EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 25, 2006 2 comments
Steve Jobs has finally found a situation he can't bluff or bully his way out of. He has, however, bought his way out of a longstanding tiff with Creative Labs, which holds valuable patents on the workings of music players—including the iPod. A $100 million settlement will end court battles and heal all wounds. Jobs' comment on the outcome is wry and brilliantly understated: "Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent." And in case you were wondering, he adds: "This settlement resolves all of our differences with Creative, including the five lawsuits currently pending between the companies, and removes the uncertainty and distraction of prolonged litigation." The settlement will leave him freer to contemplate finer things, like warm batteries and cool Scandinavians. Folks at Creative, meanwhile, are looking forward to a harmonious future with Apple. Says victorious CEO Sim Wong Hoo: "Apple has built a huge ecosystem for its iPod and with our upcoming participation in the Made for iPod program we are very excited about this new market opportunity for our speaker systems, our just-introduced line of earphones and headphones, and our future family of X-Fi audio enhancement products." Unmentioned: Creative's Zen player, pictured. He's also pleased about the 85 cents per share Creative stockholders will reap from the settlement. Who wouldn't be?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 24, 2006 1 comments
You think gas is expensive? Copper, which formerly sold for around 90 cents a pound, has shot up past $3 a pound. Janet Pinkerton sums up the situation succinctly in the August 2006 issue of Custom Retailer (story not on site): "The copper price spiral has been driven by...a 'perfect storm' of economic factors: ravenous demand for copper and other metals from China and secondarily India, a strong construction market in the U.S., an extremely tight copper inventory supply, labor unrest in key copper mines, and the yet-to-be-quantified impact of fund managers and others speculating on copper futures." The labor unrest seems to be centered in Chile but production is also down in China. Skyrocketing copper will affect not only cables but a/v components as well. They're stuffed with copper wire. Some, like Pioneer's Elite receiver line, even use a thick copper chassis. Higher prices will be the inevitable result. For example: The Outlaw Audio site still quotes the price of the RR2150 stereo receiver as $599, but when I was fact-checking an upcoming review, my source bumped it to $649. Place your order now!
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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: Aug 22, 2006 0 comments
Here's to the mating of the ampersand and the asterisk. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to attend tomorrow's grand opening of J&R Express at Macy*s in Manhattan. Founded in 1858, Macy*s has been the city's leading department store for generations. It's a major tourist attraction and its advertising props up the city's newspapers. But Federated Department Stores, owner of Macy*s, has never found a way to make electronics retailing work in NYC. J&R's story is totally different. It started as a great little record shop back in the pre-CD days, then successfully branched out into electronics, but until recently never aspired to move beyond its peculiar cluster of far-downtown spaces near City Hall. Locals love it, but most people reading this probably know the Internet operation better than the stores. So now Macy*s will have the ideal partner for selling electronics, and J&R will expand into midtown, with its flocks of tourists and shoppers, just down West 34th from the Empire State Building. BTW, the weeping statuary pictured is a memorial for Isidor and Ida Strauss in tiny Strauss Park at Broadway and West 107th Street. Isidor acquired Macy's (then with no asterisk) in 1896 and moved it to the current iconic location in Herald Square. In 1912, he and his wife Ida went down with the Titanic.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 21, 2006 0 comments
In the latest act of a long-running drama, Dish Network PVRs will not be judicially disabled—at least, not yet. A federal appeals court has blocked an injunction from a Texas district court that would have shut down Dish video recorders. Dish's adversary is TiVo and the issue is patent infringement. TiVo has successfully argued that Dish PVRs violate TiVo's patents, winning $74.9 million in penalties. That matter was decided months ago, but what to do about it has not, so millions of Dish PVRs have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The Dish people say they expect to reverse the Texas district court decision and will "continue to work on modifications" to the allegedly infringing machines. Even if TiVo gets a short-term win in this situation, its real challenge is competition from not only satellite DVRs but those marketed by cable and emerging telco-video services. No judge or lawyer is going to make that problem go away.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 18, 2006 1 comments
Cynical Steve Jobs is marketing one of the worst-sounding audio products ever. As an audiophile, I can view this only with alarm and outrage. No, I'm not talking about the iPod, you foolish thing. I enjoy my nano as much as the next person. I'm talking about the earbuds that come with the iPod. They don't even come close to taking advantage of the sound quality that the deliriously popular music player is capable of delivering.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 17, 2006 0 comments
A Tokyo racetrack has become home to the world's largest large-screen video display. The screen is 218 feet wide (by 66 by 37). Judging from the picture, its ratio of width to height is way more than the standard 16:9 of DTV in general. Behind the display is Mitsubishi's Aurora Vision LED technology. Here LEDs are being used to produce the picture directly, though they're also creeping into consumer DLP displays as a substitute for the color wheel. The screen was installed in 35 pieces and cost $28 million. Apologies for the headline. Couldn't resist. A larger edit of the picture, and three others, are in the Galleries.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 16, 2006 2 comments
More information has emerged about Microsoft's forthcoming Zune music player, thanks to my colleagues at This Week In Consumer Electronics, who always have their ears to the ground on the retail scene. The company has been briefing retailers and TWICE have been prying out morsels of information about Redmond's supposed iPod-killer. Here are the details (I would rather slit my wrists than say deets):
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 15, 2006 3 comments
