Saturday, September 30, 2006

Even the Times says so

Remember our first post on August 10, "Radio loses, listener wins (IMHO)"? Well, a little over a month later, the New York Times makes it official. Their article Changing Its Tune talks about how radio listenership is declining -- because folks are listening to their MP3 players! Remember, you read it hear first.
- Ralph

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bruised fruit and busted pods

I personally haven't had any problems with the iTunes 7 program, but I have professionally. The DCD Records podcast I produce is in the new iTunes 7 podcast directory, but all of the programs listings have disappeared!

And unfortunately, iTunes holds podcasters at arm's length when it comes to fixing problems. Its not that difficult to do the original registration, but almost impossible to get any changes made to the feed, and there's no way to "open up the hood" and see what the problem might be with the iTunes program itself.

When you follow Ken's link, make sure you read the article's comments. Taken in conjunction with this posting from Macworld, it seems that a fair amount of the problems seem to be with Windows, or with third-party add-ons. In my case, we did change servers around the same time the new iTunes store launched, so that may have added to the problem.

I'll keep you posted on our postings. I'm not sure the Apple's rotten -- just a little bruised.

- Ralph

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

There's something rotten in Appleland...

I know Ralph is having a great time with the new iTunes 7 (I haven't upgraded yet, since I'm something of a Luddite). Turns out there may be a few bad apples ruining the barrel. Reports are coming in that everything isn't working as smoothly as it should.

A problem? Long-term -- probably not. Of course, you run into problems when you rely on a single-crop economy -- just ask the Irish.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In whose best interest?

Did you miss it?

There was a second product announcement this week. One for Microsoft's Zune MP3 player. Somehow, it lacked the intensity of interest Apple's announcement generated. While several tech sites had live text-messaged updates of Steve Job's speech as it happened, I didn't see any real coverage of the Zune rollout until after it was over.

Lots of virtual ink will be devoted to this new "iPod killer." As you read, consider this: at the core of the Apple vs. Everyone Else there's been a fundamental philosophical difference. Apple started with what the consumer wanted, and worked around what the media companies demanded. Microsoft, et al started with what the media companies wanted, and worked around what the consumers needed.

Has that changed? I don't think so. Consider the Zune's coolest feature, the ability to share songs with other Zune players wirelessly. If I want you to check out a new band, I can squirt some tracks to your player. That serves the consumer.

However, you have three days to play the tracks, and you can only play them three times before the files are disabled. The media companies' needs trumps the consumer's desires. Think about it – when friends loan you movies or music to check out, do you do so right away, or when you can get to it? In my case I’d just end up with a lot of disabled files cluttering up my Zune.

IMHO, until other manufacturers make the focus the consumer, not the media companies, we'll never have more than an iPod wounder.

- Ralph

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Seven Better

It's the day after Apple's big announcement. Take a look around the blogosphere and see how many people get it. The ones that discuss iTunes 7 and iTV do. The ones that focus on the iPod shuffle kind of do. The ones that scratch their heads over the new versions of the iPod nano and video iPod and wonder what the fuss was about, don't.

The key to Apple's extraordinary success has been the simplicity of the interface between the iTunes Music Store, the computer and the iPod. Why did iTunes experience such phenomenal success? While "coolness" may have been a factor, the core reason was functionality. The consumer could see an obvious difference, and the rest is history [see: "Better Best Be Better"].

The big news isn't the players this time (well, except for maybe the iPod shuffle), it’s the software. In a forest of "me, too" competitors, Apple's once again delivered something that the public can see the advantages of. IMHO.
- Ralph

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A little clarification

Like Ken, I'm not that much concerned about Nestorianism. The Apostle's Creed sufficiently addresses the issue for me. 8-)

There's no question that the quest for profit drives the electronics business, as it does any business. Even at a little bitty company like DCD Records (basically, me) what happens or doesn't happen is influenced by profitability.

There are some real advantages to Blu-ray and HD DVD. Both of them can store an incredible amount of data. The added space makes higher resolution video possible, which is a plus for those with high-end audio/video systems. And recordable discs will be a boon to computer users and budding videographers working with laptops, among others.

I'm not knocking the new formats – just saying that the improvements over DVD aren't as apparent to the general public as some of the other format changes we've lived through.

- Ralph

Monday, September 11, 2006

Follow the money...

"War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it's a cold one."

