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CES 2011, Day 2

After my second day at CES, I have to admit that as much as I’m enjoying myself and as interested as I am in what I’m seeing, there’s no one product on the floor that has really knocked my socks off. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting out there. So here are my impressions from day 2:

  • I’m so sick of seeing tablets.
  • Haier is showing off a prototype flat-screen TV with Windows Media Center build into it. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s a concept that has some potential if they don’t overbrand and otherwise cripple it.
  • Monster still creates hideous remote controls with odd ergonomics.
  • Samsung’s connected appliance line uses ZigBee for status reporting and control. They’re showing a nice sample control app on the Galaxy Tab.
  • iSys is showing off the Xi3, a mini-footprint computer with some impressive specs.
  • Silicondust’s HDHomeRun Prime network tuner is a real, working device this year, but it’s still awaiting certification.
  • The Dynamics credit card is a smart card that can be programmed to support multiple accounts, selectable at time of purchase.
  • A few vendors have interesting iPad wall mounting solutions that could be useful for turning old iPads into home control panels once new iPad models come out.
  • Creative’s Pure Wireless ziiSound T6 speaker system should give Bose some competition in the desktop computing space. They have amazing sound, and they suppor multiple, selectable external input sources, including Bluetooth audio and Creative’s enhanced Bluetooth audio spec.
  • Universal Electronics’ Smart Control remote is an affordable activity-based remote that could make the One for All remote line more competitive with Logitech’s Harmony series. It should be available in the U.S. within a few months.
  • Many vendors are showing CFL and LED lighting options, but a select few have bulbs in color temperatures comparable to traditional residential lighting. From what I saw, Solé is showing the best incandescent bulb alternative and Smart has the best LED alternative to halogen spots.
  • SimpleHomeNet has released a control module that allows your home control software to leverage X10, INSTEON, and Z-Wave devices, all with one interface.
  • Since I have poor depth perception, the whole 3D TV craze is lost on me, but Sony’s passive 3D LED theater screen had me mesmerized.
  • Roller bags are the bane of my existence. Particularly since those dragging the bags behind them seem oblivious about how their bags are blocking traffic paths and impacting others.

CES 2011, Day 1

CES seems as big and crowded as ever this year—very few remaining signs of economic difficulties here. I’ll post more commentary and photos later, but for now, here are my initial thoughts:

  • I’m already sick of tablets. The analysts and press were right on target: everybody’s showing tablets—including vendors you’ve never heard of before. Microsoft is showing tablets: Windows 7 tablets. Again. RIM’s Playbook and ASUS’s Eee Pad Transformer were the best I’ve seen so far.
  • If Toshiba’s glasses-free 3D TV is any indicator, we’re gonna be stuck with the glasses for a while. This technology just isn’t there yet.
  • Verizon’s “big reveal” today was for consumer 4G LTE service and devices. Didn’t we already know that?
  • The MakerBot Thing-O-Matic is awesome.
  • Kinect is fun—even with dozens of people watching you make a fool of yourself.
  • Microsoft’s keynote was a big disappointment. With Gates’ departure also seems to have gone the vision. Ballmer read through a deck of slides promoting all the great stuff they’ve been doing, with little talk of the future beyond the usual marketing fluff. AvatarKinect was probably the most interesting thing discussed.
  • Yamaha isn’t here. Again.
  • The AT&T service here is worse than I ever remember it being before. The Verizon MiFi is the only thing allowing me to get any reasonable data service. Meanwhile, my AT&T phone is constantly searching for a signal, can’t hold a call, and burned through its battery prematurely by trying to reconnect and resend repeated failed data exchanges. I understand that the demand at CES is extreme, but this is just inexcusable.

For some more perspective on Day 1, check out my colleague’s comments.

Thoughts from #CES

I’m heading to Las Vegas to attend this year’s Consumer Electronic Show, and as usual, I’ll share the voices in my head by posting my thoughts on Twitter. Eventually, I’ll aggregate all my posts in one place, but in the meantime, you can read them via Twitter Search or subscribe to the feed via RSS. I’ll also post photos on Flickr during the show.

Readying for the Microsoft Tablet, Take 5

CES is just a week away, and the technical press speculates that this will be the year of the tablet. Last year, eBook readers were abundant, but they were largely overshadowed by 3D TV hype at every turn. But this year, Apple really stuck a thorn in the industry’s backside, and now everyone’s trying to catch up.

