Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trade Show? Yes Trade Show? No

The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) had industry members talking this time one year ago when it confirmed the addition of a second trade show, which would take place in April, and cater to architects, designers, builders, IT/security managers, and other professional trades. (CEDIA's "regular" show takes place every year in early September, and is targeted to custom A/V integrators). Now, the association says that it's nixing the second show, due to "market conditions" and "member feedback", and continuing with a more intimate round-table forum that helps unite architects, builders, and interior designers with custom A/V professionals.

This move isn't surprising. It's no secret that, with every trade show comes huge costs, both in terms of money and time. Not only does a company have to budget for flights, hotels, and food for every employee that's sent down to the show, they also have to give up valuable in-office/in-store time. Trade shows certainly serve an important role, in terms of introducing and demonstrating new products and technologies, and educating installers and salespersons. But with regional training, and smaller, more intimate dealer events that manufacturers and distributors hold throughout the year, how many trade shows can one company factor (and justify) into its schedule?

As it is, many custom A/V companies I've spoken to are finding it difficult to justify attending both CEDIA, a show specifically tailored to the custom A/V market; and CES, the largest consumer electronics show of the year. Some have informed me that they've opted out of participating in CES simply because its scope is so broad that there's little point. Although having a presence at the show helps boost a company's profile, they end up seeing the same dealers and partners that they met with a few months earlier at CEDIA.

On the other side of the coin, I've had others tell me that they will continue to participate in both shows simply because CES is the largest technology show, obviously attracting a lot of media attention; and often serves as a platform for the biggest product launches of the year. Of course, as custom A/V becomes more and more a part of the "regular" family home theatre set-up, companies might find themselves shifting back toward CES; or, on the flip side, CEDIA might find itself expanding floor space more and more to companies involved in things like home networking, appliances, and computers.

With so much perceived concern over even just these two existing shows, it's no surprise that integrators drew the line at another CEDIA. Why not extend the September CEDIA to include a day for architects and builders to show their faces? From a media perspective, just one CEDIA is also a good thing. There's only so much floor-space one's mind (and feet!) can cover in a year!

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Uninformed Person's Guide to Getting HDTV (Apparently, We Still Need This!)

A Canadian industry member recently told me that retailers are experiencing an increase in the returns of HDTVs. This reportedly isn't because flat-panel displays aren't up to snuff, or content isn't available: in fact, HDTVs are looking the best they ever have, and there's more HD content available than ever! The problem is that apparently, the average consumer still doesn't understand how to get HD content. Are you for real? I had to ask. Unfortunately, he was. Consumers, he said, are disappointed with the image quality when they plug in their units, and frustrated when they find out they aren't instantly getting HD.

That said, let's go through the basic "idiot's guide to getting HDTV". Step 1: Buy a high-def flat-panel TV. It will be labeled 720p, 1080i, or 1080p; or it should just say high-def on the spec card in the store. To make your life easy, just ask an available salesperson to help you. You're one step closer. If you plug this TV into your regular cable or satellite box, you'll get, you guessed it, regular cable or satellite. A high-def image will not magically appear. I know, it sounds like a fantastic idea - why not? We'll get to that point at some time in the future, I'm sure. For now, HD is a step up from standard TV, so logically, it will require additional equipment to obtain.

Step 2: call your cable/satellite service provider and ask for a high-definition set-top box. Most will have more than one choice, one of which is likely a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) that will let you record TV content right onto its hard drive, which you can then view any time you like. I'd highly recommend one of these if you're a heavy TV watcher; or often not home or available when your favourite shows are on. But that's besides the point. Once you know which HD box you want, order it. Then replace your old, standard definition box with this one (usually, the provider will send a technician to swap them out for you).

Step 3: As much as you'd like, having the box and the TV still doesn't instantly get you high-def: you need to subscribe to access it. Call your service provider, or visit its Website, and find a channel package that includes that provider's available high-definition channels. Basic cable won't cut it. Remember, even when you order high-def, only certain networks and certain programming are currently available in HD. For instance, Rogers Cable has about 36 available HD channels. Bell ExpressVu has more than 50. Some providers might give you a few of these for free upon purchase/rental of an HD set-top box. But in the end, you'll need to subscribe to an upgraded channel package to get all the ones you want permanently added to your daily listings.

Once these three steps have been followed, you're all set. Now you can get HDTV. All of the HD channels should be lumped together in your on-screen guide, and "HD" should be somewhere in the name so you know which ones they are. If you're not sure, check online or in the brochure you likely received with purchase/rental, and you should be able to find everything you need to know.

The whole process sounds more difficult than it really is. It's a simple concept that can be likened to buying a cup of coffee. You can buy the cup and pour the java in, but that doesn't make it a latte. If you want a latte, you have to order a latte. Starbucks, Second Cup, or wherever you go will mix up the glorious concoction for you, and charge you accordingly. But you can't order a coffee and expect a latte; despite the fact that all the basic ingredients are there.

It's unfortunate to know that salespeople still need to explain this. But if you want to ensure there are no product returns, I'd suggest explaining these three steps to your customer before he walks out the door with his fancy new TV. If it turns out he's an informed customer, laugh it off and tell him this story. If he's an uninformed one, you may have just saved yourself (and him!) a lot of time and money.

Clocks Don't Go Back Just Yet!

Did you stumble into work this morning an hour late because you thought the clocks were supposed to be turned back on Sunday morning? If so, there was probably a crowd of co-workers waiting by the door to laugh uncontrollably as you strolled in! This is historically the weekend that we're permitted to literally turn back time. But, as of this year, daylight savings time in Canada ends on the first Sunday in November, rather than the last in October. Saskatchewan is the one exception.

