31 March 2006

MP3 Player Marketing Strategy

Marketing Guru Dogbert has hit upon the way other manufacturers can take a swipe at the iPod's success. The strips leading up to this one nicely set the scene, starting here.

(I don't regularly look at Dilbert these days, but every so often someone sends me a link and I find it hilarious. I don't know how Scott Adams has managed to maintain this level of output over the years, but I'm sure glad he has).

Another Sony Mistake

Lots of stories today about the apparent demise of Sony's UMD format.

I was always incredulous that such a unique and proprietary format could ever take off. The omens were not good following criticism of the PSP's video capabilities as I pointed out in this post back in October last year. The editorial in PSPWorld magazine I linked to in that article is worth re-reading as the author displays an excellent understanding of the PSP weaknesses (including use of UMD).

If Apple expected people to put a separate card in an iPod to play different bits of video, what would the world have thought? This is yet another example of muddied thinking through vertical integration that has gone too far. Sony can only ever retrieve it's Consumer Electronics crown if it accepts that creating and owning the content are not compatible with innovation in consumer gadgets. It must split the business as soon as it can. It should have been the portable music player leader, but ATRAC and other associated mistakes cost it dearly there. The Rootkit debacle was also a consequence of it's content ambitions, and now UMD. With Blu-ray it cannot afford to mess up, but I wouldn't bet against Sony turning out to be it's worst enemy on that too.

29 March 2006

France and DRM

I've been struggling to understand what exactly it is that the French parliament has done. Most articles I've seen have focussed almost entirely on the impact on the Apple/iPod/iTunes business. Of course, the law is not about that per se.

There appears to be a lot of rejoicing people as well - those who think it means the end of DRM, and those who'd like to stop an Apple monopoly in music from taking hold (though I haven't heard the same arguments applied to stopping the Microsoft monopoly that actually exists and harms). Anything that has those two camps together has got to be suspect!

I came across this article in Tidbits yesterday by Kirk McElhearn who resides in France. It is the best article I've read on the subject and raises many interesting points, and is pretty fairly written.

The FT's Lex also had some interesting things to say about it (though even Lex concentrated on the Apple element). A subscription is required for the full article but this highlight seemed very true:

The risk is that the proposed legislation proves too blunt an instrument. In such a fast-moving industry it could have unforseen affects on many different companies and possibly on innovation in general. Better to encourage innovative companies by protecting their intellectual property and letting the market work it out. If that fails, and dominant companies start to abuse their power, competition authorities should intervene aggressively. Apple is not there yet.

Before the anti-DRM brigade get too carried away though, it is worth them exploring what open source developers in France have said about the law (they are horrified). This article from Infoworld is useful reading.

I would be very sceptical that this is a law brought in to help consumers. That is rarely the way things work in France. It is more likely to protect it's own industries (stand up Vivendi) and culture. Remember that this is a country that levies significant taxes on every blank CD sold (so damn you if you want to back up your hard drive or your photo collection). That's not an action of a pro-consumer nation. And I would also be very wary in general of any law that is brought in by politicians that relates to technology.

If this ever makes it to the statute books in anything like it's current form, look for people to rue the decision in a few years time when it will have hurt France's software industry, hurt the consumer, held back innovation, and held back the old industries from doing what they really should be doing, leaving France with more dinosaur corporations.

I would have preferred if, instead of looking to put limits and controls on DRM, the legislators looked at the fundamental problem of fair use and copyright in general. If that is addressed first, it is much easier to look at the DRM needed to make that work, and how it can be made universal (eg DRM conversion). The source of the problem is still with the way copyrights are handled which provides a single distribution monopoly (which is given out on a country by country basis in Europe despite the laws of the single market). This has not kept pace with what technology can offer and causes severe problems everytime a disruptive technology comes along (starting with the piano roll and including tape recording and video recording). The only winners from France's actions will be the (very) short term profits of the entertainment companies.

