Friday, February 29, 2008

Google Makes Websites; Is There Anything Google Can't Do?

Google is best known for its search engine technology, which lets you find out anything about pretty much, well, anything with the click of a mouse. But the company has ventured into other areas over the years: cool Earth maps; e-mail via Gmail; documents; blogging software (like this one!); photo sharing via Picasa; videos via its purchase of YouTube; and now even mobile phone technology through a new mobile application platform called Android. Now, the company is taking a stab at creating Websites that users can easily edit, search, and maintain in small groups, or even through large corporations. Is there anything Google can't or won't do? And what's more, how on earth does the company continue to be able to offer such services for free?

Is Google just trying to get us all to use its applications, only to tack hefty fees onto them once they've convinced us that they're worthwhile? Or is this just an indication of the direction the technology industry is headed as a whole, with Google heading the apprehensive pack? Hmm...

Google is certainly attempting to take a huge chunk of business away from Microsoft, which offers many similar services (Hotmail, Word, Windows Media Player, and so forth). In turn, Microsoft is making moves to gobble up what it can as well (e.g. Yahoo!) to better compete against the search engine/Web behemoth. Either way, is it good for one company to have such power over the Web and your computer activities? Something to think about...

But back to Google's new Web technology, which is aptly named Google Sites. The application would make it easy to instantly update content to a Google-created Website, like adding study notes for a class project; calendar information for a group; and yes, even YouTube videos. And, of course, searching within the site is powered by none other than Google Search. Three versions are available: the basic Standard edition, which is free; and Education (free) and Premier ($50/yr. for each user account) editions, which add tons of functionality, including source code to integrate with your existing structure; third-party applications and services; and, in the Premier edition, a larger storage capacity for e-mail.

"We are literally adding an edit button to the web," said Google's Vice President and General Manager of Enterprise, Dave Girouard. "Creating a team Website has always been too complicated, requiring dedicated hardware and software as well as programming skills. Now with Google Sites, anyone can create an entirely customized site in minutes, and invite others to contribute."

Sure, this service might not necessarily be the way to go for big businesses, but for a school course, personal Website, or even temporary promotional Websites, Google Sites might just satisfy some cravings.

I have to give Google credit for building its massive empire, and creating products that are not only helpful and easy to use, but also in many cases, very affordable. Google is quite obviously a force to be reckoned with when it comes to anything and everything to do with the Web.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Concert Tickets Allegedly Being Swiped by Hackers

Anyone who has ever tried to get tickets for a highly anticipated concert or sporting event knows that it's next to impossible. You visit TicketMaster only to find out that the tickets are sold out within minutes of being on sale; or that the only ones left are "obstructed view". The sad truth is that unless you know someone who knows someone, it's pretty darned difficult to get event tickets at all. But is this because they really, legitimately sell out to regular fans?

My guess, and the results of a recent CBC investigation, think not. At any event venue, you'll likely find loads of guys screaming at the top of their lungs that they have tickets...albeit at a severely inflated price. You might also hear stories about someone who managed to get tickets online at, once again, severely inflated pricing. How do these people get tickets? And, more important, how do they manage to do so before a real fan even has the chance? CBC's investigation into the issue revealed some very interesting results that led back to a new breed of computer hackers.

According to the study, hackers have discovered a way to bypass entering that weird four or five character "confirmation" code that proves you're a human person and not a spam program. In doing so, they're able to robotically purchase hundreds and hundreds of tickets before a regular fan can even load the site's homepage! What do they do with all these tickets? Sell them to "scalpers" or third-party ticket selling sites, of course, who in turn jack up the pricing, and put parents in debt just to take their kids to see Hannah Montana.

Should mom or dad really have to pay $1,000 for a pair or tickets to a "tween" show; or should a die-hard hockey fan have to pay three-times the price of a ticket because he can't get tickets from TicketMaster? There's no question that it's just not fair.

Who should take responsibility for cleaning up this issue in Canada? Should it fall on Ticketmaster, which is argubly the largest ticket seller in the country? Law enforcement? The promoters or event producers?

Even beyond the illegal or "shady" resellers, it just doesn't make sense that a major fan can't get a concert ticket, yet a local radio station is giving away tickets every hour on the hour. Isn't the whole point of an event to cater to the tried and true fans, and not the people with the deepest pockets and lucky dialing fingers?

One could argue that a "real" fan would be willing to fork over three-times the price for a ticket anyway. But shouldn't he at least have a fair shot at purchasing the tickets at the regular price first? Absolutely. Hopefully CBC's investigation will shed some well-needed light on this ongoing issue.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Falling CD Sales, P2P Sites Still Plague Music Industry

A new study conducted by The NPD Group confirms that CD sales continue to fall, and peer-to-peer download Websites remain a problem for the music industry's profitability and sustainability. According to the research group, U.S. consumers acquired 6% more music in 2007, but music spending overall was down by 10%, from US$44 per capita to US$40.

Why? Even though the number of Internet users that engage in P2P downloading remained flat at 19%, the number of files each person downloaded went up. What's more, the habit is becoming increasingly popular among the teen and "tween" crowd.

Making the situation even worse, NPD says that approx. one million customers completely stayed away from buying physical CDs in 2007. Almost half (48%) of teenagers said they did not buy one CD throughout the entire year!

Despite the grim outlook, there is a small silver lining. NPD reports that legal music downloads were up 5% when compared to 2006, representing 10% of music sold in 2007, with 29 million U.S. customers having obtained their digital tunes legally. Not surprisingly, Apple's iTunes service led the pack. But what is somewhat surprising is that iTunes was the second most popular spot to obtain music overall, overcome by only Wal-Mart!

If that isn't a clear indication of the direction the market is going, I don't know what is. The world's largest retailer sold the most music, which makes perfect sense. But to say that a digital download service rather than a traditional retailer came in second is an incredible achievement.

