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EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 08, 2006 0 comments
Contrary to an earlier report, it looks as though France won't become the first nation to demand interoperability in music downloads and portable devices. A laudable copyright law revision has been not only watered down but totally negated. Among the key changes, the words translatable as "open standard" have been changed to "protected copy." If you're an attorney fluent in French, take a look at the proposed amendments from the Commission des Affaires culturelles. The committee's handiwork is already being cited as a victory for Apple, which had bitterly condemned the bill's original wording as "state-sponsored piracy" and a mortal threat to iTunes. The resistance is still resisting—see eucd.info and stopdrm.info—but the prospects for consumer-friendly legislation have deteriorated. The French senate is expected to vote by mid-month.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 19, 2006 0 comments
If you want to predict the future of the music industry, don't just talk like a pirate. Think like a billionaire. According to Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet and the Dallas Mavericks, the music download business may be in for a major consolidation. Forget about iTunes and the Zune Marketplace, he says. Instead look at what Google has just done in the video file sharing realm: Pay $1.65 billion for YouTube and offer the television networks an estimated $100 million for the right to use portions (as opposed to all) of their programming. Cuban likens it to the moment when Microsoft took over the desktop by selling Office as a $99 upgrade back when word processors, spreadsheets, etc. sold for $500 each. Then he crunches the numbers: If Apple sells a billion tracks a year for 99 cents each, and pays 70 cents per song to the music labels, the music industry gets $700 million, and the biggest labels get $575 million of it. But what if deep-pocketed Google offered that same $575 million to the major labels for the right to use just some of their content free--not their whole catalogues, just hot songs and clips? After all, music executives are already openly rebelling against Apple's rigid pricing. Cuban finishes with an intoxicating rush of speculative questions: "Would it be worth it to Google to pay $575 million and up per year to completely turn Apple upside down? To completely pre-empt their ability to sell iPods? To potentially introduce a new hardware device, or partner with someone who has one? To sell advertising around the music rather than the music itself? Is there a traditional Google arb here of 70 cents per song vs. 70 cents of advertising around the song? Could it sell that much advertising online to justify giving the music away?... Could [Microsoft] position the Zune as the de facto winner by spending $575 million per year with the music labels and giving the first billion songs away to Zune owners?"
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 02, 2007 0 comments
The third generation of HD DVD players is likely to break through the $399 list-price barrier, the second generation already having done so at the street-price level. List prices may even hit $299 a little farther down the road, according to a Toshiba executive quoted in PC World. Look for details at CES next week. Unless the Blu-ray camp matches the deal, HD DVD will continue to retain the advantage in price. Another breakthrough came last week in the first HD DVD hack. This could be bad news for HD DVD. While the format uses the same AACS content-security system as Blu-ray, Sony's format adds an additional layer of BD+.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 26, 2007 0 comments
Reading patent applications provides happy bloggers with ample fodder for blue-sky speculation. I rarely report these what-ifs for the same reason that I avoid Japanese new-product introductions: it may not happen, or it may not happen here. But the San Jose Mercury News uncovered an especially interesting what-if in an Apple patent application several months back, one that may affect the user interface of the iPod—revered by many as the Michelangelo's David of industrial design. Reporter Troy Wolverton explains: "The company had previously explored replacing the click wheel with a virtual one as part of a touch-sensitive display." As it has with the iPhone, touching off speculation. "But now," Wolverton continues, "Apple appears to be looking at a third option: a touch-sensitive frame surrounding the display. Rather than click a physical button or press a virtual one on the screen, users would touch an area on the frame to operate their iPod." Needless to say, Apple didn't return the reporter's calls, and this cataclysmic ergonomic shift may never happen.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 22, 2006 1 comments
Netflix is eyeing the movie-download market, according to Variety. Eric Besner, VP for original programming, told a movie- and TV-production conference in LA that a new service would download movies overnight into a proprietary set-top box. Pricing may be the same as existing subscription fees for hard copies by post. Though scrapping with Blockbuster to shore up its existing business, Netflix sees the writing on the wall (and the profits in the rack). Various services are already bidding to replace videodisc rental. One of them, Movielink, is reportedly up for sale. The 800-pound gorillas are Verizon and AT&T, whose set-top boxes may ultimately become ubiquitous for movie downloads and dozens of other uses—but only if they cut the right deals with Hollywood. If Netflix wants a piece of the movie-download pie, it'll have to move fast. Besner said the service may begin before year-end.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 23, 2006 2 comments
