard calling rules still apply. One good thing to note is that, according to the fine print, this promotion does include landline phone numbers as well, which might be the best route to take to save your friends money if they aren’t on the same MY5 plan.

Third: what happens if Suzy gets into a fight with Jenny and wants to remove her from the “five friends” list. Or maybe they got into a fight because Jenny wasn’t included in the first place! According to the FAQs on the promotion, numbers can be changed once a month. So feel free to threaten your buddies with removal from the fantastic five if they don’t wisen up!

Crafty customers should also note that you can’t choose your own number or special voice mail access number; nor any 1-800/1-900 numbers, within your five. Darn!

If you plan to sign up for MY5 (or any promotion for that matter), I advise you call the carrier, or visit in store, and go over every finite detail. It’s better to be safe than to receive an inflated phone bill!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Judging the Photo Contest: How Do We Pick the Winners?

This week, we convened like we do every two months to judge the latest photo contest in our consumer magazine, here’s how! Every issue, we offer fantastic prizes for the top four photos, which we require to be digital in some respect, either taken with a digital camera, and/or manipulated on the PC in a program like Photoshop. We get hundreds of entries; some gorgeous, and others, well, my three-year old niece could take a better pic! Editor Gordon Brockhouse weeds them down to about 100 of the best, at which point, we gather to duke it out and select the winners.

Here’s how it works: the panel includes myself, Gordon, John Thomson, Associate Publisher, Robert Franner, Editor of Marketnews, and Erik Devantier, Creative Director. As we scroll through a widescreen slideshow of the pics, the personality of each judge becomes very apparent. Robert and Gordon are self-professed photo geeks, having studied the art for 30-plus years. Needless to say, their comments are more often than not based on the technical aspects of the photo: exposure, difficulty of getting such a shot, etc. A close-up photo of a bug on a leaf appears on screen and I automatically think “b-o-r-i-n-g”. But then these guys point out that getting such a shot is extremely difficult. OK, now I understand its appeal, and I’ll give the entrant a little more credit.

John, who’s also a major photo buff, tends to look more at the composition of the photo. Why didn’t he remove this distracting pole in the background? He/she should have cropped the picture like so in order to make it more powerful.

Creativity is, no surprise, Erik’s main concern. "This photo tells a story, and it keeps me interested," he says while observing an entrant’s photo. Given Erik’s expertise in creative direction and photo editing software, he can often times look at an image and tell exactly what the person did to alter it. "There’s no way that picture could have been taken with those items in the boat,” he instructs. “It looks like he Photoshopped them in.” Knowing how a photo was created, and the story behind it, makes it much more interesting to all of us.

And me. Well, I like to think that I bring a different perspective in many ways, not only by being part of another generation, but also of another sex. My main concern is how the photo makes me feel? If it doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion, whether laughter or sadness, or even intrigue, it’s not a winner in my books. Is it too cluttered? Confusing? Boring? Of an overplayed subject (if I see another shot of a flower or bird, I’m going to puke!)

It’s obvious that subjectivity plays a big role in the decision-making process for everyone, no matter how much the technical aspects do come into play. If you’re an animal lover, you’ll likely find a cute puppy pic endearing; whereas someone with severe pet allergies might shrug it off. If you have young kids, you’ll likely see a bit of your own son or daughter in a cutesy shot, and gravitate toward it as a favourite. Nevertheless, having a panel of five people deciding on the winners allows for many different perspectives, and for every aspect of photography to be taken into consideration.

Once the majority agree on the top 25 or so pics (which typically takes an hour or two, and a few words of disagreement), we each rank them in our order of preference. The results are tabulated, and there arises the two grand prize winners, two runners-up, and a few honourable mentions.

And I bet you thought we just picked them from a hat!

To see the winning images from our latest photo contest, check out the upcoming June issue of here’s how! magazine. You can also browse through all past content winning photos on our Website (scroll to the bottom of the page).

[Photo: The photo depicted above was one of two winning photos from our April 2007 photo contest. Taken by Tony Seaward of Bonavista, Nfld., the image depicts Bonavista Harbour on a calm, March night. Seaward told Gordon that he used a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi and 50mm f/1.8 lens; and shot the scene with a 10-second exposure at f/6.3 and ISO 800. Once transferred to PC, he used Noiseware software to crop it, and Photoshop CS2 to make adjustments to the lighting.]