I'll agree with Ralph on most of his points about HD DVD and Blu-ray. To most Americans the discussion about the merits and future of these two formats is about as relevant as a discussion about Nestorianism (my apologies if that is relevant to you).

So what's driving electronics companies to jump on board and push a new technology, even when there's no (demonstrated) drum beat from the public for something better?

Well, there's profit of course. These days, you've got to have something new if you want to make money. When Joe Nascar can drive down to Walmart and pick up a DVD player for $26.43 (feeling more upscale? Go to Target), you can bet the profit margin is pretty slim.

Contrast the bargain-basement price of a DVD player with the cost of new HD DVD and Blu-ray players and you'll see numbers that will make the executives crack a smile. And then there's the new discs you'll want/need. Everybody's happy now.

If only most people cared. Well, that's what advertising's for, isn't it?


"Better" Best Be Better

"not all of Ralph's examples are really format wars — many are just cases of a new and better technology taking over. There may be some resistance, but the benefits are obvious."
I'd like to respond to Ken's remarks. First off, all of my examples were of format wars – in some cases the new was backwards-compatible with the old, but more often it was an either/or choice.
Ken's second remark above contains the secret to winning a format war – the benefits have to be obvious.

I would add "to the average consumer." Advantages of a gramophone over a player piano: cheaper, more compact playback, wider selection of audio entertainment, less maintenance – obvious to the consumer. Advantages of DVD over VHS: cleaner picture, chapter access, no rewinding, more durable media, smaller packaging – obvious to the consumer.

While the current HD DVD/Blu-ray struggle has often been compared to the Betamax/VHS conflict, I think there's a fundamental difference. The advantage of having movies available on video tape was obvious – it was just a question of what kind of tape format was going to be used.

In the case of HD DVD/Blu-ray, the advantages aren't' so obvious. I'm not sure most consumers can actually see the incremental picture improvement of these hi-def formats over what they can currently get with their DVD players.

Even on an old TV with a cheap combo player, the differences between DVD and VHS are obvious. High-definition formats require a high quality display to see a perceptible difference. Folks abandoned their VHS players for DVD players because of a perceptible improvement in picture quality and convenience. The average consumer would be hard-pressed to see that same degree of change moving from DVD to either HD DVD or Blu-ray.

Until high-definition TVs becomes prevalent in American households, the HD DVD/Blu-ray conflict will remain a cold war.
- Ralph

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Marching Memes

I was pondering memes at the local high school football game Friday night. Both bands were in full swing. At almost every break in the action either Orange or Madison would fire up a little musical snippet. Most of it was standard fare: "Louie, Louie," "Wooley Booley," "Rock and Roll (Part II)", "Another One Bites the Dust" and so on.

Kids currently in high school now were born between 1989 and 1992. Most of the stuff they were playing was popular 10 to 20 years before they were born. The tunes were used because they still elicit a response -- but why? They're not part of what students listen to now, nor are they heard that often on radio, or even commercials. Yet, somehow, everyone knows them. Musical memes.

Just to put things into perspective, keeping the same time relationships, it would be like my high school band playing tunes from the 1935 hit parade!

BTW - although both band directors did a great job, kudos to the Madison Mountaineers director for some really imaginative programming. When a penalty was called, they played War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and after losing 49-32 to Orange, their musical response was a Van Halen tune.
"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame. You give love a bad name."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A forgotten format war

To paraphrase Police Inspector Hans Wilhelm Friederich Kemp in Young Frankenstein, "A format war ist an ugly thing." Best to be on the outside looking in, as Ralph suggests.

Of course, not all of Ralph's examples are really format wars — many are just cases of a new and better technology taking over, like 33-1/3 LP records replacing 78s. There may be some resistance, but the benefits are obvious.

One format war Ralph didn't discuss was the fight between CBS and RCA to develop the first color television system.

In the late 1940s, CBS proposed a "Field Sequential Color System." Simply described, it was a mechanical color system that used spinning red/blue/green color wheels, and was incompatible with existing black and white broadcasts.

RCA had a major stake in television production of existing sets and decided to combat the new system, which would have made their sets obsolete. They developed the "Dot Sequential Color System." While the performance of this system was not as good (initially) as the CBS system, it had the advantage of requiring no moving parts and broadcasts were compatible with existing B/W sets.

