Quality vs. convenience

March 5, 2007

Eliot van Buskirk is wrong about the major labels being able to save themselves by re-releasing higher quality versions of music based on their ownership of the original masters. Historically, consumers have never been willing to change formats for higher quality. SACD and DVD-A didn’t fail only because they required new hardware–MP3s took off with the release of the iPod, which is hardware. The reason people were willing to pay $300 for a glorified hard drive and spend several hours re-ripping all their CDs into a new format was because of the added convenience: thousands of songs in your pocket. Same with the move from LPs to CDs–sure, the industry sold higher quality and reliability, but the real reason was convenience: CDs are smaller, easier to transport, and you can skip to your favorite songs. Same with VHS to DVD–no need to rewind the tape, and it’s really easy to skip around, rewind, freeze, and so on. The quality is higher, but that’s a secondary consideration.

So Eliot can say it’d be “easy” for Apple to release a new generation of 24-bit players, but only the hardcore audiophiles would buy them.

A similar train of thought came up when I saw that Microsoft is offering a high-definition version of a South Park episode through the Xbox Live Marketplace. Of all content that could benefit from high definition, an aggressively low-budget 2D cartoon (that’s part of the joke) would be near the bottom of my list. But the bigger point: I’d argue that high-definition video formats, particularly HD DVD and Blu-ray, are dead on arrival. Consumers aren’t willing to switch formats simply for higher quality.

But a co-worker made a good point: big screens are becoming common–even Costco offers a 42-inch high-definition plasma set for less than $1,000 now. Standard-definition video simply doesn’t fill up those big screens. So people will move to high-definition simply because “standard” now looks like junk. He could be right.


A requiem for Media Center

August 8, 2006

The (excellent) Slate technology writer, Paul Boutin, throws down the gauntlet and says that PC-TV hybrids, such as Microsoft’s Media Center version of Windows and Apple’s FrontRow response, are aiming for an audience that does not and never will exist. Media Center enthusiast and blogger Thomas Hawk replies, saying that Paul is ignoring Windows Vista and Xbox 360, which together will change the game—Microsoft will market Vista’s Media Center capabilities to Xbox 360 owners, causing them to buy a new US$1,000 PC so they can get DVR on the US$400 Xbox they already own.

I’ve been covering Microsoft’s home entertainment strategy for five years, and I have to agree with Paul, primarily because the business model doesn’t make sense. Microsoft loses money—probably about US$100–on each Xbox 360 game console, and earns about US$90 every time it sells a Media Center version of Windows XP (presumably the price will be about the same for Windows Vista Home Premium—the Home Basic version does not, despite what Thomas implies, include Media Center functionality). The Xbox business model makes sense only if people buy at least eight games over the life cycle of the box, although sales of high-priced peripherals (hard drives, memory sticks, Wi-Fi adapters) and Xbox Live subscriptions could also help. Point is, Microsoft doesn’t want people to buy an Xbox 360 primarily for its home entertainment capabilities. (Assuming people want to do that anyway—802.11g can’t stream high-definition video, and who wants to watch anything less on their brand new 40-inch flat-screen HDTV?)

Working in the opposite direction, existing Xbox owners might find Vista’s Media Center capabilities appealing enough, along with the other improvements in the OS, to buy a new PC. But there will only be 10 million Xbox 360 owners by the time Vista launches. Consumers will buy nearly 100 million new PCs in 2007. The Xbox 360 owners are early adopter/tech enthusiasts and so probably would have been among the first Vista purchasers anyway. So Xbox 360’s effect on Vista sales will be minimal.

As far as owning the living room and online advertising and all that, I’m very skeptical until I actually see somebody other than Google capitalizing on the huge growth in one particular market—paid search advertising. But maybe I don’t drink enough Web 2.0 Kool-aid.

Beyond the questionable business case, Media Center and other PC-TV hybrids disobey my first rule of consumer electronics and technology: divergence beats convergence. Time and time again, consumers have shown they prefer to buy one device that does one thing very well, rather than a multifunction device that does nothing well. The PC itself is a bit of an exception, but most people still use their PCs for surfing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail, and perhaps one or two other programs. (My second rule, convenience beats quality, is a subject for another time….)

I suspect that Microsoft will downplay the PC-TV hybrid after Vista launches, and instead come out with a Zune-branded networked entertainment device based on Windows CE, probably for Christmas 2007. This would be a combination DVR (like TiVo) with home networking capability to connect to the Internet. Eliminates all the PC problems—patching, spyware, crashing, slow boot—that you don’t want when you’re in front of your TV. The problem here will be selling such a device at a high enough price to make a profit (or at least not to go US$5 billion into the hole like Microsoft has done on Xbox so far), without getting undercut by the cable TV providers, who are bundling DVR into their digital cable offerings, hardware included. The key is the combination of online and traditional TV programming—but Microsoft has to build up a truly great online content source. Which is exactly what it’s rumored to be trying to do with Zune.

Some anecdotal evidence to support my point: the eHome product group at Microsoft, which oversees Media Center, moved out of the Windows group and into the same large group as Xbox and Zune about six months ago. In other words, they report up to Xbox maven Robbie Bach, not anybody in the Windows group. There goes the Windows tax…


Gear that sucks

January 17, 2006

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that when I used to buy electronic equipment, I could have a reasonable expectation of it lasting for a few years.

