Friday, May 30, 2008

WiMAX for the Home, Not Just Cell



A colleague of mine lives in the countryside, just over an hour away from the office. He has been struggling with having to use dial-up whenever he works from home. Why? He's tried every option under the sun to get high-speed in his home, but to no avail. Recently, he signed on for a WiMAX service, and has, for the first time, been able to e-mail me a 2 MB image in less than 30 minutes, and actually watch streaming video from sites like YouTube. What a relief, since he was getting tired of having to drive out to the local Starbucks to use their WiFi connection! This made me think of WiMAX in a whole new light: as an alternate to your in-home, fixed broadband connection.

Up until now, I've only thought of WiMAX's potential in a very limited sense: the ability to access the 'net and use devices anywhere, and seamlessly when moving from the home to the outside world. Sort of like an advanced version of WiFi, which, in a sense, it definitely is. But now I have begun to understand it's possibilities as an alternative just in the home.

Research firm In-Stat echoes my sentiment in a recent report. "There has been little to no consideration of WiMAX competing head-to-head against fixed broadband." The company went on to call this a "major oversight".

It's true. WiMAX is great for that seamless, connected experience while you're driving about, and it's fantastic for people like my colleague who don't have any other option for high-speed. But can WiMAX compete with fixed broadband services in every area, as simply another option? Probably. After all, why does Internet access have to be separated by what you have at home, and what you use everywhere else?

In-Stat predicts that, rather than a host of new WiMAX providers competing to convert standard broadband customers over to their more ubiquitous service, traditional broadband operators may just extend their own offerings and add WiMAX as another plan option. In a survey the research company conducted in the U.S., more than 40% of respondents said they would be willing to tack on an additional $10-15 to their monthly Internet service plan to get WiMAX. I fall into that category myself: it just makes sense.

On a borader note, will we eventually see a time where WiMAX blankets the entire developed world, and we literally become "always connected"? It's an exciting, yet scary, proposition.

[With WiMAX, Internet customers will be able to seamlessly access wireless Internet in their homes, and high in the sky, without interruption.]



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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Canadians, Tech Industry, Love "Chachkas"


A new study conducted by Leger Marketing for eBay Canada, says that Canadians love clutter, with many citizens having accumulated enough of it to get a tax return of over $1,200! I would bet that a large percentage of these consumers are from the CE industry. Why?

Attend any press conference, trade show, or media event and you'll almost never leave empty-handed. You might receive a product to review (if you're a journalist) or a tiny USB flash drive with product information (I must have at least 50-100 of these by now!) Other popular "giveaways" in the tech sector include T-shirts (great for lounging around the house!), DVDs, and portable gadget cases. These items are lovingly known to the media world as "chachkas". I say lovingly because, for the most part, they really are cool items that you want, or just simply know you will use "one of these days". I can't count how many times I've given a "chachka" to someone else, only to find myself in a situation where it could have come in handy shortly thereafter. Sometimes, however, these trinkets just sit around, collecting dusts for years (e.g. cases or skins for devices that I don't own, but hey, you never know, someday I might buy one!)

Anyone who's been in the CE industry for any length of time has likely accumulated, and accumulated, and accumulated until a drawer or portion of the closet becomes deemed the "chachka" area. In fact, the study found that the closet is the most popular hiding spot for clutter (64% of respondents use it), followed by the basement (48%), garage (34%), spare bedroom (29%), and backyard shed (20%).

Leger also found that the most popular clutter items in people's homes include old books, magazines, and files; knickknacks and souvenirs; old electronics; DVDs and CDs; and children's toys. It's worth noting, however, that going forward, the amount of clutter accumulated from out-of-town trade shows and events might be considerably reduced. Various airlines (see related stories here and here) are charging additional fees for both carry-on and checked luggage in order to offset rising fuel costs. I guess that means no more chachka-filled, CES bags flowing 'round the baggage claim!

It's no surprise that these survey results come just in time for annual "Spring Cleaning", nor that the survey was commissioned by eBay, the spot where you can buy and sell literally anything. My advice: try to clear out your chachka collection at least once a year; and keep only what's absolutely necessary. If, like me, that tends to mean every chachka you receive, than hey, enjoy!

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Front Projection: Will it Ever Hit Mainstream?


I was inspired to examine the front projection category after my recent trip to Tokyo, Japan. Does the average consumer really understand what a front projector is, and what's more, are they really interested in having one in their living rooms? An even more important question is whether or not issues of ambient light can effectively be combated such that front projection becomes a viable option in the main living room.

Personally, I think that front projection is a technology that should be used with a flat-panel TV. I'll use my 40" or 50" plasma/LCD to watch sitcoms and the like; but pull down the screen and fire up the projector when I'm ready to watch a movie, or I have a large group of friends over to play Wii bowling, or catch the Superbowl or NHL play-offs. Of course that set-up needs to be in a really dark room (or the screen needs to employ technology good enough to combat light issues, or I'm willing to sacrifice in picture quality). Not to mention that price considerations come into play: I don't know about you, but the price of a flat-panel, projector and screen, along with surround sound equipment, not to mention the labour rate for a qualified installer, is slightly above my budget!

Nevertheless, when you take the cost of the average movie ticket these days into consideration, combined with the number of movies an avid movie-goer might see in a year (and overpriced popcorn and candy consumed), a front projection system in the home just might be a worthwhile option.

See the full article on our sister Website at www.marketnews.ca/news_detail.asp?nid=3769, and feel free to leave your comments!

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Wii Fit: One Week Later


It has been a week now since Wii Fit, a fitness and exercise game for the Nintendo Wii, hit Canadian store shelves. From what I've read along with my own experience, it's getting rave reviews. And, as is customary as with any highly-anticipated video game, you'll have a tough time finding it in stores. We visited EB Games the other day and were simply told that there were no copies in stock, and no confirmed date as to when more would be coming in. Great.

As the Wii console did when it first launched back in 2006, this game really has managed to attract an entirely new audience of gamers. Moms, grandmas, and young gals everywhere are locked up in the living room when no one's home, substituting their regular work-outs with some Wii Fit training (and constantly checking BMI and weight: the Balance Board makes a great substitute to the bathroom scale!). My colleague, who has been anti-gaming forever, has even been intrigued and went out to purchase a console.