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Fashion & Technology

The aesthetic appeal of a tech gadget has always been important. No one wants a hideous-looking cell phone strapped to their belt; or a tacky-looking TV in their living room, no matter how functional it is. But the role fashion and aesthetics plays in electronics is becoming more and more prevalent. Manufacturers are now paying as much attention to design as they do to functionality.

Cell phones are a perfect example. Nokia has a line of phones called L’Amour, designed for the fashion-conscious female (or male). They employ craft techniques like etching, organic decorative elements, and natural materials, colours and organic patterns. One model is even disguised as a stick of lipstick! To place further emphasis on the fact that these phones are fashion accessories, not just phones, they’re sold exclusively sold through the very posh Holt Renfrew stores.

It’s also no surprise that LG’s Chocolate phone isn’t just merely a cool phone: it’s a downright sexy-looking device. Not to mention that LG Canada launched the phone at a fashion show, strapped to the thighs of some hot looking models! (see photo, if you don't believe me!)

Heck, even fashion design label Prada made its own foray into the mobile phone market, albeit not in North America.

When it comes to portable audio players, what about the iPod, and especially the nano? No one can argue that part of the device’s appeal is its super-thin, gorgeous look.

Everything from mobile phones, to MP3 players, come in funky colours, shapes, and sizes. If they don’t, you can surely find a case that will match your personal style.

But the importance of fashion isn’t just growing in the portable gadget arena: it is spilling over to every facet of the CE industry. I recently strolled the halls of the Sheraton Hotel in Montreal, QC for Son et Image, a Canadian A/V show, and couldn’t help but gawk at the gorgeously-designed speakers, outfitted in a variety of colours and glossy wood finishes. It’s basic black, no more! And the latest flat-panel, high-definition TVs from manufacturers like Samsung, Sharp, and Panasonic, are downright stunning in both image quality, and elegantly-designed bezels.

Gadgets have become, quite simply put, sexy. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll choose a functional product over a good-looking one any day. But the look of a product plays a more important role today than it has in previous years.

I'll revisit this topic again. If you have any recommendations for "sexy" products, please let me know what gets your vote!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Are Cell Phones the New Digicam?

There has been a lot of speculation over the past year that camera phones are set to take over the entry-level digital camera market, and even the standard “MP3” player. And there’s a big possibility of this happening…eventually.

Think about it: cell phone cameras are now touting 3 and higher megapixel resolutions, and the quality of photos taken with them are surprisingly quite good. One of our writers sent me some great, landscape photos he took with a Sony Ericsson camera phone, and I was amazed at the quality. Had he not told me the pics were shot with a camera phone, I’d never have guessed. Camera-related functions are also getting more sophisticated: I’ve seen everything from flash, to exposure compensation, and even self-portrait assisting mirrors on the back of mobiles. But would I forego my point-and-shoot digital camera for a camera phone just yet? No way!

Don’t get me wrong: I like the thought of only having to carry around one device that “does it all”. But on the same token, does this device become a jack of all trades, master of none? And what if I lose it? The thought of all my pix, music, e-mails, text messages, and address book being gone at one swipe of a thief is frightening.

I use my cell phone for voice calls, and the occasional text message. That’s it. It has camera capabilities, but I can’t remember the last time I took a photo using it, although I do observe many doing just that at trade shows or out and about on the street. Checking my e-mails on a portable messaging device is great, but I’d never want to forego being able to do the same on the PC at work or home. The same goes for surfing the Web. And I like that I can put MP3s on my cell phone and play them back using headphones; yet any time I want music on the go, I load up my dedicated MP3 player.

Eventually, people may become used to performing all of these functions solely on one, multi-functional, device. But until the “super-duper” smart phone hits the Canadian market (and at a reasonable price!), we’ll be seeing entry-level digital cameras and MP3 players for years and years to come.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Canadians Are Pirates

Today, the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting Network (wait, we have one of those?) presented a study to the governmental powers-that-be that outlines a proposed plan to combat piracy in Canada. Will it work?