The reason for all the confusion is actually a good one: to help save energy. Daylight savings was extended to 34 weeks in the U.S. based on a U.S. legislation move in 2005. This means that it began three weeks earlier this year, and will end one week later. This year, Canada is following suit with the change, which CTV claims proposes to save "up to 100,000 barrels of oil in the U.S. for every day of extra daylight." In my eyes, an extra hour of sleep is an extra hour of sleep, and it's appreciated no matter what weekend it might fall. And if it helps to save energy, more power (or rather less!) to ya!

As for those who didn't quite catch on to the change, don't fret: you're not alone. Although my Rogers Wireless handset picked up on the new time change schedule, and didn't turn back an hour (let's see if it does turn back next weekend!); my partner's Bell Mobility Blackberry did incorrectly back-track by 60 minutes. My office PC proudly continues to illustrate the proper time, but my landline phone wrongly chucked back an hour.

[Image used from].

Friday, October 26, 2007

13 Canadian Companies Break Into Deloitte's Wireless Fast 50 List

Canadians involved in the wireless industry can puff their chests in pride today: a total of 13 Canadian born and bred companies managed to snag spots on the Deloitte Wireless Fast 50 list, which ranks the fastest growing wireless companies (based on revenue growth) over the past five years. Three companies (all based in Ontario) even managed to crack the top 10!

BTI Systems Inc., a fibre optic microWDM system provider, came in fourth place, tied with Tira Wireless Inc., which aids developers and publishers in getting their content to the wireless arena. MyThum Interactive Inc., which provides tools for services like text messaging, interactive TV, and voice response, came in sixth place. The country's capital, Ottawa, bred an impressive five of the Canadian entries (BTI, DragonWave Inc., Bridgewater Systems, EION Inc., and SkyWave Mobile Communications Inc.); while the greater Toronto area serves as home for four (Tira, MyThum, Redline Communications Inc., and AirIQ Inc.) Three companies hailed from BC: WebTech Wireless Inc., Tranzeo Wireless Technologies Inc., and Ascalade Communications Inc. Of course, there's no surprise that Waterloo, ON-based Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the widely popular Blackberry device, also made it to the list, coming in at #34. Redline Communications is my prediction as the "company to watch" for the next few years: it provides infrastructure products for WiMAX wireless networks, which have been touted as the "next big thing" in WiFi technology.

Moving away from the Canadian theme, I was pleasantly surprised to see that NYC-based Sirius Satellite Radio ranked numero-uno on the list, with an impressive 79% growth over the five-year period. The second place company, SkyBitz Inc., showed only half as much growth at 40%. Way to go, Sirius! TeleNav, Inc., which provides the very useful GPS capabilities you find on many smartphones today, ranked third with 16.6% growth.

Aside from being proud that Canadian companies have made a significance presence in this area of technology, it's also promising to know that it's an area that's continually growing at a rapid pace. With more data services becoming available for mobile phones, from streaming video, to downloadable tunes, satellite radio, and enhanced web browsing capabilities, plus faster network speeds, wireless-related companies will likely be experiencing growth of massive proportions over the next few years. To further reinforce this point, Deloitte notes that 60% of all voice calls are made using wireless connections, and many of these while the caller is within a few feet of a landline phone! We're certainly moving faster and faster toward a world without wires.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Buy Movie Tickets Using Your Phone

Short-code text messaging has been used on mobile phones for everything from getting your daily horoscope, to voting for your favourite TV reality show contestant. Now, Bell Mobility is bringing a more practical application to the short-code arena: ordering movie tickets!

Through a partnership with Cineplex, any Bell Mobility customer with a standard mobile phone with SMS and Internet browsing capability (excluding dedicated PDA/messaging "smart" phones that have full QWERTY keyboards - I'm not sure why) can order movie tickets through his phone. The plus is that no credit card is required, since the tickets are billed directly to the person's Bell Moblity account.

Here's how it works: just send the word "tickets" to the short-code "JUMP" (5867), and you'll receive a link to a web page where the purchase can be made. Once the purchase is completed, a barcoded virtual "ticket" is sent to your phone. Scan this barcode at the Cineplex kiosk, and out comes a paper ticket.

It's important to keep in mind that you will be paying added fees for this convenience. First, there's text messaging fees, unless you have an unlimited usage plan. Second, you'll be dinged mobile web browsing charges once you click that link to select the movie and time, and complete the purchase. And finally, Bell charges a "convenience fee" of $1.50 to complete each transaction.

Such a service is great if you want to purchase tickets in advance while you're on the road (if you're at home, you can just order them online using a PC!) It's especially useful for highly-anticipated new movie releases, where tickets might sell-out before you get a chance to head to the theatre. It also saves time once you've arrived (although, I would argue that purchasing movie tickets through the kiosk and a debit card really isn't that time-consuming a process to begin with).

This is all, of course, assuming that people still actually go to movie theatres! With the increased interest in home theatre, HDTV, and high-definition DVD formats, not to mention the unfortunate existence of bootlegged DVDs, I wouldn't be surprised if the movie theatre industry is suffering a similar blow to the one the traditional CD industry has been feeling over the last few years.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sony's New Digicam Doesn't Need a Memory Card

Sony is incorporating 4 GB (yes, GB!) of internal memory into its new Cyber-shot DSC-T2 digital camera. This means you can take tons of pics and video, then save the content directly to the camera instead of a memory card. On the upside, although the camera does also accept optional Memory Sticks, with 4GB of storage, you'll likely never have to buy one. On the downside: you''ll likely never have to buy one. Let me explain...