27 March 2006

Beautiful Kerala

I've now had a chance to store and organise (if not edit and process) the large number of photos I took on our holiday. I've posted a small selection of these up on my personal website as a slideshow.

I'm also going to photocast a photo every day or so, which you can subscribe to in your RSS reader.

If you're not familiar with Kerala (and I expect that's the vast majority of people visiting here), it's a medium-sized state in the South of India, described by various publications as follows:
One of the 50 must see destinations of a lifetime - " National Geographic Traveler"
One of the 10 paradises of the World - " National Geographic Traveler "
One of the 100 great trips for the 21st century - " Travel and Leisure "
One of the ten hot spots for the millennium - " Emirates In-flight Magazine "
One of the ten love nests in India - " Cosmopolitan "
One of the six destinations of the millennium - " Khaleej Times "

I have to say these comments are not hyperbole. The landscapes were glorious - everywhere we went. The people, as always in India, were wonderful and friendly. Our food was superb EVERY time - from takeaway Veg Biryani to multiple course sit-down meals. Washed down with a Kingfisher beer of course. Our accommodations were all memorable, with each providing a different vantage point for understanding the country. These ranged from a massive 3-bed bungalow in a tea plantation, to a 2-bed houseboat, to a 250 year old guest house on the beach (with one night in the most luxurious tent I've ever been in complete with ensuite bathroom and hot water!). It also boasts a 99% literacy rate - better than anywhere else in India (and indeed many developed countries).

As an aside, all of this was researched and booked online - the trip and the flights, including checking in. Not a single phone call was needed beforehand. Responses to emails and enquiries was always fast (even from India).

Special credit to both www.responsibletravel.com through whom we found this holiday and booked it, and especially to Kalypso Adventures (www.kalypsoadventures.com) - ex-Commanders Sam Samuel and Thomas Zacharias for designing and operating such a wonderful experience. And, not forgetting Bhinu, our guide and cycling companion, and Das, who was there with bananas and water when we needed it (and made sure we and our luggage got safely to each point when in the vehicle)!

24 March 2006

Microsoft's Failings - Who Should Carry the Can?

Obviously one of the big stories while I was away was the delay in shipping Vista, missing the crucial consumer holiday shopping season. While this may be a bigger financial blow to the hardware manufacturers than Microsoft itself, it is another damning indictment over the way the company is run. When Vista is finally released it will be almost 6 years after Windows XP. Yesterday it was announced that now Office 2007 will fail to begin shipping this year, slipping also into 2007.

Granted, this software stuff is pretty damned hard. But let's face it, if a company with MS' resources drops both functionality and slips on dates time and time again, something is wrong. This got me thinking about who should really be taking the blame (I notice a bit of deck-chair shuffling yesterday).

I have a certain amount of respect for Bill Gates as a businessman. He has been uniquely shrewd in building the company over the years with tactics of doing the same thing only better. He smashed Lotus with GUI-based Excel and Word (I was an early customer for hundreds of these on the Mac and can testify how much better it was than the competition). He smashed IBM with Windows vs OS/2 as well of course with his clever licensing of the original MS-DOS/PC-DOS. We can go on and on. His track record has been pretty damned good - obviously not the Steve Jobs showman, and not really a visionary, but certainly the ultimate business geek. His (and MS's) legal knowledge have also allowed them to nail the competition for good on numerous occasions even if it's led to pay-offs to achieve this. You also have to hand it to Bill for his great philanthropy (though with his truly enormous wealth, is there anything else one could really do?).

But, when I look at Steve Ballmer, the performance of the company under his direction (he took charge in January 2000) has been pretty poor. The share price is around the same as when he became CEO and way below it's peak. During his tenure, Microsoft has paid something like $10billion in payments to companies it "might" have harmed, and has also fallen foul of both US and European consumer bodies resulting in large fines. Employee morale has been pretty poor for a number of years (stock options ain't what they used to be). I have not seen him speak, and only hear second-hand of his pronouncements. And, perhaps it's hard under the shadow of Bill (all the difficult decisions and none of the kudos for any success). But, whenever I see something he's involved in - bashing an employee for leaving for Google for instance, it all seems that this is a man who is out of his depth and rather lacking in any redeeming qualities.