We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. And we control the DVR, says Verizon. If you're a multi-zone kind of consumer, and interested in Verizon's FiOS TV service, check out the Verizon Home Media DVR. In a multi-zone DVR configuration, the Motorola QIP6416—shown here—acts as the media hub, recording and streaming video. It has a 160GB hard drive and dual QAM tuners. Operating as remote terminal is the Motorola QIP2500 set-top box. The remote terminal operates in standard-def only, though you can watch high-def on the hub DVR. Media Manager software pulls photos and music from a PC and routes them to connected TVs. The Home Media DVR costs $19.95 per month ($7 more than a regular Verizon DVR) plus $3.95 for each remote-terminal STB. The relatively new concept of place-shifting has not come without controversy among content producers. Cablevision's network DVR has become the first casualty and the Slingbox may follow.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 14, 2006 0 comments
"My editor recently queried me about my TV set," wrote Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. Shock, horror: This professional TV critic does his work with a 20-inch screen! And judging from the size, probably analog. Now, before you all pile on, be advised that Gilbert's decision to use a small screen is carefully considered: "Without a lot of sophisticated sensory overload, I think, a show's writing, acting, and editing stand out more clearly. I can stay in touch with the true marks of good storytelling, without having to parse them out from a dazzling barrage." More shock, more horror: I downsize a lot of my own viewing, though for different reasons. I watch movies on a 72-inch-wide Stewart Firehawk, but when I watch TV, I retreat to a less intense 32-inch LCD. Why? The reduction in scale eases both the headache-inducing quick cuts of advertising and the sorrows of real-life suicide bombings. Still, I think "the marks of good storytelling" are as perceptible on a big screen as on a small one—more, in fact, if you consider camerawork and other aspects of visual style as storytelling tools—and now that shows are being produced in (1) widescreen (2) HDTV and (3) surround, the Boston Globe's TV critic may be missing the boat.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 11, 2006 0 comments
It had to happen eventually. Paramount announced today that Mission Impossible III will be the first title to receive simultaneous release in three disc formats: high-definition Blu-ray and HD DVD, and standard-definition DVD-Video. Each release will be a two-disc collector's edition with five deleted scenes, four documentaries, theatrical trailers, and other features. Blu-ray and HD DVD releases will have soundtracks in next-generation Dolby Digital Plus. The special-edition sets will have commentaries by Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams—but only the HD DVD release will show them talking in a corner of the screen during the movie. A single-disc DVD-Video release will include the deleted scenes, commentary, and the "Making of the Mission" documentary but will omit the other documentaries and features.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 10, 2006 7 comments
The Japanese government is asking broadcasters and DVR manufacturers to relax the "copy once" rule, according to Nihon Keizai Shimbun. It allows programming to be copied from DVR to DVD, but the program is then erased from the DVR, and the DVD cannot be copied. News and educational programs will be the first to allow relatively unfettered copying. Other kinds may take longer, depending on the preferences of copyright holders, and it's hard to imagine budging (say) the movie industry from its existing anti-copying vigilance. Why this, why now? The government is looking ahead to Japan's transition from analog to digital broadcasting, currently scheduled for 2011, and wants to salvage at least some of the viewer conveniences associated with analog. A panel of broadcasters, manufacturers, copyright holders, and consumers will begin studying the matter and the first copy-once exceptions may take effect before year-end.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 09, 2006 0 comments
"DVD album" is what Warner is calling a new DVD-based music format that will be sold alongside CDs, according to The Wall Street Journal. Though it is neither a DVD-Audio nor a DualDisc, the five-inch disc will include both surround and stereo soundtracks as well as video footage. What form these soundtracks will take remains undisclosed. However, if the disc is to play on a standard DVD player as advertised, then the surround track might be Dolby Digital or DTS. It would not be the DSD signal format used in SACDs. The stereo track will be some form of compressed file that can be copied to a PC or converted for burning to CD-R. Rumor has it that the file format may be AAC with Apple FairPlay DRM, and that negotiations are ongoing between Warner and Apple. If they don't come to an agreement, Microsoft's WMA would be the obvious second choice. There will be no CD audio on the disc, so it will not play on standard CD players. The format will shortly become available to Warner subsidiaries for product-planning purposes and may hit the shelves next year. Warner is the world's fourth-largest record company.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 08, 2006 1 comments
Ford, General Motors, and Mazda will add iPod capability to their fall lineups. That will bring the iPod's automotive penetration to a mind-boggling 70 percent according to Apple. GM is adding the iPod link to all 56 models of car and truck. That doesn't mean it'll be free, though. GM will charge $160 plus installation. Even so, it's easy to imagine carmakers in a hypercompetitive "zero percent financing, cash back" environment offering free iPods as well as the link. The player will live in the glove compartment, where it will both play and charge. In other iPod news, regarding the hardware/software interoperability issue that's been simmering in Europe, Apple has responded to a challenge from Norway's consumer protection agency, whose spokesperson said: "Apple has shown a willingness for change and dialogue.... We remain at odds over the most important things." The freshest Apple news, which emerged just yesterday, is a new Mac Pro workstation. It's still not the killer HTPC Mac admirers (and others) have long awaited but who knows what Jobs may have on his to-do list.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 07, 2006 0 comments
Have the big telcos brought next-generation IPTV to your household yet? They haven't? Well, don't worry. Market research firm iSuppli says IPTV will increase from 2.4 million subscribers in 2005 to 63 million in 2010. But if you can't wait till 2010, move to Monroe, Oregon, where the Monroe Telephone Co. is delivering Internet-protocol television to 50 homes in its 950-home service area. A planned marketing push may raise the total to 200. The price is about the same as a satellite subscription. "The rural areas have surpassed the cities largely because of nimbler local telecom companies that have taken matters into their own hands," says a story in The Wall Street Journal. Among other advantages, they can get loans from the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Division. Monroe Telephone was founded in 1912 and acquired by John Dillard in 1956 for $5000. When growing up, John Jr. dug holes for telephone poles and manually punched through calls on a patch bay. His words of consolation for you IPTV-less folks in the big cities: "It won't be too long before the bigger markets follow."

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