Wednesday, April 30, 2008

iPhone in Canada...But How Much?

The media is a-buzz about Rogers Wireless' official announcement yesterday that it will be offering the iPhone in Canada. I'm floored by how big a deal everyone is making about this. But I do think a big reason has nothing to do with the iPhone itself, but rather the changes it could bring about in the wireless data pricing arena in Canada.

I've said many times over in this blog (as well as in the Cell Block column in Marketnews Magazine) that inflated data pricing has held Canadians back from really delving into the smartphone market, and all it has to offer. With the popular iPhone, paired with Apple's reputation of getting things its way, the introduction of this highly-anticipated device could also represent the introduction of more attractive data plans in Canada.

My inkling, although no details related to pricing have been officially announced, is that Rogers will indeed offer a more attractive data plan. But it will probably be marketed as an "iPhone plan", meaning you buy the iPhone and sign up for a three-year contract, and you qualify for this fantastic, new data plan. If you buy another device, or don't lock yourself into a contract, you'll be stuck with the existing, costly plans; or perhaps a small variation of them. Maybe I'm wrong on this, and it's all based on my own speculation, but it is indeed possible. It would make sense as a quick fix that lets Rogers sign on the dotted line for the iPhone before anyone else gets it, while also not moving too far away from its current data plan landscape. Such an offering would likely, however, wreak havoc with other smartphone makers, like RIM and its BlackBerry, as well as Nokia, and Windows Mobile-based phone makers. Will they end up getting the short end of the stick?

Given that the Advanced Wireless Spectrum Auction is set to take place May 27, 2008, however, Rogers also has another reason to examine its plans. If a new GSM carrier enters the foray, they may bring some enticing offers to the table. We all know how human nature works: as soon as a new GSM carrier is here, customers will flock to it, thinking that they'll be getting a better deal; and maybe they will be. Rogers certainly needs to look at what it offers, and think a few steps ahead to ensure that the company provides compelling reasons for customers to stay.

As for the iPhone, those who are squirming to own one should hope that the Rogers deal isn't exclusive in Canada. If going grey market is the only alternative option, we'd better hope that Rogers comes up with a darned good deal that convinces customers to go its route!

[Photo: Ted Rogers with William Shatner at the launch of video calling in Canada in early 2007. Rogers issued a statement yesterday confirming that the iPhone would be coming to Canada through its service "later this year".]

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Koodo is the New Mentos

Do you remember those old, really annoying Mentos commercials where a guy would pop a Mentos into his mouth and somehow, problems would magically disappear and he'd turn into MacGyver? Everyone hated them, yet everyone remembers them, and constantly talked about them at the time. Well, Koodo Mobile is like the new Mentos: I can't watch TV, walk downtown T.O., or scoot through a shopping mall without seeing a retro 80s fitness gal in tights, or a weird, mustached gym teacher-looking dude plastered everywhere. What gives?

Koodo Mobile appears to be marketing itself in much the same way Virgin Mobile does: as an "alternative" concept to pesky mobile phone contracts and hefty bills. Really, though, you're still dealing with one of the big threes. In actuality, Kodoo is owned by Telus, and operates on the carrier's CDMA network. I won't get into specifics of the service, but there are a number of pre-packaged plans, as well as a la carte items, that are pretty much comparable to other service offerings (see for more information). The gist is that Koodo focuses on "basic" users that just want to talk and text with their phones, and not really do much else.

So how does Koodo differentiate itself from Telus, and the other carriers? Via something called a Koodo Tab, which lets customers charge up to $150 toward a mobile phone to their "tab", to be paid out in increments of 10% of the balance each month. Once the "tab" is cleared, points will continue to accumulate on a new tab that can be used toward a new phone once you're ready to upgrade. When you think about it, although the service doesn't include a locked in contract, it is similar to signing up for one and getting the phone for free. Let's work out the math: if your phone bill is $, this means $4 is paid toward your mobile phone each month. It'll take, you guessed it, just over three years to recoup the $150 cost for the phone. Unless, of course, you go over your monthly minutes, in which case you'll pay it off faster.

Koodo doesn't place its emphasis on getting rid of hidden fees and cumbersome contracts like Virgin Mobile does (although the latter company recently introduced hidden fee-free contracts). Koodo takes its primary focus right to cutting down on costly bills; hence the whole "fat-free" fitness theme. But when I really examine the details, it isn't that much cheaper than other carriers.

For example, for $40, you can get unlimited nationwide talk and messaging to up to 5 numbers, 100 anytime minutes, unlimited text messages, and free evenings and weekends after 7 p.m., plus the regular stuff, like voice mail and caller ID. One neat thing is the elimination of that pesky System Access Fee, and the addition of per-second billing (instead of rounding off to the nearest minute). But in digging deeper, I did find some hidden stipulations. For example, the five numbers do not apply to customers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the so-called "unlimited" local calling from 7 p.m. starts on the Monday and only goes until 8 a.m. on the Thursday, recommencing at 7 p.m. on Friday. What happened to Thursday and Friday during the day? Also "detailed billing" is oddly listed as an a la carte option for an extra $3/mo. So what exactly does "regular" billing entail?

Nevertheless, Koodo Mobile sure is making a splash here in Canada. Fat-free mobile? Not quite yet. Some hidden fees need to be trimmed down, and some weight taken off the costs before we get there.

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Made of Honor & Grand Theft Auto...All in One Night

I never thought I'd see a cheesy chick-flick, and attend the launch of a violent video game all in one night. But that was how my evening went last night in downtown T.O.

First, I attended a special screening of Made of Honor, starring Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monoghan. The first thing I thought when I initially saw the trailer for this film was "wow, what a total knock-off of the late 1990s movie My Best Friend's Wedding" (Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, and chick-flick pro, Dermot Mulroney). After having watched the film, my opinion hasn't changed. Of course this movie puts its own spin on the whole concept of realizing that your best friend is "the one" when it's too late. For starters, the roles are reversed, so the man's the best friend and maid of honour. Given this, there were a few expectable laughs (not understanding all the girlie terms, jokes about wearing a dress, and of course the constant ribbing from the male buddies). But all in all, the movie was exactly what I had expected. If you're looking for the standard, feel-good chick flick for "date" night, it's a good choice. Frankly, I was most mesmerized with how they were able to make Patrick Dempsey look just like he did in the 1980s during the first flashback scene. If you're looking for the fountain of youth, ask Dempsey: he apparently has some secret that he's not sharing!

It's also worth mentioning that I watched the movie at the brand new AMC theatre at Yonge & Dundas Square. It's definitely one of the better ones I've been to (not that I've been to many theatres over the past year). The seats are actually quite comfortable (and slightly recline!) and there's tons of leg room in between rows. Picture quality, as my techie boyfriend pointed out, was also quite impressive. (Funny how we'd look at theatre quality movies and compare them to home theatres rather than the other way around!)

After the movie, it was on to Best Buy at Yonge & Dundas Square to check out the festivities for the launch of the highly anticipated video game Grand Theft Auto IV. At 9 p.m., a line-up had already formed (albeit not as long as I would have expected) while staff were on hand to attend to eager gaming geeks. Gals dressed up like Liberty City cops (the fictional city where the game takes place) occasionally pulled a guy out of the line to discipline him for disorderly conduct or whatever other made-up charges they were handing out. Not surprisingly, each man complied with a big smile on his face. After questioning, a "mug shot" was taken, and each guy (and sometimes gal) was given a T-shirt. Hey, at least they were entertained while waiting in line for 3 hours to grab a copy of the game!

The guys (and a few gals) in line represent the die-hard fans that likely took the day off work today to play the game through the night. After all, regular fans were able to pick up a copy of the game this morning at 8 a.m.! Something tells me that waiting in line was also about the "fun" experience as much as it was about snagging the game "first". But hey, to each his own.

Microsoft was also on hand (Sony around the corner at Future Shop) to award one lucky winner a limited edition GTA IV Xbox 360 gaming console. Unfortunately, my bed time is way earlier than midnight, so I didn't stay that long. But I trust that the tills were ringing well into the night, since GTA IV is expected to break sales records.