Microsoft has been trying to tap this market for nearly a decade now, and I’m sure we’ll see them at it again at CES. Before going there, though, let’s review Microsoft’s four previous, largely unsuccessful attempts at getting a foothold in the tablet space:

Microsoft Tablet PC

Take 1 (2002): Tablet PC. Microsoft Introduced the Tablet PC platform on a variant of XP, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Consumer devices were essentially convertible laptops with a stylus, though some keyboardless slate devices were also produced. These never gained wide adoption in the consumer space, though hardened builds for industrial applications still survive. The touch and writing capabilities required for tablets were absorbed into later versions of Windows, but otherwise this platform is largely dead.

Microsoft Smart Display

Take 2 (2003): Smart Display. Microsoft tried to tap into the casual home use market with the Smart Display, which essentially extended your existing Windows PC to anywhere in the house. This underpowered (Windows CE) keyboard-less touch panel created a remote desktop connection to your PC over your wireless B [only] network. It was hefty, had limited media capabilities, and prevented anyone else from using the PC while the display was in use. It lasted about a year until Microsoft killed it.

Ultra-mobile PC

Take 3 (2006): Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC). Intel and Microsoft teamed up to introduce the Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, as an alternative to a full-fledged laptop for light-duty media, social, and gaming activities. Dubbed “Origami” by Microsoft, the devices ran Windows with an added skin layer optimized for touch on the small screen. Usability issues, poor battery life, and general market confusion prevented these devices from gaining any serious ground.

Ballmer introduces the HP Slate

Take 4 (2010): The Slate. At 2010’s CES keynote, just weeks before Apple was expected to announce their new tablet product, Ballmer tried to beat them to the punch by announcing the HP Slate, running Windows 7. It was clearly a media stunt—the device wasn’t ready for production, and everyone soon forgot about it after the iPad was announced, even though industrial devices finally hit the market by the end of the year. The general consensus from the press and the industry, as proven by Apple, was that retrofitting a full-blown desktop operating system for tablet use just doesn’t work.

So I have to wonder: what’s it going to be this year? The heat is on in the tablet space now that Apple has established the iPad as the de facto device and Android tablets are in nearly every corner store. What’s it going to be this year, Steve?

I’m hoping for a device loosely based on the (poorly named) Windows Phone 7 platform. It’s time to give up on the desktop Windows OS as a mobile platform. It just doesn’t work.

Hilton’s Abusive Reservation Practices Toward SXSW Attendees

The following is a message I sent to the Hilton Austin in response to them notifying me of a full advance payment charged to my credit card. Their notice about the payment arrived two weeks after the charges appeared on my account.

My credit card was charged over two weeks ago for my SXSW accommodations at the Hilton Austin, and while I’m disappointed that Hilton didn’t give earlier notice about this advance payment, I can’t say that I’m surprised. Frankly, I’m appalled by Hilton’s abusive customer service approach toward SXSW attendees. It’s one thing to jack up rates to gouge conference attendees, it’s another to require three weeks advance notice for cancellation—knowing full well that by its proximity to the convention center alone, the Hilton could fill every room in the hotel using more consumer-friendly reservation practices. But it’s another thing altogether to charge customers’ cards over three months in advance of their stay for the full balance! What horrific customer practices.

This will be my last stay at the Hilton Austin. Who needs this crap?

Feedback for Apple on the iPad Orientation Lock Switch Change

The following is feedback that I left for Apple regarding the recent change in functionality of the iPad’s orientation lock switch.

I am just baffled by Apple’s decision to change the function of the orientation lock switch on my iPad. I used that switch all the time, and it was very useful. An equally accessible alert mute function is far less useful to me. I’ve heard that the reason was to make the experience more consistent with other iOS devices, but why? I’ve never thought, “gee, I wish this switch on my iPad worked like it does on my iPhone.”

What I don’t understand is that if a segment of users believes this is useful or necessary, then why not make it a setting that users can change? Everyone I’ve spoken with about this has the same feeling that I do here. They don’t understand the change, but further don’t understand why it can’t be software selectable.

This feature change alone will keep me from updating my mother’s iPad to iOS 4.2, because this is a feature that she uses regularly. She’d never use the other features of 4.2, so she’d never grasp double-clicking the home button, then sliding over to reveal the new orientation lock control.

What a terrible, terrible feature decision.