RCA used its significant political connections to slow the FCC approval process while they perfected their color system and sold as many TVs as possible. By the time the FCC decided in favor of RCA, it was a moot point — TVs using the current system NTSC standards were becoming ubiquitous in American living rooms, and consumers would have rebelled against having to buy a new TV to take advantage of the new standards. Remember, a simple TV then cost a lot of money in today's dollars.

So, CBS may have been the first to broadcast in color, but it's only a footnote in history now.

P.S. If you're interested in the history of television, check out this excellent history: Tube, by David E., and Marshall John Fisher.

A great day in broadcast history

Ken's a big fan of Philo T. Farnsworth, so I'm surprised he didn't chime in with an entry about this. In September, 1927, Farnsworth successfully transmitted a television image. His "Image Dissector" camera became the conceptual foundation for cathode ray TVs, which have remained the standard for television until the advent of flat-screen plasma, LCD and DRT sets.

From the beginning of the TV era (and actually before), the same drama has been played out time and again. Two competing methods of doing things emerge, vying for the public's attention. One eventually wins, and the other is forgotten. Sometimes the better technology wins, sometimes it doesn't. I'm hoping Ken, who knows far more about TV history can fill in the details about the format wars of the 1950's, but just off the top of my head, here's some of the trauma the buying public has lived through over the past century:

Cylinder recordings vs. disc recordings
Player pianos vs. piano recordings
78 rpm discs vs. 33-1/3 LPs
Vinyl records vs. compact discs
Audio compact discs vs. DVD-Audio discs vs. SACDs
Betamax vs. VHS tape
8-track tapes vs. cassette tapes
Compact discs vs. minidisks vs. digital compact cassettes
Compact discs vs. DAT
AM vs. FM
Broadcast television vs. HDTV

Some of these choices were (in retrospect) obvious; some not so much. The important thing to remember as the industry goes around and around about Blue Ray vs. HD-DVD is that we've been here before. In time it will sort itself out. In my opinion, the best place to be in a format war is on the outside looking in.

Oh - and in response to Ken's post from yesterday - according to Philo Farnsworth's wife, Elma:

We were watching... when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Phil turned to me and said, "Pem, this has made it all worthwhile." Before then, he wasn't too sure.

- Ralph

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Digital junk food

Ralph's brought up a good point — sometimes "good enough" is OK. But the real story of digital electronics is the vast quantity of goods we have to sample now, not the quality.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the proliferation of players — be it an iPod in your hand or a QuickTime player on your computer at work — means there needs to be something to fill it. Enter, YouTube and the like. They're free; they give us something to stare at — perfect for our overstimulated brains. And just like eating Lays Potato Chips, you can't stop at just one.

Did I say potato chips? More like a Supersized Double Quarter Pounder Meal — and probably just as good for you.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Consumer electronics and lo-rez Kung Fu

One of the most fundamental questions about consumer electronics sometimes gets lost in the shuffle: “What are you going to use this for?”

And it’s an important question. Do you need an 80GB MP3 player if you only have 200-300 songs you like? Do you need a surround sound system if you only watch network television? Consumer electronics are continually advancing and offering more features and options, but the bottom line should always be this: does this help me enjoy my electronic entertainment more?

I was thinking of this as I spent the weekend savoring the latest batch of video podcasts from Clash TV sends out a bunch of cult films once a month as video podcasts. While fun to watch, they do have their drawbacks (and I’m not just talking about the acting). The movies come in at 64 Kbps, which is extremely low resolution. There’s a lot of chucky pixilation, especially when there’s lots of fast motion.

This month, it’s a selection of Kung Fu films, so image breakup is particularly bad. A 60” flat-screen TV would be useless for viewing these films. It would be virtually impossible to make out anything that was going on. Ditto for that great surround sound system — the soundtracks have serious quality issues, as so much of the sonic information is missing.

On an iPod, though they look fine — not great, but fine. And really, given the quality of these films, that’s OK. The sound through earbuds is tolerable. I can make out the dialog, and that’s about all I want. Once I’ve finished watching these movies, I’ll delete them off my hard drive. This is disposable entertainment for sure.

For image and sound quality, as well as content, these video podcasts from Clash TV are perfect iPod fodder. And it’s a good example of what I’m mean by matching content to device. I’ll not be viewing “Ten Fingers of Death” or “King of the Zombies” on a high-end home-theater system, but as a way to pass some time with my iPod, it can’t be beat.
- Ralph