So what's the appeal of GTA IV? I'd love to hear from you die-hard gamers!

[Photos: At top are the first two eager beavers in line, along with a Liberty City "cop", who was playing her role quite well. At bottom, the Liberty City squad car kept watch on the growing line throughout the night].

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Is the iPhone Coming to Canada or Not? - UPDATE!

I think I'm asked this question more than I'm asked how I'm doing today, or what I'd like to eat for lunch. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but I do find myself in the middle of a discussion about the iPhone, and "hey, when the heck are we going to see it in Canada?" at least once every few days. For the most part, it's others asking me and not the other way around. I really could care less (yes, I'm serious). But clearly I'm the exception to the rule in this case. So when is the holy-grail-of-phones, the iPhone, coming to Canada?

As of late, there has been another swarm of rumours that Rogers (the only GSM provider in Canada) and Apple are working out the terms of a deal. The Toronto Star even claims that it could be here between May and July. Of course, the paper doesn't cite its "industry sources", and is quick to note that there have been no official confirmation from either side. I can't seem to get one either. A Rogers spokesperson simply told me that there "is nothing new to report on the iPhone." As Chandler from Friends would say, "Can you BE any more vague?"

I recall similar rumours having been stirred up a few months ago, so it could just be someone, somewhere trying to rock the boat again and get the Canucks all excited. My instinct tells me that we won't see the iPhone here until after the Advanced Wireless Spectrum Auction at the end of May, which is when carriers bid for additional spectrum to enhance their services, and new entrants can bid to start their own service. Why do I say this?

1) With Rogers being the only main GSM carrier, there's no rush to bring the iPhone here since no one else can swoop in and carry the phone under Rogers' nose!

2) Data plan pricing in Canada is significantly higher than in the U.S. To my knowledge, Rogers does not offer any unlimited data plans. This means that data-intensive users will either have to pay through the nose to use the iPhone, or continually monitor and limit their on-the-go usage so as not to incur hefty additional fees.

3) Apple likes to play to the tune of its own song, and I get the feeling that Rogers is the same way. The Toronto Star report claims that Apple takes a portion of customer's bills as part of its agreement with carriers. If this is indeed true, Rogers is probably not too keen on that idea. And trying to agree on a deal will be tough with two strong-headed, powerful forces, neither of which wants to let up on its terms.

But then again, the AWS Auction could very well be a reason why we might see the iPhone in Canada before the end of the year. Here's why:

1) There will almost certainly be a new wireless carrier in Canada after this Auction, who will very likely be ready to set up shop by 2009. (Industry Canada has decided to set up a portion of the spectrum exclusively for a new carrier). Knowing this, Rogers might bite the bullet to smooth out a deal with Apple before competition heats up.

2) Canadian born and bred Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the popular BlackBerry device, reportedly has some cool devices on the horizon, and the longer we become used to the BlackBerry model, the more residents will hold it as the standard. People will only wait so long before they upgrade to a new phone! And once it's done, they won't too easily fork over another $400 for an iPhone.

3) People are quite obviously (and vocally) becoming frustrated that it's been almost a year since the iPhone debuted in the U.S., and yet we still haven't seen it north of the border.

4) "Grey" market iPhones that have been unlocked and cracked are widely being used across Canada on the Rogers network already. The longer it takes for the device to arrive her legitimately, the more it will become available illegitimately (although I'd argue that a huge percentage of those who have it illegitimately would have obtained it that way to begin with).

So what's the bottom line? Hurry up already so I can go back to using my regular, Sony Ericsson camera phone in peace.

UPDATE: One day later, and we have our answer. Rogers finally issued a statement confirming that it WILL be bringing the iPhone to Canada "later this year". Read all about it on our sister Website at

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HDTV: Who Knew Football Was SO Powerful?

The RetailBRIDGE cites a study that claims 5.5 million U.S. TV viewers purchased HDTVs during the holiday season and football's Superbowl in February 2008. To put this number in perspective, 28 million U.S. households in total own HDTVs. This means that 20% of the current HDTV population in the U.S. jumped on board during the Christmas season and Superbowl timeframe. Wow!

There are obviously other factors that come into play here: amazingly low prices during those few months (and even still today!), the upcoming FCC transition to all-digital TV, and growing consumer knowledge about HDTV overall. But a major surge in sales during those 3 months is great news for the industry; and just reinforces the importance of the holidays and sports. It's incredible when you think just how important gift-giving and sporting events are to the CE business.

The study, which was conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, reports that one-quarter of the U.S. population now owns an HDTV; and almost 10 million homes now have at least two HDTVs. 30 million Americans say they plan to buy an HDTV this year, and virtually all of them say they'll go HD.

As more and more consumers begin to understand HDTV, and the sources that are required to obtain content, the format is poised for major growth. When will we reach 100% penetration? Judging from the way things are going now, I think we'll get pretty darned close by 2009.

For those who aren't familiar with how to get HD, here's a quick recap of the requirements:

1) Buy an high-definition TV (720p, 1080i, or 1080p, with the latter being the "best" quality possible; but all three technically representing HD-quality)

2) Buy an HD source, like a cable or satellite set-top box, Blu-ray disc player, or Sony PlayStation 3.

3) To access high-definition programming via cable or satellite TV, contact your provider and subscribe to the high-definition channels you want. In most cases, the provider should have some sort of HD add-on pack that includes most, if not all, of the available high-def channels. If you want to watch a high-definition DVD, you must buy a Blu-ray disc and play it back in a Blu-ray player. If you buy a standard DVD movie, it will not become high-definition if you play it back in your Blu-ray player; although it will be upscaled to a better quality image.

That's it, and you're off to enjoying HD content in all its glory!

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Friday, April 25, 2008

IM For Facebook?

It's 5 p.m. on a Friday night, and I logged into Facebook from the office to post some details on our new photo contest (you could win a great Nikon digicam!) I noticed a tiny, icon on the bottom, right of my screen that said "online friends" but didn't think much of it. Perhaps it's a quick, one-button method of seeing who's currently online? Whatever. That was until a box magically popped up with a message from one of my colleagues.

"Working hard, I see," he said. What? Huh? How did THAT happen? For all you Facebook members, apparently instant messaging capabilities have now been added to the service, whether you've asked for them or not. I clicked on the link to discover a list of all my contacts that were currently online. Interesting.

So, as I entered our contest information, my colleague and I got to chatting. When I was done, he asked: "Did you just post that in here?" Post what in here? Without my asking it to, he received an IM letting him know what I had just posted in the Marketnews & here's how Magazines - About Tech group. Geez. Is it going to let him know when I take a sip of my coffee and get up for a bathroom break as well?

It seems a bit too invasive, if you ask me. Mind you, my posting in the All About Tech group would have eventually appeared in everyone's News Feeds anyway. Shortly after, I received an IM that told me he just posted two notes himself. Gotcha! It's sort of like Big Brother is watching. Scary stuff.

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Air Canada to Charge $25 for Extra Checked Bag - UPDATES!

While a number of airlines are adding a $25 fee to a second carry-on item to offset rising gas prices, Air Canada is taking a different approach: charging you $25 for an additional checked bag. when you fly anywhere within North America. Up until now, travelers could take with them up to two carry-on items and two checked bags that were within defined dimension and weight parameters. The changes will come into effect on May 15, and apply to travel on or after July 15, 2008.

On a somewhat relieving note, the new fee will only apply to Tango and Tango Plus tickets (Air Canada's discount airline); but I'll bet that it's only a matter of time before it's transferred on to other flights. Latitude, Executive Class, Elite, Super Elite, and Prestige members will be exempt from the policy. The issued press release does not mention regular Economy class flights, and I've yet to receive a response from Air Canada on whether these travelers will be affected as well (stay tuned). Travelers going outside of Canada and the U.S. (including Hawaii), however, will thankfully not experience a change in their baggage allowance.

Spinning things in a positive direction, Air Canada promises that Tango customers who travel without any checked bags at all could receive a discount on their flights!