Now that the mistake-that-is DRM restrictions is slowly fading to oblivion, we might see interest in legal download sites rise this year. If the industry stops trying to find bundles and wonky subscription rates/plans and just focuses on giving customers tunes they want for a set price (either individually or by album), this would be a good start. Buying music digitally should be just as easy as it is to buy a physical CD. I just want to buy good quality tunes that I can play anywhere I want. No bells, no whistles, and no restrictions.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Does Anyone Even Use Hotmail Anymore?

I understand that the free Hotmail e-mail service has been giving some trouble today, leaving a reported 300 million North American users without access to their accounts. I am surprised that many people still use Hotmail.

Not that there's anything wrong with the e-mail service: I still have an ancient Hotmail account that I remember to check once a month, if that. It serves as a repository for newsletters and half-spam/half-interesting stuff that I might want to read one day. I used to use it simply as a portal to connect to the MSN Messenger instant messaging service, but with new social networking sites like Facebook, who needs it?

Not to mention that every ISP offers e-mail accounts with its service, along with Webmail access that lets you check your messages remotely (a colleague of mine didn't even know that such services were available until today!) So why bother with Hotmail?

The answer is because it's reliable, and, especially for techno-phobes, familiar. It's a great back-up account if something goes wrong with your ISP-related one; or you're unable to access your "regular" account from another country. I honestly can't remember a time when the Hotmail service was ever seriously "down" other than for regular maintenance, or maybe for a short period of time. But judging from the amount of press today's issue has been garnering, something has simply gone awry. Hopefully it's fixed sometime soon.

Sidenote: Right before publishing this news item at 4:30 p.m., I checked my own Hotmail account, and I was able to access it just fine.

Polaroid Says Goodbye to Instant Camera, Hello to Pocket Prints

Polaroid says that it will stop making instant cameras, and many are calling the move "the end of an era".

The industry has very obviously "gone digital", and the infamous instant cams are officially now nostalgia pieces. If you've got one, keep hold of it: you can bet that it'll be considered a collector's item soon enough.

Looking back, there was, and always will be, something neat about having an image emerge out of your camera immediately, shaking it for a minute or so, and seeing the results occur right before your eyes. In some ways, this capability really hasn't been duplicated in modern times.

Think about it: we can now do amazing things like take countless images, erase them on the fly, and make fixes in the camera so that the digital photos are 100% perfect. But the images still remain in the camera until we hook the device up to a PC or portable device and download them; or order prints through a retail service provider. There is no immediate solution to get a physical print the way you could with Polaroid's instant cameras; short of using one of those nifty new portable printers.

Of course the instant cameras of yester-year weren't nearly as lightweight and compact as the digicams we have today. Sure, you were able to see a physical copy of your image right away, but you had to lug around this big contraption to get it. Will we ever see a pocketable digicam that can run out a photo like a Polaroid instant cam could do?

Actually, it's quite possible. Polaroid has come up with the "next best thing" with a pocket-sized printer that can connect to any PictBridge-enabled digicam via USB or to a compatible camera phone via Bluetooth and spit out a 2 x 3" print on sticky-back paper in about a minute. The neat part about it is that no ink is required: the printer uses patented Zink-based paper that has yellow, magenta and cyan dye crystals embedded into it.

Kudos to Polaroid for moving forward with technology, while still attempting to maintain the same convenience that was afforded by the product for which the company was best known. It might not elicit the same feeling one received when watching a photo magically appear before his eyes; but if you ask me, a printer the size of a deck of cards is pretty darned cool.

Monday, February 25, 2008

No More Xbox 360 HD DVD Players

As if we didn't expect this: Microsoft says it will no longer produce HD DVD players for the Xbox 360. However, according to Reuters, the company will continue to service the ones that have already been sold, honouring the warranty agreements.

Currently, the hard cover book-sized HD DVD player for the Xbox 360 sells for about $130, but that price is likely to come down very soon.

The fact that Blu-ray has won the high-definition DVD format war could very well affect the gaming market. Without the option of an add-on player, Sony's PlayStation 3 has a serious advantage over the Xbox 360. It's obvious that Microsoft sees this advantage, given that it recently dropped the price of the Xbox 360 console by $50 in order to better compete in the market. (It's worth noting that both consoles, as well as the Nintendo Wii, are selling very well).

But when I think about it, will HD movie watching really have that much of an effect on the sale of these consoles? Most people I know that watch Blu-ray movies using the PS3 didn't buy the PS3 for that purpose: it was just an added benefit. And a smart one at that. But I don't think the built-in Blu-ray player will be the deciding factor between an Xbox 360 or a PS3. The games and the overall gaming-related experience is what will make the difference. The Blu-ray functionality is just icing on the cake. With that said, it is some pretty tasty icing.

There is still no word on whether Microsoft plans to launch a Blu-ray player for the Xbox 360, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one surface in the future.

CORRECTION: SAC Wants to Charge You $5/mo. for Using the 'Net

On Friday, I incorrectly identified the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers (SOCAN) as the Association that wished to impose a $5/mo. fee on Internet usage to compensate music artists. It is actually the Songwriter's Association of Canada (S.A.C.) that is proposing this charge.

We apologize for the error, and any inconvenience this has caused.

Please Click Here to view the revised story.

No Oscar for Canadian Men

I actually stayed up to watch the Academy Awards last night, figuring that perhaps with everything going on in the industry, what with the writer's strike, and methods of content distribution changing so rapidly, we might see something different this year. I was wrong. It was the same old, same old 4-hours worth of speeches, montages, and commercials.

Although the show overall was quite monotonous, there were some funny, not to mention gadget-related, moments. Host Jon Stewart was "caught" in the act of vigorously playing some Wii Sports tennis on the big-screen after a commercial break. On another occasion, he claimed to be immersed in watching a movie on a portable device. "This is great," he said. "But you can't really enjoy the full cinematography unless you watch it in widescreen," he added as he slowly rotated the small device horizontally." I guess this is his way of mocking the fact that consumers think they can really enjoy a movie, and everything it has to offer, by watching it on a tiny 2.2" screen.