As for my own experiences with the Wii, I gave my initial review last week. Unfortunately, I haven't had as much play time as I would have liked to with it since then. Logging on last night, the game studiously brought that to my attention: "do you know it's been seven days since you last logged on?" Upon conducting my fitness test again, I was advised that I had actually gained a couple of pounds since my last weigh-in. Great. I was then given a number of potential reasons (snacking, late night dinners, eating too much, etc.) I decided upon late night dinners ( it's been a busy week) and was provided with my "tip of the day": have dinner as early as possible, and never less than three hours before you go to bed. Good advice. I also noticed, to my surprise, that my trainer's hair had grown: was this a tactic to make me feel like I'm not playing often enough?

I engaged in a selection of activities for about 45 minutes, with jogging and hula-hooping being the most strenous of my choices. I even managed to unlock Super Hula Hoop, which makes you twist and turn starting from the right, and then from the left, for three minutes each while your friend's Mii avatars throw additional hula hoops your way. I couldn't even make it through the second 3-minute session! Luckily, my overall BMI is considered "normal", but I still hope to shed a few pounds and tone up.

My partner, who's a traditional gamer that likes the shooting, fighting, blood-'n-guts games, jumped in and enjoyed the game as well. However, he was more into the skiing and various other balance games than the yoga and strength training. Still, it was amusing to see someone that's usually seated on the couch with a remote in hand up on his feet and really into the whole fitness theme.

One quip: I wish two people could play against one another, as can be done with the Wii Sports game that comes with the console. My partner and I found ourselves alternating Mii characters, constantly trying to out-do one another at tightrope walking or skiing. It would have been much easier if there was a two-person competitive workout setting of some sort.

Wii Fit is really focused on balance and posture, quite obviously because this is the one variable that the sensored Balance Board can measure. The game's virtual trainers claim that having good posture and balance is essential to building muscle, gaining strength, and shedding pounds. I'll continue to work on that, and hopefully reach my Wii Fit goals soon!

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ontario Might Ban Cell Phones in Cars...and Every Other Gadget!


Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says he's considering following suit with many other cities in requiring that people use Bluetooth headsets or speakerphones when chatting on a cell phone in the car. This move makes perfect sense, and is really only for the benefit of everyone's safety. But then he continued on to discuss banning any electronic device one might use in the car, like portable navigation units or smartphones that can be used for e-mailing and web surfing. While I understand the need to make our roads safer, fining someone because he was hitting the "home" button on his GPS device, or reading an e-mail at a red light, isn't going to solve anything.

You can pick and choose devices to ban or not to ban, but then where do you draw the line? I have a satellite radio receiver in my car: can I be ticketed for pushing a pre-set button to change the station? After all, how is this any different from selecting a radio station on the car's factory stereo system? Or rifling through a book of CDs or audio tapes, which people have been doing while driving for decades! Many of these devices are just replacing the old methods of yesteryear. Instead of grabbing an audio tape out of the case to pop it into the cassette deck, we're connecting our iPods or surfing through satellite radio channels. Instead of holding up a poster-sized map to check for directions, we're punching in addresses on a portable navigation device.

It's important to note that I am not encouraging multi-tasking while you're driving on a 400-series highway in the GTA, or anywhere, for that matter. If a guy is swerving from lane to lane because he's in the midst of a heated discussion with cell phone in hand, or a young gal runs a red light because she's texting her girlfriends while driving, by all means, charge them with unsafe driving as you would charge anyone that's driving in an unsafe manner. What I am saying is that a complete "ban" could result in bogus tickets being handed out to people who are driving safely. Are we going to ticket people who sing in the car as well because it's distracting? Moms that are diffusing a back seat fight between the kids? Or dads enjoying quick sips of morning coffee while on the way to work? I think it's more important to target unsafe drivers as a whole, but leave the reasons to each, individual instance.

Frankly, I think if I was coerced into having my hands at 2 and 10 and my eyes focused on the road 100% of the time while driving, I'd space out from sheer boredom and stiffness, and be more likely to drive erratically, or fail to react quickly in the event of a potential accident. But maybe I'm just fooling myself...

Using handheld cell phones in the car is already banned in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Manitoba, as well as in U.S. cities like New York and, most recently, California.

[Photo: As cell phone bans continue to come into effect around the world, will we see huge leaps in the sale of Bluetooth headsets and speakerphone devices like the one depicted here?]

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Canadian Wireless Spectrum Auction Currently Underway


The Canadian Advanced Wireless Spectrum Auction (AWS), where Industry Canada auctions off the airwaves requires for cellular services to operate, is currently underway. This is bigger news than it normally would be, however, because the Government has, for the first time, set aside a portion of the spectrum exclusively for new entrants. What does this mean? It means that, when all is said and done, we will most likely see a new wireless carrier in Canada.

For the past few years, any "new carrier" we've seen has actually been in bed with one of the "big three" cellular providers: Rogers, Telus, and Bell. Fido is owned by Rogers. Virgin Mobile piggybacks on the Bell network. And the latest newcomer, Koodo Mobile, is owned by Telus. As a result, many claim that, because of the perceived lack of competition, Canadians pay exorbitant mobile data rates. With the 40 MHz of spectrum that is now available for new carriers to snag up, we could see a major shift in the Canadian wireless landscape.

The auction likely won't be 100% complete for another month or so. The bidding process, currently still in "round one", begun at 9 a.m. (EDT) this morning. In addition to the "big three", other qualified bidders include companies like DAVE Wireless, a partnership between an investment vehicle controlled by John Bitove (formerly of XM Canada); Quadrangle Group, a New York-based private investment firm, and Vulcan Capital; Blue Canada Wireless Inc.; Novus Wireless Inc.; and Celluworld, Inc., among others. Two of the top bidders thus far are known only as 9193-2962 Qu├ębec Inc. (likely Videotron) and 6934242 Canada Ltd. (MTS-Allstream?) Thus far, there have been 298 bids for a total of $490,855,050. All bid are made online using a secure network.

Who will win the available spectrum, and what will this mean for wireless service plan rates going forward? Will a new provider offer significantly lower prices, forcing the big-three to follow suit? Will the company simply offer more of the same? Will we see more than one carrier enter the foray? It's obvious that some form of change is needed in Canada, and it looks like this auction is just the ticket to bring on such change.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates as they happen, and to the June issue of Marketnews Magazine for a full summary of the bidding process and its outcome.

[Industry Minister Jim Prentice makes the announcement late last year that wireless spectrum will be set aside exclusively for new entrants.]


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Monday, May 26, 2008

What Will They Think Of Next?: Your BlackBerry Becomes a Universal Remote


A Canadian company has created a software application that will supposedly be able to turn your BlackBerry into a universal remote control, operating all of the IR-enabled devices in your home theatre. That is pretty darned cool!