"In an environment of record high and unrelenting fuel costs, it is more critical than ever that the airline reviews its product offering to ensure it can continue to offer everyday low fares," said Duncan Dee, Executive Vice President, Customer Experience and Chief Administrative Officer of Air Canada.

Speaking of rising fuel prices, I didn't even fill up completely at $1.20 this morning and it cost me $50! When grabbing my morning coffee, a fellow building resident commented that he would be "buying a lock for his gas tank". Without thinking, I asked: "why, has someone been siphoning your gas?"

"No," he replied. "But I'm sure they will be!"

UPDATE: I spoke with someone from Air Canada who informed me that Tango and Tango Plus are just the brand names for all of the company's "low-fare" flights, which means that this additional fee will affect pretty much everyone but first-class flyers. I guess this means that whether I check or carry-on press kits from big trade shows will depend on what airline I'm flying with! The Air Canada representative also noted that, historically, only 20% of of the airline's Tango passengers flying in and out of North America check a second bag. I'm guessing that number will be dropping very soon.

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Future Photo to Kodak Gallery Migration a Success!

I thought I'd follow up on my experience for those of you who read my original post about how Future Shop's photo sharing service, Future Photo, is closing down. Members are urged to migrate pix over to the Canadian Kodak Gallery, and I have decided to go that route. Here's a run-down of how my experience has been thus far. Hopefully this will help other members who are looking to switch over to this new Canadian service.

Migration: As mentioned in the previous post, there was an issue with the image transfer process for my account. In fairness to Future Photo, I don't just have a few pix in there: I have 5-6 years worth of photo albums...60 in all! The issue has since been resolved. Just last night, I received my confirmation e-mail that everything was a-ok, and all of my photos had been transferred. Hooray!

Things that I don't like:

The albums did not retain their original upload dates, which means the chronological order is all out of whack. Viewing by date doesn't do me much good since they're all dated April 24, 2008! Luckily, I had given albums names like "Miami, Sept. '06", and "My 28th Bday", so, in most cases, I won't be forced to try and remember where the heck the pix were taken. But I will have to weed through old albums to locate the most recent ones.

The albums did not retain the cover image I had selected. I'm probably being nit-picky here, but for people like me who have tons of albums, and who like to share these albums with friends, the cover portion is important.

The transfer did not retain all picture rotations, although some seem to have been kept. This means that after spending so much time switching vertical pix to their proper orientation, it looks like I have to do it all over again. Darn.

Probably the most frustrating thing, however, is that it looks like someone manually migrated my account over again (since it didn't seem to port all photos successfully the first time) leaving me with duplicate albums! If I had one or two, that wouldn't be a big deal. But with 60 of them, it'll take a while to go through and delete all duplicates. Sigh. At least there's no storage limit!

My Future Photo albums showed "friends albums" where I could instantly view albums from my friends who also had Future Photo accounts. Will Future Photo friends that move over to Kodak Gallery appear as my "friends" there as well? I'll have to see.

Things that I do like:

Uploading photos is blazingly simple. There's a beta "Express Upload" service, but I opted for the standard upload process, which lets me upload tons of images at a time. It took just a few minutes on my high-speed connection to upload about 50 photos. Not bad.

If you shared an album with someone via Future Photo, that person was required to create a Future Photo user name and password to view the images, even if they weren't going to use the service. Kodak Gallery gives you the option to do this, or just let people see the images in a slide show without having to sign in. This is definitely an added benefit, especially for non tech-savvy persons (like my parents!) who would have absolutely no idea what to do if they didn't click a link and photos just showed up on screen!

Image manipulation and editing is really easy, including even an "instant fix" button. You can also do things like crop photos, remove red-eye, and even add effects and borders. When you make a change to an image, there's the option to overwrite the original file, or save the altered pic as a new version.

All in all, I'm happy with the switchover, even though it will require some tweaking to get my images arranged the way I want them to be.

So what's my next step? I'm looking forward to ordering the 100 free 4 x6" prints that were offered! Funny how, after working in this industry so long, I have a digital photo frame rotating pix in the living room, yet a bunch of empty wood frames all over the place, just itching to be filled.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Price of Gas Could Reach $2.25!

Hybrid vehicle sales might soon skyrocket as Canadians stare in awe at the continuallly rising gas prices. A new report released by CIBC World Markets predicts that we won't see an end to this rise any time soon, with prices potentially reaching as high as $1.80 this summer, and up to a whopping $2.25 by 2012!

CIBC says that tight oil supplies are the cause, given that production has not increased for more than two years, while oil consumption has no doubt increased.

"Whether we have already seen the peak in world oil production remains to be seen, but it is increasingly clear that the outlook for oil supply signals a period of unprecedented scarcity," explained Jeff Rubin, Chief Strategist and Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets. "Despite the recent record jump in oil prices, oil prices will continue to rise steadily over the next five years, almost doubling from current levels."

From an industry standpoint, there will be plenty of folks feeling a major hit. On the road sales reps and other professionals. Field workers and installation staff. And even just those who commute into the office from out-of-town homes. $2 a litre could easily mean more than $80 just to fill a standard-sized vehicle!

Hopefully something changes soon, or we'll definitely be seeing a lot more hybrid electric cars and bicycles on the road, along with a public transit system that's even busier than it is now. Not that any of these is a bad thing, but it simply isn't feasible for some.

As an aside, the whole situation reminds me of a cartoon I saw once (not the one above) that depicted a man pumping gas while removing his arm and leg for payment. Indeed.

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What Will They Think of Next?: Dating Site, Stupid People Need Not Apply

A new online dating Website is bringing new meaning to the word discrimination. The site will only permit access to "intelligent" people. In order to join, you must first pass an iQ test and make it into the top 15% of the population!

"Intelligent people usually want a partner who is also intelligent," said Trine Jensen, founder of the Website, which is located at, not surprisingly, "At general dating sites, you have to spend time and energy, sorting profiles to find the ones that match that criterion. At we already made that sorting for you."

Perhaps this company didn't realize that tests like that are likely easy to bypass, especially considering that this version reportedly consists of a series of black & white images. The press release notes that those who are eager to be members can only take the test once. But how does the company determine this? Via IP address? User name or e-mail? As if tens of thousands of people don't have more than one e-mail address to use! Nevertheless, I'm sure there will be an initial flurry of sign-ups from Type-A folks just looking for reassurance that they are indeed smart.

As for the intelligence-challenged folks out there, don't worry. I'm sure someone, somewhere will come up with a similar site where stupid people can meet.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Future Shop's Photo Sharing Site is Closing Down!

Futurephoto, Future Shop's photo sharing Website (, is closing down! If you're a member of the service like I am, you've likely received a number of e-mail notifications over the past month, advising of the close. The e-mails and home page also recommend that you migrate your images over to the new Canadian Kodak Gallery site at, Future Shop's new partner. A warning also explains that, if you fail to move the albums over by May 31, they'll be deleted from the system.

I must admit that I was a tad upset when I saw this. I've been using Future Photo for at least 5 years, and I have about 60 albums in there! Now I have to go through this whole ordeal to ensure that I don't lose my images. And what if I don't like Kodak's gallery? Not to mention that, one of the main reasons I chose Future Photo in the first place was that I appreciate being able to place orders online, then pick them up in the store closest to me. Can I still do that? Here are your answers.

First, don't fear. From some quick browsing through Kodak's Gallery, it looks very similar to Future Photo, with many of the same features and capabilities. As with anything, there will be a learning curve. But that's what keeps us on our toes, right?

Second, you can still place orders online for everything from standard 4 x 6" prints to photo mugs, T-shirts, and books, and pick them up at a Future Shop store of your choosing. In fact, you can now pick them up at Best Buy locations as well, which you weren't able to do with Future Photo! Pricing is pretty much the same, and you can pay via VISA or AMEX. As an added incentive, Future Shop and Kodak Gallery are offering customers 100 free 4 x 6" photos (up until June 30, 2008) if they switch over before the deadline of May 31.

As with Future Photo, unlimited storage is free, as long as you make at least one purchase each year to maintain the account. Lori Helms from Kodak Gallery tells me that members will be notified via e-mail when approaching the one-year mark, and a purchase can be as little as one $0.15 4 x 6" print, the same parameters that were on Future Photo.

