The kids are alright

September 27, 2006

Visiting my in-laws in Eastern Tennessee this week. Because I’m so old (going on 37!), I  like to check in with my nephew (20) and niece (12) to see what the real music fans are into. I suppose I’ve been reading about the iPod/MySpace generation for long enough that I shouldn’t be surprised, but they don’t have any affection for the Top 40 dance hits they play at the gym, and don’t really care what MTV or the radio plays.

My nephew’s a pretty big music fan. (I like to take some credit for taking him to a Sonic Youth [disclaimer: I don’t like them that much] concert and introducing him to my vinyl collection when he was 14.) So it’s not particularly surprising that alongside Green Day he’s got CDs and goes to shows by more obscure bands like Of Montreal. But the Captain Beefheart collection was seriously unexpected. So was Roger Waters’ recently completed opera, Ca Ira–even I don’t have that, and I’m about the most fanatic Waters and (old) Pink Floyd fan around. He checks his MySpace site every day and carries his U2 iPod (with radio tuner attached) 24-7. He asked me about the upcoming “Microsoft player” (Zune) and was interested in the wireless sharing capability, but his most interesting comment about it: “It doesn’t use the Windows Media Player, does it? I hate the Media Player, it totally sucks.” Looks like the Zune team made the right call by building its own software.

My niece has been through her Britney/Justin phase, but now that junior high has started, she’s  into pop bands with indie-rock stylings  like Snow Patrol (who have the #5 single in the country–who knew?) and Stone Sour. But more surprising is how music lingo has crept into her speech. She describes herself and her friends as “punk,” but she means simply that they’re outcasts who don’t dress like preppies, not that she listens to punk rock or wants a mohawk (although she does want bright-red hair). And when one of her friends begins putting on that air of teenage angst and depression, she says they’re going “emo.” Hilarious.

And I can’t remember the last time there were so many records on my “to buy” or “bought” lists in the Billboard Top 100. Bob Dylan, Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, TV on the Radio, The Roots, and Yo La Tengo. Wait long enough, and the mainstream will come to you.


Prank on Paris

September 20, 2006

This is one of the coolest pranks I’ve seen in a long time, done in the UK of course.

There’s an organization based out of San Francisco, RTMark, that specializes in this kind of thing. People suggest pranks, then ttry to find contributors to offer a reward for pulling off that prank. The favorite that I remember was when somebody took a bunch of talking GI Joe and Barbie dolls and switched the voice chips in them.

Unfortunately, it appears from the pranks listed today that they started taking themselves very seriously, the same problem that plagues anti-establishment mags like Adbusters.


Top ten Zune features I want

September 15, 2006

So I was one of the lucky dozen or so who got a preview of Microsoft’s forthcoming Zune portable media player and store last week. (Through my job, not as a blogger, although I met a few cool ones at the event.)

Quick takeaways:

  • The design was cool, very approachable and fun but not cheap feeling or plastic like some players. I liked it much better than the Xbox 360, which I got a similar preview of way ahead of time. My first thought with Zune was “oh, I’d be happy to be seen with one of those.” My first thought with the 360 was “it looks like a small desktop PC.”
  • The UI takes some getting used to if you haven’t used a Portable Media Center or the Media Center UI in Vista. It’s got double menus–the veritcal menu we all know and love from the iPod (like a list of songs in a playlist, or albums by a particlar artist), as well as a horizontal one across the top that changes contextually (so if you’re looking within one playlist, the top menu lets you quickly get to other playlists). Very cool because it lets you get to stuff more quickly.
  • The Zune-to-Zune wireless sharing capability is great. The 3 days, 3 plays restriction imposed by the record companies is lame. And from what I understand about Windows Media DRM, Microsoft could have discerned downloaded from ripped content….that’s not the issue. The issue is the record companies don’t want me flashing you my entire ripped library, even if some of those songs are partly my own creations.
  • I didn’t get to test the software, which is make or break. If it doesn’t find files on my hard drive adequately, doesn’t sync with the device perfectly every time, puts lame restrictions on my downloads from the store, or is otherwise broken or buggy, then Microsoft has no chance with this thing.

So what’s missing? A few things. Part of this is purposeful–Microsoft wanted to start by making a great music player, just like they launched the first Xbox as a great game machine. And just like you saw that Ethernet connector on the Xbox and knew they had some big stuff in store for online connectivity, so you see the Wi-Fi transceiver in Zune and can imagine big things here.

Anyway, here’s the 10 things I hope they add.

1. The “DJ” mode that was reported in Toshiba’s filing with the FCC. (Toshiba’s the first manufacturing partner, but there’ll be others.) This will allow you to stream your music to four other Zunes within range, live.

2. Buddylist capabilities in the Zune software, so I can recommend songs to my Windows Live Messenger friends and stream full songs to them. The record companies would have to like this–what a great way to publicize their wares.

3. Download simple games from Xbox Live Marketplace to my Xbox 360, then transfer them to my Zune.

4. Wireless sync. When I walk into the room with my PC on it, I want Zune to find the PC, connect to it, and upload any changes from the Zune software (which would have to be left running in the background all the time; iTunes does something like this.)

5. Sync with my Xbox 360. I’ve got a video trailer on my 360, I want to put it on my Zune.

6. A camera attachment. Nothing special, just like what cellphones come with today.

7. The entire Beatles catalog in the Zune Marketplace. Come on, I know their terms are ridiculous, but if Microsoft can’t afford it…and what better way to differentiate yourself immediately from every other player on the market? Add Radiohead while you’re at it.

8. A Zune client for my phone, so I can sync my library between PC and phone as easily as I do between PC and Zune. Apple lets you sync to multiple devices, so Zune should as well.

9. A recording attachment so I can make decent digital recordings of the world around me. Band rehearsals. Club shows. Snippets of conversation for later use as samples. I know the record industry might freak at this one–people will record and trade bootlegs!–but it’s just as easy to sneak a handheld digital recorder into a show as it would be to sneak in a Zune. I’m not talking super-high-quality recordings anyway, just decent enough to let you hear what was happening. Then upload them to the PC, send to your friends, whatever. Plus, look what bootlegging did for the Grateful Dead.

10. The big one: the celestial jukebox in the sky. Pay a monthly subscription. Connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot. Download or stream any music in the Zune catalog, any time. People have been clamoring for this for some time now. Music fanatics would pay big bucks for it. Sure, Microsoft would have to address user experience issues like finding a Wi Fi hotspot, but somebody, someday is going to do this and Microsoft’s first to market with a Wi-Fi-enabled device, so why let anybody else get there first? It’s all up to the content owners–pick a price, start testing the market!