Don't you hate when you purchase something only to find out that it requires some sort of "optional" accessory to work up to its full potential? A memory card for a digital camera. A USB cable for a printer. Headphones for a music phone. Sony's DSC-T2 solves this frustration by incorporating an ample amount of memory into the camera itself. You can buy just the camera and truly be ready to go out of the box; and the salesguy doesn't have to break the news that the camera's 16MB of internal memory will let you save, oh, about 2 photos at full resolution. It's a win-win situation.

But wait a second: aren't accessories where all the profit lies? A retailer might make $10 off the sale of a $300 digital camera; but he'll make that same money off the sale of a $50 optional memory card. Will retailers see the inclusion of so much memory as cannabalizing accessory sales? If so, this same argument could be made for any camcorder, portable media player, or mobile phone that has a built-in hard drive. One could even argue that a waterproof digital camera takes sales away from optional waterproof casings! Or, on the flip side, will retailers view the 4 GB of memory as a good sales handle to sell more of the cameras (e.g. This model has 16 MB of built-in memory for $300, or you can buy this 'T2 for $50 more, and it has 4 GB already built in!)

I can see how 4 GB of built-in memory is a good thing, especially since the camera's price doesn't seem to be severely inflated because of it: the 8 MP digicam (which has advanced features like optical image stabilization, face detection, 2.7" touchscreen LCD, and ISO sensitivity up to 3,200) will reportedly sell for about $350. Not bad. However, I actually prefer using removable flash memory for a variety of reasons that go beyond price. For one, I absolutely hate having to connect any device to my PC via USB cable. It means I have to keep the cable handy at all times; and it's generally slow and awkward. I want to remove the memory card, insert it right into a card reader or my PC's built-in card slots, and be on my way. Second, I typically use the same memory card for various devices: I'll take pix using my digicam, then take that same card and place it in a digital photo frame; or plop it into my portable GPS unit. I don't want to be limited by cables.

However, there are other advantages of built-in memory. As one of my colleagues suggested, the 4 GBs of memory could be used to store video content (the camera can record MPEG-1 at up to 640 x 480 and 30 fps); while an optional Memory Stick could serve as the place to store still images. After all, a brand-name 2GB Memory Stick can be purchased for about $90 these days. So for about $450, you get a pretty darned good camera, and a total of 6 GBs worth of memory. Not too shabby.

I have to admit: when I first heard about this camera, my initial reaction was that it was a bad move on Sony's part. Retailers would hate them for taking away potential accessory sales, and consumers would say "no, thanks", opting for memory that was easily transportable from one device to another. But the more I think about it, with the amount of content being consumed and recorded on the rise, more memory, in whatever capacity it comes, just can't be a bad thing. And chances are, those who buy this camera will eventually end up back in the store to buy flash memory to complement the built-in kind.

When it Comes to LCD, Thin is In

Now that it has conquered the dimension race with a whopping 108-inch model, the LCD category is focusing its efforts on another form of size: depth. And this time, it's a reduction in size, not an increase. Sharp has developed a 0.68 mm, wafer-thin 2.2" LCD that can be used in mobile devices, like cell phones, portable audio players, or digital cameras. To put this in perspective, a standard mobile phone's LCD is likely anywhere from 0.8-2.2 mm thick!

It's apparent that the fashion industry isn't the only one where "thin is in". Except with LCDs, the thinner they get, the better they can become. One obvious advantage of thinner TVs is space saving: Toshiba's new REGZA Super Narrow Bezel line of LCDs, for example, measure just 1" thin, which means a 40" model can easily fit into furniture made for a 37" one. This doesn't only save space; but you're now able to save money upgrading to a bigger TV without having to replace the furniture as well. Sharp Electronics has also reduced the depth of its latest D64U line of LCD TVs, making them 25% thinner than previous models. This not only results in a sleeker-looking product, but also makes them 20% lighter than previous-generation Sharp LCDs.

The way the flat-panel market is going, we might just end up in the future with TVs that look like projector screens: massive in size, and near paper-thin! What, then will happen to the projector market...

[Photo: Sharp's new 0.68mm thin LCD boasts 2,000:1 contrast, 176-degree viewing angle, 8 ms response time, and 240 x 320 pixel resolution (QVGA)].

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Canadian Retail Sales Up, Says Stats-Can

Statistics Canada reports that retail sales in Canada rose 0.7% during the month of August, reaching approx. $34.5 billion. Surprisingly, sales from new car dealers took top ranks with 3% growth.

But home furnishing and electronic stores also showed strong growth at 1.5%, representing the second consecutive increase over 1% in the category. This category also rose 10.5% when compared to August 2006! The consistent rise was reported to be due, in large part, to home electronics and appliances specifically, which rose a whopping 3.7% in sales: the most drastic rise seen since February 2005. When compared to the same period last year, the category rose an impressive 15.7%. More good news for the industry: sales in the furniture, home furnishings, and electronics stores sector have not dropped since spring last year.

The strongest sales growths were found in P.E.I. (2.5%) and Ontario (2%), fueled mainly by new car dealer sales. Provinces that experienced a decline in retail sales included Alberta (0.5%); Nova Scotia (0.7%); Manitoba (0.2%); and Northwest Territories (1.7%).

This holiday shopping season will prove a critical one for the retail landscape in Canada. Retailers like Wal-Mart have already made announcements that they'll be dropping prices in the wake of the strong Canadian dollar. Wal-Mart Canada President & CEO Mario Pilozzi presented a letter to the company's suppliers in attempt to negotiate lower prices. Meanwhile, Hudson's Bay Co. also announced that it would slash prices at all 298 Zellers outlets across Canada, due in large part to the rising Canadian buck.