This all sounded good, so a few weeks ago, I went ahead with the transfer. After a few days, I noticed that my images still weren't in the Kodak Gallery. Uh-oh. I logged back into Future Photo, where up came a message that I was in a queue, and it could take up to a few weeks for my photos to transfer. Great. Best Buy's Brian FitzGerald tells me that, in addition to lots of people switching over, there are indeed some "heavy users" like me whereby the transfer process times out before all the photos can flip over to the new site. He reassured me that Future Photo is aware of these situations, and is in the process of examining the issue. In some instances, Future Shop will locate the problem account and manually transfer missing images over. In other cases, some customers might receive an e-mail stating that there was an issue, and requesting that they initiate transfer again. Frankly, I don't care which method is used, as long as my photos are properly migrated! FitzGerald also points out that, as soon as all photos are successfully transferred, the user will receive a e-mail confirming that so as to avoid any confusion. I guess at this point, all I can do is hurry up and wait.

Now, about 3 weeks have passed, and I'm still missing photos. I trust that I will get them all switched over eventually, but this certainly is an eye-opener about relying on just one spot to store photos. My advice to anyone out there, regardless of where you store your images online, is to always keep an archive CD on hand, along with physical prints or photobooks. Prints really are still just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago! Essentially, keep your pictures in as many places as you can. I'll certainly be cashing in on my 100 free prints!

Interestingly, FitzGerald says that about 21% of active Future Photo customers have already transferred their accounts over, and the company expects many more to do so prior to the official closing date. Why is the site closing? According to FitzGerald, the photo sharing aspect just simply wasn't part of Future Shop's core business. The new partnership with Kodak Gallery is an extension of a previously-established, enterprise-level pairing between Kodak and Future Shop's parent company, Best Buy Co., Ltd. For now, although you can still access Future Photo albums whether you've initiate a transfer or not, all uploading capabilities have been disabled.

Happy photo storing!

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Second Carry-on Item? That'll be $25, Please

The New York Times claims that soon, economy flyers will have to pay an extra $25 to bring a second carry-on item on airlines like Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways. What? Supposedly the move is in an effort to offset the ever-growing fuel costs.

If you ask me, this is a bad move that will probably cause a major backlash from frequent flyers.

First of all, don't we wait long enough in lines at the airport? Now, for every person that has a second bag, we'll have to wait an extra few minutes while he pays his "fee". As The New York Times article points out as well, often times people traveling for business come back with an extra bag of work materials. In my case, for example, this second bag is typically filled with press kits, CDs, product samples, and perhaps a few swag T-shirts. Should the companies now be responsible for paying that extra $25 per person so each can return and do his job? From a consumer perspective, many people (OK, mainly women) often travel with an empty, extra bag to bring back all of their shopping goodies. So, for Canadians, on top of the taxes, we also have to pay $25 more just to bring the stuff we purchased onto the plane with us?

If you have to add more cost to a flight to cover fuel, build it into the final price quietly so that the average customer doesn't realize he's being dinged for it. To outright charge an extra fee to bring a second bag will just lead to a massive uproar.

In defense of the airlines, there's always the option to check that second bag. But I know plenty of people (OK, mostly guys) that pride themselves on traveling "light" with just carry-on: one bag will include a notebook and camera, and the other clothes and shoes. For these guys, traveling light just got $50 more expensive per trip!

Personally, when I'm traveling for business, I usually only have one bag that includes my notebook, digital camera, MP3 player, noise-canceling headphones, a novel, and maybe some magazines. Sometimes, I might also stuff an extra pair of clothes in there just in case (knock on wood) something should happen to my checked baggage. But I also have my purse. Will this be included in the extra $25 fee? I truly hope not. I will also certainly keep this new policy in mind when booking flights going forward. If the price differential between a flight with one of these airlines and another airline that doesn't charge for additional baggage is minimal (anything less than $25), then I'll go with the other, if for no other reason than to make a statement.

Some other bogus charges? Extra leg room is a personal favourite (give me a break), along with the $1 throwaway headphones. Does anyone ever buy those things?

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Silent Raving & Rick-Rolling. Humour in Technology

Over the past few months, I keep hearing about these funny, yet interesting ways that technology is getting masses and masses of people to gather together, either virtually or in real life. And I don't mean in the traditional sense that you'd expect, nor am I referring to virtual worlds like Second Life. Let me explain.

Most recently, I was made aware of something called a "silent rave", where people gather in a specified location, break out their iPods (or other MP3 players) and dance about to their own music via headphones. It's supposedly a very popular thing in Europe, and a "silent rave" just took place in New York's Union Square this past weekend where reportedly more than 1,000 people showed up! What's the point? I guess it's one part shock value, one part being able to express oneself in a unique way while still banding together with others. Is this an indication that we're moving toward another decade of hippies and social activism? I'm not sure, but I can't help but hear the song Age of Aquarius while seeing clouds of smoke above my head as I write this.

Then, there came about a new phenomenon called Rickrolling. Anyone who was around in the 1980s (or loves '80s music!) will know who Rick Astley is: the baby-faced, pop singer that released a few number-one hits, catered to some screaming gal fans, than disappeared into oblivion. Over the past few months, "Rickrolling" has taken the Internet by storm, with several Websites hijacking real videos or links (knowingly, not maliciously) in place of Astley's cheesy music video of the popular song Never Gonna Give You Up. Often, what would happen is that the site would advertise controversial or enticing content to pique a surfer's interest. When the person clicked the link, despite what the site said the video (or story) would be about, the viewer would be Rickrolled; i.e. directed to the Astley video instead. On April Fool's Day, the folks at YouTube showed their sense of humour by "Rickrolling" the entire homepage. No matter which video you clicked on, it would automatically direct to Astley's cutesy face dancing about to his tune. Don't believe me? Just run a "Google" search for Rickrolling, and you'll see almost a quarter-million responses on the term, showing how quickly one, juvenile prank can spread!

In many ways, both events are indeed juvenile. But on the other hand, they're both great examples of how people can use technology to freely express themselves in a way that's not only innocent, but can even put a smile on your face. A little dose of humour never hurt anyone.

So what's the next phenomenon? Perhaps a large group should convene for a silent rave during which every person listens to Astley's tune through headphones and does his best 80s dancing impersonation. Maybe that's taking things a bit too far...

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Monday, April 21, 2008

What Will They Think of Next?: Personal Audio Greeting Cards

Hallmark will be offering talking greeting cards that not only dictate an audio message, but your audio message. Buy the card, record a 10-second message, and it'll play back your message, along with a clip of original music, once the recipient opens it.

Two things came to mind when I heard about this. One: is it really that difficult and time-consuming to write "Happy Birthday, Buddy" or "Wishing you all the best" on a greeting card? Second: is this a last-ditch effort by the music industry to find a viable means to distribute its content? The announcement I read explicitly noted that the closing tune would be a "popular song clip featuring the original artist and music", leading me to believe that the music industry had something to do with conjuring up this idea. CD sales might be down, but greeting card sales certainly aren't!

In all fairness, I can see some applications where such a card would be "neat". When you're sending mail to a loved one overseas, or if a young child wants to give a card to grandma or grandpa to say "I love you". And don't forget gag gifts! Imagine a bachelor party where the groom-to-be opens up his card and plays an unknowingly embarassing message for all to hear! And hey, who's to say you can't record your message and write it?!

Whether you opt for the audio cards or not, I'd still suggest including a handwritten message as well. That personal touch always counts for something, and shows that you aren't totally lazy!

You can learn more about the recordable cards (and see a cheesy demo) at

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Hands-on With MarioKart For Wii

I'm not a big gamer (as I've said many times in this blog), but I do enjoy the occasional video game now and then. I recently got a Nintendo Wii, so I was excited when given the opportunity to try out the highly-anticipated gaming title Mario Kart before it hits store shelves on April 27th.