Called Unify4Life, the application downloads to a compatible BlackBerry, while the server plugs into a central location in the home. It will work with most popular brands and models of equipment, and each device is programmed into the system online. Unify4Life hopes to add home devices like a thermostat, lighting, and intercom systems to its control roster in the future.

Imagine leaving the office, and making a call home from your BlackBerry to say you're on your way. Then send a few e-mails while you're waiting at a red light. Come home, take off your coat, and search the 'net from the handheld for some good take-out for the family. Order it using, yes, your BlackBerry. Then plop in the couch, point the smartphone to the TV, and anger your husband/wife by switching channels even though the other person actually has the remote. Not only that, but also turn on the cable set-top box, search the guide, and even power up the stereo system. It's amazing that smartphones can perform all of the typical functions they do, but to add home control to that list is even more mind baffling.

Scheduled for availability this October, Unify4Life will sell for about $100. With so many third-party apps becoming available for the BlackBerry (and other smartphones, for that matter), someone better start looking into creating super-charged, extra long-life batteries. We'll be needing them very soon in order to fully enjoy everything these devices can do!

[Photo: http://www.unify4life.com/]

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Macy's Doesn't Need Qualified People to Sell Electronics, Just Vending Machines

So much for the idea that you need qualified salespeople to sell consumer electronics. Macy's, a major department store chain in the U.S. has decided that vending machines will do just fine. The retailer is expanding on a 2-year pilot program, and erecting the e-Spot machines in 400 of its stores.

In an effort to sound tech-savvy, Macy's Senior V.P. of Customer Operations Chris Mizer said: "Personal electronics are a massive business in today's texting, downloading, photo 'tagging,' YouTubing world. And arguably more so than ever before, people's tech taste is as much an extension of their personal style as their choice of shoe or apparel brands. As we continue to expand the Macy's brand as the premiere shopping and lifestyle destination, it became increasingly obvious that our customer was looking to us for this calibre of electronic product. They wanted one-stop, no-fuss shopping, and we are responding." He calls it a "no pressure" environment. I guess he forgot about the no interaction part, which is really what sets traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers apart from the competition.

Products to be sold through the machines will range in price from $14.99 all the way up to $349.99, and include items like Apple iPods, Canon and Samsung digital cameras, and B&O and Harman Kardon headphones.

On the one hand, this might be a good way for a non-traditional CE store to add technology items to its product offerings for grab-and-go customers to snatch up. Macy's obviously sees a big enough market of consumers that are already educated about technology, and know what they want before they walk into the store. After all, I don't think there are too many people that sit through a demo of an iPod, or need to know of its features, before they buy one - they just want it.

But on the other hand, does this process insult the knowledge and education that dedicated CE retailers put into their staff? Walk into downtown Toronto's Bay Bloor Radio and you'll see a full wall of headphones where customers can try each model out with his own music, and decide upon the right fit with the help of a sales associate. Visit any Henry's Camera location across Ontario and staff is constantly busy discussing and demonstrating the latest digital cameras, including Canon-branded ones, for eager-to-learn customers. Is this all for not?

Perhaps in Macy's land, a $350 pair of headphones is an impulse buy, just like razor blades and chewing gum is in a standard grocery shop. No word on whether the machines will answer your questions or accept returns.

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Would You Use a PC on the Wireless Cellular Network?


This week, Rogers Wireless announced that it would be offering the new HTC Shift, a computer that's a mix between a portable notebook and a data-intensive smartphone but for one small detail: it doesn't include phone functionality! What is such a product doing on the Rogers Wireless 3G HSPA network? Isn't that supposed to be for phones with data capability, not dedicated PCs? What's more, would you buy a PC that operated on a wireless network, or one that used traditional Internet Service Providers (which, of course, also includes Rogers High-Speed Internet as an option). I'd tend to stick to the latter.

True, the computer is very portable at just 5.08" x 8.14" x 0.98" (h/w/d) and 1.76 lbs., so it's meant for on-the-go usage just like mobile phones. And it does have integrated WiFi if you prefer to use a free or paid HotSpot instead of the wireless spectrum. But the most data-intensive plan for this device on the Roger's Wireless network is $100/mo. for up to 5 GB of usage. Any data over this will cost you $0.03/KB. A comparable Rogers High-Speed Internet plan runs for $99,95 for 95 GB ($1.25/GB over). So I definitely wouldn't select the wireless plan if I was using the device at home. On the road, you'll end up incurring hefty roaming fees if you're traveling outside of the province or country, but then you can connect virtually anywhere, anytime. Wait, isn't that what BlackBerries are for? And you can chat using those as well!

I just can't wrap my head around who the market might be for such a device, especially at a price of $1,600! I can use a smartphone to access files, write e-mail, and surf the 'net on the go; and if I'm traveling on business, I can use the hotel's WiFi service to connect using my full-sized notebook, and any HotSpot out there, the most expensive of which I've ever logged onto at $15/24-hr period. When Rogers adds the GPS functionality to the Shift, it'll certainly become a bit more enticing. But I think before Canadians will accept neat and cool devices like this one (and it is indeed very cool!), we need to see more affordable plan options and unlimited offerings. Until then, I'll admire the Shift from afar.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bell Gives Canadians Downloadable Movies, TV - UPDATED!


After about a year of rumours, Bell has finally launched its own video download site, offering over 1,500 downloadable movies and TV shows. Do Canadians finally have a home-grown source for good video content online? Sort of.

The movie section is great because it features new releases for purchase the same day they become available in stores, or for rent "shortly thereafter". (iTunes recently announced a similar service in the U.S.) A movie can be bought-to-own for $4.99 or rented for $1.99, the latter of which makes the film available for 30 days after it has been downloaded, and for 24 hours once it has been activated.

The TV show offerings, however, aren't as promising...unless you're a huge fan of the World Series of Mahjong in Cantonese, that is. Only a few programs are available, and they're all "classic" (i.e. old) TV shows or cartoons. No thanks. Funnily, upon clicking on any TV section (most popular, top rated, etc.) the results load near the bottom portion of the page, while the movies that fall into that same category are highlighted at the top. It's almost like Bell is aware that the TV offerings aren't what mass consumers want, and the company is admitting by the layout of the site that "Hey, we know the TV options aren't that great, but look at all the cool movies we have!"

The ball, of course, isn't entirely in Bell's court because the company is at the mercy of licensing issues with both Canadian and U.S. studios, the latter of which arguably includes the most popular prime-time shows. A Bell spokesperson tells me that Bell is "going after anything they can get their hands on" when it comes to content, so hopefully we can expect more content added over the next few months. Nevertheless, the availability of recent, box-office movies for download in Canada is a big step in the right direction. And the fact that video is ready for viewing immediately upon purchase rather than you having to wait until the entire file has downloaded is a bonus. All videos from the store are "DVD quality" says Bell, and although no HD content is available just yet, Bell's spokesperson tells me that there certainly is opportunity for such content "down the road".

