Sunday, November 30, 2008

I've got a new job!

As some of you know, I've been looking for a new job for almost six months. Last week, I accepted an offer with a large, privately-held company outside Chicago, IL, USA. I'll be starting in mid-December, so I have to find a place to live, move and get settled in over the next two weeks. As a result, I'll be posting on this blog intermittently (if at all) for a while. Thank you for your patience!
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Is there really a market for IPTV?

Late last week, Tilgin sold off its IPTV set-top box business to Amino in order to concentrate on the IP Residential Gateway business. The initial sale price was 30 million SEK, plus a potential bonus based on sales performance. Tilgin is just one of many second- and third-tier IPTV suppliers that have sold out to bigger competitors, and the list is only going to get longer as the worldwide recession drags on. The residential gateway business isn't exactly a bonanza, either; Pace is struggling to establish a business there, and the business argument for gateways isn't clear for a lot of operators.

The overarching question is whether or not there's really a market for IPTV services. IPTV is doing well in France, Spain and some other European markets, but in France in particular, consumers can get a complete triple-play bundle including IPTV for not much more than what U.S. customers pay for a single service. In Hong Kong, PCCW was the world leader in terms of subscriber count for a number of years, but now PCCW and China Netcom are merging, and the question is whether or not PCCW has finally saturated the market. In Japan, IPTV services have been all but stillborn, even with the country's largest telecommnuications companies (NTT, KDDI and Softbank) behind it.

In most of the first world, IPTV entered the market as the third or fourth choice for video services, after broadcast, cable and satellite. Where IPTV has been really successful, one or more of the following is true:

1) The IPTV services are offered at a dramatically lower price than competitive video services (that's certainly true in France.)
2) Local competitors let the IPTV services take hold with high prices, bad customer service, etc.
3) The IPTV provider offers non-video services that the local competitors couldn't match (in the U.S., Verizon's FiOS data service offered far faster speeds than cable operators, and Verizon used that advantage to sell FiOS TV into those same customers.)
4) The existing local video choices are rudimentary or nonexistent.

Where advanced cable services are available, it remains all but impossible to differentiate IPTV services from cable. The interactive features of IPTV are nice, but there's nothing that the cable industry can't match. Even satellite providers are getting into the interactivity game with Internet connections on their set-top boxes.

I do believe that there is, and will continue to be, a market for IPTV, but it's smaller than most of the analysts have been forecasting, and even smaller than I forecast when I was in that business. We'll continue to see tremendous pressure on second- and third-tier IPTV hardware and software suppliers to merge, discontinue their IPTV product lines or go out of business. We'll also see tremendous pressure on IPTV service providers to differentiate their offerings by price rather than functionality. Ultimately, IPTV will be just one of several video options for consumers.
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Thursday, November 27, 2008

TiVo tanks, Apple breaks third-party apps

Earlier this week, TV By the Numbers reported that TiVo lost 163,000 subscribers in October, and the company has lost subscribers almost every month this year. In its most recent quarter, TiVo only sold an average of less than 500 DVRs a day. The company would have lost money in the quarter had it not received a one-time payment of $105 million from Echostar for patent violations. It's pretty clear that TiVo's situation is getting dire, and the company is not going to survive in the standalone PVR business for much longer.

At about the same time, Blockbuster got into the set-top box business, as I've written about earlier. Also, Apple released a new version of software for its AppleTV STB, which broke third-party software running on those devices, including Boxee, media center software for Linux and OSX that supports Hulu, CBS, Comedy Central, CNN and many other Internet media sites. Boxee was back up and running on the AppleTV a day later.

Is there really a market for third-party set-top boxes? By and large, the answer is "no," although the Roku Netflix player seems to be selling well. What I'd really like to see is a set-top box that's open and that supports multiple services. That rules out Apple and Vudu. You shouldn't have to pay a monthly subscriber fee to use the box, so that rules out TiVo, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and, at least for now, Roku. Blockbuster's new box is still a question mark--there's no monthly fee, and the box, built by 2Wire, runs Linux, but it's unclear if Blockbuster will allow Boxee and similar applications to run on it.

In my opinion, it would be a brilliant move if Blockbuster let Boxee, as well as others, run their software on its box without a long approval process or the fear that the third-party applications would be deliberately broken by Blockbuster. In one step, Blockbuster's offering would move from a me-too product to a market leader.