A private event in Toronto this Saturday gave media attendees the chance to try out the game with the help of Nintendo staff. Mario Kart is a slightly different experience than "regular" Wii games that utilize the one-handed Wii controller. The Wii controller itself pops into the middle of a small steering wheel that comes with the game (or can be purchased separately). Then, physically rotate the wheel left and right to move your character in his kart; just as you would if you were really driving a car. The "2" button serves as your gas pedal, the "1" your brakes, and up/down is used to shoot items at your rivals on the track. These "items" are obtained through boxes with question marks on the front that float in front of you as you drive along the track. My favourite item to shoot is a banana peel, which makes the competition skid into oblivion! Other neat features include thunder clouds that make your character turn into a miniature version of himself; or mushrooms that make you grow to gargantuan proportions. I (and my friend) found it tough not to be tempted to move both arms left or right along with the wheel, but with some practice, it'll probably become easier to hold the wheel steady. If preferred, gamers can also steer using the Wii remote and nunchuk, or the traditional keypad remote.

Several characters are available to choose from, including Mario and Luigi, as well as nostalgic ones like Donkey Kong. Kids will really love the ability to use their own Mii caricatures in the game as well. There are also several kart choices, including motorcycles. If you move the wheel backwards, Nintendo told us, a character on a motorcycle will actually pop a wheelie. I haven't tried that move yet, but I certainly will!

Mario Kart can be played solo, or against up to 3 others in the room (the screen will split into a quadrant so that each person can track his own race). There's also an opportunity to play online, and even send text messages back and forth to your opponents with some innocent "trash talking", joked a Nintendo spokesperson.

Interestingly, this was the first press event that I have ever attended where kids were present. In addition to inviting members of the press, Nintendo also invited a select group of "bigs" and "littles" from Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and journalists were allowed to bring along a guest, including a niece, nephew, or child. Needless to say, excitement levels were high.

Although I didn't spend loads of time with Mario Kart this weekend, it was obvious from the time I did spend that fun and energy are the names of the game. Families will also be happy to know that Mario Kart is suitable for players of all ages; a big selling point these days, especially with the ongoing controversy surrounding "violent" and "disturbing" game titles that young ones often engage in.

Mario Kart for the Wii will be available in North America on April 27 for about $49.95, and will come with the game and a wheel (the Wii remote is not included). Additional wheels will also be available for purchase for about $9-12, although some might find that they don't even need it.

As cool as Mario Kart is, I'm even more excited about the launch of Wii Fit in May, the fitness and exercise-friendly game. A price has finally been confirmed for the highly-anticipated title, which will come with a multipurpose balance board for intense activity: Wii Fit will sell for about $89.95, making it one of the most (if not the most) expensive games I've seen yet for the console.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

DVD Player Free with Cable Purchase?

I just received an e-mail from a CE industry member with the following subject line: the state of the consumer electronics business. The message read as follows:

Our business has certainly changed. “free hardware” if you buy a “hook up cable”?
I am reading an ad from [retailer name withheld]
FREE- [brand name withheld] 1080p upconverting DVD player when you purchase a [brand name withheld] HDMI Cable 1080p cable for $149.
I am wondering how long it will be before the ads read “FREE 46” LCD’s” just to sell a hookup cable

Wow. There's a powerful message! I am absolutely stunned if this really is a valid promotion. It's no secret that retailers make more money on accessories than they do on big-ticket items, like computers or flat-panel TVs. Regardless, the PC and flat-panel TV still remain the central piece of hardware within a home theatre or computing system. To offer something like a DVD player for free when you buy the cable that connects it is just crazy! Sure, DVD players are available for $50 these days. But that still doesn't explain how we've come to a point where retailers are pushing the sale of the cables more so than the major hardware. Aren't we supposed to be working on upselling the customer to the cable with his big-ticket purchase?

What does this all mean? Has the focus completely shifted to making a sale (and profit) in-the-moment rather than building a relationship with the customer, meeting his needs, and providing an experience that will make him want to return? I'd be lying if I didn't say that I love a good deal whenever I can get my hands on one. But such a promotion simply makes the DVD player look like an unimportant part of the home theatre equation when, in fact, it's an integral part. Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye. Perhaps this is a sign that Blu-ray has already taken over. It must have if "regular" upconverting players are now practically being given away.

Note: I purposely removed the retailer and brand names from the original e-mail copy simply because I didn't think they were needed in order to illustrate the point.

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Bell Won't Back Down, Says Traffic Shaping a Must

A few weeks ago, the issue arose of Bell Canada engaging in Internet traffic "shaping" practices. Bell admits to purposely slowing down the Internet connection for heavy users of P2P and similar sites that are doing things like downloading full-length movies, and thus gobbling up a lot of bandwidth. Since then, there has been a flurry of commentary about the topic. Should Bell be able to shape or "throttle" its traffic? Should the use of P2P and torrent sites be considered "abuse" of Bell's unlimited plans?

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), which represents many small ISPs that use Bell's network to offer their services, sent a request to the CRTC for Bell to stop its shaping activities. The CAIP claims that Bell is "in breach of a number of regulated activites", and called the behaviour "anti-competitive interference in the activities of Internet users." Bell's response was a big fat "no". The telecommunications company feels that slowing down P2P and BitTorrent use is necessary in order to improve overall bandwidth performance for all users. Interestingly, when speaking to, Primus President Ted Chislett, who agrees with the CAIP, said that he doubts Bell has any congestion issues related to bandwidth at all.

Assuming issues of traffic congestion do exist as a result of heavy bandwidth usage, does Bell have the right to slow things down? After all, these customers pay the same monthly fees that everyone else does; they're just using the services more. The situation can be likened to an unlimited cell phone data plan: some users might send hundreds of e-mails per month, and chat on the phone for hundreds and hundreds of hours, while others might send a couple of e-mails here and there, and chat less frequently. They're both paying the same monthly fee, but what they get out of their packaged plan is up to them.

In fairness, trying to curb illegal activity is a good thing: if someone is using up gross amounts of bandwidth to acquire loads and loads of illegal content, then really, who are they to complain about slow speeds? But it looks as though P2P and BitTorrent sites can, and are, also used for legitimate activities. Take CBC's recent experimental move, for example, to offer the TV show Canada's Next Great Prime Minister as a free download through BitTorrent. The CAIP reports that it took "thousands of fans" on Bell's network upwards of 11 hours to download the program versus the minutes it should have taken. If more and more legitimate content like this CBC show becomes available via BitTorrent and P2P sites, will Bell stop its traffic shaping activity?

Either way, this issue has initiated a well-needed discussion about regulation and control of the Internet, and opened people's eyes to the rapidly growing nature of the Web world as a whole. We have so much bandwidth, and people will only continue to want to use more of it, not less. Should those who are making frequent use of faster speeds, and thus justifying continued progress in this area, be punished for doing so? Or, on the contrary, are heavy bandwidth users just abusing the capabilities of the service, and ruining the experience for everyone else?

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Measuring the Importance of the Trade Show

In this industry, there are so many trade shows, that it's often times difficult to keep up. Some take place in local, Canadian city venues, while others are all over the U.S., most often in Las Vegas (which is beginning to look like our second home!) How pertinent is it to attend such shows?

From our perspective as journalists, it's obviously of high importance to attend. We need to report on the products, see them, try them out, learn about them, and ask the necessary questions that allow us to properly educate and inform our readers. But what about retailers? Manufacturers? Installers? Distributors? Is it better to attend local shows, or the major ones, like CES, CEDIA, PMA, E3, and CTIA, to name just a few?

It really depends on the particular show, and what any given person's exact role is. Many industry members have told me that small, local events make more sense, cost less, and allow for better business deals when dealing with existing partners. But if you're looking for a fancy new line to distribute, or a cool new product to offer through your retail store, often times the neatest start-up companies can't afford to see you, and need you to come to shows like CES or CEDIA to see them. Sure, you'll have to weed through aisle after aisle and booth after booth of products you're not interested in, knock elbows with the crowds walking by, and invest in a new pair of comfortable shoes to cover all the necessary ground, but that's the price of doing business.

