Friday, September 28, 2007

CE and the Dollar

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

Regarding the recent surge in the strength of the Canadian Dollar: there’s only one place in the daily newspapers where there are more poorly thought out arguments about economics than the editorial pages, and that’s the letters-to-the-editor page.

The pundits, whether professional or amateur, who are crying foul about price disparity on consumer goods north of the border mean well, but I have yet to see a single diatribe where the writer demonstrates an understanding of the consumer marketplace. To be honest, that might be explained by the fact that every day that I skim the editorials and the letters, I invariably come upon a plea along the lines of “shouldn’t the government be legislating price controls to protect us?” Usually, the paper ends up getting hurled across the room, so I might have missed one or two.

To keep this blog entry simple, let’s examine the two primary factors that govern what goods are sold for: volume and time. There’s a whole host of other factors, but these two are the big ones. I recognize that most people reading this have considerable experience in our industry, and know all this already, but I’ve been building up a head of steam for weeks and need to get this off my chest.

Keen eyed readers will have noticed that foreign exchange isn’t one of the top two reasons. That’s because of time. The products on the shelves this fall were ordered and the contracts signed anywhere from six months to a year or more ago; and the distributors and agents agreed to pay a price that was dependant on a Canadian Dollar that was anywhere from 80 to 90 cents U.S. at the time the deals were made. The product sitting on shelves and in the warehouses wasn’t paid for at par, so for prices to line up with what can be seen across the border, it would be Canadian businesses taking it on the chin. Does anybody reading this think that’s fair?

Speaking of fairness, it may not seem fair that goods cost more in Canada, but a large part of that comes down to volume. The bottom line is that the United States has a population of roughly 300 million people, and Canada has only a little more than a tenth of that. Whether retail store buyers are purchasing seasonal programs for apparel, electronics, or anything else, the amount that Canadian retailers and their suppliers will purchase from overseas manufacturers will never, ever come close to the consumption of our neighbour. As a result American companies pay less for their goods than do Canadian companies because of the volume discounts that they receive. It seems pretty simple.

Or maybe it’s not as simple as that. This week Wal-mart fired the first shot by announcing that they would sell HALO3 at the same MSRP in Canada and the U.S. In one stroke, Wal-mart scored bonus points with consumers, and made every other retailer look bad for not jumping to the pump.

I guess that you could say that there’s a third key factor in pricing: power politics. I was talking with a friend yesterday who represents a number of electronics manufacturers. He was keen to find out if I had heard rumblings of any vendors or retailers getting ready to announce exchange-rate related markdowns on electronics. To hear him tell it, our industry is currently in a Spaghetti Western-style showdown in the middle of Main Street, waiting to see who’s going to draw, or blink, first. The holiday selling season is typically a time for pricing silliness anyway: during a two week span back in October 2002, I had to re-price all the DVD players on my shelves seven or eight times as vendor-driven markdowns were communicated to us. I think that the flat-panel bloodbath of last year is still fresh in our memories.

I’ve got a niggling feeling that we may see a price war this Christmas that makes last year look mild by comparison. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Casual Gamer

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

Hello, my name is Lee Distad, and I am a casual gamer. There are a lot of people like me, but up until recently we weren’t really considered part of the gaming mainstream.

My generation was the first to grow up with videogames. I still vividly remember the excitement and wonder when my neighborhood corner store got a Space Invaders machine. Growing up with Atari, Intellivison, Colecovision, and later, Nintendo and Sega Genesis, I could be safely described as an avid gamer during my childhood and adolescence.

But things change, and my life is different now. I’m a father, a busy professional, and a competitive athlete. My wife and I have always enjoyed playing video games together, but with all the other demands on our time, the opportunities to sit in front of the TV and unwind with a controller in our hands are few and far between. Because of the time factor, it’s hard for us to justify spending five or six hundred dollars for a gaming console that we know will only see occasional use.

Not only have we changed, but the games, by and large, have changed. Many are more complex, requiring dozens or hundreds of hours of playtime to unlock their secrets. Action and combat games often require memorizing complex keystroke sequences. Bearing in mind that the games of my youth required little more than a joystick and a ‘fire’ button, I feel disinclined to devote myself to mastering the complexity of games that today’s youth are into playing. I don’t want to learn an entire new set of skills; I just want to unwind for a few hours at the end of a long day.

Apparently I’m not alone, and Nintendo recognized the “casual” gamer as being an untapped market compared to the “hardcore” gamer, and they have done fantastically well with their Wii console. In much the same way that the Wii ambushed XBOX360 and Playstation3 last Christmas, it was reported yesterday that Nintendo has snuck up past Canon and is now the 2nd largest stock on the Nikkei, behind only Toyota.