Experience has proven that consumers simply don't want multiple set-top boxes. Given the choice between a cable operator-provided PVR and a TiVo, they've chosen the cable operators' offerings in droves. This market is dead unless the players start seriously rethinking their strategies to adapt to consumer needs.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Blockbuster jumps into the set-top box business

According to CNET's Crave website, Blockbuster Video has struck a deal to resell 2Wire's new MediaPoint set-top box, to compete with the Roku Netflix Player and other Netflix-enabled devices, as well as Apple TV, Vudu, etc. The MediaPoint player will sell for $99, but comes with 25 free movies. Additional movies will be priced starting at $1.99, and no monthly subscription is required.

The MediaPoint comes with all the standard inputs and outputs: 802.11g or wired Ethernet interfaces, composite, component and HDMI video interfaces, and both analog stereo and Toslink digital optical audio interfaces. The MediaPoint user interface, as seen on the Crave website, borrows a good deal of its look from TiVo.

On paper at least, Blockbuster's offering could be very competitive with the Roku Netflix player, with a lower net cost and no subscription required. It's not known if Blockbuster is trying to get its service integrated with many different companies' video players, as Netflix has succeeded in doing. What IS clear, however is that Blockbuster is once again playing catch-up to Netflix. Keeping in mind what happened to Blockbuster's Total Access program, which made big progress against Netflix only to lose its momentum when the company chose to pare its financial losses, I wonder whether the company has the stomach to stick with its online service.
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Monday, November 17, 2008

Silverlight: In at Netflix, out at Major League Baseball

Not long ago, I noted that Netflix has adopted Microsoft's Silverlight as its streaming media platform for Apple's Macintosh, but today, Major League Baseball announced that it has switched from Silverlight to Adobe Flash for its live and on-demand video streams, starting in 2009 and for at least the next two years. This comes after the National Football League chose Flash earlier this year to stream its games, including the interactive multi-camera player used by both and NBC. Neither MLB nor the NFL pointed to technical deficiencies in Silverlight as the reason that they adopted Flash, and Major League Baseball's statement that it was adopting Flash "for the next two years" indicates that the reason for the switch may have been based on business, not technical, reasons, and could be revisited down the road.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pure Digital jumps in with its own HD Flip Video camcorder

File this in the "You knew this was going to happen" department: According to Cnet, Pure Digital has just announced the Flip Mino HD camcorder, with a $229 list price. Pure Digital claims that it's the world's smallest HD camcorder at 3.3 ounces. It records at 720p (1280 x 720) resolution, 30fps. The company also claims that it has improved the camcorder's built-in FlipShare software. The built-in 4GB of flash memory allows one hour of recording. Other than those features, the camera appears to be physically and operationally identical to the existing Flip Mino.

Via Engadget, I learned that the Wall Street Journal has already gotten its hands on one for a test. Here's a video with some test footage, which, for a camcorder that's probably going to be street priced under $200, isn't bad at all. However, before you buy one, you might want to wait for to do its own testing; they found that the Kodak Zi6, a similar HD camcorder that beat the Flip Mino HD to market, had serious image quality problems in the same kind of lighting that most people use in their homes. For now, here's the Wall Street Journal's footage:

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LCD prices were fixed...did you notice?

According to CNBC, the U.S. Justice Department just announced a $585 million dollar settlement of a price-fixing case against LG Electronics, Sharp and Chunghwa Picture Tubes. By far the biggest portion of the fine, $400 million, will be paid by LG. Price-fixing is illegal, of course, but the price of LCD displays has been on a downward spiral for years. I haven't heard anyone complain that LCDs are too expensive recently; if anything, the problem has been whether the prices would stay high enough to keep some of the manufacturers in business.

I can't imagine that resolving this collusion is going to make LCD prices drop any faster than they've already been going down, but it will put a half-billion dollars into the U.S. Treasury. More bailouts, perhaps?

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dish Network's TiVo Killer? (Well, maybe a TiVo wounder...)

From Cnet's Crave comes news of Dish Network's new DTVPal DVR, a $250 (after $50 instant rebate) standalone HD PVR with 30 hours of HD or 150 hours of SD storage. The DTVPal works with over-the-air, cable or satellite sources, has a 7-day program guide, and perhaps most importantly, requires no monthly or lifetime subscription fee. The key is the user interface, but Dish has made great progress with its satellite-based PVRs over the years. (The DTVPal DVR also acts as a digital-to-analog converter, but it doesn't qualify for the $40 Federal coupon, which is why Dish is offering a $50 instant rebate.)

