Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays!

I've been forced to feel remiss for wishing anyone a Merry Christmas, worried that perhaps they might not celebrate that particular holiday, be insulted that I did not also wish them a Happy [insert holiday here] as well, or worse, be offended that I would assume off the bat that they must celebrate Christmas.

While I don't agree with the fact that we're almost unable to visibly recognize Christmas in a public place, whether it be a city's "holiday" tree, or in school, I do agree with recognizing and respecting everyone's holidays.

With that said, if you do celebrate Christmas, Merry Christmas to you and yours from the entire team at Marketnews and here's how! magazines, MarketnewsGadgetTalk blog, and Bomar Publishing Inc.

If you don't celebrate Christmas, or also celebrate another holiday, here's what I hope to be a comprehensive list of the holidays you are likely to celebrate:

Happy Hanukkah
Happy Kwanza
Happy Saturnalia
Happy Holidays
Best Wishes
Joyous Season
Joyeux Noel
Happy New Year

If I'm missing anything, please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

Stay tuned after Christmas for more for blog entries; as well as a new home for MarketnewsGadgetTalk.

[Photo: www.freedigitalphotos.net]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gearing up for CES...and the Adult Expo?

It's not even Christmas, yet everyone in this industry is already gearing up for the 2009 International CES in Las Vegas. You're weeding through hundreds of e-mail product pitches and meeting requests. Setting up booth tours and plotting out a daily plan that allows you to cover as much ground as possible, and meet as many clients (and potential clients) as a day and evening will permit. Are you attending, and have you created a schedule yet?

Judging from e-mails requesting that I come see a nifty new gadget, or advising that on-site interviews can be set up with key manufacturer executives, it's clear that there will be plenty to see at the show. The most puzzling e-mail request I received, however, originated from an exhibitor at the Adult Expo, which runs concurrent to CES, inviting me to register, and visit their booth at that show. Two things initially crossed my mind. First: where do they see a tie-in between my industry and theirs? And second: how on earth did this person gain access to my e-mail address since the two expos have nothing to do with one another other than sharing the same city as their venue?

The person was pitching an iPhone application that optimizes adult films for viewing on the portable device's screen. Ahhh, now I get it. There is a clear tie in. Still: would traditional CE journalists cover this?

In many ways, when you think about it, the adult industry is a huge part of the consumer electronics industry. A few years ago, people were even predicting that X-rated films could very well be the deciding factor between which format won the high-definition DVD war - Blu-ray or HD DVD. In fact, this particular firm claims to have been filming in HD for the past 5 years! There are lucrative opportunities there, that's for certain. But you're walking a fine line if you consider covering this side.

With that said, while the Adult Expo won't be on my radar during CES (as if we don't have enough ground to cover already!), it'll be interesting to see how that area of business could eventually become further entwined with CE; especially with HDTVs, the Internet, and downloadable content making waves as the way of the future for content of pretty much every kind. Yes, including the adult kind.

As for CES, many still wonder whether attendance at the show will be down. It probably will be, but I doubt to very noticeable proportions. Exhibitors will have booked their booth space a year in advance, which means there will be just as much product on the show floor. From an attendee perspective, we'll most definitely see fewer feet roaming the aisles. But it will still be a packed show floor. And if some of those people decide to take the Adult Expo up on their offer and mosy on over to those exhibits at the Sands Convention Centre, so be it. But rest assured that the only scantily clad "booth babes" you'll see in the mainstream media will be holding a gadget of some sort, or standing nearby a line of flat-panel TVs.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What Will They Think of Next?: Santa Sends a Personal Video Message to Your Child

Every year, kids from all over the world pen letters to Santa, assuring that they've been nice, and requesting their favourite toys, along with things like peace on earth and happiness for all. They might receive a letter back confirming that Santa has received the note, but in the digital age, why not take things one step further? Sympatico/MSN has done just that with a dedicated Website, www.portablenorthpole.sympatico.msn.ca/home that allows you to create a personalized message from Santa to a child of your choice.

Visit the site, and answer questions like how old the child is, whether it's a boy or girl, and what his/her name is. Select (from an existing list of options) what the child has requested for Christmas (a doll, electronic toy, or movie, perhaps?) To make the message even more personal, you can even upload a photo of the child, which will appear on the "nice" list that Santa has on his lap.

Once completed, show the child the video message that Santa e-mailed to you for him/her; you've got connections! The fact that he calls the child by name, knows his/her age, and even what the child has asked for, will light up the child's face. The only drawback is that if the child's name isn't in the pre-made list, while you can manually type it in for consideration to be added to the growing list, Santa won't say it. The same goes for an unusual gift requests.