One thing's for sure: the 2007 holiday shopping season will certainly work in the consumer's favour. If there's ever a time to get the best value for your money, this is it. Happy shopping!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Online Buying Poses More Competition for Retailers

Consumers Reports says that people are happy to buy electronics online, from small purchases like digital cameras; to even big-ticket items like flat-panel TVs and computers. As if Canadian retailers didn't have the issue of the declining U.S. dollar to deal with this busy holiday shopping season; now they have to contend with potentially increased competition from the online realm.

Some traditional bricks & mortar retailers, like Future Shop and Best Buy, offer their own online shopping components which lets them play in both ends of the game. But smaller independents that don't might find themselves fighting even harder for customer's bucks.

Interestingly, 75% of the survey respondents said that one of the reasons they chose to shop online instead of at a local store was to avoid the irritating pitch for an extended warranty. Other reasons were supposedly better prices, and better product selection. led on the pricing front; while (which just entered the Canadian market a few months ago) scored top ranks for customer service. Customers also enjoy things like online sales advisors that can help with a "virtual" purchase; and product reviews from other customers. Another factor that helped take these two online retailers to the top: they both accept returns.

Despite the increased interest in online retailers, traditional bricks and mortar stores are still being visited, most often for "major electronic purchases". Customers often desire face-to-face communication; and of course convenience also plays a factor: many don't want to wait for an item to be delivered.

When it comes to the in-store experience, local independents ranked first overall, with the highest scores relating to customer service, and speedy checkouts.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Armani Goes High-Tech

Back in May, I wrote an entry here about the colliding worlds of fashion and technology. Not only are products getting sexier looking, but CE manufacturers are now commissioning experts in fashion and aesthetics in order to advise them on the creation of more appealing designs. Meridian worked with Ferrari on its high-end, $3,000 F80 tabletop radio. LG Electronics worked with world-renowned fashion designer Prada for its KE850 phone. And Bang & Olufsen has relied on designer David Lewis since the 1960s to create the majority of the modern and funky products for which the company prides itself. Now, leading fashion designer Giorgio Armani is joining the foray by helping Samsung design a line of luxury portable and home CE products.

According to a press release, the products will be sold through Armani's direct-controlled retail network and "upscale consumer electronics stores" in major European countries as of November, with plans to expand distribution to other markets in 2008 (I doubt this will include Canada, but you never know!)

The first product to be introduced is, not surprisingly, a mobile phone. Since your phone is the one tech item that's always with you, it makes sense for it to be the most fashionable! The Giorgio Armani-Samsung luxury mobile, unveiled during Milan Fashion Week at the Armani/Teatro on September 24, is, of course, super-thin (10.5 mm, to be exact). A luxury LCD TV will debut in January 2008.

This just reinforces the fact that design is not only paramount in technology, but creating a luxury CE item has become an artform unto itself. Which designer is next to jump onto the tech fashion bandwagon?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Swear Like a Sailor - It's Good For Morale!

In most offices, swearing is considered a "no no", and highly discouraged, if not reprimanded. However, according to a report in the Globe & Mail, a team of British researchers have found that swearing in the office can actually help boost employee morale.

I can believe it: if you're apt to swearing in the office, it's highly likely that you work in an environment, and with people, for which you feel comfortable. After all, dirty words wouldn't be spewing from your mouth in front of just anyone! Sure, it would be déclassé to even think of engaging in such behaviour when there are visitors in the office or meetings taking place. But if it's just you and the team, why hold back when you're frustrated? As long as no one is offended, go ahead and break out a few choice words if your PC crashes, or you're under a lot of stress with deadlines!

Interestingly, the study discovered that hospital nurses were one of the top offending groups (yet they're always pleasant around patients, right?); and women overall actually swear as much, if not more, than men. Other industries that were high on the swearing list included restaurants and construction sites.

"The researchers hope that the study will serve not only to acknowledge the part that swearing plays in our work and our lives," cited the Globe report, "but also to indicate that leaders sometimes need to think differently and be open to intriguing idea."

Translation: an office with a more open environment where people feel they can speak candidly (so long as its not abusive or offensive to anyone) can help ease the stress of a day's work.
$&%@, ya!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The End of an Era: U.S. Best Buy Stores Say No More Analog TVs

According to a Reuters report, Best Buy's U.S. stores will no longer be offering analog TVs, opting for a digital-only tuner environment. Of course this goes in line with the FCC's decision to stop all analog broadcasts by February 2009.

In Canada, the CRTC has not made a similar mandate, and a spokesperson for Best Buy Canada tells me that the retailer will continue to sell analog products "as long as there is a demand for them".

Although a demand certainly still does exist, there's no telling for how long. After all, even my 60+ year old parents recently expressed to me that they'd like "one of those TVs that you can hang on the wall." Not to mention that both plasma and LCD TVs are available for reasonable prices that even the severely budget-conscious could afford.

That said, I do think it's a good move on Best Buy U.S.'s part to help push lagging customers toward digital TV.

Will the CRTC follow suit with the U.S. FCC and make similar moves for digital TV? Although the organization has taken steps to encourage the adoption of digital TV (like requesting that, by the end of this year, Canadian broadcasters offer at least two-thirds of their TV schedules in HD), there has been no specific deadlines (to my knowledge) that would absolutely ensure that this happens. Stay tuned (pun intended).

Raise Your Hand if You're Sick of the "Revolutionary"

The topic of industry jargon was brought to my attention recently, and the multitude of bogus terms that exist in the industry. For instance, there’s "digital zoom", which decribes nothing more than the ability to magnify a captured image on a digital camera’s LCD.