Videos can also be transferred to select Archos portable media players for watching on-the-go, which is great for owners of select Archos portable media players, but not so great for anyone who has any other device. Truthfully, I can't fathom a time when I'd ever want to watch movies on a PC screen, unless I pulled my notebook out and plopped it on the tray in front of me on a plane. But what I would love to do is load a portable player or video-capable mobile phone up with my fav TV shows to watch while traveling. But for people who live in small apartments or dorm rooms, or who spend more time in their computer rooms than they do the living room, buying and watching movies via PC might be an appreciated option. What's more, if you have a Media Center PC, you can watch content from the Bell Video Store on your large-screen TV in its full resolution.

All of this leads back to copyright and licensing issues, which continue to stifle innovation in Canada. Heck, the functions a PVR perform are technically not "legal" in Canada! In a perfect world, I would be able to download these movies and any TV show I liked onto any player I want, and listen to it any time I want. Alas, we don't live in a perfect world. But each, small step is getting us closer to this goal. For now, I'm still keen on watching my TV and movies via cable, on-demand, or DVD, and I'll stick to YouTube for the PC.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Move Over Richard Simmons & Jane Fonda....Here Comes Wii Fit!



Have you ever heard the phrase "I'll start working out tomorrow?" Whether these five words have been uttered from your own mouth, or that of a friend or family member, chances are you've heard them at least once or twice. And chances are just as likely that the person never followed through because he was too busy, too tired, too lazy, not motivated...the list of excuses could go on forever. Enter Wii Fit, a fun, fitness game that lets you exercise without ever leaving the home, or living room.

The game can be likened to a workout DVD, except the on-screen trainer isn't just a passive participant: he/she can monitor what you're doing and the progress you're making by measuring data like body mass index, weight, and even the amount of pressure you're placing onto one side of your body. This is accomplished through a battery-operated Balance Board that syncs with the Wii console and game, and can sense when you make contact with it.

I spent the night with Wii Fit, and had loads of fun while enjoying every activity in four categories: aerobics, yoga, and strength and balance training. First, I was put through a series of tests to determine my "Wii Fit age", and asked my real age and height. The game also provided my weight and body mass index, then asked me to set a goal: how many pounds do I want to lose and by when? I selected five pounds in two weeks, but was warned that this might be pushing it, so I changed it to just three. If you're shy and don't want others in the home to know your stats, you can easily protect them with a four-digit password.

A male and female trainer is available: I selected the male, and although he was extremely encouraging and provided some great tips as I tried out each exercise, it was eerily creepy that his mouth did not move when he spoke! In some strange way, however, this also adds to the charm of the game itself, which is full of cutesy screen scenes and audio prompts, as is characteristic with most Wii games.

If you think you can slack off with this game, think again. The trainer observes your every move. If you stop he'll ask "hey, are you still there?" I gave up my failed attempts at push-ups and the side plank, and he pointedly declared at the end of the session that he knew I took a break, but told me not to worry because things would get easier. Gee, thanks for making me feel guilty!

As you go through each activity, points accumulate within a Wii Bank, and are automatically cashed in to unlock new, more advanced activities. In my span of about an hour-and-a-half of game play, I had already unlocked three new fitness moves in areas like yoga and strength training. What I also loved was that the game sensed when I had been playing for an hour and prompted me to take a break and hydrate myself with some water.

In addition to the standard exercise moves, there are also some fun games, like skiing (as you can see in action via our video with Olympic Freestyle Mogul Skiier Kristi Richards); tight rope walking (for balance training), hula hooping (this one's loads of fun), and even head-butting soccer balls that are thrown at you!

In addition to the fun nature of each activity, I also appreciate the attention to detail in the game. Keep an eye out for your friends in any activity: they'll be doing things like throwing hula hoops and soccer balls at you, doing step activities in a class, and even running alongside you in a race. During the quick run activity (you stand behind the Balance Board and simply jog in place), you'll head out on a dirt road, with grass, trees, and a nice summer scene surrounding you. What's even neater is the distinct "crunch, crunch" sound of your feet hitting the pavement as you jog. You couldn't simulate this experience better indoors, even with equipment like a treadmill or elliptical machine.

In my eyes, Wii Fit, which became available in Canada today for $89.95, only scratches the surface of the potential for fitness video games. I'd like to be able to cash in my points to purchase new workout gear for my Mii character, or perhaps even to upgrade to a more advanced trainer or newer gym facility. How about being able to select custom music for my workouts? I see a whole new opportunity for Wii-branded fitness accessories, like freeweights and perhaps even special sensored shoes that one can wear and use within a room to take the activities one step further. The possibilities are endless, but the starting point is pretty darned good in my eyes. If, like me, you've said over and over that you want to tone and get fit, but simply never got around to doing it, Wii Fit is a great motivator. I can only hope that the novelty doesn't wear off . So far, I'm headed toward my two-week goal, and determined to accomplish it. Stay tuned! And for more information, visit http://www.getupandplay.ca/.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Visiting Akihabara in Japan




It's likely than when Eddy Grant was belting out the lyrics to the 80s tune Electric Avenue, he was thinking of Akihabara, a small town in Tokyo, Japan that serves as the destination for anything and everything electronic. OK, so he probably wasn't thinking of this high-tech area, but the Japanese do call it "Electric Town", clearly stated via a sign that greets you upon arrival. If you thought you've seen a lot of technology in one spot, I can almost guarantee that you haven't seen anything like Akihabara.

My first stop was a popular tourist shop called Laox. It looked pretty standard, with digital cameras, camcorders, and knick knacks occupying the relatively small space. No big deal - I see the same sorts of stores walking down Yonge St. in Toronto. Luckily, I was with someone who had visited before, and walked me to the back, where a discrete elevator opened to reveal the option of 6 other floors. Wow! They were all filled with knick-knacks that any tourist would like - fans, kimonos, playing cards, T-shirts, and the like. Moving over to a huge department store had me stopping in awe at the entrance to snap photos. The best way I could describe it would be 1,000 Best Buys or Wal-Marts jammed into one. Aisles upon aisles of electronics. Again, I found myself face to face with a sign that outlined 8 floors of goodies. One for gaming, one for home A/V, one for pretty much anything you might be looking for. To navigate just this one store would have easily taken a full day, and then some. One neat tidbit I learned from walking around? Japanese books actually open from the opposite side, so they're read back to front. Who knew.