Sadly, the heavily Canadian film Juno (Canadian director and several actors) didn't take home as many awards as many had hoped. Just one for its screenwriter (and ex-exotic dancer!) Diablo Cody. Funny enough, this was the only movie of all those nominated that I have actually seen!

No Country for Old Men, a movie about murderers, drugs, and money, took home a slew of awards last night, putting smiles on the faces of seasoned actors like Tommy Lee Jones (although he himself did not win) and Javier Berdam (who did win). Berdam is best known for roles in his hometown of Spain.

Judging from the range of winners, it seems that the best talent this year came from everywhere but the U.S. French actress Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for her role in La Vie En Rose; while the song from Irish film Once won for Best Song, despite being up against three, yes three, tunes from the movie Enchanted.

The Oscars are, of course, a serious event with serious awards given out to serious actors, writers, producers, costume designers, and everyone in between. But what happened to the funny sketches? Interesting and amusing banter between presenters? Sure, there were a couple of funny lines, but the audience was so uptight, it seemed they needed a teleprompter to tell them when to laugh.

In their defense, the Oscars could very well have been canceled this year due to the writer's strike, so the show was likely put together in a rush. Still, that's no excuse. The highly-anticipated Vanity Fair after-party didn't take place either. Stewart mentioned that the cancellation was made earlier in respect of the writers. "Here's how you can show some respect to the writers," mused Stewart. "Send them an invite to the party!"

Anyway, just because our home-grown Canadian film didn't win, we can take pride in the fact that it was an honour just being nominated.

Friday, February 22, 2008

SAC Wants to Charge You $5/Mo. For Using the 'Net

That headline might sound misleading, but it's actually not. The Songwriters Association of Canada (better known as "SAC") wants to charge Internet users $5/mo. in order to compensate artists for music that's illegally downloaded. The reason I say the headline is not misleading is because really, what SAC would be doing is charging all Internet users $5/mo., whether they download music online or not.

I can't begin to explain how unfair a proposal this is. The only exception made was to excuse dial-up users because they likely aren't music downloaders. This, in my eyes, is yet another unfair assumption. When I used to have dial up "back in the day", I certainly downloaded tons of songs (from the original Napster service!) Sure, each tune took about a half-hour to complete, but I still managed to acquire them.

The point is that proposing a blanket charge that would see little Billy who downloads 100 songs a month and Grandma Sissy who barely uses her PC much less downloads music pay the same fee just doesn't make sense. It would also completely negate the point behind legal music downloading Websites, like iTunes and Puretracks (although SAC insists that they would remain in tact, and their appeal would lie with the "value-added services and security features that keep them distinct from file-sharing activities").

"The plan we propose would not change or interfere with the way Canadians receive their music," says SAC's Website. "No one would be sued for the online sharing of songs. On the contrary, the sharing of music on peer-to-peer networkd and similar technologies would become perfectly legal."

Huh? First, the industry pushes toward developing legal, pay-per-download or subscription-based Websites that include annoying DRM restrictions; and now SAC says screw it, let's just charge everyone, whether they engage in illegal downloading or not?

What's more, SAC might say $5/mo. is peanuts to pay, but if that fee is approved, then what's to say that the movie and TV studios won't follow suit with their own monthly charge for downloads? Why not add video game makers as well? Pretty soon, we'll all be tacking on an additional $20 to our already hefty Internet bills!

I have to give SAC some credit for trying to come up with a method that would keep everyone's interests in mind. But if you compare the situation to TV, it would be like forcing all customers to pay for the extra sports channels, even if they don't watch them. Music downloading is like an extra package: perhaps access to all P2P Websites should be blocked by ISPs, and when an Internet user wants to "subscribe" to use them, then he can pay an additional $5/mo. To me, this makes more sense than just charging people for something they potentially don't use.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

CBC Makes Changes to Combine TV, Online, & Radio

The CBC is reportedly set to make some internal changes that would result in one, unified division that covers television, online, and radio. According to the National Post, all three divisions will now be in close communication with one another, and work together on assignments rather than different divisions covering different stories or news items.

This decision just goes to show how new methods of content distribution are affecting business. When a company is distributing content through several means, does it make sense to separate the divisions, or throw them all under one umbrella? If a cool item appears on TV, should the web guy snag that content and post it online? If the web guy gets a great interview with a celeb, should the radio guy air the same audio? Or should TV content remain on TV, web content on the web, and radio content on the airwaves? The lines are constantly being blurred, and many are in disarray trying to figure out the proper strategy.

In CBC's case, the company feels that putting one person in charge of all three divisions makes sense. Richard Stursberg, who previously head up the TV division, will now be responsible for all English-language radio and online properties as well.

On the one hand, this move could help to create a more synergistic voice for the company across all platforms. On the other, it could lead to duplication of content. If so, is that such a bad thing? After all, does the same person who gets his news on the radio also get it online and through cable or satellite TV? Or are there distinct groups of people, each with a preference to how they consume content?

Personally, I could be defined as an "online gal": 90% of my news and information comes from the Web. But when it comes to entertainment, TV is king in my world. As for radio, I'm a faithful satellite radio listener, so news and entertainment programming via radio isn't for me: I just want tunes. My point is that many people are probably like me, and pick and choose what type of content they want from what type of medium. This means that if CBC runs the same sort of content through each medium, there's a good chance that many people won't even notice a difference in product.

You can't please everyone, all the time, as they say. And because there are so many new ways to distribute content, it's a crap-shoot, at this point, for anyone involved.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Video Games Really are for Every Generation

I never thought of myself as a "gamer", although I used to play the odd Atari and Nintendo 64 game way back when; and who can resist a quick online game of Bejeweled? But after spending some time with the Nintendo Wii, I'm convinced that this console really has conquered every generation.