Calling for Work? Just Use the Phone

Talking on the phone has become a big pain in the ass. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m one of those people who can’t be bothered actually talking to someone in realtime because I’m just all too busy. In fact, quite the opposite: I miss the land line. I miss the days when a really long network of copper wire and physical switches connected me to someone else. No 2.4Ghz interference from the microwave or the car alarm, no dead zones, no dropout, and no network latency. Voice communication technology today is fraught with quality and reliability problems. This is progress? This is ridiculous.

The Decay of Voice Communication

I’m a consultant, and I work out of my home. I spend hours a day on the phone, and I use a cordless phone system with a wired headset to interact with customers and colleagues all day. I want to make sure that I can hear them without interruption, delay, or interference. I want to make sure that they can hear me, too. Even with my high quality phone system, I feel a bit guilty using a cordless handset, since I do encounter some occasional audio dropout.

I communicate regularly with people who rely on…well…less reliable communication channels: VoIP, mobile, Bluetooth, wireless. There are now offices with no physical phone line and no actual phones. Some people sit in front of their computer, talking with clients and colleagues over free VoIP services with no headset, with all the noise of the office around them. And we all know someone who insists on using a speakerphone, even though there’s nobody else in the room. But I think my favorite is Skype over a public Wi-Fi network, using a Bluetooth headset. While screen-sharing. And by favorite, I mean, “Goddam, this pisses me off—you sound like crap!” Now throw a combination of these people onto a conference call…it’s distracting, it’s unproductive, and it’s unprofessional.

When did this become acceptable? Has our tolerance of low fidelity music and video crept into our common communication norms, too? I don’t think so. I would assert that it is not acceptable to submit professional colleagues to the piss-poor call quality we’ve all come to take for granted while chatting with friends. Friends and family may put up with dropped calls and echo, but these are the people we do business with—quite likely the people who pay us. We should show them some respect.

I’ve been on numerous calls with customers who complain or make snarky comments about how it all worked just fine when people used a plain old phone. Remember that? There’s a retronym for that now: POTS—plain old telephone service. It just worked. It still does, but nobody seems willing to pay a whole $30 a month to use it anymore. Instead they subject their colleagues to dropped calls, static, interference, audio drops, echos, delayed audio, half-duplex conversations, and noise…so much noise.

There’s a science to listening. When you consider signal-to-noise, distractions, and the human brain’s limited ability to filter out all of the crap and focus, we’re fighting a losing battle. Don’t we want our colleagues to understand our words and ideas? Then why do we make it so hard for them?

Fixing the Problem

I’m not just here to rant—I have some suggested solutions. There are some basic things that everyone can do to minimize the distractions commonly associated with today’s business voice communications:

  • First and foremost, use a POTS line if you have one. Consider getting one if you don’t. Seriously, the monthly cost is about the same as two drinks in Manhattan. Just get a phone line—it’s a tax-deductible business expense.
  • Use a headset, preferably a wired one. Not the dangly thing that came with your mobile phone—a real headset with a mic that sticks out near your mouth.
  • Avoid the temptation of using a hands-free speakerphone. It typically introduces noise, echo, and reverb.
  • Avoid Bluetooth…period.
  • When using a mobile phone, try to isolate yourself to eliminate background noise, and avoid moving around too much to minimize audio drops (“can you hear me now?” isn’t as funny in the boardroom).
  • Avoid taking Skype or other VoIP calls on any wireless network, let alone a shared, public network. Too many factors can negatively impact the call quality.
  • When using VoIP, do not use your computer’s built-in mic and speakers (see Use a headset, above). Again, it’s the noise and echo.
  • And finally, use your mute button! You can eliminate a lot of background noise and distraction by muting when you’re not talking.

When did this all get so complicated? Technology is supposed to make things easier, isn’t it? It seems in this case that it’s added all of these social protocols that we never had to worry about before. Call me old, call me cranky (both are relatively accurate), but however you call me, just use the damned phone, OK?

I Don’t Want Apps on My TV

With Google throwing its unexpectedly pricey hat into the TV set top box business, I grow ever more frustrated by a move that I just don’t understand: Apps on the TV. Apps give content owners and distributors an opportunity to offer branded, custom portals to their content. Yea for them. But that’s not what I want, and I question—despite all of the tech media hype—if it’s what the masses want.