The question is whether or not consumers will be willing to pay for a HD PVR if they can get similar functionality from their cable or satellite providers. Probably not, since they'll still have to pay for a set-top box, but the real target for this device is consumers who want to record over-the-air video. For those users, TiVo is the primary option, and an alternative with no subsciption fees will be very tempting.
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Monday, November 10, 2008

Circuit City files for Chaper 11 Bankruptcy

According to Dealerscope, Circuit City filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy this morning. In a written statement, the company said that it plans to reorganize and remain in business. That may be the company's intent, but the odds of successfully emerging from Chapter 11 are increasingly slim for retailers. For example, Sharper Image initially filed for Chapter 11, but within a few weeks the company modified its filing to Chapter 7 and liquidated. Mervyns, a chain of department stores, filed for Chapter 11 last July, and then a few weeks ago, it filed for Chapter 7 liquidation and is now going out of business.

Circuit City may beat the odds, but I think it more likely that we'll see many more than the 155 stores already running "going out of business" sales close their doors before the end of the holiday season.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

T-Mobile customer service goes kablooey?

Last year, I bought a Samsung mobile phone and prepaid service from T-Mobile exclusively for travel. I haven't left town for several months, but I have to take a trip next week, so I decided to add some money to my account. I did that part online, and it worked fine...but the phone didn't. It said "No Service", even though I was getting a strong signal. So, I called T-Mobile, and got transferred...and transferred...and transferred. I was transferred to seven different people, finally ending up with someone in India on a connection so bad that I could barely hear her.

Ultimately, I found out that the account had expired, the phone number had been given to someone else (possibly not even a T-Mobile customer), and the company keeps no record of which numbers have been given to which customers once an account expires. I ended up having to visit a local T-Mobile store, which sold me a new SIM card and assigned me a new phone number. This number is only good for three months, unless I use up the current balance and add more time, which will buy me three more months. The customer service experience in the store was great; the experience on the phone was horrible.
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Do you need more than a netbook?

I finally got to play with a netbook today, an Acer Aspire One running Windows XP with 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive, and I was impressed. As a travel computer, it would do just about everything I, or most business or personal users, need. There wasn't a live WiFi connection in the store where I was trying the Acer out, so I couldn't test the computer's performance with streaming video, and there's no DVD drive, so I'd have to rip a DVD onto a USB flash drive if I wanted to watch a movie on an airplane. To me, those are relatively minor limitations.

The Aspire One that I was looking at was priced at $399. There were bigger notebooks with much larger screens and keyboards for a couple of hundred dollars more, but for my money, a computer like the Aspire One would be an ideal travel computer, far more cost-effective than either the Mac Book Air or Lenovo X300. The Aspire One and similar computers are so cheap that they're "sacrificial"; so long as you have a good backup solution, if they break, it's often cheaper to buy a new one than to get the existing one repaired.

All that said, I probably wouldn't want to edit a webpage or run Photoshop on a netbook, but that's not what they're designed for. For the kinds of things that you're likely to do when traveling, a netbook is fine.
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CNN's "Holograms": A waste of perfectly good bandwidth

If you watched CNN's Election coverage Tuesday night, you may have seen CNN's "holograms", technology designed to make it look like a person being interviewed is in the same studio with the interviewer, except that it does no such thing. Both reporter Jessica Yellin and musician were turned into "holograms". In fact, they were shot with multiple cameras simultaneously, which allowed them to be viewed from multiple angles, but it still used chroma key compositing technology, which caused fringing around the edges of the images. It looked nothing like a true hologram. More to the point, it added absolutely nothing to the interviews.

Wolf Blitzer could have been talking to faces on a monitor, and none of the content of the interviews would have been lost. In fact, I'd argue that the coolness/creepiness factor of the "holograms" interfered with the content; much of the audience was paying more attention to Blitzer talking to a blob than to what was actually being said.

For most of the night, CNN played it fairly straight, using technology in appropriate ways for the benefit of the audience. The "holograms," however, were nothing more than gimmicks.