Reuters: Nintendo is Japan's 2nd most valuable active stock
TOKYO (Reuters) - Nintendo Co Ltd roared past Canon Inc to become Japan's second most valuable tradable company behind Toyota Motor Corp this week as investors bet demand for its Wii and DS machines will remain strong into the critical year-end shopping season.
Although the market value of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc (MUFG) is potentially bigger than that of Nintendo, trading in its shares is suspended this week ahead of a 1,000-for-one share split.
Nintendo's Wii has so far outsold Sony's PlayStation 3 by a large margin since their launches late last year as Nintendo's strategy to expand the gaming population by offering easy-to-play but innovative games has proved a big success.

Nintendo has locked up the casual gamer market by offering the Wii at a price point that is appealing to people like me; those who are willing to consider paying $279 for a device that will see occasional use. Additionally, their initial mix of game titles has been heavily slanted towards being fun and easy. So far, people that I know who have bought and been hooked on playing their Wii, covers a diverse group that ranges from friends of my parents who are past retirement age, to left-leaning Women’s Studies grad students. None of these demographics are among those that Microsoft or Sony took seriously as they strove against each other in the Console Arms Race.

The big boys are starting to rouse from their slumber, and learn from their mistakes. It was just reported that Microsoft is finally starting to take casual gamers seriously.

Reuters: Next for Microsoft: winning casual gamers
Microsoft knows it must attract casual customers as well if the Xbox 360 is going to be a living-room fixture.
"That's the biggest challenge Microsoft has. They were never able to do that with the original Xbox and they will be hard-pressed to do it with the 360," said Todd Mitchell, an analyst with Nollenberger Capital Partners.
Microsoft has praised Nintendo for "expanding the market," but so far its attempts to attract a broader audience have met with mixed results.
In really big companies, there are often only two speeds in their gearbox: Glacier, and Panic. Nintendo’s success may have finally forced Microsoft and Sony to shift into overdrive and treat gaming as mainstream, family entertainment, instead of a niche market aimed at hardcore young gamers who have both money and time on their hands.

For the record, my family is intent on getting a Wii by the time Christmas rolls around. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Plasma Continues To Be Maligned In The Trade Press

From the desk of Lee Distad’s Professional Opinion:

It seems like only yesterday that LCD and plasma flat panel televisions were a mysterious future technology, just off on the horizon of the CE Industry’s future, when really it was more like 10 years ago. In that time, we’ve all see the sea change. Even as recently as four years ago, we were all still talking about the coming “Flat Panel Revolution.”

Well, the Flat Panel Revolution is over, and the flat panels won. In that time, I’ve witnessed plasma technology be the victim of concerted vicious rumors on retail sales floors about their durability and lifespan. Granted, the earliest iterations of Plasma tech had birthing pains, but these stories have grown legs all out of proportion to the original shortcomings of the technology.
Fact: The big boys of the plasma world, such as Pioneer, Panasonic, Hitachi, and LG have spent boatloads of money over the years to make plasma a viable display technology for home consumers. The end result is flat panel sets with a lifespan in the neighborhood of old-school tube televisions, and brilliant, dynamic picture quality.

That’s why this morning, I was shocked to see an article in a daily trade newsletter riddled with misinformation about plasma.

The Retail Bridge: It's Official: Plasma Isn't Dead Yet
Sure, the technology is expensive, delicate and prone to burn-in, but sales of plasma HD television sets are expected to grow by as much as 25 percent in 2007, according to a report published Tuesday by the (admittedly biased) Plasma Display Coalition.

I’m sorry, but “expensive, delicate and prone to burn-in”? This isn’t 2001 anymore. If you look at the median prices for major manufacturers, it’s pretty much a level playing field for both LCD and Plasma in terms of what the customer pays for a set.

While I can remember five years ago the boxes for Hitachi plasmas had a little level gauge on the outside to warn if the box had been tipped in transit, that’s pretty much a non-event now. I’ve seen plasmas that were stored face down for a week with no ill effect. Granted, that’s not what the manufacturer recommends, so I don’t recommend it either, but there you go.

The “burn in” thing is a boogey man that’s right up there with “dead pixels.” Every major brand uses a technique in their sets’ video processing that slowly creeps the picture vertically and horizontally, pixel by pixel to reduce the likelihood of any cells permanently etching themselves. The static logos that networks run in the bottom corners of the screen are no longer the television-ruining threat that they were back when CRT-rear projection was the standard.
From an image quality perspective, while I have been much more impressed by the last two generations of major brand LCD panels than I have been in the past, I still have to give the nod to plasma for clarity, sharpness, and colour saturation in the 50-inch and larger category, at least among all the panels I’ve critically examined (hint: it’s a LOT).