I wish I had had more time to explore Akihabara, but my quick glimpse was definitely an interesting one. You probably won't be saving any money by purchasing something there versus in Canada or the U.S., nor will you find the stores filled with too many items that you can't find at home. And I can't fathom anyone shopping there as a regular destination spot. But the sheer magnitude of the area and the stores within it is eye-opening, and worth visiting at least once if you're ever in Japan.

I was really surprised to see how Westernized Tokyo has become. For every restaurant, shop, or street sign that appeared in Japanese, there was another one right beside it declaring the English translation. A short visit to a Macy's-like department store in the Shinzuku area (about a half hour subway ride from Akihabara) reminded me of any old department store in Toronto. Except instead of the standard "welcome" greeting, I received the same with an inviting Japanese smile.

It's important to note that the situation wasn't like this everywhere, such as in the Hot Springs hotel that we visited in Matsumoto where the majority of staff did not speak English, nor was there any (gasp) wireless Internet access. This was a nice change, though, as we were all able to truly appreciate the experience instead of pounding away on BlackBerries.

I can imagine that visiting Tokyo as a whole isn't quite as intimidating as it was 20 years ago. Thankfully in my case, the language barrier has been eased just a bit. Domo arigato!

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

In Japan: Sushi, Karaoke, & Technology





What is Japan all about? In addition to technological development and traditional cultural values, it's also about simple things like sushi, green tea,...and, of course, karaoke! I have eaten more fish (the freshest there is!) and enjoyed more karaoke this week in Japan than I ever have in my life!

Staying in a hot spring hotel (although I didn't experience the hot spring myself), eating a traditional Japanese dinner in a kimono, and sleeping on a tatami mat are experiences I will never forget, nor ones I ever thought I'd experience in my life. An authentic Japanese fish market is a scene like no other, with determined workers scattered about, and massive pieces of fish striking up a frenzy of auction bids. The 400-year-old Matsumoto castle tests one's balance with extremely steep steps (made as such to keep enemies away). And heated toilet seats and bidets in every hotel seemed to be a topic of discussion and fascination among everyone on this trip.

Although the purpose of my travels wasn't solely to experience the wonderful Japanese culture, it was an amazing opportunity to do just that. Thanks to our gracious host, Epson, for providing a fun, fascinating, and educational experience. On the business end, this trip has inspired a future blog entry, which will examine the viability of projectors in the home theatre market. Everyone is hot to trot when it comes to fancy flat-panel TVs, but is there enough education out there about the alternative option of front projection, and to a greater degree, the improvements being made in 3LCD technology? There are many advantages to go this route: a truly BIG screen experience and easy portability immediately come to mind.

While front projection won't be for everyone, and might not sit in the centre of your main home theatre, it could very well be a plausible option for the basement, the cottage, and even as part of a dedicated "movie room" in the home along with a flat-panel TV. Stay tuned for more commentary, as well as my first impressions of Akihabara, which can be considered "tech-central" in Japan.

Photos: Waking up at 4 a.m. to experience Japan's fish market and watch an auction that sees massive, fresh tuna reach bids as high as $10,000 is an event to remember. At bottom is the group enjoying a traditional Japanese dinner in full fashion, followed by an evening of karaoke!

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Business Travel: Is First Class Worth it?

I've never flown first class until today (or rather, yesterday) and wow, does it ever make the difference between a crappy flight and a truly enjoyable experience. Despite my tired eyes and aching back, I've almost forgotten that, while I'm getting ready in my hotel room in Japan to head out for dinner, people back in Toronto are either still deep in slumber, or just getting up to begin their day!

I've always wondered why those tickets are exponentially more expensive than economy class. Sure, you catch glimpses of drinks being served, and comfy pillows through the curtains if you're sitting near the front, or see highly exaggerated scened in movies where flight attendants are dancing on tables with hiked up skirts and tied up, low-cut tops. But is it really worth that much more money? The truth is that the experience is, simply put, what flying should be all about. Before the plane even took off and I was settled in, an attendant (male in pants; sorry, it isn't like the movies!) was offering up champagne and orange juice. While arranging my little alcove of space to my liking, I realized that wow, there was a power outlet to charge up my gadgets if I needed to. A roll-out LCD (just for me) provided movies, TV, news, and even games. Yes, the underside of the remote control can be tilted horizontally to serve as a gaming remote! OK, so I didn't actually use it, but that is pretty darned cool. Then came my fav experience of all - the adjustable lounge seating that rolled all the way back such that I was able to comfortably sleep (or at least) rest for the 12.5-hour flight. All of this was topped off by fantastic food (real food, not the kind that comes in packages), and a little care pack with booties (so I could take off my heels, but still roam around the plane), toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other niceties. Now this is flying.

Sure, you'll fork over tons of extra cash to fly this way, so it's likely not a frequent occurence for many. But just in case you were wondering, it is worth it. Well worth it. Once wireless Internet access becomes common in planes, business class will become even more enticing.

As for Japan, this is my first time visiting and although I've only just arrived and haven't seen much yet, I'm excited to see how the other side lives. This truly is one of the technology epicentres of the world. My first indication? I plugged my notebook in via Ethernet, and wham, I'm connected to the 'net. No cumbersome log-in headaches or entering the room number 50 times so I can be charged for every 24-hour period. OK, so it's probably not this way in every hotel in Japan. But it's a nice change from the sometimes technologically-challenged western world.

Stay tuned!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Canadians Tell Apple Don't Mess With Us!


Canadian iPod early adopters have just won a class action suit against Apple that will see purchasers receive a $45 credit. The suit was filed because Apple claimed that first-generation iPods provided a 10-hour battery life when, in actuality, it was really about half that. A similar lawsuit was won in the U.S. back in 2005.

It certainly isn't right to misrepresent what a product can do. We can, however, give manufacturers like Apple the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was unclear that this declining battery life issue even existed. To that end, however, it just goes to show that quality control testing is of paramount importance in any product. And with the power of the Internet, and ease of the ability to disseminate information to millions all over the world, it becomes even more important to make products that meet certain standards.

Aside from the sweet vindication that anyone who bought an iPod prior to June 24, 2004 might feel right now, this is also a lesson to be learned by all manufacturers out there: don't make false (or uneducated) claims about your product, or someone, somewhere will fight back. And hey, they just might win.