The video can be accessed at any time afterwards via an e-mail address and password; or by clicking on the direct link.
From a technology perspective, the site is actually part of a beta platform set up by Ugroupmedia. The company hopes to utilize the patent-pending technology for other concepts in the future, ranging from online advertising to video blogging.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Buy a Beer at the Movies

A Cineplex movie theatre in downtown Toronto has decided to add beer and wine to its list of refreshments movie-goers can sip on while catching the latest flick.

The Varsity VIP theatre, a small, intimate theatre room at Yonge & Bloor, will allow guests to buy up to two alcoholic beverages prior to the movie. The same is planned for an Oakville theatre before the end of the year.

The decision is part of a pilot program that will likely run for a one-year period. But does it make sense?

The participating theatres are typically higher-end locations with lounges that serve alcohol anyway; and tend to attract well to-do adults attending without children. So really, there was no reason alcohol shouldn't have been permitted in these particular theatres all along. But should this program extend to the standard movie theatre? I would have to say no. Theatres are already crowded with rowdy teenagers and young children. Add alcohol to that mix, and you have the potential recipe for disaster.

Sure, you can buy a beer at a sporting event despite the fact that there are rowdy teens and young kids there as well. But a movie is supposed to be a quiet, intense experience. If you want to have a beer or a glass of wine while watching one, do so at home. In my eyes, you'd get an overall more enjoyable experience there anyway! But if you're looking for a night out, the Varsity theatres are quite nice, and offer a like-home experience for a slightly higher price than you'd pay at a "regular" theatre. Now that you can curl up with a glass of wine there as well, the experience could be all the more enjoyable.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

BlueAnt Supertooth 3 Put to the Test

The latest incarnation of BlueAnt's Supertooth Bluetooth speakerphone, the Supertooth 3, is finally available in Canada. The main difference between this model and its predecessor, the Supertooth Light, is the addition of text-to-speech, which will actually dictate instructions and status, as well as who's calling. Being a fan of past BlueAnt products, I decided to take one out for a test drive to see whether this feature was worth the upgrade.

First, the look. At first glance, it appears the Supertooth 3 is designed almost identically to the Supertooth Light. However, there are a few subtle differences, like the 3's rounded edges vs. the Light's boxy look, and a more seamless integration of the side-mounted volume controls. The biggest difference aesthetically, however, is that the 3 does not have a pop out microphone like the Light: the mic is built right in, which I was initially a bit worried about. How would audio quality fare? (More on that later). As you can tell from the photo above (the 3 is on the left), both models are quite prone to pesky fingerprints. But since it's likely to be placed on your car's visor via a magnetic clip most of the time (unless you're charging it, or using it as a desktop speakerphone), than this really isn't a dealbreaker.

Then, comes the biggest advancement: text-to-speech. Upon power up, the unit instantly began speaking to me. What language would I like? I selected British English, only because the speaker's voice seems much more interesting than American English. Aside from these two options, you can also select French, Italian, Spanish, or German.

Now it's time to pair the device with my phone, the process of which is explained in detail by my new British gal pal. Once I initiate a connection between the Supertooth 3 and my BlackBerry Bold, it's time to sync contact information: after all, how else is she supposed to know who's in my phone book? The process wouldn't work automatically (this is only supported by certain phones), but the quick start guide succinctly explains how to initiate the sync manually with a BlackBerry (Options -> Highlight Device -> Transfer Contacts). It took a few minutes to complete the transfer of 100 or so contacts, but the device informed me every 15 seconds or so as to the status (20 contacts transferred, 40 contacts transferred, and so on). Follow this same process any time you update your phone's address book and want to subsequently update the listings in your Supertooth 3 as well. Then, it was off to the car!

While pronounciation of some caller's names was slightly off, the ability to hear who's calling is pretty cool. As an added bonus, you can also answer calls literally without lifting a finger: just say "OK" and begin conversing. If the caller isn't someone in your phone book, the unit will actually read out the phone number so that you at least have an idea of who it might be.
If you'll use the text-to-speech function often, it might be worth your while to list contacts by easily-pronounced nicknames or, with difficult monikers, to spell them phonetically in your phone book to ensure the correct annunciation.

So we've established that the text-to-speech feature is neat, but how useful is it? Many people have their cells docked on the dash or vent where they can easily see the incoming caller information. I often drive with the cell in my lap so I'm able to check e-mails at red lights (and only red lights, I swear!) Still, being able to avoid peaking downward to see who's calling, along with the ability to vocally accept a call can help to aid in safe driving.

But there's still the most important facet of any Bluetooth device to consider: sound quality. With the Supertooth 3, it was fantastic. My partner, who often complains when I call him using various Bluetooth devices, some of which aren't very favourable, was completely unaware that I was even using a speakerphone. It helps, of course, to situate the unit on the left side of your car's visor, with the built-in mic facing you. From my end, contacts sound crystal clear; just as good, if not better, than when chatting with my Supertooth Light.