Despite having to swim through a sea of misinformation, the plasma category continues to sell well to consumers, which is really all the rebuttal that is needed. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stay Tuned for Lee Distad & John Thomson's Professional Opinions

I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. In my absence, Lee Distad, an Edmonton, AB-based A/V system designer (and regular contributor to both and Marketnews Magazine) will be keeping you up to date on this blog with the latest and greatest news and commentary from the consumer electronics industry. Also, keep an eye out for commentary from Marketnews Associate Publisher John Thomson (a.k.a. the frequently-commenting Mr. Anonymous!), who will be throwing in his two cents as well.

I look forward to getting back into the swing of things on October 10th. In the meantime, enjoy Lee and John's educational, witty, and often humorous commentary.

Wal-Mart Canada Sets Precedent By Offering Halo 3 at U.S. Price

In a move that can be considered both strategic and smart, Wal-Mart Canada has decided to offer the highly-anticipated Xbox 360 video game Halo 3 at the same price that it will be offered in the U.S.: $59.83. This will be about $10 cheaper than other Canadian retailers will be charging: both Future Shop and EB Games are currently advertising the game for $69.99 (the limited edition for $79.99).

This move makes sense for any retailer given the current strength of the Canadian dollar (it's virtually on par with the U.S.!), but especially for Wal-Mart, which prides itself on always offering the lowest prices.

Wal-Mart says it will offer Halo 3, which is officially released tomorrow (Sept. 26), at that price for an "extended period".

"We've been negotiating with suppliers for more than one year, based on the belief that a high dollar and favourable business conditions should translate into lower prices for our customers," said Jim Thompson, Senior Vice President of Merchandise at Wal-Mart Canada.

Don't think that other retailers have just been standing by, though. Future Shop will be opening 103 of its 127 stores at midnight tonight in celebration of the game's launch so customers can "get it first", as the company's slogan goes.

Hmm...that's a tough one when it comes to hard-core gamers. Do they want to "get it first" or get it cheapest? My presumption is that the tried and true gamers will be hauling their butts to Future Shop tonight to grab the game before anyone else; while the budget-conscious parents and students (17 and older, of course, since the game is rated M for Mature), will stroll over to Wal-Mart at a later date for the cost savings.

Going forward, only time and sales will tell. But if our dollar keeps up, it will be interesting to see how pricing of CE/IT product changes, or fails to change, in Canada.

Monday, September 24, 2007

USB Standard Speeds Ahead

If you thought the USB 2.0 standard was pretty fast, hold on to your horses. USB 3.0 is in the works, promising to offer ten-times the bandwidth throughput of the current USB 2.0 standard. This means that if it now takes five-minutes to transfer tunes from your PC to your MP3 player, you'd be able to perform that same task in just about half-a-minute!

We likely won't see a wealth of new products that are compatible with USB 3.0 for another few years, but it's interesting to note how quickly (literally) technology is advancing.

Speeds are getting faster, hard drives getting larger, and devices are performing more functions than ever; not to mention that digital content is truly in abundance these days. I know people who have separate notebooks or hard drives just to house their digital tunes. I'm no exception: my photo storage Website has hundreds and hundreds of digital photos spanning the past several years, from vacations, to milestone events with family and friends.

The average person is liable to want to transfer these massive amounts of content back and forth amongst various devices: a new MP3 player, a back-up copy for a friend, and so on. Quick speeds are certainly important now, but being able to speed up the transfer process will become increasingly important as hard drive capacity and digital content availability continues on its path of consistent and rapid growth.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Air Canada Can Now Send a Boarding Pass to Your Mobile Phone

Did you know that you can now check-in for an Air Canada flight using your mobile phone, and receive a boarding pass in the form of a text message? Yep. Just show airport security the SMS, and proceed to baggage check and the screening area.

Air Canada says that most new mobile devices are compatible with the 2-D barcode technology required for the service to work. All you need to do is log onto from the device, and enter your details: name, destination, and credit card, Aeroplan, or booking reference number. If your flight qualifies for an electronic boarding pass, you simply enter your mobile phone number, and voila! Here comes your boarding pass via SMS!

The service is now available for all domestic Canadian and international Air Canada and Jazz flights. It's oddly not available for U.S. destinations.