Earlier this month, reports flooded the 'net that the Wii crept up and outsold every other gaming console on the market in the first month of 2008. According to NPD, 274,000 Wii consoles sold in the U.S. in January, compared to 269,000 PlayStation 3s and 230,000 Xbox 360s. Who would have ever thought that a "cheesy" and family-friendly gaming system could overtake consoles made for the hard-core, teenage male gamer?

But this family-friendly console has really come up out of nowhere and taken the gaming world by storm. Playing the "free" sports game that comes with the Wii console for an hour or two will have you sweating buckets; and creating your own "Mii" character that looks just like you is a barrel of laughs, just not for kids, but easily for a group of 20, 30, or even 60-somethings. What's even more telling is that the Wii is still to this day tough to find in retail stores even after being on the market for over a year. I even had to travel to 4 different stores just to find a second Nunchuk controller!

For those who thinking gaming is for lethargic, "geeky" kids with no friends, think again. An hour of gaming with the Wii can give anyone some well-needed exercise, and is a great activity for "family" time for mom and dad, the kids, or even a gathering of friends.

I want to end by noting that I'm not implying the other consoles don't offer neat, interactive features as well. I was also recently introduced to Rock Band for the Xbox 360, and I must say that I enjoyed it as well. Again, this is a game that brings people together, and requires physical activity rather than sitting on your butt and flicking a button or joystick every now and then.

Incorporating physical activity into gaming really seems to be the way that gaming is headed; and it will certainly continue to open the hobby to new and exciting markets.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

HD DVD: The Fat Lady has Sung

As reported here and then officially here on our sister Website, the fat lady has finally sung, so to speak, and we've reached an end to the high-definition DVD format war. Simply put, Toshiba will stop production of all HD DVD products next month.

What does this mean for those consumers who have already purchased an HD DVD player or recorder? Perhaps the tiny, $130 player for the Xbox 360 gaming console? Or even a notebook PC with an integrated HD DVD drive? You'll still be able to continue playing discs you already own and any ypu purchase between now and the day they're removed from store shelves. And Toshiba says it will continue to honour product support and service, which is reassuring for those who want to get some life out of their investment.

Although you might think purchasers are slamming doors in anger at buying what will soon be an obselete technology, that doesn't appear to be the case. Most people who purchased HD DVD were fully aware that the technology might not "win". And in fact, I know some who are just waiting for discs to start "blowing out" at retail so they can stock up on a collection at an affordable price. Of course this collection will likely be collecting dust 20 years from now, but hey, you can take a piece of history with you.

Of course, as I've mentioned time and time again, just because a clear "winner" has been named, it doesn't mean that consumers will be running out in flocks to grab a Blu-ray player. Sure, there are smart-minded, tech-savvy individuals that have been waiting for the war to be over before dropping a half a grand on a player and some movies. But there are still plenty of others that stare blankly at the Blu-ray section in a store scratching their head trying to figure out what this Blu stuff is all about. One retailer once told me that customers were buying HD DVDs and trying to play them back in a Blu-ray player thinking they were "all the same" (and vice versa); while another noted that many customers thought they could just plop a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc into a "regular" DVD player and it would instantly display better quality images. So don't be fooled: we still have a long way to go.

Research company DisplaySearch echoes this sentiment.

"...Even if all HD DVD products were removed from retail shelves today, the average consumer still will not be buying Blu-ray hardware and software in mass quantities for some time," says the company.

With that said, Toshiba will easily pick itself up and move on. As for those in the Blu-ray camp, congratulations on the victory. It's likely that we'll see plenty more Blu-ray and Blu-ray-compatible products coming down the pike in 2008.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wal-Mart U.S., Canada Supports Blu-ray!

The format war may officially be over. Wal-Mart in the U.S. has announced that it will be phasing out HD DVD players and software titles over the next coming weeks, and a spokesperson from Wal-Mart Canada tells me that stores north of the border will indeed be following suit.

"We are adopting the same decision here," said Wal-Mart Canada's Manager of Corporate Affairs, Karin Campbell. "As a result of customer feedback, we have decided to move toward offering the Blu-ray format only."

Campbell says that all HD DVD products will be sold and gradually phased out of stock over the next few weeks.

"We believe that this will help make the customer purchase decision easier," she added.

And for those who haven't yet taken the plunge, Campbell reassured that Wal-Mart would continue to stock "regular" DVDs and players. However, with the format war slowly coming to a close, we'll likely see more and more customers jumping onto the high-definiton DVD platform this year.

We won't call it a tried and true victory until, as they say, the fat lady sings. But it sure looks like she's taking a deep breath to belt out a big tune very, very soon.

Speaking of Music...What's with the Grammys?

The Grammys are yet another "hot" topic that I have refrained from discussing on here until now. John Thomson's blog title yesterday was fitting when it comes to this topic: he asked "where has all the music gone?" and I'm sort of asking the same thing.

I actually watched a good portion of the Grammys last weekend, and, although I was happy to see some very talented artists perform (Josh Groban, Alicia Keys, for two), the most-talked about portion of the evening was Amy Winehouse's performance and acceptance speech for one of her five, yes FIVE, awards.

What have we come to when a burgeoning artist can not only perform on the biggest music event of the year via satellite while taking a "break" from rehabilitation for drug abuse, but is also rewarded for such behaviour not once, but FIVE times! To add the cherry on top of this equation, she also gives a "shout out" to her hubby in jail. Don't get me wrong: I think Amy Winehouse is a talented musical artist; much more talented than many of the over-processed pop princesses out there recording albums today. But when someone has been video-taped smoking heavy drugs one week, and then receives five prestigious Grammy awards the next, does a red flag not go up in someone's head?

Supposedly the Grammy wins have helped motivate Winehouse toward her recovery, and that's great. Maybe I'm wrong, and showing her what she could accomplish should she stay on the right path was in fact a good way to go, rather than punishing her for bad behaviour by not nominating her until she cleaned up her act. After all, drug and alcohol abuse is nothing new within the music industry: it has been around for decades. But I can't fathom how allowing her to participate in the show and awarding her for a year's worth of botched performanced and drug-infested nights can make a good impression on her fans, many of whom are young and impressionable. It sends the message that you can do what you want, and you'll still be rewarded as long as you make money for someone down the line.