This got me to thinking about a related subject, and my least favourite, and probably the most over-used, marketing term in the industry: "revolutionary". I don’t know about you, but whenever I see this word in a press release, advertisement, or other marketing materials, my eyes roll so far back into my head that I fear I may never see them again. Not to knock those who use the word: perhaps there’s a study out there that proves seeing words like revolutionary attracts attention and stimulates some sort of brain function, piquing a reader’s interest. But to me, there is no industry term more bogus than this one.

The textbook definition for revolutionary is a "significant change that occurs in a short period of time." Of course this depends on how you interpret both a "significant change" and a "short period of time". Another definition states: "markedly new or introducing radical change." That said, if one, minute improvement to a product is made, should it be deemed "revolutionary"?

In my eyes, the computer was revolutionary. The Internet was revolutionary. The flat-panel TV was revolutionary. Heck, even the iPod has been revolutionary. These products have significantly changed the face of the industry, the way we communicate, interact, and the way content is distributed and consumed. But a new MP3 player that's 50% smaller than its predecessor: how is this revolutionary?

Right up there with revolutionary on my list is "unique". If everyone claims to be different by following the trends of the rest of the industry, how is this "unique"?

The solution to this problem: let's completely rid ourselves of these extraneous words, pull out the good ol' dictionary, and find some new adjectives to promote products and technologies.

As an aside, if you can think of other bogus industry terms, please feel free to comment here and out them once and for all!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is E-mail Really Faster & More Convenient?

Have you ever sent or received an e-mail, only to find out later that it had been misinterpreted? (My hand is raised on this one). According to a recent survey conducted by Strategic Counsel on behalf of Microsoft Canada, this isn't such an uncommon occurence. Microsoft reports that, since it's difficult to convey tone and emotion in e-mails, they are often misinterpreted, leading to the person having to follow up with a phone call to explain; or the recipient having to read, and re-read the message over and over, in order to confirm it's intended meaning.

"Please send the package to Mr. Smith ASAP." This could be interpreted as a terse, snotty, instructional e-mail. Is "ASAP" meant to sound authoritative, or simply conveying that it's an important package, and needs to arrive immediately? Often times, someone won't take the time to adjust verbage such that there's no room for questioning. (Keep in mind that this is just a simple example to illustrate the point. If you have some examples of your own, feel free to comment here!) Another popular method of conveying emotions is through the use of emoticons. For example, a simple :) can advise that a comment is meant to be taken lightly. But let's face it: how professional is it to use smily faces?

The point of Microsoft's study was to show that, although e-mail is meant to be a more convenient, faster method of communication, it often ends up taking more time out of one's day, having to triple-check the wording of an e-mail to ensure it "sounds right", or having to follow up by phone or in person. (The other point of the study was, of course, to promote the company's new software-enabled unified communication systems that integrate voice, video, and e-mail communication together).

I would have to disagree in many ways with the results of this study. For every misinterpreted e-mail that I've had to follow up on by phone, I've probably sent hundreds of others that saved me hours upon hours trying to reach the person by phone, or vice versa. Sure, there are times when e-mail simply won't cut it, and it's worth the extra effort to pick up a phone or jump in the car (for example, an interview by e-mail simply doesn't make sense!) But in other instances, e-mail is, and will remain, an important, faster, and convenient method of communication.

That said, I do agree that a product that can combine several methods of communication into one seamless process is certainly a welcome one in any business.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Canadian Dollar Will Reach US$1.05 by 2008

CIBC World Markets predicts that the Canadian buck will be worth $1.05 U.S. by the end of 2008, representing the biggest premium since 1960.

"The loonie's flight is far from over," said Jeff Rubin, Chief Economist and Chief Strategist at CIBC World Markets. "By the end of next year, you'll get as much as a nickel back when you trade your loonies for greenbacks."

Last month, Lee Distad gave readers a piece of his mind on this blog about the disparity between retail pricing in the U.S. and Canada on consumer goods. In short, he argued that contracts were signed months, maybe even a year ago, and to change pricing now to work in line with the current exchange rate would leave Canadian retailers feeling the pain. With the rise in Internet sales over the last few years, will they be feeling the pain anyway? After all, as it stands, I can buy product X at a Canadian store for $20.00; or purchase it online from a U.S. retailer for something like $18.00, plus shipping and handling. As the gap between the Canadian and U.S. dollar begins to widen, it will eventually make purchasing from across the border even more enticing.

Of course that doesn't hold true for all products and in all situations: in many cases, the after-sales service, and peace-of-mind that you're dealing with a retail outlet around the corner from your home is worth the extra few bucks you could end up paying in Canada. Plus, sometimes waiting for a product to be shipped isn't something the customer's willing to deal with. But we have to be honest: in some situations, the U.S. might be seeing more Canadian dollars than we would like them to.

Distad was correct in predicting that this holiday shopping season will see a price war like no other: but Canadian retailers won't only be competing with one another for Canadian consumers' bucks: they'll also be competing with our neighbours to the south, through things like across-the-border and Internet shopping, in a way they haven't had to deal with in years.

On a related note, Rubin adds that the rise of the Canadian dollar over the U.S. is due largely in part to the shift in "global terms of trade over the last decade, which has seen economic value-added migrate from information technology back to resource rents under the ground." Such shifts are obvious when looking at countries like Dubai, which has raised its profile over the past few years with modern and futuristic real-estate projects like man-made islands and indoor ski hills, and has attracted the attention of corporations from all other world, which have since set up shop in the country's financial district.