This sounds really neat, but I hope it actually works without hassle. I also wonder how easy it would be for someone to duplicate an SMS boarding pass in order to get through security. How does the security officer verify that the SMS is legit and not a bogus copy? It's worth noting that I tried to access the Web address listed above and it doesn't seem to be functioning. I hope that's not an indication of how well the service will work in the long run!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

If You Designed a TV, What Features Would You Include?

If you were to design a flat-panel TV, what features would you incorporate? 1,200 consumers were asked this very question by LCD TV manufacturer Westinghouse Digital Electronics. What did they say? You might be surprised at the results.

The most logical, top-desired features were wireless/Bluetooth connectivity; and a built-in DVR or DVD player. Consumers also want a 120 Hz refresh rate, which results in a significant reduction in image blurring and ghosting: an important feature for any type of programming. It’s good to know that energy-efficiency was also on the mind of consumers.

All of the aforementioned features are promising news to any flat-panel TV manufacturer that's already incorporating many of them into its latest designs.

But two of the most surprising features cited were voice recognition and a touch-screen interface. Apparently having a wireless remote control isn’t good enough: couch potatoes are so lazy, they don’t even want to have to push a button to change channels and find their desired program! The touch-screen idea is oddly on the complete opposite end of the spectrum: if people historically have grumbled when they can’t find the remote, for what function would they want to walk up to a display and leave grubby fingerprints all over it?

The moral of the story: although average consumer insight can often lead to valuable suggestions on product design improvements, sometimes people just get carried away. And I'll add that ideas should always be taken into consideration, no matter how silly they might sound: but final product design should always, always, always be left to the experts.

On a related note, this brings to mind an old episode of The Simpsons, where Homer is given free reign to design a modern car for the average guy, and it ends up looking like a spaceship on wheels, with a horn that plays “La Cucaracha”. Lesson learned.

[Photo: Westinghouse’s TX-42F430S 42-inch 1080p LCD TV].

U.S. Government Uses the 'net to Launch new $5 Bill

The U.S. government is hip to technology, using the Internet as its launchpad for the newly-redesigned $5 bill. A Wi-5 preview held today online features several government officials discussing the new design, along with a Q&A session, and posted podcasts.

If you ask me, all U.S. money looks the same, but each bill does include a host of security features to help prevent counterfeiting. Of course, this new $5 bill is redesigned in such a way to make creating fakes virtually impossible.

What I don't understand is why it's deemed necessary to outline to the public exactly what each of these features entails, and how they are achieved. In fact, I saw an entire TV special recently that walked you through the U.S. facility for printing money, and discussed how each and every process was conducted. I'm not naive enough to think that criminals can't figure some of the details out on their own, but why make it easy for them by outlining each and every new security feature?

Anyway, since the information has been released, I might as well propagate it here. Redesigned features of the new $5 bill include:

-two watermarks: one large number 5 to the right of the portrait; and a column of three, smaller 5s to the left
- an embedded security thread runing vertically, to the right of the portrait, and with the letters "USA" followed by the number 5 in an alternating patterns along the thread from both sides. The thread glows blue under ultraviolet light.
- a purple, American symbol of freedom printed in the background, featuring an eagle and shield
- a high-contrast, purple inked large number 5 in the lower right corner of the back that aids the visually impaired
- the oval borders around President Lincoln's portrait on the front and Lincoln Memorial vignette on the back have been removed, and the engravings enhanced
- an arc of purple stars surrounding the portrait
- small, yellow 05s printed on the front and back of the bill
- light purple in the centre that blends into the gray near the edges

Many of the changes were made in an effort to eliminate previously existing similarities between the $5 and $100 bill that made it easy to create a counterfeit $100 from a $5.

The new $5 bill will begin circulation early next year; and a new $100 bill will follow shortly thereafter.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rogers Gives You Karaoke on Demand, Sales of Ear Plugs Projected to Rise

Now I've seen it all. Rogers Cable is offering a Karaoke on Demand service to all PersonalTV customers that have a digital set-top box in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Wanna-be crooners and the tone-def-in-denial can choose from 600 tunes, available at channel 100, then sing to their heart's desire.

All jokes aside, this is a great idea for parties, contestants auditioning for reality TV singing competitions like Canadian Idol (why not practice at home?), or those days home alone when you get an inkling to grab the hairbush and belt out a tune. What, no one else does that?

Rogers says that new songs, ranging from current pop hits, to oldies, country, hip hop, and classic rock, will be added monthly.
As if this announcement in itself doesn't already have people cringing at the hours of torture they may soon have to endure by partners doing their best Shania or Mariah impersonation, or teens and friends flooding the living room with screeching vocals, Rogers is adding fuel to the fire. The first 500 new customers to order a digital cable box and sign-up at will receive a karaoke microphone. The hairbrush can return to its rightful position in the bathroom.