Nevertheless, the award show also seemed to be confused about who its audience was. We saw collaborative performances that were in an obvious attempt to entertain viewers of all ages, while, at the same time, promoting the show's 50th anniversary. Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra; Josh Groban and Andrew Bocelli; and Beyonce and Tina Turner (who was surprisingly agile for her age!) were a few of the most motable ones. I definitely think it was a great idea to bring together the new and older generations: it showed how far music has come, and celebrated 50 years of the awards. But when it came to award recipients, the lines begun to blur.

The most shocking of these was Herbie Hancock's win for Album of the Year. Not to say that he wasn't deserving: I'm sure he was. But what sort of judging panel awards an old school jazz artist and new school troubled starlet on the same night?

Reportedly, this year's event was one of the least-watched Grammys. Next year, the Grammys really need to take on a clear direction if it wants to achieve a solid viewer base. If half the people watching don't even know who the album of the year recipient even is, as I'm sure was the case with the majority of the teen and tween viewers that tuned in to see artists like Kanye West and Rihanna perform, then you've got a problem.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Where Has All the Music Gone?

Today, John Thomson, Associate Publisher of Marketnews and here's how!, will be guest blogging. Thomson is a passionate outdoorsman, but he's also passionate about consumer electronics, and is floored by the lack of decent audio equipment in what appears to be a highly untapped market in Canada (or at least Ontario!) Read his story below.

Where has all the music gone?

Over the past six weeks, I have had the pleasure of being a guest in about eight beautiful ski chalets. One is a log monster with five bedrooms, another has cathedral ceilings with majestic views of the Valley, and all are decorated to the nines and owned by well-heeled professionals. But what they all have in common is an iPod in a dock with 2" speakers as their exclusive sound system.

How is it that well-educated individuals who all love to entertain have uniformly decided to forego a nice two-channel audio system, and have determined that an iPod dock will do the trick? Think about it: Here you are in a 1,500 sq' living room with 30' ceilings and you are trying to entertain 20 guests by pushing out as much volume as the little dock can muster. What am I missing? The steaks alone cost close to a sound system so it can't be a money issue.

Does music play a greater role in my life such that I'm wiling to invest in an appropriate sound delivery system? I don't think so. All of these people love their tunes, but somewhere along the way, an $11,000 hot tub has taken precedent over a $2,000 sound system.

Seeing that we are in the business of promoting and reviewing beautiful sound, such an observation is extremely disconcerting. Is it that since the properties are recreational, there is a fear of theft by installing a sound system? Maybe, but then again, what about the gazillion other things that a would-be thief could swipe while the owner is away?

After a few glasses of wine, I always try to subtly (OK not so subtly) steer the conversation over to the music and ask the owner where the real sound system is to complement such a beautiful chalet? The answer is always the same: We haven't gotten around to it yet. Hmm. I set up a sound system before we had a 'fridge in our place, so I just politely nod and pour another glass.

Retailers: there's a lost opportunity here. All those chalets scattering the nation with crappy sound! Two book shelf speakers, a small sub and an integrated amp/CD player...and sure, why not throw in an iPod dock. Call it the vacation system, call it anything, just do something because my alcohol consumption is going through the roof trying to drown out the dock. Please bring back warm, ambient sound to ski country.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

RIM Explains BlackBerry Failure

I've refrained from reporting on the major BlackBerry outage that occured on Monday until now, simply because I didn't think it was such a big deal. Systems sometimes fail; things, from time to time, will go wrong. Deal with it, people! But since RIM has finally revealed what the problem was, I figured readers that were affected (or just curious) might want to know.

According to a CityTV report, the outage, which affected about 60% of the BlackBerry user population in North America, was related to an upgrade the company was attempting to make on the device.

With that said, even though we need to learn to live with outages, technical difficulties, and service disruptions, that doesn't mean that we don't get mildly frustrated by it, and understandably so. Have you ever had to go an entire day with no Internet access in the office? I have, and let me tell you, the mood could be summed up in two words: angry and bitter!

This leads to larger issues of network support. Are systems running on threads? Do we run the risk of seeing massive catastrophes if a company relies on one source point to run its entire operations? Sure, most companies have back-ups, and back-up systems for the back-up systems, but exactly how much attention is paid to these back-end systems, ensuring they are working properly, and upgraded accordingly?

It's an issue that any kind of company needs to consider. How strong is your back-up support system?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Best Buy Next to Support Blu-ray - Canadian Update!

In the previous post, I discussed how U.S. Best Buy stores have decided to support the Blu-ray high-definition DVD format going forward, continuing to offer both Blu-ray and HD DVD products, but with an increased focus on Blu-ray. Well, this situation isn't the case in Canada.

Spokespersons from both Best Buy Canada and Future Shop tell me that Best Buy and Future Shop stores in Canada will not be following suit at this time, and will continue to support both the Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition DVD formats.

"Future Shop will continue to carry both formats to meet the lifestyle needs of our customers," were the exact words of a Future Shop spokesperson.

This is surprisingly, since Best Buy Canada and Future Shop stores are owned by Minneapolis, MN-based Best Buy. But perhaps the landscape in Canada is different, and Canadian consumers haven't made a clear format preference. If you walk into any Best Buy (or Future Shop) store here, you'll see one side of Blu-ray discs, and one side of HD DVD. Players are also equally out in full force, with HD DVD players arguably more prominent, given the relatively cheaper pricing.

Judging from the U.S. announcement, we won't see such equality south of the border come March. I'm not sure how they plan to display Blu-ray more prominently: perhaps by having Blu-ray discs on a pedestal and HD DVDs in a bin? But with arguably more titles and players available in the Blu-ray format, it only seems logical that Blu-ray would be displayed more prominently regardless of whether a conscious choice was made to do so or not.