Is anyone reading here a supporter of Ballmer? Am I missing some great qualities and failing to recognise his achievement(s)? Why have MS shareholders not been more vocal about his role in MS' failings? If you don't blame Bill, who else is there who's going to accept responsibility?

In-flight Entertainment as it should be

I wrote back in August about a disappointing experience with Virgin Atlantic's in-flight entertainment system. I had always held Virgin in high esteem and these problems (and others I had witnessed on a flight to Tokyo) made me feel they were making mistakes. Or were they just ahead of their time and pushing the technology a bit far?

Well, I got my answer on our flights with Emirates to our holiday destination (there's your second and last clue). The system on both flights (a 777-300 and a 777-200) was absolutely top class. While some features were not available until after takeoff as usual, the system worked flawlessly. You could view live cameras to the front and underneath the aircraft - great for take-off and landings. But best of all was the entertainment itself. Something like 100-150 films (a mix of new and classics) were available on a personalised Video-on-demand basis. I can't stress how important this is - to be able to pause the film when you need to. Furthermore, the audio component was even richer with hundreds of channels (mixes) and hundreds of albums available, whether you wanted 50 tracks from David Bowie or Madonna's latest album in full. I have to confess to not using my iPod for the whole flight.

And in case you were wondering, this was all in Economy (with pretty decent legroom also). Perhaps the only gripe is the display quality on the screen (the same signals displayed vastly clearer on overhead cabin LCDs). I'm afraid Virgin has lost the crown in this regards.

The flight back however demonstrated that there is still hope for others. While both planes were newish 777-300's they used an older system similar to the last Virgin version (pre Video-on-demand). One channel was unwatchable (the only film I wanted to see) for some technical reason, and music choice was considerably less. So until the better system is installed throughout, I would hold back from recommending Emirates unreservedly. But that aside, this airline has really come from nowhere to offer perhaps the best service in the World (especially in Economy) - usually at decent prices, a flexible timetable (13 flights a day to Dubai from 5 UK airports!) and with excellent onward connection options and timings through the superbly efficient Dubai airport. Sir Richard, take note!

23 March 2006

Back in action!

You might have been wondering (I won't use the word "caring") if I'd dropped off the blogosphere.

In fact, I've have been away for a couple of weeks on holiday on another cycling adventure. It was a fascinating and wonderful experience and I will post a few more entries about that over the course of the next week or so as I catch up (and process the photos from my new camera).

Clearly, while I was away the world of technology moves on. From a remote internet cafe I had seen about the delay to the Sony PlayStation 3 (worst-kept rumour), which has obvious repercussions in the game console market but may also affect the Bluray/HD-DVD war. I also saw on the plane back about the Vista delay which seems to be the biggest news at least for financial analysts. Perhaps the real curve ball though is the French decision on DRM. I hope to cover some of these in more detail over the coming days. Is there anything else of significance that I missed?

I'd hoped to post an entry en-route, but time and facilities made it a little difficult.

Finally, to encourage a little interactivity here, can anyone make a guess where I've been (I'll need more than just country)? Contest open only to those who didn't know of course, and "prize" will be limited to me giving a detailed personal answer to the winner on anything related to my destination/trip (wow!). Your first clue is "coconuts". The next clue will appear in my next post.

Nice to be back though!

08 March 2006

Oh dear (2)

Jupiter Research's Michael Gartenberg writes posts that are short and insightful. (Perhaps I should take a leaf out of his book?)

I enjoyed this one yesterday, commenting on his experiences using Vista (I assume the new CTF release) under the headline "Where has all my stuff gone?"