Retailers: get your ear plugs out. I've got a strange feeling you'll see a spike in sales verrry soon.

[Photo: If you're anxious to know what tunes are available, the Rogers Website shows a comprehensive list, including such popular karaoke hits as Achy Breaky Heart, Life is a Highway, and Respect.]

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Could New HD Red-Laser Disc Blow Blu-ray & HD DVD Out of the Water?

Wouldn't it be interesting if, after a year-and-a-half or so of the Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition DVD formats duking it out for market domination, someone came up with a way to create high-capacity, standard red-laser discs? The existence of such a technology might not be as far off the horizon as you think.

According to Display Daily, a London, England-based company called New Medium Enterprises (NME) Ltd. has developed what it calls the HD-VMD disc (the "VMD" stands for "versatile multi-layer disc") that can store up to 30 GB worth of content using the same processes used for creating standard DVDs.

This means that you can watch HD movies using your trusty, old DVD player (with a firmware upgrade, of course), plus "other off-the-shelf technology". Display Daily reports that, because the discs rely on the same processes currently used to create DVDs, the cost of each disc would be much lower than what one might pay now for a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc (of course it would, in turn, be higher than what you pay for a standard DVD). NME plans to launch a pair of players and discs of the new HD-VMD format next month.

If this technology lives up to its promises, it could mean an end to the format war once and for all. Ironically, it would also bring everyone right back to where we started, with the standard red-laser disc format. Essentially, two camps have been working furiously to find new methods and standards of fitting more information on a disc, offering neat, interactive features, and creating highly-advanced players, only for someone to come out and squash the whole thing by simply finding a way to update the already existing, tried-and-true, method. Of course, we'll just have to wait until next month to see how well HD-VMD performs, and how practical it is to implement. But my question is: why didn't someone come up with this in the first place?

[Photo: The ML 622S HD VMD Multilayer Player from NME Inc. claims to be able to play back high-definition, 1080p content via HDMI, and using the Sigma Designs EM8622L chipset. It can also read all types of disc, including standard DVD, CD, and even MP3 discs; and can playback MPEG-1/2/4, VC1, WMV9, and H.264 video; as well as JPEG and BMP photos. Data transfer rate is 45 Mbps. It is scheduled for availability in the U.S. in Q3 for US$199, and will come in a choice of black, red, grey, or white finish.]

Monday, September 17, 2007

Strike While the Social Networking Iron is Hot!

It's no secret that sites like MySpace and Facebook lead the online social networking world, the latter of which finds much of its appeal in the level of control each member has over how much of his information is made public, and to whom. The latest service to enter the foray is from Yahoo!: a site called Mash that will supposedly allow friends to alter each other's profiles.

Yahoo! is certainly making a concerted effort to differentiate itself from the pack, but I can't imagine why on earth I'd ever want to give someone free reign to update my information. In Yahoo!'s defense, the site is reportedly geared at the younger generation (so is Facebook and MySpace, although both appear to have picked up steam by the 25+ crowd). I would argue this target audience is actually worse for such a feature. Here's why:

Kids today change BFFs ("best friends forever", for those who aren't hip to the lingo) like they do socks. Imagine permitting your "BFF Sally" to update your profile. A fight ensues one day, and by the next, all your dirty laundry, embarassing pics, and nicknames are aired on your Mash profile. Thanks, but no thanks.

I don't blame companies for wanting to strike an iron that's hot: if they didn't do so, we wouldn't see half as many iPod accessories as we do today. But sometimes the ideas seem a little "out there". Mind you, consumers have been known to take to strangest ideas and concepts, so I might be out in left field on this one. I guess we'll just wait and see.

New Site to Offer Free Music Downloads

A new digital music download Website has emerged that promises to offer tracks from Universal Music artists for free. Of course, there’s a small catch…

To download a tune from, you’ll first have to wait a tiresome 90 seconds for the song to download. That’s no big deal; I can live with that. I lived with waiting longer than that back in the original Napster days when I was on dial-up! (It took half an hour to download one song!)

Second, you’ll have to fill out a survey each month about your buying habits. OK, a bit intrusive and demanding, but I’m willing to do this if it means no-hassle downloads on a daily basis.

The clincher for me, however, is that downloaded songs can’t be burned to a CD (strike one) nor transferred to an iPod (strike two). Strike three is obvious: the site only offers tunes from one label.