I don’t want to hunt for shows that interest me in a bunch of different applications. Will I find How Your $#*! Got Outsourced in the CBQ app, the Buena Brothers app, or the huFlix app? Why does it have to be in any of them? I just want to watch the damned show. I don’t care who claims the digital streaming rights to it, and I sure as Hell don’t want some heavily-branded experience wrapped around it. I don’t want a different library browsing, selection, and playback experience from show to show or app to app. I just want to watch the damned show. Oh…and I don’t want another accessory on my coffee table: a keyboard. (TiVo: I think you nailed this one).

What we need is an aggregator. I want to see a service and/or device that can pull together all of the digital content available to me and make it navigable and discoverable (and even purchasable) in meaningful ways. Include the stuff I own, the stuff I can buy, the stuff I can or have recorded, and the stuff available to stream freely; but don’t throw up walls between those acquisition models. Let me search and browse across all of that content. Slice it up and group it in different ways, using robust metadata beyond just genre and network. I still want to browse by network, too, because that’s still a logical association, but define network more broadly than just what you find on your cable box, and include YouTube channels and Internet-only content, like CNET and Revision 3.

Boxee tries to do all this, but it’s still too disjointed, and the UI is overly complex. Apple TV—the old Apple TV—did it fairly well, but its appeal is limited to consumers who have bought into the walled iTunes media garden, and the entry price was too high. Hulu and Netflix both get partway there, but their content is limited by distribution rights that are governed by frightened license holders and greedy attorneys. TiVo teased this with Premier but didn’t deliver, and the Roku box is fundamentally designed around the concept of apps.

It’s a tricky issue, because the content rights holders want to paint their colors and logos all over the place, and then get out their rulers. Everyone wants to do their own thing, but ultimately that makes it harder for consumers to find and consume content. Ironically, this thwarts the content owners’ opportunities to distribute and monetize their content.

So the big question is whether Google can pull this off. They have the expertise in content aggregation and discovery, but Google’s user experience record is underwhelming. The solution needs to be simple, powerful, and engaging. And the price point needs to be right. So far, the $300 Logitech set top box and $1300 Sony television with baked-in Google TV have missed that mark. That said, I’ve already pre-ordered the Revue, so I’ll know soon enough.

Your Digital Media May Not be Insured

Over the past few months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to bolster my personal and financial affairs, including my insurance portfolio. Diving into the details of insurance can be intimidating, and insuring a home and its contents can be an eye-opening experience. Did you know that your home may not have adequate (or any) flood insurance if you don’t explicitly request (and pay) for it? The same is true for damage from sewer backups or a myriad of other events. What most surprised me, though, is how poorly covered some home electronics, computers, and media are, by default.

For example, a high-end laptop or computer alone could easily exceed the $2,000 limit some policies impose on computer hardware, software, accessories, and media. With my insurance company, I have an option to increase that limit (at a cost, of course) to $10,000 for all computer-related stuff before I’d have to look into riders for specific, itemized items.

$10K sounds like a big number, right? You should have no problem replacing all of your computer equipment with that. Unless you’re a geek or you have multiple people in your household with computers. Let’s say two adults in your house each have a reasonably-powered desktop computer. And you have a laptop. And your kids have your old computers. That’s maybe five computers right there that could easily cost 5K to replace, including monitors, printers, cables, and other peripherals. Do you any external storage drives? A few of those could easily run another $1,000. How about a home server or network storage device? Add any additional hard drives you’ve added to it. Another $1,000. Now let’s consider software: downloaded and box software can be inexpensive, but you probably have a lot of it. $30 here for each random downloaded app, $99 for many PC programs, $200 or more for each copy of Office…. It adds up quickly.

Now think about your media collection. If you have 200 DVDs at an average $20 replacement cost, replacing your DVD collection could cost you about $4,000. Many insurance companies will allow you to replace all physical media—magazines, books, movies, records, CDs, …all of it—without any limit. That was great in 1998. But now it’s 2010, and it’s likely that you purchase a lot of media now in digital form. And if it’s digital, it may be covered by the limited portion of your policy that includes computer hardware and software. The big question is, after considering all else, how much is left under your policy’s computer equipment ceiling to also account for your digital media?