Stay tuned for more information as the format war continues.

Best Buy Next to Support Blu-ray

According to Reuters, Best Buy U.S. has announced its support for the Blu-ray disc format. Oddly, however, the mammoth retailers hasn't abandoned HD DVD altogether. Best Buy says it will still offer HD DVD discs and hardware for customers who prefer that format; but will more prominently feature Blu-ray products. The changeover will happen next month.

Whether HD DVD products will still be on shelves or not, Best Buy has clearly made its decision to back Blu-ray in an effort to put an end to the dragging high-definition DVD format war.

Will consumers view this as Blu-ray being deemed the winner? Or will they remain unconvinced, waiting until all retailers, manufacturers, and studios decide to stock and create hardware and software in only one format before taking the plunge? It looks like we're inching closer and closer to an answer.

On the Canadian front, due to the time difference, I was unable to receive clarification in time from Best Buy Canada (and Future Shop) on whether stores north of the border will follow suit with the decision to support Blu-ray. Stay tuned for a follow-up post!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bluetooth Makes Leaps with Help of 802.11

The Mobile World Congress is currently taking place in Barcelona, Spain, which means tons of announcements from the wireless arena are hitting the newswires today. One major development hails from Bluetooth SIG, which revealed its plans to essentially piggyback on the 802.11 wireless standard. In simpler terms, this means that larger pieces of data, like video or big picture files, can be transmitted via Bluetooth. Although this will have an impact on any device that incorporates Bluetooth technology, it's especially important for mobile phones.

Imagine being able to snap a fairly high-resolution shot using your camera phone, then simply beaming it, at full resolution, to your buddy's phone right beside you. Or imagine downloading an entire album of music from a store wirelessly using a Bluetooth phone. Who knows: this could very well be the way music is purchased in the future!

Michael Foley, Ph.D. and Executive Director of Bluetooth SIG explains exactly how the piggyback process will work.

"What we're doing is taking classic Bluetooth connections, using Bluetooth protocols, profiles, security, and other architectural elements, and allowing it to jump on top of the already present 802.11 radio, when necessary, to send bulky entertainment data, faster."
Foley goes on to explain that, when the hefty speeds of 802.11 aren't required, the connection will simply revert to its normal speed so that devices continue to run smoothly.

The company still plans to launch its own, higher-speed specification in partnership with the WiMedia Alliance brand of ultra wideband technology; but the utilization of 802.11 will help make faster speeds possible today, and not just in the future.

It's typically unlike a company to make a quick, band-aid fix to get the ball rolling; but I commend Bluetooth SIG on finding an interim method using already available resources that will make consumers happy in the immediate future. It's a great move on the Group's part, not only to help bolster the reputation of Bluetooth as a wireless standard, but also to keep up with the growing number of multimedia applications being integrated with mobile devices. One can now do things like stream video and satellite music, take upwards of 5 MP photos, and even watch TV programming right on a handset! It's a natural progression for wireless transmission to follow such rapid development.

With things like faster speeds and bigger memory (as per SanDisk's announcement at CES of a 12 GB microSD card!), the cellular industry is poised for major growth this year.

[Photo: Sony Ericsson's new XPERIA X1 mobile phone, debuted in Spain, is the company's first foray into the Windows Mobile world. In addition to stereo A2DP Bluetooth technology and WiFi support, the phone also includes a 3" touch-screen that can be divided into 9 handy panels; a 3.2 MP digital camera with the ability to also shoot short video; GPS functionality; and a whopping 400 MB of internal memory.

Friday, February 8, 2008

End to the Writer's Strike?

Rumour has it that an end to the ongoing Writer's Strike is near as a new deal has been placed on the table. Even so, has this strike changed the face of TV and video consumption as we know it? It's been going on for more than 3 months now, and schedules have gone completely awry, while deals have obviously been inked in an effort to fill airtime with content people actually want to watch.

Already, as I've mentioned in previous blog posts, people have been moving away from the traditional TV medium. Many popular shows have been pretty much stagnant while actors and producers wait for a resolution, leaving customers to watch re-runs, reality TV, and movies. They might also be filling at-home downtime that was typically spent watching TV with activities like video games, Internet surfing, or even quality family time (what a concept!)

During this time, a strong, new competitor has been creeping up every so quietly. It's no secret that there's tons of video, and even "TV-like" content to be consumed online. As we'll discuss in the upcoming February 2008 issue of Marketnews Magazine, plenty of new "online TV" formats are coming to fruition. Will writers decide to go an online-exclusive route and leave TV in the dust?

Even when a resolution has been made (hopefully it's before the highly anticipated Oscars), things may have changed too dramatically to ever return to how they were. The next year will be very telling in terms of what we can expect for the future of TV programming.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

U.S. Digital TV Transition Rife with Confusion

A new study by Consumer Reports finds that almost three-quarters of American citizens have misconceptions about the impact of the transition to digital TV one year from now; while a third are completely unaware of it.

"Confusion about the digital television transition will cost consumers a lot of money for equipment they may not want or need," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Based on these survey results, it is now clear that our government and every media company that profits from consumers watching television must do whatever it takes to help consumers keep getting broadcast TV, without paying a dime more than necessary."

I'd be surprised if this transition occurs without a hitch, and especially without a consumer having to pay "a dime more than necessary". The study discovered that 61% of those who would be affected think they won't be; while about 33% who won't be affected are ready to head out and purchase either a converter box or new TV even though they don't need one.

U.S. CE retailers really should expect a flood of consumers coming in last minute to purchase required equipment; and conversely, another flood arriving to return equipment that they realize they don't actually need. Will they change return policies during that time? Hmm....

Anyway, for the U.S. readers out there, here's the skinny on the transition:

1) You DO NOT need to shove your old analog TV in the dumpster. If you have an analog TV and are viewing free, over-the-air programming, you might just need to connect it to a digital converter box, or subscribe to a cable or satellite service provider.