I do commend the company for attempting to find a winning solution to an ever-growing battle in the world of music. However, in my opinion, any service that restricts what I can do with something is o-u-t out. I want the exact same functionality I’d get with a store-bought, Compact Disc. Anything less is, well, less. To spiralfrog’s credit, you can transfer downloaded tracks to any Windows-compatible mobile device, so I’ll take back half a strike.

On a brighter note, I do believe that is on to something. How did the company manage to snag a deal with Universal to offer its tunes for free? Through online advertising: to which a portion of the revenue is undoubtedly paid to the label. This sounds like the most logical option I’ve heard to date. As it is right now, I quite often endure 10-15 second commercials so I can watch an online video, or engage in a quick game of Bejeweled 2. So I’d be more than happy to watch a quick commercial, or eyeball some ads, in order to download a desired track. This is provided I’m able to do with it as I like once it’s “mine”. might not be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The one thing that frustrates me to no end about technology is compatibility, or rather lack thereof.

Take this example, which happened just last night, and in fact prompted this entry. I often e-mail Microsoft Word documents to colleagues only to hear footsteps trudging into my office shortly thereafter, and sullen faces explaining that they “couldn’t open it”. I don’t even need to think twice: I already know why.

I use the Vista version of Microsoft Office, while they use older versions or, *gulp*, Apple iBooks. By automatic default, all of my Word documents are saved as “Word Documents”. This sounds fine, but what it really does is save them to some strange file type called .docx that only the Vista version of Office can read. In order to allow an older version of Word to open my documents, I must scroll the drop-down list once I hit “Save As”, and manually select “Word 97-2003 Document”. Is this a weird attempt at forcing everyone to adopt Vista, or just a rudimentary work-around the fact that it isn’t compatible with older versions of the software?

Of course the issue of incompatibility isn’t just limited to PCs, but spans every area of consumer electronics: VHS and Beta, HD DVD and Blu-ray, AAC and MP3, and so many flash memory card formats that I can’t even keep track any more, to name a few.

Here’s another example: my colleague owned a mobile phone from brand X, which he absolutely loved. In fact, he loved it so much, that he decked it out to the nines with accessories: a 12V adapter for the car, optional headphones, and even a cute little desk stand/charger. About a year later, he decided to grab a new phone from this same manufacturer. As it turns out, the proprietary connector is different, which means all of those accessories? Hello, eBay!

I guess you don’t get full-on compatibility in any industry: I can visit any bank’s ATM and withdraw funds, but I can only deposit cheques into my own, for example. But when it comes to CE, where competition is brutally fierce, it would be nice to see the battle fought out after a single standard was agreed upon. Then, let the consumer choose which gadget he wants, and keep your fingers crossed that it’s yours.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tim Hortons Stores Now in Wal-Mart

We’ve seen some really powerful business partnerships form between Canadian companies, but imagine the “world’s biggest” retailer offering Canada’s signature coffee brand? This idea has now become a reality, as Wal-Mart will soon be incorporating Tim Hortons stores into all of its Supercentres across Canada. Lethbridge and Edmonton, AB and Brockville, ON will see the first outlets erected.

This brings the concept of Wal-Mart being a “one-stop shop” to a whole new level: now I don’t even have to swing through a drive-thru after shopping to grab my coffee – I can grab it on the way out the door!

“We’re in the business of helping Wal-Mart customers check as many items as possible off their shopping lists,” said Ross Thompson, Director of Licensee Operations for Wal-Mart Canada Corp. “You don’t have to look too far down Canadian to-do lists to find ‘a stop at Tim Hortons’. We pride ourselves on having the brands our customers want on our shelves and under one roof; and we’re adding a true icon.”

Does this mean U.S. Wal-Mart stores will follow suit and add Starbucks stores-within-stores?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Traveling on Business

Many jobs require frequent travel, and the publishing business is no exception. We’re often flying out of town for trade shows, press conferences, and other industry-related events. After going to CEDIA EXPO, and a few other conferences, over the last couple of months, I've observed a few irksome things about travel.

When traveling by plane, you’re sure to become annoyed at one thing or another: long lines at customs; being forced to take off your shoes; random baggage checks; not being able to take a bottle of water in your carry-on, and so on. But our experience went beyond these standard (but unfortunately necessary) annoyances.

Here’s the story: on the return flight from CEDIA, we noticed that the itinerary named two different airlines ("XX flight" in big letters "by YY"). As Murphy’s Law would have it, our driver insisted that he drop us off at airline XX, only to find out that we really should have been taken to airline YY’s check-in station. Needless to say, it wasn’t uncommon to hear a few expletives as we lugged our baggage across the airport. Why were two, active airlines named on the itinerary? And the incorrect one in larger, more prominent lettering, at that? Politics or not, there’s no need to confuse the traveler.