It will be interesting to see how the countries of the world are positioned 20, and even 10 years from now.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Radiohead Shakes Up Music Industry by Offering Digital Album for Free

British band Radiohead has caused a lot of stir in the music industry as of late by offering its new album In Rainbows as a digital download via its Website for a price that the consumer decides. Yes, you read that right: add to cart, and pick your price!

The music industry has really been put through its paces these past few years: music downloading has become increasingly popular, physical CD sales have dropped, and P2P Websites have led to everything from the unauthorized distribution of music, to lawsuits against college students. Radiohead's move is probably the boldest in a series of tactics I've seen over the past few years in an effort to help re-invent the category: from ad-supported digital download sites, to buy-a-player-and-get-a-free-music-download cross-promotions.

This raises a few questions: for one, do music labels even serve a purpose anymore? Radiohead has been without a label for years, and has obviously acquired a large enough group of fans to be able to do so. Reports indicate that over 1.2 million people purchased the digital album since it became available on October 10, some paying as much as 100 Euros for it! True, Radiohead already has an established fanbase, and that is undoubtedly credited to the music label it worked with previously. But with the Internet, sites like YouTube and MySpace, and other, alternative methods of digital music distribution, are music labels becoming defunct? Or perhaps their position just needs to be re-evaluated within the changing digital music landscape.

Second, can music artists still maintain a profitable business by offering their music online for free, or at a minimal cost? Ask me to choose how much I can pay for something, and I'm likely to pay as little as possible! Supposedly Radiohead's album can be downloaded for as little as 45 pence (or $0.99), which simply covers the credit card handling fee.

Still, many online reports are questioning whether this move was just a marketing ploy to generate sales of the physical In Rainbows CD, which is said to be released in 2008. After all, the tracks arrive to purchaser's PCs at the abysmal quality of just 160 kbps, which leads one to believe that they're only meant to be a "preview". Even so, would you rather fans pay $0.99 for a preview of your album, or nil for moderate-quality digital versions of every tune through a P2P site?

Whatever Radiohead's reasons were for doing what they did, they certainly accomplished one thing: making a stand for music, digital distribution, and a consumer's right to obtain tracks in a way that suits him.

[Photo: When you add the digital download of Radiohead's new album In Rainbows to your basket, you'll find a little hyperlink question mark beside the price. Press it once, and the message "It's Up to You" pops up. Press it once more, and the band reassures that you can pay what you like: "No Really. It's Up to You" reads the pop-up.]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vacation Tech Observations

I’m back into the swing of things, and thought I’d write a quick entry about my “tech” observations while away on vacation in sunny Florida.

1) Being without Internet connectivity for two weeks straight really leads to a serious form of withdrawal: I really think that “Internet addiction” will grow as a real issue with the younger generation, and may even find its way into the psychological books! “Hi, my name is Christine, and I’m addicted to e-mail…” Anyway, I made it through without sneaking into a Starbucks for some WiFi access, so at least I know my own issue hasn’t escalated to a point where I should really worry.

2) It appears that camcorders have taken over as the vacation accessory of choice for families and couples. I noticed people capturing video just as much as they did snapshots while on the streets and beach. Some took panning shots of the street, architecture, and restaurant patios as they strolled by; while others shot little videos of themselves on the beach having fun. It was promising to see in a real world scenario that people aren’t just limiting their memories to static images, and are actively seeing value in recording their own video diaries.

3) When bringing a point-and-shoot digital camera on vacation, I would highly recommend a waterproof (not water-resistant) model. I brought along the new Olympus 790sw, which is fully waterproof up to 10 feet (as well as shock-proof up to 5 feet and freezeproof up to -10-degrees Celcius), and absolutely loved using it. Aside from being able to take it into the water, I was relieved to finally have a camera I could snap shots with on the beach without worrying that sand or water droplets would damage its innards. Of course this isn't the only feature you should look for in a digicam, but it certainly adds value.

4) Having been in Miami, arguably a very trendy city, I wasn’t surprised to spot a few people with those nifty Lifepop speaker bags I mentioned way back when. I went the personal listening route via my portable audio player (Sansa e270) and some earbuds (I wasn’t going to risk damaging my Bose QuietComfort 3’s on the beach!); while my partner enjoyed his iPod Video, protected from the sand by a leather case (Roots).

5) BlackBerries are great devices, especially for vacation time. My partner just started using one, and loved being able to quickly check e-mails in the a.m., respond to anything urgent, than leave the device at home while we went about our day. Although many argue that such devices make the work-life balance that much more difficult to accommodate, there is definitely a positive side that spells c-o-n-v-e-n-i-e-n-c-e, and not intrusion.

Stay tuned for more entries.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Picking the Right Size Flat Panel

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

Talking with clients, friends and family about their prospective flat panel purchases, I’ve come to realize that most people seriously underestimate what size screen would work best in a given environment.

What people shopping for a new flat panel typically don’t take into account is that with a flat panel, there is zero footprint into the space of the room, unlike the old days of CRT Rear Projection where a 50-inch screen was two-and-a-half feet deep. Combine the lack of depth with the reduced minimum viewing distance (owning to the greater level of resolution and clarity that new sets deliver), and you can wrangle a much bigger screen into your den or living room than you could 10 years ago. Add falling prices, and bigger panels are accessible to a broader range of customers than ever before.

Since last spring, the catchphrase in the industry has been: “Fifty is the new 42.” Okay, I admit that I started it, but everyone I speak with in the ‘biz’ agrees with me. Fifty-inch panels are the new default main room television, with 42-inch sets basically being a bedroom or small condo size television now.