Implementation of the CableCARD may have taken another babystep forward with a court ruling last week. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the FCC's long-delayed "integration ban." By prying encryption apart from the cable box, as required by a 1996 act of Congress, the FCC wants to speed adoption of CableCARD technology, which enables consumers to plug their cable feeds directly into sets with a card slot. However, although the major TV makers and the major cable operators put their John Hancocks on an FCC-brokered CableCARD adoption agreement as long ago as December 2002, the integration-ban deadline has slipped from January 2005 to July 2006 to July 2007. And the many consumers who have already bought CableCARD-compatible sets have been frustrated to find the standard not supported by their local cable ops. Enough already, said the appeals court. Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association hailed the ruling: "Consumers are entitled to a broad array of products that can connect to cable systems featuring innovative new features for competitive prices. In the wake of the court's decision, we are hopeful that cable will stop its foot-dragging and comply with the law for the benefit of consumers." In their defense, cable operators say they've got their eye on a new technology that supplants the card with a chip, not to mention new multi-streaming and IP-based solutions. And they hate the existing CableCARD because it's unidirectional, meaning one-way, meaning no video-on-demand, meaning less lucre. But consumers might wait years for implementation of these new technologies, whereas the CableCARD is here now and waitin' at the church.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 28, 2007 1 comments
Soon after announcing their hoped-for merger, Sirius and XM told an investor conference call they planned to raise rates. They're beaming a different tune now. If the merger goes through, they promise to allow subscribers to block adult channels, pay a la carte, and save an unspecified amount off the current minimum of $12.95/month. The climate surrounding the merger has been chillier than expected. FCC chair Kevin Martin has expressed the opinion that the satellite services' federal operational licenses prevent them from being combined into a single company. And Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), chair of the Senate Antitrust Committee, has referred to the proposed merger as "a real bad deal for consumers."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 30, 2006 0 comments
The lack of community-buildout requirements in a pending federal law has raised concerns that new TV services from AT&T and Verizon won't reach low-income households. Verizon defends its record: "We are already deploying our fiber-to-the-premises network and FiOS TV in many communities such as Irving, Texas, that have a mix of demographics or are simply not affluent," says spokesperson Sharon Cohen-Hagar. Shifting focus from income to ethnicity, figures from a variety of sources helpfully supplied by Verizon suggest that minorities are already lucrative customers for cable providers and are therefore equally attractive to nascent telco TV providers. One study cited is FOCUS: African-America from Horowitz Associates. It says African-American urban households buy $58.17 worth of cable services vs. the urban average of $54. Figures for digital cable and satellite services tell the same story. So if providers go where the money is, you just might see FiOS TV in the 'hood.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 28, 2006 0 comments
To speed the entry of the telephone companies into the video-delivery business, Congress is in the midst of rewriting the franchising rules, substituting national for local authority. Conspicuously absent from the national franchise legislation soon to hit the Senate floor is any mention of "buildout"—that is, an explicit requirement that new video providers serve all homes in a locale. Instead the bill would require the FCC to gather information on patterns of deployment and make an annual report to Congress, flagging any patterns of discrimination. Would that relatively relaxed regulatory approach make it easy for telcos to ignore poor folk? Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg flatly denies it: "We have never engaged in redlining or cherry-picking, and we never will. It is a violation of federal law, and it runs counter to our 100-year legacy of great service to customers. Our deployment strategy speaks for itself. We are serving diverse communities in every state where we are building our FTTP network, and the cable industry's claim is yet another red herring aimed at stifling choice and competition." Media activists will be watching closely. To be continued tomorrow.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 23, 2006 1 comments
Seeking to lure back declining audiences, theater owners may be about to silence blabbering cell phone users by jamming their phones. "I don't know what's going on with consumers that they have to talk on phones in the middle of theaters," the president of the National Association of Theater Owners told a conference, and really, don't desperate times call for desperate measures? Churches in Mexico already jam phones, albeit in defiance of Mexican law. Our own feckless feds also forbid it, and if the subject came up, regulators would probably cock an ear for valuable advice from the wireless industry. But cutting the inane chatter just might increase the quality of the moviegoing experience—along with digitizing projection, easing off on abusive volume levels, and banning Tom Cruise from the screen forever.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 13, 2008 1 comments