(See, that was a short post, perhaps I can learn something from him!)

Oh dear (1)

Posting will be very light for the next couple of weeks.

By the time it picks up, we'll know all about Microsoft's Origami project. But based on the news from Intel's Developers Conference, there are some pretty big clues.

I don't think it looks anything special. And in UI tests with XP (which doesn't really support a scalable UI) it looked pretty bad I understand - everything too small to really use properly. That might improve with Vista, but that's another day. Battery life of 3 hours + will not cut it for uses people might imagine it for.

It does seem a classic problem of having a device designed essentially by committee (Intel + MS + insert PC manufacturer here).

But Apple could be easily poised to nail this market. It will now be easy for it to use the same Intel chips in a tablet Mac which could fit very well into it's offerings. Also, it has the Inkwell technology in Mac OS X already (from Newton). Whichever way the Origami product turns out, I think Apple will do it better very quickly. Whether that's innovation, copying (or just MS releasing something before it's ready) is for the world to judge.

07 March 2006


My friend Tim alerted me (in comments on an earlier blog entry) about Google's rumoured introduction of unlimited remote storage, possibly called GDrive (story in Ars Technica among others). As an aside, it might seem some of these Google "announcements" have been accidental which will not please Wall Street.

While PC users may relate to the GDrive analogy quite well, I assume for Mac users it will have a lot in common with the .Mac iDisk feature (a disk mounted using WebDav protocols). I love the concept of iDisk though I underuse it, partly because I find it a bit slow at times (upstream issues with adsl broadband primarily to blame).

It's an obvious new area for Google - many Gmail users have been using Gmail for a similar purpose (mailing attachments to themselves).

While GDrive will presumably be free to users, one can't help feeling that this is further pushing the limits of what people will feel comfortable about. Sure, I store files on iDisk for sharing and other things. But I don't store really sensitive stuff there. And, I'd feel even less inclined to do that if I knew Apple's bots were searching through the files finding out things about me. Of course, that hasn't stopped lots of people (including me) using Gmail.

Answers on a postcard (or comment) please about what might constitute a future service I've called "Gspot" which would surely put a bit of fun back in the Google brand.

03 March 2006

Mac mini competition

I came across this review of the primary competitor (rip-off) to the Mac mini over at Anandtech. As usual, it's a well-researched, well-written piece. But the timing was a bit unfortunate as it was published close to the announcement of the Intel Mac mini which is already shipping.

I say unfortunate, but in fact what is interesting is that the OLD Mac mini in fact comes out way ahead over the AOpen mini tested (although just about all PC's do too). And the old Mac mini was considerably less expensive than the AOpen (and so is the new one too).

It seems strange that it has taken so long to get something out similar to this (though did it really have to be so similar?). I did cover something similar with an Evesham model in a posting in December. Apple has now raised the bar substantially already. It also strikes me that the designers of the AOpen haven't got it right yet - the particular unit on test failed within a couple of days due to a fan problem (and indeed is noisier than the Mac).

Whatever the gripes of the mac faithful about the new mini, it just goes to show that Apple is way ahead in the design/packaging stakes at least for this sort of form factor.

And just some comment on the criticisms of the mini (primarily around the use of Intel integrated graphics and the increase in cost):

The original machine used a very tired old chip a mid-range G4 - at best equivalent to a low-end Celeron, but used a separate (but pretty low-grade) GPU to dress it up. Mutton dressed as lamb perhaps. The new one uses state-of-the-art Intel chips as well as adding lots of other new benefits. Sure, perhaps the integrated graphics is a bit disappointing, but for it's intended purpose (general computing, media, tv etc) it seems actually quite a good choice. It certainly seems to have cracked the problem of HD H.264 playback on reviews I've seen. If anyone's buying one, though I'd say make sure you get AT LEAST 1GB, and perhaps even go for the full complement of 2GB. And with a Core Duo too, you'll have a machine that will be useful for many years.