2) Only analog sets that view free, over-the-air programming, will no longer be able to access programming as of February 2009 because all analog broadcasts will cease to exist. Therefore, if you have an analog set, but subscribe to digital cable or satellite service, you shoud be OK.

3) For those who will need to purchase a converter box, the U.S. government is offering a coupon to help offset its cost. The $40 coupon can be acquired by phone, web, or mail.

4) If you decide that you want to use the digital TV transition as an opportunity to upgrade to a digital TV "just because", make sure that you dispose of any old analog TVs safely, or donate it to someone who could use it. It's just common sense.

Consumer Reports adds that the U.S. government plans to spend about US$6.5 million in public education funding on the transition; while the U.K. has budgeted $450 million. One could argue that's a lot of money to allocate to consumer education on the subject; but on the flip side, will it help avoid a major outcry once the time comes? We've got one year to find out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Should Microsoft Buy Yahoo!?

Last week, Microsoft placed a whopping US$44.6 billion offer to purchase shares of Yahoo!, which has been struggling as of late due to stiff competition from companies like Google and YouTube. In December 2006, Yahoo! underwent a major reorganization, and recently, it has been rumoured that hundreds (or even thousands!) of jobs could be cut from the company. So when Microsoft swoops in with a major bid that likely no one else could (or would!) attempt to beat, is this the Golden Ticket Yahoo! has been looking for? More important: will this spell disaster for consumers everywhere?

It's no secret that takeovers are essential in this industry for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it's to build capital in order to invest in things like R&D to create the amazing products we see today. Other times, it's to help effectively compete against major powerhouses: two (or more) heads are better than one, right? Other times, it might be a mutually beneficial relationship, where each company can compensate for a particular weakness by utilizing the strengths of the other. But many times, the reason is the sheer need to be number-one, and take out anyone in your path.

Before you jump to conclusions, I'm not saying this is Microsoft's intention nor motivation. But the bid wasn't exactly a "hey, we'll throw a bone out there and see the reaction." It was a move that would almost definitely obliterate all other bidders, and dangle a carrot in front of Yahoo!'s eyes that might just be far too tempting to resist.

Microsoft already owns plenty in the online arena; and we all know about its dominance in computing. The company recently made sure it had a major foot in the door of the growing social networking world by securing a US$240 million stake in popular Website If Microsoft combines forces with Yahoo! as well, what sort of "competition" will be left?

Sure, Google isn't an "innocent" party in this equation, owning major properties like YouTube, and online advertising behemoth DoubleClick. But at what point will it become absolutely impossible for any company to get their foot in the door, and the power be placed in the hands of too few?

Many argue that we see the same sort of problems in the cellular phone industry in Canada, where three main carriers dominate, only one of which operates on the worldwide standard of GSM. However, the opening of the wireless spectrum to new entrants this coming May could change this. Meanwhile, the ongoing debates about a potential merger between satellite radio providers Sirius and XM in the U.S. lead to the same antitrust-like issues.

Bottom line: acquisitions and combining forces certainly help to advance technologies in ways that one company might not be able to accomplish. But we have to draw a line somewhere.

On that note, I always laugh at friends or family that want to "boycott" a particular brand because of a bad experience. Half the time, the brand they decide to go for instead is actually owned by the same parent company, showing that their efforts are, quite frankly, futile. The sad truth is that there are so many conglomerates out there, that the company that makes your socks probably also owns the place where you had dinner last night, along with your favourite shampoo. Business is business, of course. But competition is what adds to the excitement, and leads to continual innovation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

CRT Well on its Way O-U-T

A new study from DisplaySearch reports something that we've already known for a long time: the traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) display is on its way o-u-t as flat-panel technologies like LCD, plasma, and OLED take over. What we fail to remember, however, is that flat screens aren't just used in those fancy-schmancy TVs that hang atop your fireplace or sit discreetly atop a lowboy stand. They are also used in everything from mobile phones, to multifunction printers, and even calculators! And this market accounts for a lot more of the growth in the flat-panel arena than we often give it credit.

In Q3 2007, digital photo frames actually led the market in growth for display applications, at 2,706% year-over-year growth, followed by 119% for industrial displays, 112% for home appliances, 98% for head-up displays, which are those you'd find in vehicles, and 62% for office products.

"Mundane consumer electronics products are getting a facelift, including applications that provided graphics information, sich as multi-function printers, and head-up displays are also becoming more prevalent," said David Barnes, Vice President of Strategic Analysis for DisplaySearch.

But back to the dwindling CRT format: while overall CRT shipments will drop from 198 million units in 2005 to a mere 26 million in 2015, flat-panels, and especially LCDs, will reach 5,440 million from just 3,177 million.

Across the gamut of sizes, from a mere 1" to a massive 100", LCD share will continue to rise: in 2007, 70% of all flat-panels were LCD. However, it's worth noting that the emerging OLED technology could account for as much as 8% of all flat-panel shipments by 2015. Meanwhile, CRT will fall to less than 1%.

[Photo: Sony showed off its attractive, and somewhat futuristic-looking, 11" OLED at the 2008 International CES. The product is actually available in stores today, although at quite a hefty price: about US$1,800. As OLED becomes easier and more cost-effective to implement into larger designs, we'll likely see many more products come to fruition].

Monday, February 4, 2008

Superbowl Ads: Were They Worth $2.7M?

Even though Canadian football fans (and by that, I mean football, not "soccer") get to enjoy the Superbowl in all its glory, the same doesn't go for the much-hyped about commercials, which only air in the States. But thanks to the Internet, we can often times view every ad online the next day.

Before we delve deeper into the ads themselves, I thought I'd point out how funny it is that, on any given day, people spend so much time trying to skip by commercials using devices like PVRs, or strategically-timed bathroom and snack breaks. But once Superbowl Sunday arrives, we're on the edge of our seats anticipating the commercials just as much, if not more, than the game itself.