Bottom line: if you already have the Supertooth Light, you'll get the same great sound quality and ease of operation with the 3. Upgrading will be solely dependent on your need (or want!) of text-to-speech which, in my experience, works very well. But if you're in the market for your first Bluetooth speakerphone, this model is certainly one of the best options out there that I've tried. And at about $150, it's reasonably priced. But if you're on a budget and aren't completely sold on the need for text-to-speech, the Light, while still available, is a great alternative, and can be found for anywhere from $80-$120.

The Supertooth 3 can be purchased today at a number of retailers, including The Source by Circuit City, The Telephone Booth, and WirelessWave, as well as Bell, Fido, Rogers, and Telus store locations.

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How Young is Too Young for Social Networking?

An article in the National Post today brought my attention to a new social networking Website for school-aged children. Based in England, the site (http://www.schooltogethernow.com/) brings together both parents and kids from various surrounding schools to chat, get to know one another, share photos, and, well, network. While kids these days certainly are growing up in a "web 2.0" world, is early elementary school too young for online chatting?

The site was started by the mother of a young child, who obviously believes that social networking is an inevitable beast, so you might as well get kids started young. Building relationships with working moms and dads at the school gates when you drop off the kids, she says, is often difficult, so the site helps to facilitate these relations. For the kids, the site claims to provide "fun with their friends in a safe and secure environment". It comes as no surprise that some would frown upon the activity, arguing that it could impede a child's natural development, not to mention encourage him to be stuck to the PC 24/7.

But there's also the issue of safety. While parents can link to their children's profiles and ensure that only suitable information is exchanged, I'd still be weary. I visited the site and, within 2 minutes, had created a "fake" profile for someone named "Bob" from Angus. Even though there were fields asking what school my child attended, and even what specific town I was from, I just left them blank. In defining myself, I simply chose "Other" instead of Teacher, Parent, or Child. Why is that category even an option? As icing on the cake, I even used a fake e-mail address! So it's clearly not that difficult for pretty much anyone to sign up and start chatting with your child.

On the flip side, however, if you're monitoring conversations, you can ensure that the child is only chatting with people you know, or that you can confirm are indeed in his class at school. Which leads me to the question: what's the point? If kids can only safely chat with people they know, why wouldn't they just wait until they get to school or during a live play date? I can understand the 'net taking the place of 3-hour phone conversations for early teens (I recall chatting away on the phone to friends for hours on end when I was in grade school!), and for helping adults connect with colleagues or old friends. But when we're talking about kids in grade 2 and 3, the idea seems a bit strange.

For parents, however, the concept of schooltogethernow is a great one. It's true: the last thing a parent probably wants to do when he's dropping off a child at school is get held up up in conversation with another parent and consequently made late for work. Not only can the all-hours Website help parents get to know one another (and even the teachers as well!), it can also serve as a nice way to arrange future live, in-person meet and greets.

Nevertheless, perhaps this particular cyber mom (sidenote: will this term replace the "soccer mom" 10 years from now?) is way ahead of us, and it'll be commonplace decades from now for kids to be typing away as soon as they're able to write.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

BlackBerry Bold Vs. Curve 8900

After a bit of play time with the BlackBerry Curve 8900, now available through Rogers Wireless, I must say that I'm thoroughly impressed. While I'm still a 3G gal (once you go 3G, you never go back!), I can safely say that the 8900 is a viable upgrade for current Curve owners, or even as a step-up for Pearl users. And if having the absolute fastest speed isn't of grave concern to you, it might even be a better option than the Bold.

My first impression upon taking the device out of the box was "wow": as an objet, it's probably the nicest-looking BlackBerry to date. Sorry to disappoint you, my current Bold, but you look like a massive clunker next to the new Curve! The 8900 is tiny, almost feather-like in weight, and has a slightly higher-resolution screen than the Bold. To accomplish the device's small stature, however, the resulting screen is not as wide, and the keys are slightly smaller.

I started to type, and my eyes lit up even more. The buttons are spaced out and raised in a petal-like design. Motions aren't as fluid as they are when typing on the Bold, but it's still a comfortable experience, nonetheless. The quiet "tap, tap" that emits from each key as I spell a word is just as reassuring as the tactile feedback you feel with touch-screen models like the Samsung Instinct (and similar to the experience with the previous-generation Curve). The one drawback: the soft-keys for "menu" and "back" are stiff, requiring that I push down on them much harder than is needed for the Bold. Since these are often-used buttons, this could get frustrating over time.

Despite the sleeker and sexier look of the new Curve, the fact that it operates on the slower EDGE network is a deal-breaker for me. Surfing sites side-by-side, the Curve always took longer to load a page. Sometimes, the difference was minimal (e.g. 23 seconds for the Curve vs. 18 seconds for the Bold). In one instance, there was even just a two-second difference between load times. But when surfing particularly image-heavy sites, the difference is much more telling. For example, the Curve took 47 sec. to load the homepage at http://www.hereshow.ca/ in its entirely vs. just 23 secs. for the Bold.