For anyone who thinks piracy here is small in comparison to other countries, think again. We're actually behind many developing countries (yes, you read that right) in instituting proper measures that would prevent the prevalence of everything from fake copies of the latest film release, to bogus, "cracked" software applications.

In fact, the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) says that Canada is the leading manufacturer and exporter of bootlegged movies and illegal devices that facilitate pirated activity, like “modification chips” used to allow counterfeit games to be played on videogame consoles. Apparently we're also the place to go for content if you want to make pirated reproductions of movies (via concealed camcorders in movie theatres, for example). The IIPA sourced back 20-25 per cent of pirated DVDs to Canada! Who ever said Canada wasn't tops in anything?

All joking aside, piracy is a serious issue. For every person that buys a pirated DVD or piece of software, that's one less legitimate copy that gets sold. This means profits are down for everyone involved and, in some cases, can result in the loss of jobs. Many sources, including the RCMP, estimate economy losses related to piracy to be in the billions of dollars.

Yet despite this knowledge, people continue to grab DVDs from some hole-in-the-wall store. Why? Because they're 5 for $20, that's why. Who cares if the cover of the DVD is a photocopy of the actual DVD jacket? Or if Russian subtitles run across the bottom of the screen? Or I have to watch some guy’s silhouette in the theatre as he gets up for a bathroom break during the flick? There are many who wouldn’t even think of watching such horrible-quality recordings, but judging from the number of pirated movies circulating in the country, it's safe to assume there are just as many who would.

So how do we stop these "thieves" from perpetrating again? Should manufacturers spend less on the quality of their products and more on bringing the costs at retail down? Probably not. Whether the problem is high prices, accessibility, or simply “stickin’ it to the man”, people will continue to buy pirated products as long as they are available. All we can do is take measures to eliminate the people who sell them.

Does this mean hiring more cops, or taking some off the streets (how about those pesky parking cops?) and putting them on a special piracy task force? Do we start fining huge amounts of money for possessing, or selling pirated DVDs? Do we raid shops and throw the culprits in jail for the night to “teach them a lesson?” Call me crazy, but I can't see how shoving over the murderers and drug dealers to make room for the dude selling copies of Spiderman 3 from the back of his truck is the solution.

The CACN proposes, among other things, tougher punishments, more resources dedicated to the issue (including police officers and educational programs), and stricter enforcements at the border. And the CACN cites a survey that says almost half of Canadians would call me crazy, and throw guilty parties in the slammer.

Whatever the solution, piracy is a problem that has only been getting worse in Canada. I don't know anyone who hasn't owned, or at least seen, a pirated copy of something or other: a DVD release of a movie that just came out in theatres; a pirated version of the latest PC software; or an MP3 track downloaded from an illegal, P2P Website. The suggestions CACN proposes are a step in the right direction, but we’re still far off from ridding the country of pirated product.

As a sidenote for those interested: the most “guilty” regions for piracy in Canada include Vancouver and Richmond, British Columbia; Calgary, Alberta; Toronto and Markham, Ontario; and Montreal, Quebec.

Friday, May 4, 2007

So Many BlackBerries, So Little Time

Is it just me, or does it seem like the average lifecycle for a product is getting shorter, and shorter? I don't mean that new products are introduced, and then quickly replaced before you can make it to the front of the line at Best Buy (although this certainly is sometimes the case). What I do mean is that as soon as one product has been introduced, another one is released so quickly afterward, you can never really feel like you've got the best of the best, the latest and greatest, the cream of the crop.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing. If technology develops that quickly, imagine what possibilities the future holds! But sometimes, it would be nice to catch my breath and enjoy a new gadget before the "next best thing" hits the market, and I feel like yesterday's news.

I started working on my portable messaging article for here's how! magazine a few months back, and the BlackBerry Pearl was the latest and greatest that RIM had to offer, and the only BlackBerry model with multimedia capabilities, and an integrated camera. Fantastic! I played around with this model, and LOVED it. Then, in April, out came the BlackBerry 8800, a more business-oriented unit. So I snagged this one and took it out for a test drive. Now, Rogers Wireless has announced that an even NEWER, even sexier, BlackBerry Curve will hit the Canadian market in June. Geesh. I can't keep up.