I was dozing through a commercial break in the 10 o'clock news when I heard something that woke me right up. It was the "Prelude No. 1 in C Major" from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the Rosetta Stone of western music. The experience was akin to finding a fifty dollar bill in the street, which incidentally also happened to me recently. What advertiser would be brilliant enough to feed Johann Sebastian Bach to an unsuspecting TV audience? None other than McDonald's, promoting its Angus Third-Pounder. This über-burger can be purchased in three varieties: with lettuce and tomato, with bacon and cheese, or with Swiss and mushrooms. The ad--which I swear I've seen before, but with a less elevating soundtrack--shows an average guy who takes his first bite of a Third-Pounder and is so transported that he tries to push his chair back from the table, to savor the golden (-arched) moment, only to find the chair's bolted to the floor, so he settles for a sip from his giant drink. I'd have run out into the street and bought an Angus Third-Pounder immediately, just this once, were it not for the seeded bun. I don't eat whole sesame seeds. Anyway, there you have it, an odd alliance between the nation's most notorious gristle pusher and a composer who had a direct line to God. And I have no complaints about this. Far from it. Will wonders never cease.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 06, 2006 0 comments
Windows Vista launches November 30 to corporate customers and January 30 to consumers. Will the next version of Windows become the next big thing in high-end audio circles? There certainly are some interesting features listed in this tutorial from the Windows Vista Team Blog. For instance, bass management applies in both forward (LFE sent from main to sub channels) and reverse ("mapped back into the main channels"). There's "loudness equalization" to maintain even volume levels among different sources. "Speaker fill" seems to be the Microsofting of Dolby Pro Logic II though whether it will work equally as well remains to be seen (in my experience, nothing works as well as DPLII). Perhaps most ambitious, Vista will have its own "room correction" circuit, using microphone input to tweak delay, frequency response, and gain. "This technology works differently than similar features in high-end receivers since it better accounts for the way the human ear processes sound," says product manager Nick White. We'll see about that! While we're puckering up for Microsoft, check out Gizmodo's Happy Birthday, Windows XP. Five years old and still faithfully serving 400 million users.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 02, 2006 0 comments
Would you like to fling HDTV around your living room without wires? Seven major names in consumer electronics have banded together to do just that with the forthcoming WirelessHD standard, according to TWICE. They want to transmit high-def signals up to 32 feet using the 60GHz frequency band, also used by the military, universities, and offices. Up to 7GHz of that band would support simultaneous streaming of three 1080p signals. There would be no compression—at least, none in addition to the usual MPEG-2 and other HD codecs—so there would be no compromise in picture quality, in contrast to current low-bandwidth wireless video schemes. Look for WirelessHD in HDTVs, of course, but also in DVD players and adapters for set-top boxes. The WirelessHD Consortium includes LG, Matsushita, NEC, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba plus newcomer SiBEAM, the startup providing the underlying technology. The spec will be finalized in 2007 with products to follow in 2008. For updates, hit the official site.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 21, 2006 0 comments
Meet AVCHD, the latest disc format from Sony and Panasonic. No, they're not throwing another body into the moshpit that currently includes Blu-ray, HD DVD, and a few others. AVCHD will be a camcorder format that records 1080i or 720p images using existing DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD-RAM media. Panasonic will also use it to record onto SD memory cards. The AVC in AVCHD is the MPEG-4 AVC video compression standard, also known as H.264. This highly efficient codec is the presumed heir to MPEG-2. It's already being used by DirecTV to transmit high-def signals and will also be supported in Blu-ray and HD DVD. No word yet on availability of AVCHD products.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 18, 2006 0 comments
A music store dating from the age of the wax cylinder is threatened with closure in Cardiff, the capitol of Wales. Spillers was founded in 1894 and has survived the 78, the LP, the 45, and the CD (and still sells all but one of those formats). In fact, even in the new era of downloads, the beloved shop has been holding its own. What's threatening to engulf it is not technological, but economic, change. Efforts to attract investment to the city have succeeded a little too well, with two giant shopping developments opening up near Spillers. If the landlord follows through on his threat to raise the rent, owner Nick Todd--who left his secure bank job 31 years ago for a job at the shop--will have to close. Petitions are flying around. One has attracted signatures from half of the Welsh National Assembly (would that our own Congress were so hip) and another has garnered 2000 other signers. Says Todd: "If it all goes belly-up we've had a great time. I'd still rather own Spillers than Virgin." (Click here and scroll halfway down for Wes Phillips' tribute to Tower Records. I had no idea that the hundreds of $2 classical LPs I'd bought at the Tower Annex were stocked by "Analog George" Stanwick.)

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