Really, the only limiting factors in flat panel size selection are logistics: having the set be able to fit lengthwise and height wise on the wall with regard to millwork, art, and anything else that shares wall space with the set. Oh, and budget. How much television your clients can choose to buy is also a factor; but I consider that a minor detail, since the majority of the retailers who read this site are pretty upscale.

I’m not saying that you should strong-arm your clients into buying a bigger set than they thought they wanted. But make sure you do the job that a consultative salesperson should: show them what their options are, and open their minds to the possibilities. I suspect that when you do that, they’ll agree with you, and order bigger panels. Mark my words, by next spring, the catchphrase will be: “Sixty is the new 50.” (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Blu-ray and HD-DVD versus HD downloads

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

There’s been a lot of speculation recently about the future of video content, and many pundits and futurists are looking towards paid downloads as being the Next Big Thing.

It appears that the Next Big Thing is here today. According to a report by think tank Parks Associates, video downloading has exploded. Can High Definition downloads be far behind?

The Morning Bridge: RESEARCH: More Consumers Embracing Online Video
Research from Parks Associates found that the number of broadband households paying for online video content is at nearly 12 million, up from a little more than 3 million in 2005 and 2006.

“We have seen widespread use of the Internet as an electronic delivery medium for video content over the past couple of years,” said Kurt Scherf, Parks Associates’ Vice President and principal Analyst. “Certainly, the availability of higher-quality content and a significant base of products like the iPod that allow for more seamless content-to-device linkages have provided a boost to the online video space.”

That’s a healthy jump in the market, and will motivate content companies to work on bringing High Definition downloads to the consumer, and Internet service providers to increase the size of the pipe coming downstream to consumer’s households.

So, looking forward, does this make the struggle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD for consumer acceptance pointless? Some people think so. The professional prognosticator and CNBC favourite, Paul Kedrosky quipped last March that the format war was: “Two dog packs fighting over a decomposing bone.”
He’s not alone in that assessment, and it’s not unreasonable to posit that consumer acceptance of either disc format has been scant due to hesitation about not only picking the wrong format, but also the wrong medium.

If you look at the phenomenal uptake of HD PVRs into people’s homes, it’s apparent that people want to watch content when they want, how they want, and they want it to be easy. The demand for easy access is clearly there, and when there is a market, someone always comes up with a product for that market.

I’m not saying that Blu-ray and/or HD-DVD will immediately be relegated to the boneyard. There is always a niche that takes pleasure in owning the hardcopy of their music or movies. Reading the posts on hi-fi forums from people who’ve bought into either format, those consumers who have taken the plunge will continue to buy content as long as the studios support it. But HD on demand may become the “third way” and steal a lot of the thunder of HD on disc. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Format War Drags On

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

It’s really hard to gauge the state of the marketplace in terms of Blu-ray versus HD-DVD. For a start, there’s so much spin coming out of the marketing apparatchiks for both formats that it’s impossible to get a clear picture of who’s coming out on top. If all you did was read press releases, it would seem like both formats are on opposite sides of a teeter-totter: This week, Blu-ray is the clear winner, next week, it’s HD-DVD!

Talking to friends and contacts in mass-market retail, nobody has been especially impressed with their sell-through on players in either format. And in the casual walkthroughs I’ve done at my local Future Shops and Best Buys, I’ve seen little evidence that either format is getting a big push from the retailers, nor experiencing high demand from mainstream consumers. The aforementioned contacts have all said that there is greater demand and sell-through on DVD players that upscale from 480p to 720p or 1080p.

In the custom integration channel, the consensus for the past year has been to wait and see. Now we are seeing upper-end brands committing to one format or another. Denon is going to release a Blu-ray player, as is Krell (whose player has a suggested retail of US$25,000…), while Onkyo/Integra and Meridian will be supporting HD-DVD. Going forward, the loyalties of custom companies and high-end retailers will fall along the lines drawn by the manufacturers that they already have strong relationships with.

So how is it all going to shake out? Today, my gut instinct says that it’s going to be Blu-ray.

There, I said it.

Given how vocal I have been about Sony’s Playstation3 marketing mishaps for the past year, it takes a lot for me to put that on the record.

Why do I say that? I have a bunch of reasons, all of them anecdotal, ear-to-the-ground type observations. For a start, browsing Internet forums devoted to Hi-Fi, I’m seeing way more threads about Blu-ray players than about HD-DVD players. For another, when I look at the manufacturer names lined up for Blu-ray, there are some serious heavy hitters, even more so than the HD-DVD camp. The biggest of all is Panasonic. The idea of Panasonic climbing into bed with Sony to cooperate on a format invented by Sony is something that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. The lion is lying down with the tiger.

Bear in mind that it isn’t over; it isn’t even close to being over. Also I have been wrong before. I was one of the biggest loudmouths and promoters of MiniDisc back in the mid-‘90s, and look how well that turned out!

That said, I reserve my right to change my mind later, but this is what I think today, and all of you are welcome to bug me about it later if it turns out that I am completely, horribly wrong. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

HDTV Needs Quality and Quantity

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

According to a survey conducted by Nielsen, consumers who have bought a high definition television are happy as clams with the picture quality of their sets, but not nearly as pleased with the availability of programming that’s actually in HD.

HDTV Customers Are Happy with Picture Quality, Less Enthusiastic About Programming Options, Nielsen Finds
New York, October 3, 2007 -High definition (HD) television owners are much more satisfied with the picture quality of HD television than they are with the amount or selection of HD programming, The Nielsen Company reported today.
According to Nielsen Media Research’s 2007 High Definition Survey, 85 percent of HD owners gave a 4 or 5 rating (with 5 meaning “excellent” and 1 meaning “poor”) for picture quality but only 39 percent provided the same rating for programming selection.