Once ready to check-in, my colleague was told he had to pay an additional fee because his suitcase was overweight. That was no big deal. But then the attendant added non-chalantly that if he split his things into two suitcases, he could avoid the extra cost. Huh? Apparently two bags that take up more room on a plane are better than one that’s slightly overweight. Needless to say, the expletives kept coming.

Of course the other part of business travel is the hotel stay which, for the most part in my experiences, has been wonderful. Many people these days stay in touch while traveling solely via handheld devices like a Blackberry, but someone like me who works predominantly online needs to stay connected on a full-blown notebook PC back in the room. I still can't believe that WiFi access isn't yet a standard free feature in hotels. I’ve stayed in some pretty fancy hotels, and could not believe that even they still make you pay $10 per day to log onto the ‘net. Haven’t we reached a point where Internet access is just as ubiquitous as a TV or clock radio?

I digress…

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sony Attempts to Revitalize CD Industry With New “Ringle” Format

In an attempt to revitalize the suffering physical CD format, Sony has created the “ringle”, which will consist of a CD with three music tracks and one mobile phone ringtone. According to Reuters, a ringle CD will likely include a current hit song, a remix, and an older track.

"The idea is that if consumers in the digital age can download any tracks they want individually, why not let them buy singles in the store as well?,” explained Reuters. I’ll be honest: I haven’t gone CD shopping in a long time. But back in the day when I did buy CDs, I recall a large, often quite popular, section of CD singles. Really, the only new concept here is the addition of the ringtone.

Will this entice consumers to purchase CDs? If a “ringle” CD is $6, and digital music tracks on most sites run for about $99 each, where’s the incentive? I can buy those same three tracks for $3-4 in digital format, a ringtone from my cell provider for about $1.50, and I'm off to the races.

Maybe I’m far out on this one, but I just don’t get the appeal of a “ringle” CD. The problem is that the incentive toward digital music is no longer just about price, nor being able to get the single tracks that you want. Sure, this remains an important consideration: I hated buying CDs just for one or two good songs. But the appeal for digital music has evolved into the ability to use these tunes with the latest tech toys, which have become more sophisticated over the last few years. I can now transfer thousands of digital tunes to one media server that sits in my home theatre. Or I can transfer them to my high-capacity portable media player; or even store them on a large-format memory card that’s inserted into my portable device. With Internet streaming sites, and devices like the Slim Devices Squeezebox and Sonos Digital Music System, I can listen to digital tunes throughout the home, all from my PC.

I commend Sony and the music industry on their attempt to bring new life to the CD category. But aside from the points mentioned above, the market that’s still purchasing CDs (and don’t get me wrong: there is still a market!), is the complete opposite of the market that wants personalized ringtones. For the sake of the CD, I hope I'm proven wrong.

Monday, September 10, 2007

iPhone Gets Cheaper, New iPod Looks Like iPhone

Keeping with tradition, Apple announced a slew of new players at the same time that a big, industry show was taking place. I can’t say this is an entirely bad idea on the company’s part: CEDIA EXPO was a great place for many to get a first glance at these new iPods in the flesh. After all, several iPod docks and compatible devices were on display at the show, ready to be taken for a test run. That being said, I wasn’t surprised to see people with the new models in hand already! Wake up, grab a coffee, and shoot over to the store to buy the latest iPod before heading to the show. Yep, that sounds about right.

Probably the most interesting of the new models is the iPod touch, which incorporates many of the features of the popular (and still not available in Canada) iPhone, including its touch-screen design.

Oddly enough, others might disagree: the player I saw most on the CEDIA show floor was the tiny new nano that adds video to the feature set, along with a wider, 2.5-inch screen. I’m not sure why this model seems to have piqued the interest of tech-geeks more so than the other two (the third being the iPod classic, which is essentially a next-generation iPod with the Cover Flow and built-in accelerometer features of the iPhone). Isn't video still considered the least important feature of such players?

Anyway, slightly off topic, I thought it would be funny to look back to July, when I discussed confusion about an alleged nano that would be modeled after the iPhone. It looks like these reports weren’t entirely untrue, but could be a case of broken telephone: there is now a nano with video, and indeed an iPod that's modeled after the iPhone, but they are two separate devices, neither of which have cellular functionality. Put them together, and, well, the reports were still wrong, but you never know...