Still, if you don't often surf the Web or stream content on your mobile device and can deal with slightly slower speeds, the EDGE network might suit you just fine. And keep in mind that, like the Bold, the Curve has WiFi as well, so you can latch on to hotspots whenever they are available. As an aside, the Curve also has a much better camera at 3.2 MP vs. 2 MP, along with flash and image stabilization.

Bottom line: if you're a speed-demon who surfs the Web often on your phone, you're better off getting the Bold. The Bold might also be a better option if you have large hands or thumbs, and hate manipulating tiny gadgetry (which I know many guys hate to deal with!) But if you want small, lightweight, and multifunctional, I'd opt for the Curve 8900, even over the Pearl. It's only slightly larger, but affords the ability to manipulate a full QWERTY keyboard instead of using SureType.

As with anything else, to each his own. But if the Curve was 3G, I'd have a hard time convincing myself that I needed the Bold instead.

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Price Hikes Expected for '09

It sounds like marketing hype, but there really is no better time to shop than right now. Not in terms of the economic situation, of course. But in the long run, product pricing is at such a low point right now that there's nowhere else for it to go but up.

As mentioned in the previous post about the flat-panel market, these low, low prices simply can't continue in the interest of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers all looking to turn a profit and sustain a successful business operation. Not surprisingly, some Canadian manufacturers and distributors are already sending out perfectly-composed notices to dealers advising them that pricing will be increased next year due to the economy, and the current exchange rate. Some have added surcharges anywhere from 10-20% on products.

"Our expectation is that Canadian consumers will begin seeing higher prices at retail after the holiday season on many popular items," comments a representative for an audio/video manufacturer who asked not to be named. "All this means is there will be no better time to buy during the next few weeks, and that there is no more waiting any longer for the best deals."

Others have echoed this very statement, pointing to the fact that vendors have been "eating margins" lately just to keep price consistent. A spokesperson at a major digital camera manufacturer says he expects to see prices increase upwards of 20% on replacement cameras.

"Major categories are at thier lowest prices," confirms a spokesperson at Future Shop. "For example, pricing has dropped 17% for 40-inch TVs since September."

Indeed, I've seen evidence of manufacturers/distributors intending to increase prices by as much as 13% as of January '09.

One independent dealer claims that big-box stores have a "glut of inventory" that's resulting in the incredible price slides we're seeing in the marketplace right now.

"To combat this, retailers should try and hold the line with regards to pricing, and manufacturers should look at streamlining distribution to help the deflation of the perceived value of their products," he opines. "It’s easy to widen distribution when there are no issues with demand. With the decreased demand, production should be cut back, distribution tightened, and allow profits to flow. At this point, there is a state of panic that includes vendors sitting on too much inventory, big box stores doing the same, pricing sliding to zero, and the buying public listening to the media and simply not spending. If production decreases, and distribution decreases then perhaps there is a chance for the industry to weather the storm."

And weathering the storm is all we can hope for at this point. But the paradox we're in certainly doesn't make things easy on anyone, including the consumer. On the one hand, you should spend now because pricing, especially on big-ticket items, simply won't get any more attractive. But on the other, it's risky business to start handing out money frivolously when we're uncertain about just how long it will take for the economy to turn around. From a manufacturer and retailer perspective, they want you to buy now (how else can they get rid of this back up of inventory?) but they also want you to buy later when product is at a higher price. A healthy balance needs to be achieved. Right now, it's just a matter of figuring out how to accomplish one.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pricing Wars Could Lead Discount TV Brands in the Dust

As the price of flat-panel TVs continues to come down to jaw-dropping levels, we're seeing signs that the value brands, which often managed to take a significant chunk of the pie because of their cost advantage, are now feeling the heat. Why? Because the name brands have reduced pricing to a point where they're often times actually in line with the value brands!

Research firm iSuppli reports that, during Black Friday weekend in the U.S., premium TV brands like Sony, Samsung, and LG, advertised pricing that was 23% lower than their average, while value brands like Vizio and Westinghouse reduced pricing by only 19%. Continuing on to today, Tina Tseng, an Analyst for the consumer electronics channels at iSuppli, says that the price differential between a 32" premium and value-branded LCD is just US$61. For an extra $60, would you opt for the brand name model over a lesser-known brand? Things probably won't be changing much any time soon either, as retailers scramble to move product during these difficult times.