But don't completely rule out the "big" shows as useful events for maintaining your existing relationships. The other day, one industry member commented to me (upon discussing a particular trade show that we were at) that you're often not noticed when you're there, but it's definitely noticed if you're not. In that respect, sometimes it's necessary to attend shows just keep up appearances, so to speak. If you see your local rep every week, that's great, but so what? If his boss, and his boss's boss from the U.S., or even an international location, sees you down in Vegas for CES or Denver for CEDIA, that looks better on him, and, in turn, on you and your organization.

When it comes to smaller-scale, local events, they're equally as important for both fostering existing relationships, and nurturing new ones. One industry member told me that he might meet with 1,000 people at a major trade show, while only a handful are actually qualified. Meanwhile, he could speak to just 50 individuals at a small, local event, yet most, if not all of them, are good, qualified leads.

So what's the answer? Trade shows certainly are important, both big and local. They do get expensive and time consuming, so it's important to pick the ones most pertinant to you and your customer base. Most important, however, are the intimate meetings, one-on-ones, and of course, the occasional glass of beer (or wine!) to wash down all that business talk!

Which shows are most important to you?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Have Partnerships & Acquisitions Become a Necessary Evil in CE?

Looking back at all of the companies that have either partnered up or followed through with a complete acquisition, I'm wondering if this activity has become a sort of necessary evil in the consumer electronics space. Do these companies need to join forces in order to remain competitive within the market, or are the moves made strategically in an effort to boost profits?

The latest company to join the rumour mill of acquisitions and partnerships is D&M Holdings, the parent company to brands like Denon, Marantz, and Boston Acoustics. The company is reportedly auctioning off a major stake, and several sources cite that current bidders include mammoth retailer Best Buy (yes, you read that correctly), Merrill Lynch, the Advantage Partners LLP, and, most recently, a joint bid with Kenwood and Bain Capital. The press section of the D&M Holdings Website states that “recent press reports concerning the potential sale of D&M shares is not based on any information provided by the company.” When contacted, D&M Canada said that the company had “no official announcement to make at this time.”

Although that information is merely based on speculation, Blockbuster's recent bid for Circuit City is indeed true. As mentioned in a previous post, this move was in an obvious attempt to revitalize a business that has been experiencing tremendous pressures as of late. Blockbuster likely hopes that, in combining its DVD rental business with Circuit City's consumer electronics hardware offering, it can become a sort of one-stop-shop for consumers.

Back to the manufacturing side, it appears that many partnerships are forged in an effort to remain profitable rather than gain additional profitability. Take the flat-panel arena, for example, where companies like Toshiba and Pioneer have partnered with Sharp on LCD TV initiatives (with both companies also providing specific technologies and expertise to Sharp). Pioneer also recently announced it would outsource plasma panel manufacturing to Panasonic, while Philips has inked a similar deal with Japanese manufacturer Funai. The reasons for these partnerships are obvious: reduced costs, simplified manufacturing process, and the need to keep up with the increasingly competitive market. Flat-panel pricing has come down tremendously over the years, while new entrants are being added to the foray by the dozens. Will we reach a point where all TV brands eventually lead back to just one or two factories?

In the audio manufacturing arena, Canadian manufacturer API, maker of the Mirage, Energy, and Athena Technologies brands, was acquired by Klipsch Audio Technologies back in 2006. In many cases (like this one) the acquired brand or company remains an independently-operated entity. Was the acquisition made to strengthen the brand? After all, API is one of the biggest speaker manufacturers in the world!

The list goes on and on. In some cases, partnerships are indeed made to strengthen a company/brand by utilizing resources that the other can provide. In others, it's to "take out" the competition. But it appears that, as of late, we're seeing more and more traditionally considered "competitors" looking at one another and saying "I need you and you need me. We can't do this alone."

Whatever the reason, is the competitive nature of this industry in danger?

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rock Band Motley Crue Releases Single Through Rock Band, The Game

Video game makers everywhere just carved another notch in their belts. Popular rock band Motley Crue announced that it would use the video game Rock Band as the launchpad for its new single, marking the first time that a song has been released through a video game.

Rock Band consists of a "mock" guitar and drum set, along with a microphone. Players can simulate actually playing in a rock band by hitting buttons or the coloured drums in time with musical bars that slide down the screen. As you strike the notes correctly, the tune continues to play. If too many notes are missed, you'll get boo'ed off stage! (If you've never seen Rock Band in action, just search for it on and you're bound to find hundreds upon hundreds of user-generated videos of kids and adults playing the game). Rock Band comes with a number of tunes pre-loaded, but game players can log into online accounts using the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 and download additional songs. Motley Crue's new single Saints of Los Angeles will be one of those options, which means that customers can learn to "play" the song while they're hearing it for the first time.

This is yet another way that the music industry is fighting to remain profitable in the ever-changing distribution landscape. If the kids won't buy CDs and are trying to download music for free, how else can you get their attention? In this case, the answer is through a means that we already know they actively engage in: video games!

When you think about it, it's sort of sad that someone will frown upon paying $0.99 to download a song through a legitimate Website, yet they'll purchase that same song to play on Rock Band without breaking a sweat. Is there something wrong with this? Probably not. It's just the way the industry is going. People want to do more with their music simply because they can, whether it be to transfer it to other devices, stream it through the PC, or yes, simulate actually playing it through a fun video game. Ahh, technology.

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Analyzing the Gen-Y Worker

There have been tons of studies in magazines, newspapers, and Websites trying to analyze the true nature of the Generation-Y worker, which, according to Wikipedia, characterizes those born between about 1980 and 1994. Many say they're arrogant, others claim unprofessional, and others still report that many hang on to their parents for dear life, scared to get out into the "real world". Is this all true? U.S. advertising agency JWT set out to find out by surveying 1,250 Americans, 238 of which fell into the 21-29-year-old age group.

What JWT found was that some claims are indeed true. For instance, Generation-Y employees do like to "play" at work, engaging in activities like video games, and just plain joking around. Is this such a bad thing? If you ask me, a lightened up office environment can help foster more productivity than an uptight one any day! It was also revealed that millennials, as JWT calls them, pay more attention to the work-life balance than their older colleagues. "They want to schedule work around the rest of their life, not vice versa," said the study. Finally, according to JWT, millennials do in fact want their employers to adapt to them rather than the other way around. Interestingly, however, those in the 50-something age category weren't far behind, with 51% of them agreeing to this sentiment as well versus 46% of millennials.

Although these perceptions were deemed true by JWT's study, a few others were squashed as just myths. For example, although the perception is that many Gen-Y kids return to live with their parents after school is over, in actuality, only 15% of them do. In fact, 25% live with a spouse and children, and 18% and 19%, respectively, with either a spouse or "partner". Do Gen-Y workers feel like they should be able to wear whatever they want to the office? Not quite. JWT's study found that 67% believe that formal appearances are important, which was higher than any other age group! Forty-somethings ranked attire the lowest, with just 54% saying that dressing up is required.

One of the most interesting findings was that, despite popular belief, millennials rank employer loyalty high on their moral scales. Sixty-six per cent agreed that an employee owes loyalty to his employer, versus just 60% of 30-somethings, 67% of 40-somethings, and 72% of 50-plus. Another popular belief is that the young 'ens are just downright disrespectful to corporate America, and want to do things their way. Not so much. JWT found that 42% of Gen-Y workers have a high degree of respect for corporate America; compared to 36% of 30-somethings, 31% of 40-somethings, and 32% of those 50 and up.

Despite the rumours that may be squashed by this study, there's still no denying that there is a significant generational difference between Gen-Y (and even Gen-Xers!) and the older generation. The youngest workers of the lot can't imagine a world where a picture you just snapped doesn't instantly appear on an LCD screen for review, or when you couldn't "Google" something you needed an answer to right away. Likewise, the older generation doesn't understand the unjustifiable perceived sense of entitlement or increased focus on technology. Either way, based on the results of this study, it appears that there's plenty that every generation can learn from one another.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Blockbuster Won't Give in; Bids for Circuit City

For years, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for movie rental outlets like Blockbuster. First, there was on-demand TV through cable services that essentially let you order a movie right from your couch. Then, there was nifty inventions like TiVo that made it really easy to record a movie at 4 a.m., then watch it whenever you felt like it. As if that weren't enough to put pressure on the traditional DVD rental business, out came Netflix, a company that let you order a movie online, and they'd deliver it right to your door!