And advertisers know they've got this extremely captive audience, which is why many of them are willing to pay enormous amounts of money for a coveted spot. The Associated Press reports that a 30-second ad during the Superbowl can cost upwards of US$2.7 million! Go big or go home, as they say. This probably explains why when checking Google News for the term "Superbowl" this morning, there were more stories related to the ads than were to the actual game. The Giants won, but on to more important subjects: how were the commercials?

With that said, YouTube has a dedicated Website where all of this year's commercials can be viewed and voted on: So how did they fare this year?

There was the usual selection of obvious advertisers: the ones selling everything from beer and cars, to showing off scantily-clad girls, and goofy upcoming movies. But there was also a surprising amount of commercials from Web-based businesses that are obviously bigger than many of us realize. That, or they spend an entire year's ad budget in one spot!,, and are just a few, along with E-trade, which, according to a study conducted by TiVo, won the hearts of viewers with its talking baby ad. Sure, it was mildly humorous, but it didn't exactly have me keeled over laughing.

Typically, we can always count on Budweiser for a barrel of laughs. TiVo says Bud usually dominates its top ten list, often accounting for at least three spots. But this year, the beer company's commercials didn't reach anywhere near the level of hilarity they have in the past, which was a bit of a let-down. The funniest of the lot was probably the Cavemen attempting to "invent the wheel" to help transport some Bud to a party; or the wine and cheese party where the hubbies inconspicuously snuck in their Bud Light and mini TV.

Of the bunch that I watched via YouTube, Life Water's commercial featuring geicos dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller made it tough not to crack a grin; while Planter's Cashews take on how much men love snack nuts had me laughing. But overall, the commercials just didn't have the water-cooler power that they did in past years. My first indication was that not one co-worker called me into his office to see one; nor did I receive an e-mail with a link, or a compressed version of one of the ads as an attachment, and the obligatory "you gotta see this" subject line. If they were that funny, people would have wanted to share the laughs.

On a related note, TiVo used a sample of 10,000 anonymous users of its service to gauge the top Superbowl commercials: the best of the moderately okay, I guess. Based on this measurement, E-trade's talking baby ranked tops, followed by a Pepsi Commercial featuring pop sensation Justin Timberlake; Doritos "Mouse Trap"; Coca-Cola's "James Carville and Bill Frist"; Ice Breakers ad with Carmen Electra; Bridgestone's "Headlights"; Bud Light's "Cavemen"; Vitamin Water's "Horse Race"; "Witch Doctor"; and Life Water's "Thriller".

Whether good or bad, one thing's for sure: every company that forked over dough to grab that massive audience's attention for a mere 30 seconds-1 minute will get something out of that money, even if just a spot in history as a company that overpaid for exposure.

Which was your favourite?

Friday, February 1, 2008

PMA 2008: Colour and Creativity

The 2008 PMA EXPO is currently underway in Las Vegas. Occupying just two floors in the south hall of the Las Vegas Convention Centre, the show is nowhere near the same magnitude as CES. However, it's a must-attend for anyone involved in the photo industry.

This year, it appears that the major camera manufacturers have convened on the lower level, while the top level houses more accessories and nifty gadgets.

Although the show seems a bit quieter this year in comparison to last, products are full of colour and creativity. On the lower level, we see digital cameras with sexy, classy, and vibrant new colour options, along with all of the fancy features we discussed in last week's blog post and in individual product announcements at Meanwhile, exhibitors in the upper level are showing off every which way to display captured images creatively, in an obvious effort to encourage people to make more prints. This includes everything from printing personalized photobooks, to even imprinting images on puzzles, jewelry, and neckties! Sure, making prints on a T-shirt or coffee mug isn't a new concept, but the options have certainly been kicked up a notch this year.

HP is heavily involved in keeping prints alive via its Print 2.0 strategy, which looks at ways that customers can get excited about making prints and becoming their own "publishers", so to speak. This includes everything from new retail photo labs and kiosks that make printing easy; to an innovative photobook option that puts the creative process right into the customer's hands.

Also, there looks to be many more camera bag manufacturers on the show floor this year, offering designs that are more ergonomic, comfortable, and permit easy access to the equipment inside. Another important aspect observed in many bag designs is weather-proofing, which helps keep equipment protected from the elements. A company called Naneu pro was showing off a few nifty bags that include removable (and funky orange!) inserts that can be taken out, converting the bag into a "regular" backpack or messenger bag.

Speaking of weather-proofing, water-proof digital cameras seem to be all the rage as well. Olympus, for example, has expanded upon its SW series line with the new 1030SW. Panasonic will be debuting a neat and red-finished camcorder called the SD-RSW20R that can be submerged in up to 5-feet of water, and it's also shock-proof. It will sell for about $450.

Canon will also be focusing heavily on camcorders this year with its new Vixia line that will be shipping around the April/May timeframe. There are 5 models in the series, including three standard-definition and two high-definition. All but one offers the ability to record to both an internal hard drive (8GB or 16GB) or an SD memory card. We can likely expect to see many new camcorder models gravitating toward flash memory given its versatility, and ability to be used in a multitude of devices. In fact, some of Olympus' new models will ship with a microSD card adapter so that customers can easily use the same memory card across devices, even including camera phones or other portable gadgets.

As predicted, face detection, image stabilization, and "cool" capture modes that simplify the picture-taking process were evident in every company's offerings.

On the accesory side of things, I didn't see as many digital photo frames as I had expected on the show floor (although there certainly were a few). Surprisingly there were likely more standard wood and metal frames being exhibited!

All in all, there was plenty to see at PMA 2008, although holding the show right on the heels of CES may have hampered attendance slightly. Not to mention that it's SuperBowl weekend!

Visit for more new product announcements from the show as well as video demonstrations of many of the products discussed here (; and industry members can stay tuned to the March issue of Marketnews for a full show report. Also, we'll be featuring and reviewing many of these new products in future issues of here's how! magazine. Visit to subscribe, or find out where you can pick up a copy of the magazine.