So what does this mean? Will the value brands be obliterated by the premium models? On the flip side, however, how much money are the premium brands losing by selling products for prices that are essentially almost at cost? While the consumer comes out on the winning end of this stick, the business situation surely can't sustain itself like this for any great length of time.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out once the crazy pricing wars, not to mention the recession, come to an end. Stay tuned.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What Will They Think of Next?: Deal-Stalking Site

With people searching frantically for deals before they fork over dough to shop, it comes as no surprise that some are attempting to capitalize on the trend. A new Website called http://www.jungleninja.com/ "stalks" the Amazon.ca Website for deals 24/7, then posts them, with the best ones ranked at the top. The site, set up by a company in Winnipeg, MB, collects info on any Amazon product that's reduced by 20% or less.

"Shopping on Amazon is really like a cyber jungle with huge discounts hidden all over the site," explains Web developer Evan Falk. "With the economic downtown, my colleagues and I created this free alert so consumers, including ourselves, could find the best bargains fast."

These guys could certainly be on to something. The site is accessible for free, does not contain any spam or ads, and is not affiliated with Amazon.ca in any way. But should it take off as a "Google for deals" of sorts, these guys might be in for a treat.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

CD Levies Go Up for the First Time Since 2001

Just when I thought we were making progress in the music industry, with physical CDs coming down in price and more and more studios and digital download sites embracing DRM-free tunes, the Copyright Board of Canada decides to stick another thorn in our sides. The organization has just approved an increase of the levy placed on CDs by $0.08, from $0.21 to $0.29. This is the first levy increase since 2001.

"The mechanical royalties that record labels pay to record a song onto a pre-recorded CD have increased," claims Secretary General of the Board Claude Majeau. "Because consumers now use compression technology when they record music," she adds, "the average number of music tracks copied onto a CD went from 15 to more than 18."

Huh? I find it difficult to justify an almost 40% increase in levies because three more songs could fit on a disc even though they'd be of lesser quality. To me, it seems like a grasping-at-straws attempt to justify an unreasonable price hike. I won't even get into the arguments about people using recordable CDs to store other types of data, like personal JPEG images or documents.

The Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC) says that its royalties will remain "relatively stable at about $30 million/yr", while the rest of the funds will be distributed to authors, performers, and producers of recorded music.

"This is because the sales of both blank audiocassettes and CDs are expected to decline," adds the Collective. (The CPCC has already tried to levy digital media players like the iPod, but that was thrown out this past January when the courts ruled that the Copyright Board had no authority to do so).

Ahh. Now it makes sense. Grasping at straws, indeed, but the motive is now clear: the CPCC wants to ensure that, in addition to composers and producers being compensated accordingly, that its healthy royalties remain in tact. Should this be at the arguably unreasonable expense of the consumer? Absolutely not!

Nevertheless, at a time where pre-recorded CD sales are dropping, it doesn't surprise me that the industry will try to make up for the lost funds through whatever other means it can, including recordable media. But will this drive people further away from "burning" CDs altogether, and deep into the arms of digital files stored on the PC and transferred straight to the MP3 player, or streamed to the home theatre? This seems to be the most affordable method, not to mention the most tech-savvy.

In this sense, while the CPCC and Copyright Board think that the increased levy could offset a drop in sales, more and more consumers might just turn their noses and bark a snooty "so what? We don't want your physical media anyway!"

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Discount Retailers Attempt to Take a Big Bite Out of CE Sales

Discount retailers are arguably profiting more, in some sense, from the downturn in the economy as shoppers flock to those stores known to always offer great "deals". So it comes as no surprise that many discount shops are attempting, more so than ever, to take a big bite out of the consumer electronics market this holiday season.

This weekend, I was surprised at the number of Wal-Mart commercials that aired (during my favourite primetime programs!) centred around flat-panel TVs, home theatre, and even Blu-ray. I'm used to seeing plenty of TV marketing dollars from the mammoth retailer, but of all product segments, I wouldn't peg Wal-Mart to be spending so much to plug things like Blu-ray and flat-panels. Kid's toys, home decor items, clothing, DVDs and CDs, yes. But big-ticket CE items? I'm genuinely surprised that so much of the marketing budget went toward this category. The move is a clear indication of one of two things: Wal-Mart is making its mark known as a CE retailer; and/or the retailer is responding to the prospect that home theatre is going to take over as the main activity of choice during these sad, economic times. And of course it goes without saying that one should

Aside from that, pricing is also mind-boggling. Right now, a name-brand 42" 1080p LCD is $950, and an up-converting DVD player is $50. (Interestingly, no Blu-ray players are featured on the Wal-Mart Canada Website, although Blu-ray discs are in abundance). At Costco, a 42" plasma is $860, and a Blu-ray player is $270. At retailers like Tiger Direct, pricing is relatively the same. A colleague told me this morning of a friend who just bought a 46" TV (name brand) for $800 over the weekend! If you can spare the cash and are in the market, now is certainly the time to buy a new TV!