Lately, however, it seems like Blockbuster is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the company isn't left in the dust as technology continues to move forward. We've already seen what happened to music retailers like Music World and Sam The Record Man that refused to change their business plans to keep up with the changing ways of music distribution. Blockbuster obviously wants no part in that when it comes to its business, and is making sure the company stays on the cusp of development.

The strangest move came today, when Blockbuster Inc. put in a bid to buy U.S. consumer electronics retailer Circuit City. Huh? You'd think that, if anything, it would be the other way around! But Blockbuster is offering more than US$1-billion for the mammoth CE retailer, stating that a combined company (worth approx. US$18-billion) would be "uniquely positioned to capitalize on the growing convergence of media content and electronic devices." Could we see Blockbuster stores now not only renting DVDs and video games, but also the devices needed to watch or play them? Or perhaps creating promotions whereby you receive a free movie rental with the purchase of a Blu-ray player from Circuit City? It might even be more than that.

Reports all over the 'net claim that Blockbuster is planning to launch its own set-top box that would allows users to stream movies to a connected TV, a la Apple TV. Content would reportedly come from Movielink's massive library, a company that Blockbuster purchased last year.

It looks like Blockbuster has finally bitten the bullet and realized that it needs to make bold moves in order to remain competitive, and not be eaten up by all the new players. In addition to its attempt to buy Circuit City and the rumoured set-top box device, Blockbuster has also been ramping up its Blu-ray DVD offerings to keep in line with consumer demands. It's even putting dedicated Blu-ray kiosks in store, demonstrating the quality of Blu-ray versus standard DVD.

Most people seem puzzled by Blockbuster's moves, but it's better than sitting back and watching other companies take over an area where you were once king. Kudos to Blockbuster for taking steps to improve, and for attempting to find interesting synergies that will add further value to its business. Sure, a consumer electronics retailer is very different from a DVD rental company, as many reports have pointed out. But maybe there's more synergy between the two than we realize. If, as I've argued many times, the content drives the hardware, it makes perfect sense for Blockbuster to grab a piece of the hardware pie to complement its diverse software offerings.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Corporate Sponsorships: When Does it Go Too Far?

I'm obviously into every form of media: television, movies, magazines, Websites, music, you name it. And across every platform, I've been looking at corporate sponsorships and wondering just how far can one go without delving too deep that it becomes detrimental to your brand.

As I just mentioned on our sister Website,, Universal’s Island Def Jam record label is joining forces with mammoth household goods manufacturer Proctor & Gamble to create a new music label. The label will be called TAG Records, in obvious synergy with one of Proctor & Gamble’s brands, TAG body spray. What does this say for the quality of music, or the integrity of the record label? Similar partnerships have been around for decades, of course, whereby a company might sponsor a concert tour or CD launch. We might even see a coupon for $5 off a particular CD when you buy a box of cereal; or a free digital download when you buy X product from X manufacturer. This is fine and dandy, but is creating a major partnership with one company for an entire record label division going too far?

Granted, the music industry has been feeling the pain as of late due to digital downloading and online piracy issues. So something has to be done in order to maintain profitability.

As mentioned in the aforementioned article from, technology company Apple had the clever idea of taking unique, TV content from popular show American Idol and offering it as downloadable audio or video files via the iTunes Website. But there are only so many TV shows, and even that industry is feeling the heat from digital downloading, not to mention from the recently ended writer's strike.

Speaking of TV shows (as well as movies) I've seen the same sort of over-indulgent corporate sponsorship in everything from blatently obvious product placements (more so than ever before) to subtle (yet not so subtle) brand plugs within dialogue. Sadly, I've even noticed the same thing in recent novels I've been reading. Have these "mentions" been paid for, or are they legitimate choices by the noveslist? I often wonder.

The typical "brought to you by" sponsorships are no big deal. Every piece of content, whether it's a movie, TV show, or music concert, has to be paid for somehow. But it seems as of late that corporate entities are dipping their hands a bit too much into the creative pies. Iconic artist Madonna has already reportedly made tons of money from her new CD (which, by the way, hasn't even been released yet!) through corporate commercials that feature its songs (like Sunsilk shampoo). I can't even begin to count how many indie artists have skyrocketed in popularity after having their songs featured in an Apple commercial. It appears that commercials now lead the music industry in determining what "good" music really is! Not to mention how many "celebrities" have become increasingly popular through their own lines of clothing, perfume, shoes, heck, even books when none of these things are considered their primary "talent"!

I'm not claiming that all of this is totally wrong or unjustified. After all, maybe it's a necessary evil in order to survive in industries where the Web is quickly cutting into profits and distribution channels. I just think that, no matter who's backing one's music, TV program, acting career, or what have you, integrity and creative control needs to remain in check. Otherwise, music, TV, and every other form of media will no doubt lose touch with the very people it's trying to reach in the first place.

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Sharp Caters to the Ladies, Teaches About HD

According to Sharp's research, 75% of the consumer electronics purchases within the home are made by women (or at least "OK'd" by them), yet just 2% of females actually feel confident on their knowledge of high-definition TV. Given these staggering numbers, the top LCD manufacturer hosted an educational event for about 25 journalists to teach them about HD, answer questions, and squash myths. Surprisingly, the questions came flooding in so much that an official presentation almost wasn't needed.

What's the difference between LCD and other technologies? Asked one woman. What does 720p, 1080i, and 1080p mean? Chimed in another. Questions even touched upon topics that us in the "tech" field often take for granted. What's a bezel? inquired a puzzled female journalist. Sharp Canada's Kevin Andrews calmly explained that it's just the tech industry's term for the frame around the TV. This gal wasn't dumb, nor was she uninformed. But we often don't realize that people really don't recognize these terms, nor buzz words like 1080p, 16:9, or letterboxing. Just because we use them every day doesn't mean they do! Questions continued on to span topics like how to clean a flat-panel when your kids run their grubby hands across it, and where would one buy such a solution?! Attendees even touched upon issues of energy consumption, proper viewing distance, and yes, surround sound. Apparently women do understand that you need a good surround sound system to go along with your high-def flat-panel TV, but they just needed some reassurance from a reputable source.

A demo showing the movie Enchanted playing via a standard-definition DVD player on the left and a Sharp Blu-ray player on the right (both on Sharp's new special edition AQUOS SE94-series LCDs) provided further evidence that the high-definition experience really is worth it. Rogers Cable provided the high-definition set-top boxes for the demo, while reps from both companies were on hand to answer questions related to both flat-panel technology and source devices.

After the demonstration, which ran for about an hour and a half, I was able to chat with some of the journalists, none of whom worked in the technology sector. When I asked one gal whether the demo convinced her to buy a flat-panel TV (she's still living in the CRT world), she explained that, although she wasn't jumping out of her seat to buy one today, she certainly feels more confident having been educated on the technology. It's just like buying a car, after all. No one wants to walk into a store or sales office being vulnerable or uniformed.

Interestingly, one journalist told me that she didn't even know she could connect most flat-panel TVs (like the aforementioned Sharp AQUOS models) to her computer or notebook and view digital photos, or even surf the 'net, on the big-screen. "That's a huge selling feature for women and moms," she said, "and companies should really focus on features like that." Many attendees also seemed pleasantly surprised to learn about Sharp's AQUOS Net feature, which provides real-time tech support whereby a rep can actually adjust your TV settings remotely to optimal viewing. (This feature was officially announced at CES in January 2008).

The main reason I attended this event was to gain some insight into where the "average" consumer stands with HDTV, and I was truly blown away by how many terms, buzz words, and high-tech features are taken for granted within the industry. Imagine that, while we spend so much time focusing on the minutia of picture quality, something simple like PC connectivity makes all the difference with the core buying audience. It was truly an enlightening experience. Kudos to Sharp for taking the initiative to start educating consumers on the benefits of HDTV, and how to get it. The more customers that jump on the bandwagon, the better.