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Friday, May 9, 2008

Travel Gadgets


I have travel on the mind, as I'm set to go on a business trip next week that will entail a rather long flight. This got me to thinking: what are the essential items that one should always have with him when traveling? I've written on this very topic for here's how! magazine, and you can read my article from last year here (click on the link to open the PDF file); or stay tuned to the upcoming issue of here's how! magazine for some more travel gadget ideas. But for now, I thought I'd run down a short list of gadgets that I recommend for any trip.

Noise-canceling headphones: If you're headed out on a plane, whether the flight's an hour or 10, I highly recommend investing in a pair of these babies. They can make the difference between an enjoyable flight and an aggravating one (as can sitting in the middle row bunched between two people!) My personal choice is the Bose QuietComfort 3s, but there are plenty of really neat ones on the market today. (Stayed tuned to here's how! for a review of a few of the latest models.)

Universal power adapter: If you're traveling internationally, a good idea is to grab a universal power adapter that includes all the necessary sockets for plugging in your gadgets from the hotel room or home you'll be staying in.

Mobile phone: Before packing up your mobile phone, check with your carrier on international roaming coverage. The last thing you'd want is to travel all the way somewhere and then find out your mobile won't work! Alternatively, you can rent a local phone and SIM card in most countries.

Digital camera: Fun or business, it doesn't matter. You need to bring along a digital camera to capture your memories. If you're a leisure snapshooter, grab a point-and-shoot model, and if you're going somewhere hot and tropical, where you know you'll be hitting the beach a lot, opt for a waterproof (not water-resistant) model, like the Olympus SW1030. If you want to take along a digital SLR, make sure to bring a sturdy and protective case you can use for carry-on, as well as one you'll want to walk around with. There are tons of options available.

Computer: Whether I'm traveling on business or for fun, I always bring my computer with me. If your travel is just for fun and you own a smartphone with e-mail and Web access, this will likely suffice for your needs. BlackBerry is typically the de facto standard, but I'm also a big fan of the Samsung JACK. And then, of course, there's the iPhone...whenever it comes to Canada.

Magazines, Books, Digital Readers: Flights can be boring, and it's often hit-and-miss with the movies that are provided. I'll usually bring along a novel, plus a few magazines. I just saw Sony's new Digital Reader Book at the company's dealer show in Toronto, and that's a pretty nifty option as well if you're looking for something small and portable. It can hold a couple hundred e-books, and is designed to mimic a real paperback as best as possible with a flap-over case, greyscale font, and a screen with no backlight.

Portable audio/video player: Even if you don't listen to tunes or watch portable video on a flight, you never know when you might be stuck in an airport for hours because of a layover or some other unforeseen circumstance. These gadgets are so small these days, it's almost a no-brainer to load one up with content and pack it up in your carry-on should you need it. I usually bring along a SanDisk Sansa player, and this time, I'm going to try watching some video using the new Nokia N95 mobile phone.

It's probably hard to believe that this is just a "short" list of gadgets. Typically, my carry-on is ALL gadgets. But believe it or not, they're all put to good use.

[Photo: Using Sony's new Digital Reader Book, you can purchase digital copies of paperback books for about 20-30% less than the paper versions, load them up on the device, and read to your heart's content on a plane or train.]

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Xobni is for E-mail Pack Rats


Normally, I don't like installing third-party apps on my computer. But being a notorious e-mail packrat, an application to help organize e-mails in Microsoft Outlook caught my attention this morning. Called Xobni, it provides comprehensive search tools, and complete "profiles" on everyone you e-mail, from their phone number, to your most recent conversations with them, mutual contacts, and even a history of attachments shared between the two of you. I'm often trying to weed through tons and tons of e-mails to find things, and Outlook's own search function can only do so much. So I thought I'd give Xobni a try.

I downloaded the service from http://www.xobni.com/ (it took a matter of seconds), and instantly, it began to scan my e-mails to build its database. After about 8 minutes, I was notified that all of my recent e-mails had been scanned, and the rest would scan "when I wasn't using my computer". (Yes, I have that many!) During the wait time, however, little interesting tidbits of information popped up, like the fact that, by 2009, we'll reportedly spend 49% of our work time managing e-mails, and that my colleague Robert is my third most-emailed contact (funny considering we have offices beside one another!) Note: you must have Windows XP or Vista and be using Outlook 2003 or 2007 for it to run.

The Xobni panel sits on the right side of the Outlook window. If you highlight an e-mail, all of that person's information automatically pops up. You can also search for a person by name or look up a keyword in Xobni's own search tool (results appear as I type). I pulled up data on our Website designer, and found that we most often converse via e-mail in the mornings, we have 39 mutual contacts, we've had over 1,000 conversations, and recently exchanged 18 files between one another. Neat!

The service is still in its beta stage, so there are definitely some kinks to be worked out. For example, it can extract phone numbers from e-mail signatures or text to automatically populate the phone number field for a contact. This, as you can imagine, can't be foolproof. What if I send an e-mail to someone saying "you can reach Bob Smith at 416-555-5555". Will Xobni then think that's MY number? I've already noticed a discrepancy here: in an e-mail note this morning to a contact, my phone number was included in my signature, but the recipient's wasn't. As a result, the phone number that appears as hers is actually mine!

The appeal with Xobni is, no doubt, the cool factor, but it can also work as a useful tool. I'm often searching for old e-mails to find a high-res photo attachment or correspondence on a particular topic. Outlook has its own search function: true. But Xobni helps you make links that aren't possible with Outlook. For example, I'll, from time to time, contact the wrong PR person at a company for information, because I simply don't remember who deals with which account. Through Xobni, I can search for the first name I recall at that company, check our mutual contacts and a history of conversations, and find out who's the right person to call for what I need. Here's another example: if I need to call someone, I'll often sort my Outlook e-mails by name, then scan recent e-mails to find one where the person mentions a cell number, or where a number is included in a signature. With Xobni, I just punch in the person's name, and a phone number automatically pops up if it was ever included in a note.

I've only just started using Xobni, so I can't confirm that it's the be-all-and-end-all of e-mail organization. And it certainly isn't for everyone. But if you're averse to deleting e-mails like I am, and tend to keep e-mails in a somewhat disorganized manner, it's definitely worth a try. But beware: some are calling it "social networking" for Outlook, so you might just end up replacing the time you spend searching for e-mails with checking the "rank" of each of your contacts (who do you e-mail the most?) and other interesting facts about your contacts!

Happy Searching!