But from a retailer perspective, what happens when these pricing wars continue? The same thing that has been happening for the entire year, even before the recession came into play: other retailers are forced to lower their prices; if not to be in line with discount stores, at least to be close. Products are sold off at almost no margin just so smaller companies can sustain themselves and make it through the storm. And more focus is placed on "added value" services, like free delivery, after-sales service, installation, and product expertise (certainly not a bad thing).

Still, it's an incredible observation overall knowing that just a few years ago, a plasma or LCD could not be had for less than a few grand. To put this in perspective, I searched for some old news stories on our sister Website, http://www.marketnews.ca/, and cam across this 2002 announcement from LG Electronics about the company's brand new plasma displays: the cheapest was $8,500, and the most expensive 60" model was a whopping $26,000: the price of a new car! My, how things have changed...

[Photo: Screen shot at http://www.walmart.ca/]

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Friday, December 5, 2008

How Auto Industry Troubles Could Affect CE

Research firm iSuppli Corp. reports that sales of vehicles in the U.S. will drop by 17.7% this year compared to last, making it the worst year for the industry since 1980. We all know of the troubles plaguing Canadian auto companies. But how might this affect the consumer electronics industry? Greatly, is the answer. But it could go both ways.

While people aren't slotting tricked out audio systems into their cars as often as they used to, there's a multitude of technology that has been built around the auto industry: satellite radio receivers, iPod FM transmitters and car docks, portable navigation devices, Bluetooth speakerphones...the list goes on. While it's the iPod itself that is central to gadgets like the FM transmitter, it's the small, accessory purchases that garner the most profit for the retailer. As fewer and fewer cars are being sold, people will be buying fewer and fewer accessories for them. So it isn't just the car guys that will suffer.

But...on the flip side, if people are stuck driving around in their old vehicles, things could effectively work the opposite way. Many of the latest model cars (not even just the high end ones) come with things like built-in access to satellite radio (and free, 3-month subscriptions!), built-in GPS navigation, and pretty darned good audio systems. Needless to say, if your car is 10 years old, it won't have any of those niceties. Granted, manufacturers have to provide these OEM products to the car makers. But anything built in certainly does cut into profits from the portable accessory side.

Also consider that even if people are buying new cars during these trying times, they'll likely scale down to more affordable models; the kinds that don't come with all the frilly add-ons. Again, this bodes well for the aftermarket accessory makers.

I'm not trying to say, however, that built-in gadgetry is bad; nor that falling auto sales is good. But maintaining a healthy balance between built-in technology and third-party accessories is a good thing for the technology industry. We all want the auto industry to rise above the current situation. Until then, enjoy the vehicle you have, and make the best of the technology that you can use around it.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

What Will They Think of Next?: Convert Apple Earbuds into Headphones

While I'm not an Apple iPod owner, and I would advise anyone who has one (or any MP3 player, for that matter) to invest in a better set of headphones than what comes in the box, I can't help but recognize the cleverness of this product. Called BudFits, it turns the cheesy, white earbuds you get with your iPod into over-the-ear headphones that fit more securely, and won't annoying fall out of your ears.

If you have ever purchased or own a Bluetooth headset, you probably noticed that most come with a variety of different sized ear hooks that you can loop through a hole on the headset to wear it comfortably around your ear. Essentially, this is what EarBuds are: flexible, rubber hooks that you loop through each Apple earbud, to then secure them around your ears.

The company claims that, in upgrading to new 'phones, you "lose the coveted Apple image associated with Apple earbuds." Indeed, seeing those signature white cords hanging from someone's ears and into their jacket or backpack certainly cries "iPod". But I think at this point, the prestige has more to do with which iPod you have and what you have on it; not just the fact that you have one (who doesn't, these days, present company excluded, of course). Bottom line: the iPod earbuds might say "iPod, but they don't exactly scream "quality listening experience".

With that said, invest in a pair of new headphones, for goodness sakes. But if you want an affordable alternative to use at the beach or any other spot where you don't want to get your expensive 'phones diry or fear losing then, the BudFits are a neat stocking-stuffer idea for just US$9 per pair. www.budfits.com

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No More Bottled Water in T.O.; Pay 5 Cents for a Bag

While this is a technology blog by definition, I couldn't help but discuss the City Council's recent decisions to ban bottled water in Toronto, and to charge grocery shoppers $0.05 for plastic shopping bags. Are these good steps toward a better, more environmentally-friendly society?

Let's look at the water issue first. Before you bottled water-aholics go nuts, you will still be able to buy bottled water by the case or individually at grocery stores and some other locations. Where you won't be able to purchase it is in city facilities. This mean concession stands, vending machines, school cafeterias, subway shops, convention centres, etc.: essentially any spot owned by the city. It'll take 3 years for the ban to come into full effect as the city works to ensure that tap water is available wherever the ability to buy bottled water is removed.