Stay tuned for video footage from the event, including eye-opening commentary from some of the female attendees.

Photo: (l-r) Sharp Canada's Chris Matto, Bill Friend, Eteinne Kwan, and Kevin Andrews were on hand to answer questions, and demonstrate the differences between SD and HD content.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Is Apple Biting the Hand That Feeds it?

Is Apple biting the hands that feeds it, i.e., itself? This very question was posed to me the other day by a colleague who was trying to figure out Apple's strategy of offering iPods with massive capacities, yet iTunes songs as paltry 128 Kbps (or, in some cases, 256 Kbps), digital files. It's highly unlikely that the average consumer could fill an 80 GB iPod with tunes of such a small size (it would take approx. 20,000 128 Kbps 4-minute tracks to do so!), so what does Apple expect us to fill these nifty devices with?

The obvious answer is "other stuff". Higher-quality songs ripped from physical CDs, downloadable videos, including podcasts, TV shows, and full-length movies (much of which can be obtained from iTunes), and even photos. Let's face it: iPods aren't just for music anymore, which is why capacities are getting so huge. Not to mention that content loaded onto these portable players won't always be exclusively from iTunes, despite how this might be the ideal scenario in Apple's eyes.

Nevertheless, my colleague, who's a heavy iPod (and iTunes!) user, pointed out the obvious paradox between what's offered in the hardware and what's offered in the software, and how this can be perceived by dedicated music lovers. We'll give you massive storage capacities, like 80 and 160 GB, but the best quality tunes we can offer for you to load within these hard drives is 256 Kpbs ? "The last song I downloaded from iTunes sounded horrible," he told me. "I'm thinking of just going back to buying CDs and ripping the music onto my iPod."

Realistically, if most people thought this way, it would be the answer to the music industry's prayers! Is it all a conspiracy? A strategically concocted plan to offer semi-mediocre content online so that, once consumers get over the initial honeymoon phase of digital downloading, they go back to appreciating pristine audio quality again and buy CDs? I doubt it. But it does leave something to think about.

Going forward, my colleague predicts a significant drop in iTunes downloads as more and more consumers become fed up with the audio quality of digital tunes and move back to buying CDs that they can rip and load onto their iPods. After all, they have to fill those massive hard drives somehow! I tend to think the other way: that, rather than consumers moving away from downloadable sites like iTunes, the tracks offered by such sites will become better in quality as time goes on, and DRM (hopefully) becomes a thing of the past.

As for today, iTunes just surpassed Wal-Mart for the title of number-one music retailer in the U.S. The download site has more than 50 million members, and has sold more than four billion tunes since it launched back in 2003.

Which way will things go? Only time will tell. What's your prediction?

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Does Tech Blogging Kill?

I was surfing Google News yesterday and came upon a news item that caught my attention. The headlines ranged from things like "tech blogging can damage your health" to "blogging to an early grave" and even "blog stress a killer". What? Needless to say, my mouse pointed and clicked faster than you can post a blog entry.

The story, originating from The New York Times, examines the high-pressure lifestyles of those involved in the cut-throat tech-blogging industry, citing that three influential tech bloggers have had heart attacks over the past few months, two of whom have passed on. Although the cause can not be linked directly to the stress of their daily jobs, those who knew the two guys who died, (Russell Shaw, 60 and Marc Orchant, 50), as well as Om Malik, 41, who managed to survive, allude to their high-stress lives, include frequent lack of sleep and constant weight loss or gain. Many tech bloggers are independent, freelancers that work from home 24/7, trying desperately to be the first to scoop that big story and beat everyone else to the punch, so it's no surprise that these guys would suffer such symptoms.

The Web world is, of course, different from standard magazine and newspaper publishing, where getting the scoop means printing your magazine on time, and getting it to readers before anyone else. Sure, daily newspaper employees often work through the night to ensure that a "breaking news" story makes it into the next day's issue. But online, the timelines are constant, and the competition more fierce.

In the New York Times article, the magazine talks to a few popular bloggers to get their insight on the topic. Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, reaffirms the point by admitting that he's gained 30 pounds in the last three years, and has developed a severe sleeping disorder.

If you think that only the older ones are being affected, think again. Gizmodo blogger Matt Buchanan, who's just 22, says he sleeps just five hours every night, and "doesn't have the time" to eat proper meals. His boss (who himself often pulls all-nighters) goes on to say that, if they haven't heard from Buchanan back in the office, they figure he's just passed out at his PC...again!

It's safe to assume that much of this pressure is felt by the dedicated, online guys (and gals!) who make their daily living by being the first to post, and getting insider information. I often walk into the office in the morning and discover that some blogger found out a big piece of industry news and reported on it at 4 a.m. while I was still deep in slumber. How can one compete with that? Naturally, as this report might suggest, there is a price. Hopefully bloggers who put too much pressure on themselves will slow down, take things easy, eat right, get some sleep, and get away from the PC screen once in a while. Arrington mused to the Times that it would be a good thing to restrict blogging to the hours of 8 p.m. and dawn. This is unlikely, but it might become necessary is this industry becomes even more cut-throat then it is.

As for readers (of which I am one as well), it sort of makes you appreciate the timeliness and frequency of certain blogsites that much more. Hopefully there isn't a haggard, sleep-deprived, high-stressed person behind every one.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Canadian TV Remains in Flux

The Canadian TV landscape remains in flux, and the latest drama arises from CTVglobemedia Inc., which says its sick of letting cable and satellite distributors run its signals for free, and wants a piece of the action. I'm a little confused on this point. Aren't they happy to be given access to these provider's subscribers? Apparently, Rogers Communications Inc. agrees with my sentiment, arguing that companies like Rogers gives networks like CTV and Global access to "millions of Canadian homes."

On the flip side, it's a chicken and egg scenario. Sure, cable providers like Rogers give TV networks a platform to get their content out to consumers, and thus increase advertising. But without this content, cable providers would be selling empty space (or those swiggly lines that used to come on at 4 a.m.: remember those?!) But there could actually be something to fill the holes: U.S. stations!

I find it strange that a country that's supposedly struggling to compete with our neighbours to the south in providing good content would be taking steps to interfere with the distribution of its programming. It sounds as though the request is in attempt to find another means of making money, especially in light of issues like the writer's strike and online streaming and downloading that have been plaguing the TV industry as a whole. But will customers say "no big deal" to paying a few extra bucks for their cable and satellite TV companies (because, let's face it, the added costs to providers would be translated on our bills), or will this be the last straw that begins a boycott of TV altogether? I don't know about you, but every three or four months, my bill seems to increase anyway. So I wouldn't be too happy even if it meant adding yet another two-bucks to my monthly bill. No thanks.

Given the ongoing debate, the CRTC is supposedly conducting a massive review of the entire TV broadcast landscape, examining issues like if providers should pay networks for distributing their content, and if Canadian content regulations should be re-examined? Right now, a good portion of the programs airing on Canadian networks are U.S. programs that certain subscribers could, in theory, watch through the U.S. networks instead.

My proposal: get rid of the U.S./Canada divide when it comes to TV, and just air programming that consumers want. Air Canadian shows in the U.S. and vice versa, and let the viewers decide what's great. After all, in the movie and music scene, it's often a surprise nowadays to find out that a popular artist or actor is actually Canadian. Why does that distinct divide still exist in TV land?

As for the network vs. provider debate, it surprises me that companies like CTVglobemedia are asking for money from the distributors of its content when much of it is actually U.S. programming. What's more, as I discussed in an older post, the programming is also often not broadcast up to par with the U.S. version, particularly when it comes to high-def versions.

I just think that, given the current state of the TV industry, causing a stir that could potentially lead to more money out of consumer's pockets probably isn't the best idea. And if the CRTC decides that yes, we should just allow U.S. programming to enter direct in order to help the ailing industry, Canadian broadcasters could be in real trouble. It would be a surprise if the CRTC does decide to go this way, but I think it might just be the kind of shake-up we need. I've always wondered whether forcing Canadian "culture" onto residents is actually promoting anything but a nation that's scared of losing its culture.

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