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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tech Gift Ideas for Mom

Mother's Day is this Sunday, May 11, and my inbox has been flooded with mom-themed pitches of all kinds. You'd be surprised at how many technology-related items could put a smile on mom's face, whether she's your own mother, your wife, sister, family member, or friend. Here are some gift ideas, and suggestions on how to make them mom-friendly:

Digital photo frames: To make a gift like this more personal (and easier) for the mom on your list, buy a memory card with the frame and load it up with photos that she'll love. This way, the frame is ready to go and show off to all of her guests. This also leaves room for gift ideas going forward: imagine giving her a new memory card loaded with recent pix at every occasion (with another gift, of course!) A 64 MB card costs peanuts these days, and you can fill that up with tons of images to be displayed electronically through a digital frame. If she has her own digital camera, she'll also appreciate being able to display her own photos quickly and easily.

Portable photo printer: If the mom on your list owns a digital camera and knows how to download photos from it, a portable photo printer would make a great idea. Imagine being able to take photos at a family event, then print out copies right on the spot to give away to guests. Kids get loot bags, so why shouldn't adults get them, too? There are plenty of these on the market from manufacturers like Epson, HP, and Sony.

Universal Remote Control: A universal remote control is a convenience that anyone can appreciate. Although dad might like this gift more than mom, it's a neat idea to help simplify her day when she wants to watch TV, movies, or just listen to music while doing chores around the house. One of my favourites is the Harmony One, but even as easy as this remote is to program, no one wants a gift that requires work. Program it for her, and have it ready to go immediately out of the box, and she'll love you for it.

Nintendo Wii: Lots of moms are looking to get fit, and a Nintendo Wii gaming console can help make this arduous task more fun. Out of the box, the unit comes with the Wii Sports game that can occupy you for hours on end. It includes activities like bowling, tennis, golf, and baseball, as well as a fitness "test" that tells you your "Wii age", giving some great motivation to improve. With the upcoming launch of the Wii Fit game, this console is an even more attractive for mom. Keep in mind, however, that if the mom on your mind has young kids, they'll likely benefit from this gift just as much as she will!

PVR/DVD Recorder: Let's face it: every mom on the planet is busy, whether she works full-time, part-time, or as a stay-at-home mom. Given this, it's often tough to catch all of her favourite shows on TV. I've had a PVR for years, and don't know how I ever lived without it! Using one of these devices, whether from a cable/satellite provider, or third-party company like TiVo, moms can record all of her shows, then catch up on them when she has the time.

Portable GPS Unit: These litte gadgets are hot, hot, hot these days, and the latest models employ neat features like traffic updates, text-to-speech that dictates actual street names, and Bluetooth so they can be paired with your phone and used as an in-car speakerphone device. They're also pretty affordable, and would be a welcome addition to anyone that drives to city streets.

Vehicle Security/Remote Starter: Moms can always use extra security for the car, and a remote starter is always appreciated, especially during the cold winter months. Viper has a limited edition model that comes in pink: yes, to appeal to women, but also because proceeds from the sale of each one will go toward breast cancer research. Any mom will appreciate a useful device, especially if she knows that part of what you paid for it will go toward a worthwhile cause.

Movies that Mom Will Like: Plenty of mom-friendly movies have just been released on DVD, including 27 Dresses and P.S. I Love You. If mom likes movies, scan the new releases for ones she might like.

If you have your own ideas, please leave them in the comments section here. I'm sure there are plenty of shoppers out there looking for the perfect gift for mom, and will appreciate the suggestions!

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Blown Away by GTA IV...and I Haven't Even Played it!


If I was to be considered a "gamer" at all, I would be lumped into the category that likes "fun" and family-friendly games, like Mario Kart, Bust-A-Move, and, of course, Bejeweled. Not exactly your traditional Xbox 360 or Sony PS3 customer. But having observed my partner play Grand Theft Auto IV for a few hours (and asked question upon question as he moved along) I'm amazed at the detail. Even if you're not into gaming, it's worth it to watch someone play this game for a few hours just to truly understand how complex and involved something that was once considered kid's play has now become.

First, there's the story line. It's like a movie, with a character that you actually begin to relate to (in some ways, not all!) You're the protagonist, deciding when to eat, when you go home to sleep, which car you steal, and who you kill. You "date" and make "friends", and at some point, these relationships might not turn out to be what they seemed (I'll refrain from getting into detail so as not to ruin the experience for anyone!)

Then there's the incredible detail. Everything from street signs to cars, to the contours of character's faces. Each car's exterior is accurately designed, while bumps and hits are shown to spec as soon as you run into a pole, or another car, or perhaps even a person on foot (who might yell at you for hitting them, or just go flying into the air!). The Liberty City radio and TV stations are even chocked-full of funny dialogue, from jokes about the social networking site "MyRoom" to a TV show that spoofs Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (or another like show). If your character pops into the bar for a couple of drinks (maybe to play some darts or arcade games as well) don't think you'll get off easy: he will leave inebriated. This means that your entire screen bobs up and down, and no matter how hard you try with the controller, he simply won't walk a straight line. All you can do is wait until he (i.e. you) sober up.

Every witty detail has been thought out, right down to Web pages accessed via a computer (you log on via one of many Internet cafes throughout the city). There's a spoof site for IKEA, as well as one for Starbucks, along with a few dating sites. Craigslist is also spoofed, with some hilarious listings, and an even more hilarious "About Us" page. And when you check your e-mail, don't think that you're free of spam: you get that in the game, too!

You probably wonder what all of this has to do with a game about stealing cars, fighting gangs, selling drugs, and making money. The answer is nothing. But it does have to do with building a virtual city and story line that's believable enough to make players really, truly get into the spirit of the game. And that's what it's all about, right?

With that said, this game is definitely not for kids. The way I see it, if you let them watch TV shows like The Sopranos or gangster movies like The Departed, then let them play the game. The content is pretty much the same, except with the game, he makes the moves rather than sitting back and watching actors make them. And if you can look past the gang references, bad language, and drug paraphernalia, you'll find a wonderfully immersive experience that was able to wow even a non-gamer like me.

[Note: Click Here to see some video footage from GTA IV, along with footage from the midnight Best Buy launch event of the game last week.]

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Music File Sharers: 1, RIAA: 0


In the continuing battle to shut down illegal peer-to-peer music sharing Websites, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents the U.S. recording industry, has been dealt a blow. The District Court of Arizona has ruled in the case of Atlantic vs. Howell that simply keeping music in a "shared" folder on one's PC doesn't constitute illegal file sharing. In addition, the court called the act of downloading content from someone's PC "secondary copyright infringement" rather than "primary", since that person would be taking a copy of a copy, and not a copy of the original. Do you follow? The Court adds that the definition of "distribute" within the Copyright Act is not made clear enough to determine if simply making music available to others in itself can be considered "distributing" it.