"Bottled water's 15-minutes are up," says Joe Cressy, Campaigns Co-ordinator for the Polaris Institute. "The marketing scam is out of the closet, and it's time to go back to the tap."

I'll be the first to admit that I buy bottled water all the time. Will taking it out of city facilities help, though? People that go to the gym need something to hold their water; but they could just re-use their own bottle, filled up with tap water. True, a group gathering for a sales meeting in a convention centre don't want to raise their hands and head out to take a drink from the fountain whenever they're thirsty either. But why not have a jug of tap water and glasses/cups available to attendees? Ironically enough, a Toronto Star report cites one Councilor as stating that a water ban in theatres like the Sony Centre could force workers to give away water in plastic cups. How is that helping the environment if we're still using plastic?

(As an aside, if you're a fan of the flavoured bottle water concoctions like I am, these are not included with the ban. "Toronto City Staff defined bottled water as water that is bottled and re-sold without added flavouring," Cressy tells me. "Though," he adds, "we are continuing to liaise with the city to strengthen this definition to include flavoured water."

Now, what about the bags? Grocery stores like Price Chopper have been charging a nickel per bag for some time now. But we'll see this in every store starting June 1, 2009. Is this fair? The city calls plastic bags "throwaway" items. I don't know about you, but I often save the bags and re-use them for other purposes: transporting stuff from one place to another, accumulating garbage if I've run out of dedicated garbage bags, etc. If I use one to bring something to work, for instance, I'll often stuff the bag into a drawer in our office kitchen where someone else might pick it up one day and use it once again for another purpose. I don't see plastic bags as throwaway at all! In fact, I probably use them more than I'd use a cloth bag! So why am I paying for the supposed actions of others?

On the other side of the fence, though, an extra 50-cents per shopping trip (assuming you'd use about 10 bags) isn't a major concern. And if it will help the environment in any way, so be it. The LCBO has already gotten rid of all plastic bags, only offering free paper bags, or cloth bags for $0.05 each. It's inconvenient when I have to lug a couple bottles of wine held to my chest instead of hanging from my fingers in plastic. But in the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge deal.

BUT: the main concern is where will that money go?

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Affordable Gifts for the Holidays

Everyone's feeling the pinch this holiday season. While the December issue of here's how! magazine is chocked-full of holiday gift ideas in every category of technology (it'll be available soon!), I thought I'd offer up some small, affordable gadget gift ideas for those working on a really tight budget.

Belkin Rockstar: If there's a Hannah Montana-loving teen or tween on your list, this device will probably bode well with her. It's a star-shaped hub equipped with six 3.5 mm jacks for sharing music from a connected iPod or other MP3 player with a group of friends. Songs can even be mixed together using an optional second wire. At just about $25, it's certainly an attractive option for the budget-conscious.

NRG2 12-Volt Charger: If there's an avid business person on your list that's often on the road, this new charger will be ideal for him. The gadget can charge your phone (11 different models are available to accomodate 90% of the phones on the market today), but also charge a second device, like a Bluetooth headset or portable navigation unit, via a side-mounted USB port. It's convenient, and helps to reduce glove-box clutter! $35

Nintendo DS' Personal Trainer: Cooking: If you know an adult who owns a Nintendo DS gaming system, they might appreciate this cool "game" which not only feature hundreds of recipes from around the world, but also teaches you how to make them through written and video instructions. You can also learn how to perform basic tasks that someone foreign to the kitchen might not be clear on, like how to julienne vegetables (huh?) or properly chop an onion. The unit can also serve as a virtual shopping list, storing items you select (from recipes you plan to make, perhaps?) in a file you can later pull up at the store. About $20

HP Photo Books: When the economy is weak, people stay home. While watching TV and movies, and playing video games will be a popular past-time, others like to muck around with the PC and digital photos. HP's Photo Books are some of the neatest ones I've seen, mainly due to the bendable spine that lets you pop out and rearrange pages as you like. This not only helps with the creative process, but also allows you to continually modify your project until it's picture-perfect. Each book comes with software for creating visual masterpieces with not just photos, but also momentos, like ticket stubs, cards, and the like. $14.99-$24.99 (5x7 and 8.5x11 sizes)

Scosche passPORT
: Last month, it was brought to my attention that the new, 4G iPods could not be charged with older-model accessories, like docks or FM transmitters. They would work, but just wouldn't simultaneously charge. While this might seem like a minor setback, many rely on that secondary charging function to keep an iPod going during a party, or keep the tunes coming in the car. An iPod-lover that just bought a fourth-gen model will appreciate the passPORT, even if he doesn't yet realize he'll need it. The small device sits in between the iPod and the accessory and facilitates the charging function. While the currently-available model only works with in-car accessories, Scosche is in the midst of developing a similar device that will work with home accessories, including speaker systems and docking stations. $30