I guess it's not so much about shorter product lifecycles as it is that there's more customization of products today then there has been in the past. Nevertheless, in any area of technology, there's pretty much something for everyone.

Anyway, here are a few highlights of the BlackBerry Pearl, 8800, and Curve, the former two of which I've had plenty of hands-on with:

PEARL: This model incorporates a SureType keyboard, which takes some getting used to (i.e. it's annoying if you don't have any patience!) Once I got the hang of it, it was actually quite neat. How it works: The keyboard attaches three letters to each number key, just like a standard phone would. Then, just hit the button associated with the letter you want ONCE, and the phone will intelligently adjust to the proper words as you type. Here's a tip: don't look at the screen while you're typing. Otherwise, you'll feel the need to constantly correct it, and you'll get a headache the size of Mt. Everest! In my tests, SureType was sure enough with standard words probably about 95% of the time, which is pretty impressive. It insisted once that when i wanted to type "she", I really wanted to say "age". But that was about the only time it didn't get it right. If the SureType does fail to input the incorrect word, you can simply revert back and fix it.

Another good thing about this keyboard input method is that it's even designed to learn new words or letter combinations and add them to a custom list. Before long, "marketnews" was a recognized term in my list. Phone numbers and passwords are inputted via the standard MultiTap method (hitting the 2 key three times for the letter "C" and so on).

Probably the biggest improvement between this model and previous-generation models is the trackball for navigation. It sort of looks like a little Pearl, and glides every which way for scrolling through a list of e-mails, documents, menu functions, and Web pages. It's worth it to get this model just for that feature!

8800: The instant I saw this device, I new it was made more for the business customer than the younger crowd. Not to say it isn't sleek and downright gorgeous (although some in the office didn't like the glossy black finish), but it foregos a lot of the "fun" features, like an integrated digital camera. And it reverts back to a standard QWERTY keyboard. This model also incorporates that neat trackball and adds GPS navigation. For a full review of this model, stay tuned to the June issue of here's how! magazine!

CURVE: Although it hasn't hit the Canadian market yet, the Curve appears to integrate the "best of both worlds". Like the pearl-coloured Pearl, it's finished in a lighter shade (silver and chrome, to be exact) rather than BlackBerry's traditional black. Like the 8800, it employs a standard QWERTY keyboard. It's integrated digital camera is a leg-up on the Pearl's: it features 2 MP resolution instead of the Pearl's measly 1.3 MP. And of course it also includes the new trackball (arguably the best improvement on all three models!)

It'll be interesting to see which model will fare best in the market. Let me know which model YOU'D choose?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Things You Never Thought You'd Need Nor Want...

Have you ever seen something advertised somewhere, or on a shelf in your local retailer, and wondered who the heck would use this? or where on earth would this be useful? I know I have (anyone remember the Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!)

Sometimes we have this feeling when unusual products arrive to our office, or we receive a press release about some sort of odd, what-will-they-think-of-next-like gadget. The reality is, you never know what customers will pick up on; and as I've found, you never really know how useful a certain gadget can be until you find yourself in a situation where you think man, I really wish I had that [insert product here] with me right now!

I'll give you one example. Years ago, I received a tiny doo-hickey that could attach to the bottom of my cell phone, and provide temporary back-up power to it. So apparently a 12V adapter wouldn't be enough for on-the-go use? Low and behold, one day I didn't have it on me, and my car broke down...on the on-ramp to a major series highway! Of course as luck would have it, my cell phone had just enough juice to turn on, and fade away, despite how hard I pushed the power button, or how much I pleaded with it to remain on long enough for one phone call. I was saved shortly after by a tow truck driver, but I guarantee you that little doo-hickey was the first thing I thought of when I pulled out my cell and stared blankly at the, well, blank screen!