I had a cheap-o Sony CD player that lasted about 10 years, and the only reason I replaced it was because it inserted a layer of noise in certain CD-R.s (I think it was some copy-protection scheme, since it didn’t simply refuse to play, but actually added layer of static that rose and fell in volume…and the problem never appeared in other players, such as my car or Bose portable…thanks, Sony!). I have my grandparents’ 27-inch Zenith TV, it’s got to be 15 years old and having no problems. My VCR lasted about 8 years before it started eating tapes. I have a Gallien Krueger 800 RB amplifier for my bass, it’s from the early 1990s and completely bulletproof. My six-year-old desktop PC, which was put together by Hard Drives Northwest (a local whitebox manufacturer) is still running great, despite an OS upgrade, lots of software and hardware installs and uninstalls, and years without antivirus software (I run Firefox and the free level of AdAware for spyware, and scan monthly using the free Trend Micro scanner…the whole AV industry’s a well-orchestrated scam, but that’s another topic).

But most of the stuff I’ve gotten lately has sucked.

1. iPod sucks. I got a 20GB fourth-gen iPod for my birthday in October 2004. One year later, the hard drive is dying–it often lags and has totally frozen a couple of times. I took it into my local Apple store “Genius Bar” and the condescending pretentious long-haired jerk tried to reinstall the system software, failed, and told me “we’ll give you 10% off on a new one.” (I managed to save it that time by reinstalling the software at home, but it’s failing again.)

Wait a second—my (overly generous) parents paid $299 for a cute package containing a hard drive, audio digital signal processor, two-color LCD, and headphones. And it lasted just over one year. Piece of junk.

(Aside: this is the main reason why I’ll never buy another Mac, even though the software’s usually better than its Windows equivalent. Faulty hardware that’s completely non-serviceable. I once had a Classic II whose hard drive died after a few years. Irreplaceable—you need special tools just to get the damn thing open. Apple’s the king of planned obsolescence.)

2. Notebook PCs (still) suck. I should have known better–I’ve been telling people for years that laptop PCs are unreliable, then I have to go and drop four grand on one.

I had been thinking about getting into some multitrack hard drive recording. At the same time, I had simpler needs, like being able to work anywhere in the house and wanting to record my record collection digitally. This required a notebook.

I mulled getting a Powerbook, but they say the G4s aren’t quite up to snuff for serious recording. I thought about an Alienware, but was worried that the company wouldn’t be in business through the life of the warranty, so finally made the safe choice and bought a Dell with a four-year support contract. This is a top of the line machine, the XPS Gen 2, built for gamers. I added a notebook soundcard to go with it, figuring I could start by converting my records. If that worked, I would consider getting a breakout soundcard with FireWire connection, which you need for multitrack recording.

Long story short, every time I jostle the computer or touch the soundcard, or so much as breathe on any part of it while an audio file’s being recorded (that is, if it’s in memory and hasn’t been saved to the hard drive), it bluescreens. Total memory dump, forced restart. The help screen says it’s a driver problem (surprise). I downloaded updated drivers for the soundcard. Problem not fixed. Dell support was completely unhelpful, and frankly I’d rather reboot and suffer than send it back to them since I know the problem arises from non-standard hardware (the soundcard) on a slapped-together system. Yes, even a four-grand notebook from Dell is still a just-in-time mass-produced piece of equipment.

What’s the point of having a mobile recording system if it’s not mobile? Needless to say, I won’t be using it for recording…although I don’t want to buy a Mac either given my experience with Apple. Sigh.

3. Xbox 360 sucks. I’m lucky. I got a free Xbox 360 through work for evaluation purposes. Free games too, including Project Gotham Racing 3, and a free one-year Live subscription. Lucky me.

The games look absolutely beautiful, even on a standard definition 15-year-old 27-inch Zenith. The Live experience is addictive and reasonably easy to set up (although there’s some poor documentation about connecting it to a WEP-enabled wireless network).

Unfortunately, the early stories are true: the box itself is a piece of junk. I got about 10 hours of gameplay, and maybe about six hours of DVD playback before it started failing. Now, I can play a game for about 10 minutes before it blackscreens. Or I can watch a DVD for about 20 minutes before it blackscreens. Xbox support was, unsurprisingly, completely useless (“have you cleaned the connectors?”).

The really sad part is they had previously sent me another unit, but asked me to send it back because they anticipated it would have problems connecting to Xbox Live. In other words, I am 2 for 2 in terms of defective 360 units. And they haven’t bothered to replace the second one yet–I guess the launch is over, I’m done writing my articles and being quoted in the press, so they suddenly have no use for me.

I not only sympathize with the guy who’s suing Microsoft–if I’d spent $600 on all this, I’d be incredibly angry–but I think he might have a case. Why has Microsoft pulled back on their initial sales expectations? Because they can’t ramp up production as quickly as they thought they could. Why’s that? Surely they estimated demand and planned sufficient manufacturing capacity before the launch, didn’t they?

Of course they did. But I bet they’ve uncovered a severe defect in one of the components, or in the way the boxes are designed, and they’re having to do a major reset. (Sound familiar?)

4. GK (now) sucks. For a while I was in three bands, each with its own practice space. Since not all of those bands had bass gear for me to borrow, I needed a small mobile amp for practicing. One of my bandmates had been allowing me to use her GK combo amp and it sounded great, and I love my old GK head, so I bought a GK Backline 110 for a couple hundred bucks. 70 watts, 10-inch speaker, weighs about 15 pounds. Just a little practice amp. Much easier than hauling around a 90-pound speaker.

I played it literally four times before it totally failed. When I took it in to the warranty repair shop, the guy shook his head. “We see these all the time. You know, the old ones used to be really good, but in the last couple years they’ve gone way down in quality.”