Gene Simmons AXE Rock Band Guitar: Any KISS fan that likes to rock out on Rock Band or Guitar Hero won't be able to resist the wireless AXE guitar, which is designed as an exact (but smaller) replica of the original, and comes signed by Simmons himself. It works with both Rock Band and Guitar Hero for the PlayStation 2 and 3. A Nintendo Wii version is coming later this year. $80

Powerstick On-the-Go Charger: Made by environmentally-friendly company Ecosol Solar Technologies Inc., this gadget (depicted above) charges up via USB in about 90-minutes (for about 90% of its full capacity), then can be used on-the-go to charge a multitude of portable devices via nine connectors (included), like mobile phones or MP3 players. Since all its power is drawn from your PC, you're not using up additional valuable energy resources. $70

Roots Tuffskin for BlackBerry Bold: The BlackBerry Bold just came out this year, and early-adopters who have already picked one up (especially since the price has dropped considerably) are likely in the market for protective case. I particularly like this model because it offers simple protection around the perimeter of the device while still allowing you to access all of the functions. As a bonus, the included belt clip doubles as a desktop stand (via grooves in the metal clip) so you can watch a video on the airplane, or "dock" the device on your desk. $25-30

Samsung CLEO Mobile Phone: Any woman you know who loves everything feminine and pink will go crazy for Samsung's CLEO phone, which comes finished in the delicate colour, but also cleverly looks just like a make-up compact. While you'll need a contract through Bell Mobility (or Solo Mobile, but this carrier only offers the phone in champagne), the phone itself will cost $25 if you sign them up for 3-years. Not too shabby!

Belkin Mini Surge: Everyone knows someone who travels a lot for either work, fun, or a combination of both. Every time I walk into a hotel room, I'm hunting around for outlets to plug in my laptop, DSLR charger, video camera, and cell phone. Often times, they end up spread around the room (my phone in the bathroom!), or I alternate charging devices using the few outlets that are available. The Mini Surge turns one outlet into four power and two USB instantly, eliminating the issue, and letting you charge everything in one spot. $30

This only scratches the surface of "gifts under $100". Stay tuned to the Holiday issue of here's how! magazine for more gadget gift ideas, as well as more ambitious and pricy gifts, from flat-panel TVs to DSLRs and PC products. Also keep an eye out for our picks for Gear of the Year.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Black Friday Looked Promising

As online shoppers are clicking away at Cyber Monday, we're in good spirits since Black Friday actually turned out better than expected. A reported 172 million shoppers visited stores this weekend, up 25 million from last year! Even more impressive is that this number is significantly more than the 128 million people that the National Retail Federation (NRF) had originally anticipated would hit stores. So what made people come out with shopping guns-a-blazin' despite the current economy?

As they say, people can't resist a good bargain. And when times are tough, those who might not have bothered seeking out discounts before (the same people that often refuse to wait in line for anything) might just roll up their sleeves and get out with the rest of the deal-seekers. If you've been wanting to buy a new DVD player, winter wardrobe, or toys for the kids, this weekend was definitely the time to do it. In that respect, people probably felt they were better off shopping now and paying things back slowly than waiting until later and paying full price for the same thing.

Still, I surveyed a few people in the U.S. about whether or not they were going to head out to shop, and the responses varied greatly. One person told me that he couldn't bring himself to join the wolves, so to speak.

"I'm not desperate enough to line up at in a tent for a bargain," he said, noting, however, that there were tons of people camped out at his local Best Buy in tents from Thanksgiving night!

Another friend who had originally planned to go Black Friday shopping said she decided to "do her shopping from the web...like everyone else I know."

Meanwhile, a third person shopping in the heart of Manhatten, NYC, exclaimed quite frankly: "Recession? What recession???" It's safe to assume that the streets and stores were packed down there.

Granted, these are only a few personal accounts, but it appears that the situation, not surprisingly, varies from store to store, and city to city. The good news is that, overall, more people shopped, and spent more than they even did last year during this critical weekend. As for future outlook, of course we can't expect these numbers to keep up. The NRF is, however, sticking with its original prediction of a modest 2.2% increase in holiday sales for '08.

As for Canada, I haven't seen any definitive numbers. But a short visit to the Toronto Eaton Centre this weekend had me in shock: I have never seen that weekend destination mall so barren on a late November-early December weekend, and on a Sunday, to boot. Visiting Sherway Gardens shopper centre today for lunch, I was equally disappointed when I noticed that a fast food joint that had only been open for less than a month had already closed its doors. We're certainly up for some tough times ahead. Hopefully they won't last too far into '09.

Stay tuned for final numbers, including Cyber Monday online sales figures, once they become available.

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