At the end of its decision, the Court stated that it "is not unsympathetic to the difficulty that Internet file-sharing systems pose to owners of registered copyrights. Even so, it is not the position of this court to respond to new technological innovations by expanding the protections received by copyright holders beyond those found in the Copyright Act."

This makes sense. If someone steals something from me, how is it my fault? The owner of a stack of CDs in his car isn't considered at fault if a thief breaks in and steals them, even if he accidentally left the door unlocked. So why should someone be considered at fault if he fails to protect his PC hard drive, and others steal content from it?

It's true that, in some cases, people will purposely leave music in a "shared" folder in order to ramp up P2P site offerings. But in other cases, it could be an honest mistake. I'll bet that my parents make all their music available through a shared folder and don't even know it!

In this particular case, the Howells had over 4,000 music tracks available through the online P2P site KaZaA, many of which were digitally ripped copies of original recordings. However, although they admit to purposely sharing other content via KaZaA, they claim not to have intended to share the original recordings.

This could be a groundbreaking case in the issue of music distribution online and P2P sharing, which has plagued the music industry for years. Many artists have been taking the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance as of late, doing things like offering music tracks for free online in hopes of gaining consumer support. What's your stance on this issue?

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Friday, May 2, 2008

What Will They Think Of Next?: Power More Gadgets in the Car



My boss brought to my attention a neat gadget mentioned in today's edition of the National Post, and the first thing that came to my mind was "that's neat - why on earth didn't I think of that?" It's a 12V adapter from a company called Maxsa that plugs into the 12V socket in your car, and has three 12V outlets attached to the end of it. This means that, rather than only being able to connect one device in the car, you can now connect 3!

You might ask yourself why you'd ever need to do that, but I've found myself in situations many times where I could have used something like this. The most common instance is when both myself and my passenger want to recharge a cell phone during a long road trip. Other times, I'll be using my portable GPS unit to navigate to a destination (plugged in, since I always forget to charge it up!), and my partner will want to unplug it so he can charge his cell. When it comes to parents, I can imagine that there are tons of ways they could find such a gadget useful to help entertain the kids on long drives. It comes with a 16-foot extension to reach to the backseat; and can handle a maximum load of 120-watts.

Of course, many of the latest vans and trucks come with extra outlets in the back anyway. But for small car owners like myself, I'd love to have something like this in my glove compartment.

[Photo courtesy of www.maxsainnovations.com]


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Is VoIP Safe?

A recent and unfortunate incident in Alberta has caused people to re-evaluate the safety issues related to using Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, telephone services.

VoIP services, which are phone services operating via broadband Internet, have always made it clear that there are 9-1-1 emergency dialing limitations. Either a call is first routed to a centre that takes down your address and then routes the call to the nearest dispatch location; or uses the most recent address on file and sends someone out to that location. In the most recent case, the Luck family moved from Mississauga, ON to Alberta, but failed to fill in the necessary change of address information online for they're VoIP provider. The young toddler became ill, and an ambulance was unknowingly dispatched to the Mississauga house first instead of the Calgary one. In the end, the baby passed on, and it remains to be seen whether the baby could have been saved if the ambulance had arrived more quickly: reportedly, it took between 30 and 40 minutes for it to finally arrive.

On the one hand, you couldn't possibly think of blaming the parents for not updating their information. Were they even clearly told that they needed to do this if they moved when they signed up for the VoIP service? Or was this necessary information simply hidden away in the fine print on the bottom of the contract? Nor can you blame the ambulance or dispatcher. They take what information they have, and do the best they can with it. However, it was noted that the first call to 9-1-1 rang five times before someone eventually called back; and that the mother did in fact provide their Calgary address, but the call somehow got disconnected and the information not accurately heard.

In a perfect world, all 9-1-1 emergency calls would go directly to a local emergency services location. Of course with new technology like VoIP, where someone's location will be determined by an IP address, not via a landline set-up, this becomes a bit trickier. My advice? If you're going to use VoIP, make sure to get all the details from the company upon sign up about what is required of you if you relocate. In some cases, you may need to call and have your information updated; while in others, you can simply update an online customer profile. Also, since most of us have mobile phones these days as well, it might be in your best interest to rely on that device rather than a VoIP line when in an emergency situation. Of course, in the event of an emergency, we're never thinking 100% straight, and rely on those called upon to help us to be the ones to think clearly.

Hopefully this unfortunate event will urge VoIP providers to dedicate more time to improving 9-1-1 services, because the option really is a much more affordable, and convenient, method than traditional landline calling.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

HD DVD is Gone, But Has This Really Helped Blu-ray?

It has been more than two months since Toshiba officially announced the end of the high-definition DVD format war by halting production of HD DVD players. The Blu-ray camp sighed a big sigh of relief, and poised itself for an increase in sales. But has Blu-ray really benefitted from winning the format war?

According to a recent study by The NPD Group, it hasn't; or at least not yet. Sales of Blu-ray players actually dropped 40% from January to February in the U.S. From February to March, during the time when the "war" had officially been declared over, there was only a 2% increase in sales.

"That standalone Blu-ray players haven't picked up significantly from HD DVD's loss shows that few consumers were dissuaded primarily by the 'format war'," declared Ross Rubin, Director of Industry Analysis, NPD. "When we surveyed consumers late last year, on overwhelming number of them said they weren't investing in a next-generation player because their old DVD player worked well and next-generation players were too expensive. It's clear from retail sales that those consumer sentiments are still holding true."

I've long said that, rather than focusing on becoming the winning format, both camps should have been more focused on convincing the customer that he needs to upgrade to an HD source, period. Either way, price will remain a factor with budget-conscious customer; not just of the Blu-ray hardware devices, but also software, which are often times almost double the price of a "regular" DVD movie. In fact, I think if the price of software were to drop down to become in line with standard DVDs, more people might be willing to fork over the extra dough for the player.

Interestingly, NPD notes that many consumers who are interested in a better viewing experience are quite content with upconverting DVD players. Sales of these such devices grew 5% during the first quarter of 2008 compared to 2007. Meanwhile, regular DVD player sales dropped a whopping 39%.

Nevertheless, it's only a matter of time before consumers finally pick up on high-definition DVD. Many are already enjoying HDTVs and high-definition TV viewing, so high-def DVD is naturally the next step in the equation. It's also important to note that this study only looked at standalone Blu-ray players: devices like the Sony PlayStation 3 gaming console, which includes a built-in Blu-ray player, has been selling like hotcakes!

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