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New Canon 5D Mark II HD video sample

I've written about how Canon's new 5D Mark II DSLR has superb HD video capabilities, but this is the first time that I can actually show you video without having to link out to another site. While you're watching, keep an eye out for the camera's superb handling of depth of field, and the flexibility it gets from its interchangeable lenses. This particular video was shot by a single cameraperson (cinematographer?) in Japan over three days, and edited in France on a Mac Book Pro in two days. Akihabara News has more details. And now, the video:

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Circuit City to close 155 stores

Yesterday, Circuit City announced that it will close 155 stores in 28 states, and in the process get rid of 17 percent of its workforce. The company will also halt its plans to open new stores in 2009, and will attempt to renegotiate leases on existing stores. The stores that are scheduled for closing will be closed today, November 4th, to put up signs and reprice merchandise, will reopen on Wednesday, and will close permanently no later than December 31st. A complete list of stores to be closed is available here.

I would not be surprised to see Circuit City add stores to the list as the holiday season goes on, especially if the retail season is as bad as many observers fear it will be. 
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Well, the one on the right was on the left, and the one in the middle was on the right, and the one on the left was in the middle, and the guy in the rear used to work for IBM

Lots of job changes yesterday:
  • Tony Fadell left Apple. Fadell was the first member of the iPod engineering team and most recently ran the iPod product line.
  • According to CNET, Fadell is to be replaced by Mark Papermaster from IBM, but IBM is enforcing a non-competition clause in its employment contract with Papermaster, and is suing Apple to keep it from getting trade secrets related to IBM's Power chips and server products. What Power chips and servers have to do with portable media players is anyone's guess.
  • George Kliavkoff, who's been NBC Universal's Chief Digital Officer for the last two years and oversaw NBC's participation in Hulu, the company's online Olympics activities and the growth of and the company's other digital properties, is leaving the company to go do something else.
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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Blu-Ray's BD+ security has been broken

According to Slashdot, BD+, one of the security schemes protecting Blu-Ray content, has been broken and can be removed to make Blu-Ray content freely copyable. Longtime observers of the HD DVD/Blu-Ray battle may recall that BD+ was an additional protection mechanism championed by 20th Century Fox in the event that the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), the baseline security system for both HD DVD and Blu-Ray, was ever cracked. The whole issue probably added a year to the HD DVD/Blu-Ray battle. AACS was broken last year, and now, BD+ is gone.

The consumer electronics companies and movie studios anticipated that both AACS and BD+ would eventually be broken, but they expected it to occur in years, rather than months. Now, the industry has to decide if and when to push out firmware updates for the Blu-Ray players already installed (as well as to slipstream new firmware into production). They also have to agree to the changes that have to be made to AACS and BD+ in order to make them secure again, yet keep them compatible with existing discs that have already been shipped. And, they have to face the fact that they'll probably both be broken again within a year.

My belief is that the industry knew that both methods would be broken, but hoped that they'd stay viable for at least five years, long enough for an orderly transition to downloaded and streamed video. The fact that they've now both been broken, and that the means of both breaks are publicly known and understood, makes them little more than window dressing, no matter how many times the industry updates firmware.
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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Don't cry for me, innovation

Today's New York Times website has an article on the importance of maintaining investments in innovation, even with an economic downturn. My question is, what innovation? I track a variety of technology-related industries, and I've been hard-pressed to find anything recently that qualifies as a real innovation. One of Google's most exciting recent innovations is the ability to read and index text in images of pages, such as in PDF documents. I worked for Palantir, the company that invented most of that technology, 23 years ago. Or how about Google Chrome, which was all the rage a few weeks ago? It's largely based on open-source Webkit technology and a JavaScript compiler that Google acquired, rather than developed in-house. And, it's a browser. I was in the browser business near the beginning as well, at Netscape, 13 years ago.

The problem isn't encouraging innovation in an economic downturn, it's producing true innovation, period. Economic downturns often help, rather than hurt, innovation. Just as forest fires burn away the underbrush that stifles forest growth, so companies are forced to focus on products and services that really matter. The survivors in each product segment become clear, and the people who work for the losers either take their ideas to the winners or go start their own companies. A new wave of start-ups is born, and some of them do really interesting things, rather than merely cloning what someone else is doing with a minor twist.

I say let the big companies batten down the hatches, and let the start-ups without business models die off. The big guys will do what they've been doing for a long time, which is buying their best ideas from others. So long as there's venture capital and engineers & scientists driven to build the next big thing, innovation will take care of itself.
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