The issue of quality and quantity of HD programming is something that I’ve been following from the beginning. Back in the dawn of HD (~1998-99 or so, my memory gets hazy in my old age) I used to quip that HD was format without content. It’s validated to find that my opinion has become mainstream.

Before I come across as too mean-spirited, let me say that we’ve got a pretty good assortment of programming now, but I do expect it to get better with time. Consumers who have just jumped into an HD purchase are dissatisfied with the amount of content because they expect everything to be in HD, all day, every day. By contrast, long time industry watchers like me can remember when Bell had one HD channel; so from our longer perspective, the amount of content feels like a bounty.

That said, I do side with the sentiments of the people who want more. The fact is, the networks typically are only really HD during prime time, and the rest of the time is plain standard definition. So if you want to see your dramas and sitcoms in HD when you want to see them, you really ought to buy an HD receiver with a built-in PVR.

What gives me the most HD joy is sports and educational programming. Hockey on CBC-HD is fantastic, not to mention football. One of the best sales demonstrations I ever had wasn’t in the showroom, but two years ago at a buddy’s house. I did his projector and 100-inch screen a year or two prior, and he invited all his family and friends over for Grey Cup, the first time that it was broadcast in HD. His extended family is in the oil business, and after that party, they kept me busy for nearly a year creating their systems.

If you’re someone who hasn’t yet dived into HDTV, take in a few nature or educational shows in HD. You’re sure to end up closer to taking the plunge. Over the past few years, PBS has been a huge force in creating entertaining HD content. Now with Discovery HD, National Geographic HD, and so on, it’s almost as good as actually being there. Not to mention cooking shows. My god, cooking shows in HD, especially mid afternoon between lunch and dinner, are practically pornography!

To conclude, while overall I would say that I am pretty happy with how much HD I have access to, like the average consumer, I would certainly like to see more! (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Big Changes Come in Small Packages

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions:

One of the hottest stories on the daily tech e-newsletters today is Sharp’s demonstration at CEATEC JAPAN 2007 of a new 12.7-inch LCD display that is only 20mm (less than an inch) thick.

Sharp’s announcement follows on the heels of last month’s declaration by Sony that they will be bringing a similar sized OLED panel to market this Christmas.

The biggest flat panels often hog all the attention at trade shows and media events. Witness the arms race of the last few years between Samsung, Sharp, Panasonic, and LG to show off bigger and bigger LCD and plasma displays. In fact the same press release that trumpets Sharp’s new super thin panel is dominated by the announcement of their 108-inch LCD panel (the subtext there being “Take THAT, Panasonic!”).

While the competition to build bigger panels is fun to watch, and certainly important to technological development, it’s almost a sideshow compared to what may be the main event: better, brighter, thinner, more energy efficient displays.

While the sizes may be unexciting, the leaps that are being made in LCD and OLED are going to be earthshaking, and will have a huge impact on devices with displays, from phones and pocket computers (will there even be two different categories in three year’s time?) to kitchen appliances, onwards to obvious things like laptop monitors and, of course, televisions.

Besides, today it’s a 12-inch display that’s less than an inch thick. Tomorrow it might be a 70-inch television hanging on your wall that’s no thicker. Now are you excited?

I can’t resist drawing a parallel to 65-million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. The thunder lizards may have been mighty indeed, but the future was being made closer to the ground, as tiny little mammals began to proliferate.

So yes, sometimes very small things are a prelude to big changes. (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinions)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Online Music and Video Sales Continue to Grow

From the desk of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion:

I was going to title this, “The Challenge of Online Music Sales” but then I realized that by excluding video, I was being hopelessly 2001.

Paid downloads are here. They’re bigger than ever, and some retailers and content owners (we used to call them Record Labels when I was a kid) have embraced the new business model, while others have reluctantly ducked their toes in the water. More and more, consumers are using these services, and online music and video sales continue to grow, at the same time that hardcopy sales in traditional retail stores continues its slow, stately decline.

But none of that is news, I’m just pointing out the obvious. What’s worth talking about is why some companies are doing fantastically well, and others have been struggling.

On the winning side, you’ve got 800-pound Gorillas like iTunes and Wal-mart who sell huge amounts of downloadable entertainment. In fact, I’d say that iTunes is practically synonymous, Kleenex-like, with the whole business. Along for the ride are smaller content providers, whether resellers like MusicGiants, or labels like Naxos, the specialty classical label, which have found the online sales world to be very much to their liking. In fact, Naxos founder Klaus Heymann was recently quoted as saying “We could live comfortable [sic] if from tomorrow we never sold another CD.”

Then you’ve got the losers, like Sony’s Connect service, and Virgin Digital, each of which has announced that it’s rolling up its operations.

So what’s the difference? Why are some online download services floundering, while others flourish?

My bet is that it is how the audio and video is delivered to the customer. The winning sellers offer content in common formats, such as mp3 or WMA. Due to Digital Rights Management, the content is not 100% wide open once it’s on your computer, but once it’s on your hard drive, it’s yours, more or less. Compare that to Sony Connect, which made use of their ATRAC format, which locked you in to using a Sony portable player, or Virgin Digital, who charged a monthly licensing fee to maintain access to your music. Former Virgin Digital customers will no longer be able to access their music files once their current licences run out.

It appears that customers are voting with their wallets, and are resistant to business models that exert too much control over how they enjoy their entertainment. DRM remains a contentious issue, but my impression is that the groundswell against it is gaining momentum: more and more content is being offered DRM free. In the face of that, will locking content with DRM remain viable in the marketplace? (For more of Lee Distad's Professional Opinion)