Another example. I'm not an outdoorsy person at all, but I have braved the great outdoors once before. While huddled in an oversized tent, shielding ourselves from a downpour of rain, we got to talking about a really funny comedian. My friend had a 20-minute audio clip of his latest bit saved on his iPod, but of course without speakers, two of us were left listening to deafening laughter while the other two shared a pair of earbuds to catch the show. Swirling in my mind were thoughts of all those portable, battery powered speaker systems that I'd seen, but thought I'd never want.

Needless to say, when I receive announcements about unique product, like Nokia's new mini speakers for portable devices and music phones; the funky Lifepop speaker bags; and a new line of tents from Johnson Outdoors that include factory-installed 12V outlets, I think twice before I shrug them off as something I wouldn't be interested in. You might not always need it, but you sure may want it!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

FaceBook - Should I, or Shouldn't I?

It started with AOL. Then MySpace. Now all the rage in social networking is through a Website called Facebook ( I can't count on both hands how many requests to join I've received over the last few months. Each one, I quickly passed over, thinking I spend waaay too much time online as it is. I don't have time for this now. . Every time I caught up with friends, and even family, I was asked if I'm "on facebook", and told how highly addictive it is. Old friends enthuse to me that they've located an old elementary school classmate, and he's living in China now! My best friend calls one night excited: you'll never guess who I found on facebook!. What on earth is so fascinating about this Website?

So last night, I decided to bite the bullet and join. Within minutes, I had notes on what they call my "wall" (looks sort of like an open forum) welcoming me to this highly addictive social community. I quickly added some of my friends (those dozens who had sent the requests over the months), and looked through THEIR friends, many of which I also knew. I got excited as I scrolled through the lists and recognized faces: Oh my gosh! I remember him from grade school! Wow, that is what so and so looks like now? She got married? Moved to BC. Is engaged. I was flooded with all of these faces from my past. Is this a good thing?

Some tend to think not. One person described the site to me as a place for "losers who can't let go of their past." Another said he started receiving requests to be "friends" with old schoolmates that he had "spent years trying to get away from in the first place!"

Why are these sites so popular? Is it a need for affirmation that one has friends? It's certainly a good feeling to have someone "confirm" their "friend" status with you. Is it a need to know you're remembered by those you've crossed paths with in your life? Or is there a voyeuristic tendency to learn whatever came of that guy that you hated in high school, or the girl you had a crush on in kindergarden?

Whatever the reason, it seems like everyone I know, or have ever known, is "on" facebook. I haven't figured out the inner workings of the site yet, but I'll definitely be visiting again to see what new faces pop up. Whether it's curiousity, or simply the fact that I'm sicking of being asked if I'm on the site, it looks like I've jumped on the bandwagon. Until the next "hot" site comes along....

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

iPod Sales STILL Growing

It's insane to think that, even after so many years of market domination, the Apple iPod is still growing like wildfire: Apple recently reported an 88% earnings growth, fueled by 36% growth in Macs and 24% growth in iPods when compared to the same quarter last year. In fact, the company reported that it was the most profitable March quarter in its history!

I'm probably one of the few people left on the planet that doesn't own an iPod, and it's not because I don't think its a sleek, sophisticated device. I often stroll through a local retailer and stop to admire the beautiful form factor of the nanos, all lined up in varying colours. If there's even been a sexy gadget, that one's it. I think part of me just doesn't want to follow the pack: it's like an iPod cult, and I want no part of it. After all, is the iPod really the best interface out there? Or is it just conditioning that has made people believe this? I'm not sure. I have used an iPod, and it is blazingly simply, and very, very cool. But I've also used a Toshiba Gigabeat, and a SanDisk Sansa player, and so are they.

As for getting music, the last thing I want to do is fork over my credit card and rack up a ton of $2 purchases for songs. I've heard horror stories of people racking up thousands of bucks over the period of a few months on just downloading music! I'll pass on the unnecessary debt, thank you very much. I'll just rip them from my CDs, or find, er, other means of getting tunes. So really, the whole "seamless integration" thing doesn't matter to me. In terms of video, podcasts on iTunes are free, and up here in Canadia-land, I can't get the TV shows anyway.

I'm not saying the iPod doesn't deserve the market-share leading position it has achieved. But for me, I'll continue to admire the gorgeous nano from afar, and stick to my guns in supporting the underdog.