You might be thinking that if it’s digital, you can just download it again. Can you? Some services will let you do that, while others will not. There are stories of Apple being accommodating for people who have lost their media libraries, but their terms explicitly exempt them replacing anything that you’ve purchased and lost—so you may be out of luck if you’ve invested heavily in iTunes content. Or maybe you purchased digital audio books, but now you’re no longer a customer of that specific service. And if you purchased your music through an online music service that no longer exists, you’re out of luck.

Bottom line: in the event of a catastrophic loss, your digital media may not be adequately covered under your current homeowner’s policy. So what can you do to protect your media purchases?

  • Know your coverages. If you don’t know if—or to what extent—your digital media is protected by your homeowner’s policy, call your agent and ask.
  • Inventory your computer equipment, software, and digital media. The best way to estimate the value of your computer investments is to create a detailed inventory. There are numerous tools that can help you do this, such as Microsoft Access for Windows users, Delicious Library and Bento for Mac users, numerous online services, and pretty much any document or spreadsheet program. Whatever method you use, make sure there’s a copy of your inventory somewhere off site or in the cloud.
  • Consider a rider to cover specific computer equipment. If your general coverage ceiling for all things computer and digital doesn’t leave enough room to also cover your media purchases, consider making some room by adding a policy rider to specifically cover high-ticket items in your computer inventory. You will likely need to itemize the items requiring coverage, providing your insurance company with specific models, specs, and, in some cases, serial numbers. Your insurance company will probably charge an additional premium to cover these items.
  • Back up media to an off-site location. Backing up your media purchases to an external hard drive can protect your purchases from computer failure, but it might not provide adequate protection if you suffer a catastrophic loss of your home or its contents. So store your backup drive elsewhere—at work, in a climate controlled storage unit, at a friend or family member’s home. Or you could consider using one of the many available cloud-based backup services, but the cost for that could be significant since media files are often very large.

Insuring your possessions can be tricky, but living in a digital world adds complications that many consumers and even insurance companies themselves haven’t really thought through. Make sure you know if your digital media is covered by your insurance, and take the appropriate steps to protect it, if necessary.

Crestron’s Analog Sunset Ads Seem Misleading and Deceptive

I recognize that a large segment of high-end customers don’t want to be bothered with the licensing and legislative details of digital content protection on their devices and content, but that’s no reason for Crestron to be spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt by making false claims in ads. Crestron’s latest ads make the following statements:

Analog audio and video is being killed. By the end of the year component outputs will only support standard definition signals, and by 2013 component outputs and analog video will be gone forever.

These statements are false. Are they lies designed to mislead the otherwise ignorant public? The reality–the truth–is that the “analog sunset” to which these ads allude affects only Blu-ray players manufactured and some Blu-ray content distributed after December 2010. The AACS License Agreement that Blu-ray uses stipulates that after 31 December, 2010, manufacturers must stop designing Blu-ray players with analog component HD output capability, and content providers will have the option (but are not required) to disable analog HD output on new Blu-ray discs. Further, Blu-ray players with any analog output capabilities cannot be sold after December 2013. This is a digital rights management restriction imposed only on Blu-ray technology and nothing else. That’s all.

What doesn’t this affect?

  • Consumers’ current Blu-ray discs played on Blu-ray players manufactured by December 2010 (or, more realistically, as late as December 2011, depending on how quickly existing pipelines and stock are depleted)
  • HD and SD content from satellite and cable providers, with the singular possible exception of some new FCC-permitted constraints on first-run content like movies that are still in theaters
  • Content on or recorded to DVRs
  • Standard, progressive, and upscaling DVD players
  • HD and SD output from game consoles
  • Any content from Internet media streaming devices like RoKu, Media Center, Apple TV, and others
  • Existing HD and SD content on installed media distribution systems from Crestron or any of its competitors
  • Consumers’ existing high definition monitors and TVs that have any digital input options
  • Any other pre-existing component device in a consumer’s home

It’s baffling to me that Crestron would resort to such deceptive advertising practices. I understand that times are tough, but is misleading customers really the solution? These ads likely violate the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising rules, satisfying key criteria in its policy statement against deceptive advertising. Primarily, consumers’ existing audio/video equipment is not going to suddenly stop working on 1 January, 2011, and the term Blu-ray doesn’t appear anywhere in these ads, even though that’s the only technology potentially affected by these ridiculous, fear-mongering claims.

I can hope that people wise up and see through Crestron’s false statements. But I can also help. I can share this very information with Crestron, on my blog, on Twitter, and with the FTC.

So that’s exactly what I’m doing.

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