Speaking of the iPhone, Apple has reduced the price of the 8GB model by $200 to US$399, and will only sell the 4 GB version “while supplies last”. This is good news for those who haven’t invested in one yet; but bad for existing customers who have already forked over the extra $200 bucks. To ease the pain, Apple says it will give any current iPhone customer a US$100 store credit toward the purchase of any product at Apple’s retail or online store. However, this only includes customers who are “not receiving a rebate or any other consideration”. I’m not sure what this means, nor do I know the intricacies of the U.S. cell phone plans. I just hope for their sake that existing customers get something back: it's not right to be punished for being an early-adopter!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Is CEDIA Becoming a Mini-CES?

Many have expressed the opinion that CEDIA EXPO is becoming like a smaller version of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). There’s no question that the focus is custom, custom, custom. But as the custom installation business increasingly involves things like home security, lighting, automation, and music streaming, the breadth of products and technologies on display has expanded considerably.

In fact, two of the most prominent product categories I’ve noticed on the floor this year are media servers, and home security. There’s someone offering up what they deem the latest and greatest in music servers on pretty much every corner on the show floor, from Harman Kardon, to Sony, and Sooloos. In terms of security, I’ve seen everything from the standard video surveillance system, to a neat system that includes a “magic mirror”. Place the mirror in your living room, and a talking genie pops up on its surface to verbally alert you when someone has arrived at the front door. Not only does the genie let you know that someone is a-knockin’, but a security camera outside displays a live feed onto the mirror, so you don’t even need to get up from the couch to see who it is. Nope, I’m not kidding.

The bread and butter of CEDIA EXPO remains custom audio/video. But as things like video cameras, computers, and interior design pieces like drapes, lighting, and furniture, are more often finding themselves part of a system design in the home, the show attracts new and exciting vendors. The consensus among those I’ve asked is that this year's show is better than last, with tons to see and experience.

Industry members, stay tuned to Marketnews Magazine for in-depth coverage of the show.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Tag Your iTunes

Here at CEDIA, tons of new high-end A/V products and integration tools are being launched, but there have also been some cool new consumer-oriented gizmos and gadgets that will be making waves during this upcoming holiday season. Given the recent launch of the latest sixth-generation iPods, I thought I’d mention one neat product/feature that might catch the eye of digital music lovers: iTunes tagging.

By pressing a simple “tag” button on the front of any product that has this feature along with HD Radio, the currently playing tune will be “tagged” and transferred to a connected iPod. Don’t get too excited just yet: the actual tune isn’t yet yours to keep. Once you connect your iPod to the PC, the “tagged” tracks will appear in a dedicated tagged section in iTunes, at which point you can preview them, and download and purchase should you so desire.

This iTunes system reminds me of the XM + Napster partnership, which allows customers of certain XM Satellite Radio receivers to perform much the same task. However, this is the first service of its kind to integrate with the widely popular iTunes, and will probably be popular amongst the iPod crowd.

One neat new product that will include iTunes tagging is a tabletop radio from Polk Audio called the I-Sonic Entertainment System 2. This funky-looking unit has an iPod dock on top, with cleanly-designed buttons on the front. Up to 50 songs can be tagged and stored at a time; and the unit works with all dock-connecting iPod models. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, but I have heard its predecessor model (which offered a CD player instead of iPod dock), an it was impressive for a radio of its small stature. As for HD Radio, although it isn’t yet available in Canada, it has been approved by the CRTC, so it’s only a matter of time.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


This entry will be short and sweet, as I'm currently in Denver, CO attending the 2007 CEDIA EXPO, a trade show that caters to the custom integration market. Anyone into audio/video likely has some sort of "home theatre" at home, consisting of a flat-panel TV (or maybe even a projector and screen if your budget should accomodate such luxuries), speakers, and perhaps some other fancy-schmancy things, like home automation, music servers, and the like.

Anyone who has anything to do with custom A/V is at this show, learning, teaching, or just simply experiencing new products and technologies. These range from the high-end custom shops that cater to the rich and/or famous; to the traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers who have recently added "custom" to their regular floor sales offerings.

There's no question that custom is the direction the industry is moving as a whole. I think within the next 10 years, the whole idea of "custom" will be encompassed in the term "retail". Essentially, custom will swallow retail whole: if you aren't offering your customers some type of added value, whether it be to mount the flat-panel TV they just bought off your sales floor, or to connect that new media server to their Internet connection and music system, you might want to start looking in that direction.

Meanwhile, check out the Marketnews Website for some highlights of what's to come at the show, which officially begins tomorrow.